Previously, I spoke about how the insistence on including leveling up in MMORPGs is ultimately pointless. Adhering to this decades old tradition is only the beginning of the problems that plague modern MMOs, though it may be the easiest of the fat to trim that still lingers from MMO infancy. While leveling seems harmless, it is actually detrimental to potential players. It serves as a way for a new MMO to look good in reviews without ever having to reveal its true colors, but it also holds another important function: hiding the real game and what little content it actually offers.
This may sound strange, as a game should be proud to showcase what it has to entice players, but MMOs operate in some bizarro land where the goal is addiction to repetition, rather than trying to achieve true engagement. Most MMOs, in fact, will encourage you to level more characters after you have one at the level cap, to give the illusion that there is more to do, when in reality, it is just doing the same thing again with a slightly different load out. In single player RPGs, this is hardly an issue. I enjoyed playing through Knights of the Old Republic a second time to explore alternate dialogue options, a recurring trait in most Bioware games, but MMOs rarely offer such variety. You may try taking an alternative route through new zones, but in the end, the only real difference is you are killing 10 boars to save Scout Samson, instead of protecting Farmer Johnson from the plague of 10 bears that roam dangerously around a 5 square foot patch of land.
The most difficult issue of being rid of the leveling treadmill would be retaining player interest. As stated, the ever-upward grind of vacuuming up those precious experience points serves as a barrier to hide the complete lack of actual things to do once you’ve conquered every random assortment of 10 generic cloned bad guys the world has to offer. Progression and accomplishment are important feelings for a game to offer a player, and that gradually increasing experience bar and the big ‘wow, you did it!’ whistle you get every time it fills up serves its purpose of distracting you from the fact that it is only distracting you. It’s so genius it has to be sinister.
Enough ramblings, though. If you want to know my thoughts on how leveling is a plague to the MMO genre, all the words are right there where I left them. As you may have already guessed, today I would like to talk about what goes on at the end of the road in MMOs. Without further ceremony, let’s get straight to Sin number 2:
The Sin of Specific Obsession – Lack of Objectives and Narrow Endgame Focus
So you did it. You made it to max level, either through diligent grinding or a long journey of stopping and smelling the roses, and you’re just itching to find new things to do. This is where the illusion of a grand world that is full of life comes to a crashing halt – the endgame consists of very little actual activity. What does exist is designed to be repeated ad nauseam. Did you enjoy exploring the world and seeing the various environments that those artists put so much work into? I sure hope not, because you won’t be doing any of that nonsense any more!
No, once that illusion is dispelled, the magic is gone forever. You soon realize that you only have two tasks: getting your character ready to tackle the most recent and most challenging content, and then actually tackling the most recent and most challenging content.
It sounds good in theory, but this content all boils down to repeating the same actions. You and your ragtag group of friends – and it is always a ragtag group of friends – go into the big, spooky dungeon to vanquish the evil within. Of course, nothing will actually happen if you don’t go in there. Nothing will happen if nobody ever goes in there. MMOs are often called “theme parks,” which is a fitting description as the content simply sits there and waits for you to come to it. There is no pressing reason to venture forth, and whatever story that particular MMO is trying to tell will progress along regardless of player input. The content is entirely reactive.
For the uninitiated, these endgame activities are typically split into two parts: dungeons and raids. Every MMO is going to have their own title for them, but they are persistent throughout – dungeons exist for smaller groups to kill monsters to get loot, and raids exist for larger groups to kill monsters and get better loot. The loot, of course, is so you can progress and do the next dungeon or raid in line. Instead of pushing your character level ever higher, you instead push the various statistics on your character sheet ever higher. The result is that players will quickly outgrow older content, because all of their shiny new loot makes visiting them trivial, while also blocking other people from attempting new content solely because of numbers, instead of lack of applicable skill.
Some of the craftier MMOs still try to entice higher-tier players to breeze through this old content by offering various incentives to plow through on a daily basis. On the one hand it serves as a method to keep players passing through the same places over and over again, but on the other, it makes those old places trivial even for new players, as veterans easily carry them through and all challenge is rendered inert.
On the higher end of the spectrum, raids typically become useless once they have been bled dry of the precious loot inside. Most MMOs will have a pre-set path of progression that is determined numerically and not by actual mechanics or other forms of difficulty.
This system can work; after all, it is what has kept World of Warcraft afloat for over 10 years now. Some of the encounters over the years, across the various MMO flavors, have been truly inventive and unique. But one horrible truth always hangs over it: developers cannot create content faster than players can consume it.
There is no conceivable way that developers can outpace players in the creation to consumption ratio. Gamers are a crafty and competent bunch, and there are rarely any hurdles outside of truly gamebreaking bugs that prevent them, as a whole, from finishing something.
This presents two big issues caused by focusing on one type of content – the endgame activities all result in different flavors of the exact same thing, and that exact same thing is not produced quickly enough to match player consumption. A new raid may be fun for a month or two, but when it has been dragging on for five or six, it grows considerably stale. Worst case, World of Warcraft has seen some raids last for over a year before new content comes along, typically at the end of an expansion.
What could be done about this? Simply churning out more things faster would likely result in less compelling raids. They would also contain far more bugs. More raids may not be the answer – more of anything but raids could be closer to a solution.
In the old days, this was worked around by requiring extreme amounts of grinding for materials to get everything you need to prepare for a raid. Players could be expected to spend dozens of hours a week doing their pre-raiding rituals, from gathering up all the required potions to hunting down obscure materials to enchant their gear to be marginally better. This was also an obligation – you took this part time job so you could do the parts of the game you enjoyed. This obligation is not so common any more, and raid-focused players spend less and less time preparing for what they enjoy, and more time simply doing it. This is a step in the right direction – less time preparing for fun and more time having fun.
The issue that arises is that the obligation is not replaced with anything to do. Once a raid has been successfully conquered, it will take less and less time to complete as the weeks go by. Eventually, what would take three day’s worth of play time is done in a single sitting. With nothing left to do outside of that, these players simply go elsewhere – there is nothing else that draws them back to the game.
This is a side effect of the level, grind, endgame cycle that MMOs have developed since World of Warcraft set the example of what to do. If leveling were not a thing, it is possible that the actual world of MMOs could see some functionality, either through more involved quests that require actual exploration, adventure, and time investment. Or through having to traverse zones designed to be considerably dangerous to acquire materials to create powerful items.
However, even with the level grind intact, the endgame could use more to do outside of raid, raid, raid. This is where I have noticed a strange occurrence – MMOs, the genre that most needs distractions, lack them, while single player RPGs, the genre that can afford to let players fixate on one specific goal, typically offer side activities that are of no real importance.
Two big examples that stand out are Final Fantasy 8 and the more recent Witcher 3. Both of these games are heavily praised for their story and gameplay, but they still saw the need to include the addictive Triple Triad and Gwent, respectively. I’ll be honest, I am no fan of Final Fantasy 8, but the existence of Triple Triad was enough to get me to turn on my Playstation on a daily basis. The inclusion of a card game where you can progress with new cards, new decks, and new strategies is just one example of something that could be included in a world to make it feel more alive.
Maybe a bad example, seeing as Blizzard realized that they could just make the card game completely seperate and rake in mountains of cash. Perhaps a developer with actual passion for their MMO could use the idea, though.
The main point is that there needs to be something to keep players involved that is not just another raid. Players would be able to wait out the expanses between new raiding content if they had something – anything – to hold their attention in the interim. Make exploration meaningful, create quest lines that involve more than reading a short paragraph and mindlessly following orders, create one (or several!) side activities that offer alternate methods of progression so even non-raiding players have things to do.
Just do not restrict yourself solely to raids. Doing so leads to:
The Sin of Veiled Victory – Instances and Pocket Dimensions
Instances – the strange focus of the MMO genre. A game type that should focus on changing the world, yet all of the action does not even take place in the world. For those unfamiliar with MMOs, the previously mentioned dungeons and raids typically occur in fresh instances for every group that wants to try them. These are little pocket dimensions that are unaltered by the outside world, have no effect on the outside world, and which can be accessed by walking to a certain point in the outside world. Many MMOs have taken it a step beyond that and allow players to simply queue to enter an instance; they receive a nice little ding once a group has been auto-assembled, and then they are magically teleported away.
The issue here is that any meaningful content that exists in the endgame is found inside these little bubbles that no one on the outside can interact with or even see. The massive environments that sit outside of these places serve as a commute; players find the quickest route to reach their destination and repeat this route hundreds of times to travel to the magical dungeon dimension where the only meaningful content exists. This is closely tied to dungeons and raids being the only thing worth doing, but having the only thing worth doing not even affect the actual game world is another issue that is common among MMOs.
The capitol cities thus serve as a place for players to sit when they are idle. The areas outside of the cities are condemned to being level up fodder for the newbies. Even the low level dungeons and raids are doomed to obscurity as the game marches on to a future without them. Constant progression means constant content being pushed aside to make room for the new. In this set up, the world has no purpose at all. Simply allowing players to select a class from a character screen and enter into dungeons in pre-made or random groups from the same screen would preserve the meat of the game without burdening the developers into creating a zone, or area, or entire world around the dungeon entrances. Dungeons as instances are not inherently evil, but the way they are implemented acts as a strange disconnect where they may as well not even be a part of the world at all.
Failure in a dungeon is meaningless other than the time lost. Likewise, victory in a dungeon is meaningless save for the loot that drops. Destroying the evil demon or world-shattering god will simply result in his minions still littering the surrounding world as if nothing happened, and all of the worried NPCs hoping for your ultimate success still being worried and hoping for your ultimate success – with maybe a textbox every now and then when you walk by telling you how awesome you are. A strange circumstance, truly, when a random guard congratulates you on conquering the demonic invasion while three demons are currently gnawing on his face.
To alleviate this would require a bit of ambition and passion from developers – perhaps the very heart of the whole issue. Power needs to be given to the players when it comes to the way the world develops within an MMO – the power to succeed and the power to fail. What if, instead of the final enemy sitting atop his Tower of Death waiting for groups of 20 people to confront him, he marched to the player’s favorite capital city? If the players failed to stop him, his evil invasion would raze the city, or occupy it, or otherwise take it away from the players. This could progress into turning the state of the city into an actual event that players could remember for years to come, and players could fight and take back the city, or fail and lose it forever. This is the type of event that MMOs could provide organically.
If tradition dictates that things must remain dungeon-bound, then take the same concept and apply it there. If the final boss of that dungeon is not conquered in time, or conquered frequently enough to accommodate large numbers of groups taking shots at him, his influence could spread across the land and the outside world becomes more and more dangerous.
But if he is sufficiently destroyed? Close the dungeon forever. Let it be that memory of lasting victory that players can tell stories about for years to come. You want those treasured memories when new players arrive to your game, where the old timers tell the tales of their “you had to be there” moments. You just have to keep those moments coming for everyone.
What are your thoughts of the MMO genre’s neglect of the open world and narrow focus on particular endgame activities? Do you think they can continue like they are, or do MMOs need to see massive changes if they hope to survive?