Ever-languish: The MMO genre needs a revolution

mmovolution

By on January 17, 2014 at 3:04 pm

On the long, long road to Guild Wars 2, even the hardened critic inside me couldn’t get enough of ArenaNet’s breadcrumb trail of hype laced videos, previews, interviews and reveals. The beautiful art, the varied number of classes and races, the lush, gorgeous locales that encouraged exploration and teamwork. Everything about the game seemed to entice once die-hard players back into the fold – your level dropped appropriate to the area and your party, PVP was engaging, difficult and rewarding, and leveling was actually fluid and, well, fun. To top it off, it was free to play – forever.

It should have been the perfect game. But it wasn’t.

Guild Wars 2, unsurprisingly, has suffered from the same fate as most MMOs — with weakened box sales, stagnation on purchase of Gems (in-game monetisation for cosmetic items) and a growing reliance on Chinese markets for subscription revenue. The bulk of casual players have moved onto other games, while lesser populated servers begin the age old cycle of amalgamation. This is not an indication that the game is dead, or even dying far from it, but what it does show is that Guild Wars 2 was hardly the genre buster, the game that many said would out grow World of Warcraft and destroy the competition for years to come. The problem is, frankly, that Guild Wars 2 — like almost every other MMO before it — failed to advance the genre, to overturn much of the stale, 90′s era systems, and to fully embrace the opportunities that come with faster, more powerful machines, better networks and an experienced player base.

By contrast, EVE Online continues to grow and thrive, after a decade of controversial updates, setbacks, and an enormous difficulty curve. It still charges the same $15/month subscription payment it did when the game began, while over half a million players, many of which can claim they were there from the beginning, still pay it. It has outlived a plethora of other contenders, from quirky themed sandboxes (Star Wars Galaxies), to behemoth backed theme parks with strong foundations (Warhammer Online). Yet whenever it is mentioned, people are extraordinarily quick to deride it — it’s a “spreadsheet simulator”, full of scammers and assholes, boring and pointless. It’s no secret most of those people haven’t played it.

But its success is something developers and MMO designers need to examine, as EVE‘s niche is no longer just an unusual blip on the radar. What the game provides players is something of almost absolute freedom. Many players drool over the well known claims of the upcoming Star Citizen – thousands of star systems, fully live and player run economy, complete freedom of movement and trade, the ability to own and run parts of space — but all of these things have existed in EVE for years. It’s the excitement of control — knowing that your choices matter, that one person can make an enormous, permanent difference (not the respawning-in-2-hours difference) based on a string of unexpected and fortunate events.

If developers want people to stand up and care, if they want them to pay $15/month (which in 2014 is a extortionately expensive fee for a single service) then they need to trust their player bases and cede control to them. This doesn’t mean the standard piecemeal efforts either — some instanced player housing here, easily rigged “elections” that offer nothing but buffs and gold, or “free” crafting for items that offer no uniqueness or intrinsic value. I’m talking about real world changes — the ability to build actual cities and towns, from scratch, designed by players and groups, that can be run (with the help of some AI, granted) by players themselves.

I want battles that leave real scars, leave battlefields littered with completely dead players (many developers have, and are, designing ways to prevent griefing or to offer insurance in these matters), and can level the very towns and cities that were painstakingly created. This means there are now incentives to keep playing — defending your home or your district, being elected to discuss taxes or building permits, or promoted to a war chief/air martial. Much of this microwork could be automated or sped up via “policy” systems that offer predetermined paths or decision systems that cluster together like puzzles to form the framework of a city or town. This gives everyone a meaningful purpose to contribute, whether in the form of leadership, building, trade or even entertainment and transport.

Then there are the complete lack of character builds that do not involve combat. Combat is one of the genre’s biggest, and grindy, crutches and is the real cause of player reduction. Why? Because killing things is, eventually, boring. It’s the least satisfying portions of most games, because it doesn’t engage much past quick reflexes. Mixing combat, and reducing its impact – by making it either extortionately expensive, or thoroughly dangerous, means that it becomes a last resort than the status quo. It’s the tense gun battle after an illicit trade gone wrong. It’s the result of a breakdown in diplomatic relations between two cities or regions. It’s the full scale destruction of an entire star system over the course of 8 months because your alliance’s leader got sent a compromising photo to his email account.

But even EVE isn’t perfect – its UI is still horribly convoluted, its player base largely insular, and its tutorial mostly irrelevant to end-game play. Too much of the game relies on anticipating or waiting on other people, and it’s for that many players may not find it their cup of tea. In my case, a sheer lack of time requires keeps me out of EVE, which is why games like Star Citizen and ArcheAge look so exciting, as they promise to reward small bouts of play as much as large ones. My point is this — once players are forced to invest in their game, as they would their house, marriage, friendships or choice of console, they become pushed to expand and exploit that investment. Most standard MMOs, ones that feign open paths yet largely stick to a single line, treat gamers like tourists rather than residents.

None of this is even remotely far-fetched, either conceptually or in terms of technological ability. What it is, however, is risky.

The enormous bulk failure of MMOs over the past 5-6 years especially has made them far less likely to be wider in scope – when the money and means was there, developers and publishers decided not to reinvent the wheel. Meanwhile, small but talented developers like CCP continue to expand the scope of their game, linking warring players planetside with orbital warships providing support. Games like these aren’t easy to sell nor easy to code — but they are the key to saving one of the most promising genres that has yet to even remotely reach its potential.

22 comments (Leave your own)

I loved guild wars 2 but stopped playing it about 6 months ago, been meaning to get back to it but for some reason haven’t.

Maybe being a tourist there are other places I now want to visit more than GW2 now that I have seen most its sights.

EDIT: If eve is still around when I retire, I might have enough time on my hands for it then.

 

My most anticipated future release is Star Citizen, but as with the last 6 or 7 years I’ll continue to try every MMO with hope.

 

I just want something that has a proper non-combat offerings. I want there to be a requirement to bring along a scientist/engineer and have to protect the poor bugger because he can understand something that your idiot combat characters can’t understand thus making something easier or opening new paths.

I want there to be healing and then surgery. Sure you can pump a stim-pack mid combat for a temp fix but hell now you’ve got a smashed arm and you can’t aim/swing a sword… looks like the Doc has to fix it properly.

The world would have to be fleshed out enough to support these roles as a full time career.

 

non combat sounds like a good idea but making it fun would be a huge challenge … and then finding enough people that fill that roll would be another huge challenge.

 

You really should check out Pathfinder Online which is in development atm. They really are addressing all of the issues raised in this article, I’d you want to craft your character never has to leave town. Towns, forts, inns and other points of interest are to be built and owned by players. There is of course going to be the usual fighting classes too.

If you have a spare 24 hours you can read the development blog (it’s huge) at http://www.goblinworks.com

They are expecting alpha Q3 this year.

 

I gravitate to a lot of the non-combat specific parts of MMO’s such as collecting things in the field (EQ2, Rift), complete deeds (LOTRO). Horizons is still one of my more memorable MMO’s, because I got to participate in community events such as building bridges to new lands.

Everquest Next appears to be attempting to break the themepark mold, but it is way to early to have a remote idea if they will be successful or not.

 

People have moved on. World of Warcraft was a one and only. It was not just a game, I read somewhere that over 100 million unique people have at least tried WoW. It was a cultural phenomenon.

Nowadays, people have facebook, smartphones, twitter, and various other crap to keep their time occupied, all the while studying, keeping a job etc. The old model MMO of grinding, putting in countless hours to a game, it just doesn’t work anymore.

 

One thing that WoW has that other games don’t have is an AMAZING combat system. Over the years it got better, in PvP as well as PvE, there was always a class to play that had a fun and intuitive combat system in my opinion. I actually like having 36 keys on my bar, i grew up playing MMOs like that, i learned to play like that and got good at it.

Not to mention the smoothness that the WoW engine offers while playing in Australia. Do you know how many MMOs i have quit because playing with 200-400 ping is just clunky as hell and puts me below everyone else, looking at you Aion.

Ye WoW lost its touch from Cata onwards and i find it unworthy of my money in MoP, but remember WOTLK and BC, remember doing a raid just to test your DPS or new spec out even if you didn’t need loot, or joining a BG to farm kills because just getting better at your class was amazing fun, remember the endless skill cap when you played Arena.

For these reasons WoW was #1 in a lot of peoples books, what people are asking from Blizzard today won’t change the popularity of the genre. Player housing, stupid pets, super easy raids, pandas :), all these things only attract casuals for a field trip to WoW, but the real reason a lot of people praise WoW over the years is for the combat systems, the class designs and the core gameplay.

 
Nasty Wet Smear

I’m kinda hoping that the new WoD MMORPG will be something special.

 

Article is a little off base with almost everything IMO. Guild wars 2 didn’t fail because it didnt do anything new, it failed because it was Dressup Barbie: the MMO, it had no gear hook and dungeons were terrible and pointless.

It’s not a failure to innovate that kills games, it’s a failure to release in a finished state and not just contain bullshit “fluff” rather than real content.

MMO’s don’t need a revolution, what they need is for a company to make an MMO using classic rules and formula, with a working party/dungeon system at launch and some end game content.

Though i guess releasing a FINISHED MMO would be a revolution of sorts for the industry, nobody has done it yet in a good decade or so.

MMO’s need to be accessible but they also need to chill the hell out with the gear handouts, people need things to look forward to and achievements to earn that aren’t just xbox-live style points.

Remember back when you got a mount in an early MMO and it was some shitty swaybacked mare that you had to ride until you were max level and made some money or actually DID something? These days players get firebreathing hellsteeds for 1 gold at level 20 and then have absolutely nothing to look forward to.

People haven’t “moved on” from games like WoW, the games just changed into what they thought we wanted, and ruined what we loved about them in the first place.

 

WvWvW becoming a massive zerg fest of invisible players is what killed GW2 for me, It was just a complete mess. I’m sure they fixed it now but like all my friends we wouldn’t be going back.

We did have a lot of fun destroying zergs with a 5 man group when they were visible.

 

Guild Wars 2 should of been a serious contender for the throne. They had the hype, the support of the players, decent communication and launch window.

…Then it almost seems like the developers completely forgot they actually have to keep working on an MMO post-launch…

Major drawcards to the game like WvW were shamefully and moronically neglected. The stubborn refusal to shut down the free server transfers completely murdered the competitive aspects of the gametype. Add to this the problems such as queue times, culling and poor performance in the areas WvW took place and one of the major reasons to play the game died a sad death of sheer neglect.

Meanwhile SPvP was not much better. Huge balance problems were left unchecked that one again sunk the competitive side which was kind of a big deal since AN were banking on that flying the eSport flag. Of course that never took off in the slightest due to the glaring balance problems that developers refused to tackle for many months for some bizarre reason. Many I believe still exist to this day. Of course this did nothing but drive away casual players as well who would quickly get sick of being obliterated by the same three classes.

At this point all GW2 had going for it was it’s underdeveloped PvE side and this was the point the developers shamelessly went back on their word and started putting new sets of gear more powerful then what was currently available. For those who never played GW2, this was a mind-boggling as for over a year to the lead-up of the game’s launch, we were told over and over GW2 would not insult the intelligence of it’s players with “Gear treadmills”. This I think was the turning point for the game as a lot of players who bought the game felt downright lied to and cheated by this point and simply walked away, myself included.

So what the developers work on during all this time instead of balancing classes and trying to get WvW workable? Mini-games and world events…Yeah. You want to play a really bad 3D platform game instead of the reason you bought GW2 in the first place? Apparently the AN developers think you do instead of firing up a Wii and playing a half-decent Mario title or something.

More the pity really.

 

I stand by everything I wrote in my dividing review of Guild Wars 2. :-P Crappy endgame. I got to 80, found I could get the best gear after a few days of farming Cursed Shore events, and there was no exciting endgame PvE. PvP was imbalanced with just a few known “PvP builds” that dominated everything else.

Not only did it fail at gear progression, but it also failed on the theorycrafting side of things I enjoyed in Neverwinter Nights and other open class games like that. There were only a couple of good builds per class that were instantly obvious, no real hidden gems in the system.

But most importantly, GW2′s developers also made some rather big backflips. Despite so many statements made before launch about there being no “pay to win”, I found that I could just exchange money for gold in game (through the official exchanger), then buy whatever I damn well wanted on the auction house, because everything was for sale.

If I wanted a full set of exotic gear, $10 would get enough gold to buy it off the market. $10 real money got you about 30 gold, and each piece of orange gear was about 5 gold. If I wanted a legendary weapon, it’d cost about $500, but could still be bought. That’s as pay to win as you can get.

So if we want to improve the MMO genre, how about just holding developers to their pre-launch promises? It would do more for the quality of MMOs than any design revolution.

* * * *

What I ~do~ love in MMOs, is the background lore, theorycrafting, the potential for roleplay with other players, and excellent cutscenes. For me, The Secret World, Neverwinter Nights, and SWTOR have delivered some of these elements in differing measures depending on their own individual strengths.

It is these *moments* I most treasure. Whether its a few hours of intense roleplay with other players, or a hilarious cutscene series like in the SWTOR smuggler story, or even finding a Leliana camo appearance in TSW as a chainsaw-wielding homicidal French girl.

These types of things stand apart from whether the game is sandbox or themepark, but the cutscenes in particular tend to only be in themeparks. For whatever reason, roleplay communities tend to be stronger in themeparks too – I think it’s the focus on the professional story that does it. Rather than deride themeparks for being themeparks, we should instead recognise that they have unique strengths you won’t find in sandboxes.

I am not looking for a revolution. Rather, I am looking for polish, lots of theorycrafting potential, and a strong player roleplay community. These things have existed in past and current games.

I am actually far more in agreement with your previous article – finish the damn games. A lot of current MMOs are designed well, but just need to be finished instead of a race to ship. It is lack of polish, not design flaws, that lets MMOs down.

 

GW2 also has some of the least satisfying combat ever. I hate to compare it to Diablo 3, because they’re such extremely different games, and I don’t really think D3 succeeded in a lot of ways, but for all the deficiencies of D3, combat (particularly physical combat, which is some kind of weird abstraction in GW2) is eminently satisfying.

 

A lot of gw2 hate ….

I love the game , and still play almost everyday, love running WvW with my guild zerg of about 100 and decimating double that , and it isn’t because we have more pretty armour… There are a lot of tactics and fun to be had , just need to join a good WvW guild.

Anet really do need to do something new with the game this year though or it will be lost.

I don’t see it as pay to win , as having a full set of exotic gear doesn’t make you a good player , just puts you on a level playing field… there is a lot to learn about each class. Paying for gems and converting them to gold to get stuff quicker is retarded , it isn’t that much of a grind to get decent gear.

They have added some new fractals which I also enjoy the challenge of , but the living world content is just rubbish.

I really hope an expansion comes out this year with something different , otherwise I will probably move on , I’ve levelled each class , fractal level is getting high , I have a full set of ascended armour , now working on my legendary , once that’s done I won’t have anything else to do other than WvW , yes sPvP is abit of a joke.

Game is far from dead though as most people who probably played for a couple of weeks say…

 

Well, the problem with buying stuff is not necessarily if you do it or not… it’s just that simply by being there, it takes away any accomplishment you have from actually playing the game. I got all my gear playing “normally” but I felt no reward at all after I saw that it could have just been bought for $10.

I don’t value $10 very much – it’s a few bottles of coke, so that reduced the feeling of getting gear in GW2 to the feeling I get when I go grocery shopping, because the game prompted me to make a real world comparison. It destroys the 4th wall.

I’ve nothing against those who enjoy the game though… just think it was massively overhyped. *Shrugs*

 

I don’t like all this theam park and sandbox talk its pretty derogatory to the medium and I think they are just replacement words for PVE and PVP in reality.

Dayz is the next gen mmo imo. Bringing Back World PvP is really want every one wanted to happen and blizzard wouldn’t do it because they played at home with their kids or some thing. .

if you only like endgame play monster hunter.

if you like questing play AAA console games?

its nice having all 3 in one universe thou I will admit but when you do that with modern game mechanics I think they actually do hit a performance wall and that’s why they have to use such simple (dated systems). wow is actually one of the most cpu intensive games in raiding. ofc its gfx are simple but ya they are actually pushing the limit hard in other areas imo. They have droped the raid size from 40 to 25 to 20 over the years and worked a ton on the engine and i would think they have the resources to hit the hardware limit in that regard and I believe its because of a single core performance wall and running a multiplayer game on multiple cores is really hard?.

could be a long while till we get what we want >_<

 

Marius:
Well, the problem with buying stuff is not necessarily if you do it or not… it’s just that simply by being there, it takes away any accomplishment you have from actually playing the game. I got all my gear playing “normally” but I felt no reward at all after I saw that it could have just been bought for $10.

I don’t value $10 very much – it’s a few bottles of coke, so that reduced the feeling of getting gear in GW2 to the feeling I get when I go grocery shopping, because the game prompted me to make a real world comparison. It destroys the 4th wall.

I’ve nothing against those who enjoy the game though… just think it was massively overhyped. *Shrugs*

I pretty much agree with everything you said in both your posts Marius.

I knew GW2 wasn’t for me when my crew and I hit max level and we all had 2 maxed tradeskills. I had gear waiting in my inventory as i dinged my final level that was like 1dps lower than the best gear in the game.

That “gear treadmill” quote up above actually made me chuckle, people need to stop with the communist mindset in MMO’s… if you want it then you need to work for it. If you don’t want to work then you need to be happy with your greens and your swaybacked piebald mare.

 

The problem is no one MMO design is perfect.

Take away the gear treadmill? Everyone has a level playing field, but you now have removed a lot of the theorycrafting and exclusivity of niche gear. A lot of my time in NWN and TSW was spent figuring out the best gear to get, because I only had one shot at it.

But if I can just get all the gears in a weekend, who cares? May as well just get it all and roll the dice to see which is better.

Take away themeparkness? Well okay you introduce player politics, but you also take away interesting story writing and cutscenes. Some of us actually value those. :P Even if such games eventually close down, I am still enriched from having played them.

Take away the holy trinity? well most non-trinity games have poor endgame tactics, and devolve into who can make the best do-it-all character, and then replicating it (like doing GW2 dungeons with 5 warriors…)

And vice versa – the opposite of all of these carry there own penalties too. But the ongoing search for a holy grail of MMOs will never end well. You can’t please everyone, no matter how hard you try.

 

my problem with many of the discussions regarding the evolution of MMO’s is that many people seem to say the only thing that can make an MMO successful is pvp. many people I know dont play pvp in mom’s and almost actively avoid it, they want a world where they can exist and coexist with others, work with other players towards common goals (i.e. raids etc). For one I’m really looking forward to ESO which, if all goes according to plan, will hopefully be the development in PvE MMO we have been waiting for. The whole, I wonder what is over that hill? What is that in the distance? How does my character fit into this world? That kind of play, to me and many friends, is more exciting than going to war with other players

 
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