There’s no genre that’s as much a victim of its own success as the MMORPG. With vast, inter-connected realms home to millions of players, MMOs were once hailed as the future of game design, a testament to the potential of the Internet and the power of social connections. However, with the rise of copycat-ism following the incredible success of Activision-Blizzard’s World of Warcraft in the mid-to-late 2000s, MMO design has stalled. That WoW, despite its age, is still the pinnacle of the genre’s popularity and success is evidence of the incredible rut that MMOs have put themselves in the last few years.
Part of that decline comes from the rapid monetization that enveloped the genre in the late 2000s. In schemes designed to turn a quick profit rather than further design goals, MMORPGs went free-to-play. In the years since, it’s become something of a cash grab scheme that, while incredibly expensive to develop, can pay huge dividends to publishers if properly implemented. With the rare exception–WoW and Final Fantasy XIV–come to mind, MMOs have increasingly abandoned the long-term subscription model on which the genre was founded and replaced it with a short-term cash-shop-based system that–at its best– is non-toxic and–at its worst–is positively crippling.
In light of that, it’s time that MMOs innovated again. Unless Activision-Blizzard is likely to take steps to radically change the very foundation of WoW’s endgame progression and basic structure (a nearly impossible proposition at best) or release another MMO (again, unlikely), it will rest on the shoulders of other, smaller studios to craft MMOs that, as WoW once did, push the limits of what is possible.
Bringing the Massive Back to MMO
One of the things that MMOs succeed best at is their ability to craft a feeling of epicness hard to accomplish in non-MMO games. Exploring a new zone for the first time, forging a legendary weapon, encountering open-world bosses, fighting in intense PvP battles, every aspect of MMO design lends itself perfectly to making the player feel like they are exploring an actual world. Unfortunately, WoW-style MMOs like Final Fantasy XIV craft beautiful zones that, in their due time, become nothing more than leveling areas after the majority of the population has hit the level cap on their main character. There is no dynamism.
Final Fantasy XIV attempted to address this problem in its relaunch, A Realm Reborn, by incorporating max level monsters into starting zones through “The Hunt,” which rewarded players one of the endgame currencies for defeating the giant monsters. Since the monsters scaled with the numbers of players, this mode was at its best from an immersion perspective when over a hundred players were working together to take down the beast. Putting a far more dangerous beast (say a dragon) in an open-world lair (say a mountain) and tasking players to defeat him would be one approach. The players attempting to take down the dragon would need a huge number of soldiers, medics to heal, craftsmen to alter armor so that it’s fire-resistant, and so on.
However, unlike the Hunts in FFXIV, these dynamic events would not respawn. The Dragon would be a fierce, one-time opponent that, if he was defeated, would reward players with some of their most powerful weapons, crafting materials, and gold. However, if the players were defeated, the dragon would take some of their armor, weapons, and gold, adding it to his hoard. If one were to add in factions, even more creative scenarios could ensue. Players from competing factions could work together to defeat the Dragon or they could make a deal with him, sabotaging their fellow players attempts at defeating him in exchange for part of the loot. Ideas like this could help avoid the rampant repetition that plagues MMOs.
Make The Grind about Skill and Equipment
That repetition is part of what makes the modern MMO feel so braindead. Most MMOs, if they are serious about making themselves legitimate contenders for a slice of the proverbial pie, copy the formula that World of Warcraft pioneered: a “theme park” MMO that focuses primarily on gear. While not a loot-focused grind, like Activision-Blizzard’s other major online franchise, Diablo, WoW is heavily focused on the prevalence of gear. It dominates every aspect of high-level players’ time.
In Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, the 2013 relaunch of Final Fantasy XIV crafted in WoW’s own likeness, gear dominated as well. Players would grind dungeons to earn tokens which they then exchanged for gear. That token gear then served as the launching point for players to tackle incredibly challenging end-game raids, from which they earned even more powerful gear that, when the next patch rolls around, allowed them to get a head start on any new raids. Such a content treadmill serves as little more than vaguely disguised Skinner box, directing player attention toward the same content, drilling it ad nauseum until, at the end of a patch cycle, players are so sick of that patch’s content that they are rarely picked back up. The process of equipping one’s character needs to be lengthy, in some way or another, but linking it to repetition of the same content seems cynically designed to buy time for developers to create more content.
Finding the solution requires rethinking the very foundations of RPG gameplay and weighing players gear and skill more equally. The most exciting, most engaging aspects of MMO design revolve around making players feel like they’ve accomplished something great. Putting content on a treadmill defeats that very feeling, making the player feel more tired than triumphant. Tying gear to the completion of unique, one-time challenges (such as the Dragon’s Mountain mentioned above) or the finding of rare materials would help to diversify what players spend their time doing.
For example, say a player wanted to craft one of the game’s better two-handed swords. Whereas, in content treadmill games, the player would need to grind tokens or wait for weekly drops from a boss, in a dynamically designed game, the player could obtain the sword in a variety of ways. They could go look for it in the hoards of dragons or randomly-generated, one-time bosses lying around the world. They could go on their own quest for the materials and craft it themselves (given they have the skill–both in-game and gear-wise–to do so). They could sell their adventuring services to others and raise enough in-game currency to purchase the sword from someone else. Or, they could join an outlaw gang and attempt to rob a merchant’s shipment with the sword in tow. While there are some issues with this approach–such as what to do about the ever-present inflationary pressure of gold-sellers–it offers a more nuanced approach to game design than the current model, used by most games.
Design for the 99%, Not the 1%
That isn’t to say that MMOs should continue to focus on the ever-dwindling collection of traditional raiders and PvPers that are, often, their chosen game’s most vocal defenders and piercing critics. No, the focus should be given to the grand majority of players whose designs, oftentimes, don’t overlap with the hardcore raiders and PvPers. Despite being some of the more niche content in most MMOs, raids take a substantial amount of development time. One look at the failure of many “hardcore MMOs” like the sunsetted Wildstar, which started as such, points to an overall greater failure in the genre as a whole.
When MMOs were still in their infancy, pre-WoW, they had the freedom to be somewhat unintelligible to the non-core audience. One look at, say, vintage Final Fantasy XI points to a game whose very structure was unintuitive, difficult, and charming. When the popularity of WoW exploded in the mid-to-late 2000s, developers were forced to take a two-track approach to game development, appealing to the lifetime MMO players with difficult raids while streamlining the process of leveling and basic endgame for non-hardcore players. This has lead to an unsustainable path of competing development which pits the needs of vocal, hardcore players against the wishes of more casual players. It need not be that way.
By embracing a more open model of content development and player engagement, developers can give reasons for similarly skilled hardcore and casual players to work together and experience the same content without the need for segregation. For example, if casual players were unable, for time or skill reasons, to take part in the main attacks on the game’s largest one-time antagonists, they could still find a place in the game’s more nuanced roles. From serving as a bodyguard on a merchant’s particularly-important shipment, to starting an outlaw game that raids rival factions’ border towns, to becoming a banker who finances huge operations against enemy territory, players could experience the game without having to rely on pre-segregated, treadmill content.
Respect Players’ Time
One reason that treadmill content appeals to so many people is that, unlike the sandbox offered by games like EvE Online, it’s easy for players to get something done with as little as an hour or two of time. In sandbox games–most of which gate the players’ sense of accomplishment behind hours of unguided labor–it can be hard to feel satisfied. Instead of arbitrarily splitting their playerbase in two by designing themselves as sandbox or theme park games–or hardcore and casual players for that matter–MMOs need to appeal to both sorts of players and respect their time while keeping an element of adventure.
An easy way to do that would be to eliminate most of the busy work that comes with MMOs. Instead of, say, having a level 1 soldier slay five rats and complete a quest that requires him to collect ten flowers to reach level 2, games could put the player directly in the action, staffing them with delivering necessary supplies to the in-game PvP camp. Unlike in games like WoW and Final Fantasy XIV, the player wouldn’t spend the majority of their time leveling in samey dungeons. Instead, by the time they hit maximum level, they would have found the niche that they wanted for their character and excelled at it. Whether it was as an in-game bodyguard, outlaw, assassin, soldier, the player would feel that every hour they spent playing as their class, they were doing what their in-game character should be doing. Delivering onions for Grandma Edna’s soup is something admirable, but not something a soldier-in-training should be doing.
Drop Shards, Once and For All
While they make the load on IT infrastructure much lighter, having different shards–or servers– that separate players is a design decision that needs to fade away. Part of what makes games like EVE Online so special is the game’s commitment to the single-server idea. It’s what has allowed the game’s incredible stories to become so famous and what makes the game’s mega-guilds– “corporations”–grow to the size that they have. In order to facilitate the large-sale groups that would be necessary for some of the game’s large-scale encounters, a centralized server structure is a must. Building an MMO with the features previously discussed (e.g. with large, open-world events, massive PvP operations, and a thriving economy), requires that there are enough players to design massive content around. Putting every player on the same server makes fighting typical MMO problems like inflation much easier.
There are, certainly, issues that would need to be worked out if games are to host servers that are both responsive and centralized. EVE accomplishes this by slowing down time during big battles, but an aspiring MMO whose combat was skill-based would need to find an alternative approach. Given the eight years that have passed since CCP introduced Time Dilation (TiDi) into EVE and the advancement in network infrastructure and server speed since then, there’s no question that lag-free massive battles are now a distinct possibility.
MMOs have the right to be fun again. Far from the static, boring treadmill grinds that they often are, the genre itself can be reinvigorated with fresh ideas that transform it into something fun once more. World of Warcraft succeeded upon its release because of how radically it transformed the existing landscape, creating a new gameplay experience that was both novel and exceedingly interesting.
In that way, MMOs can transform themselves again. Freed from the constrictions of cash-shops, free-to-play models, Skinner-box grinds, and the WoW-induced tedium of years past, they can metamorph into something completely new, a genre that once again excites players and the industry alike. While the Internet may no longer hold the same excitement as it did in 2004, MMOs have the ability to transform players’ online interactions with each other into something truly special.
What would be some ways that you would innovate on the MMO idea? Comment down below.