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MMORPGs: A broken design philosophy

Posted by Gameloading Monday October 5 2009 at 10:54PM
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If I compare the MMORPG genre to the other genres I find that the MMORPG genre is the only one that really doesn't have anything going for it and has a very flawed design philosophy behind it. I think that despite the fact the mmorpg genre has never been more popular, the genre might lose it's popularity if it doesn't change some of its core designs.

There is a reason why people play video games. People play racing games because they let you drive fast and against other racers, people play shooters because it's fun to shoot and people play fighting games because it's fun to fight and learn combos. The reason to play MMORPGs is character progression. Character progression has become the main objective of just about every MMORPG avaible. The big problem with this is that Character Progression isn't a direct gameplay mechanic, rather it's a result of another gameplay mechanics which in most cases, doing quests and defeating monsters.

MMORPGs are an online evolution of single player RPGs. The class system, levels, they have been based on singleplayer games and It even goes back as far as Dungeons & Dragons tabletop games.
The big difference is that, unlike MMORPGs, character progression takes a back seat to other elements like an adventure, storyline and dialogue. while character progression is an important element of these games, it's not the real reason these games are being played, it's a secondary mechanics.

Right now, MMORPGs are like receiving candy for doing chores around the house.. Some people describe todays MMORPGs as Theme Parks but I don't think that's an accurate describtion. You go to a theme park because the act of going into a ride is fun and entertaining. You don't get rewarded for going on a ride, you won't get any progression. An MMORPG would be like work. It's not quite entertaining, but you do get a nice paycheck.

A big problem with MMORPGs is that the actual gameplay mechanics are very poorly done when compared to other genres. It isn't challenging and very repetetive. Battles in most MMORPGs don't require any skill and every enemy can be defeated using the exact same strategy. The reasons for this is that developers usually give a class one skill for each situation and games suffer from a lack of enemy variaty.

You never have to wonder how you should tackle a certain enemy because you usually only have one strong strategy that works on every enemy. There are lots of different enemies in an MMORPG but they all act exactly the same. Sure some have a bit more hitpoints than other and some might have a stronger offense and a weaker defense, but that doesn'tt change the strategy you use to defeat them whatsoever. The AI is also weak, enemies will in most cases blindly run up to you and start using auto attack and sometimes a developer feels like being fancy and might actually give them a skill. Maybe even two if he feels like being silly. This skill is usually a DOT attack, a knockdown attack or just a stronger normal attack, none of which are going to change the skills which you, as a player, will use. The only way you will change your skill pattern is when the game gives you a new, more powerful ability which you will then use for days, weeks or even for the rest of the game. If a game were to give you all your skills at the start of the game and you were to defeat one enemy, you would have killed all of them.

MMORPGs used to have the feeling of a large open world with thousands of players going for them, but one of the recent trends has become to actually discourage interaction with players as much as possible. A common law nowadays is that the vast majority of the game has to be soloable but just to prove developers didn't forget about grouping either, about 10% or 20% of the game will be suitable for group play. If you group up nowadays and do things that are not in the 20% of the content suitable for group play, you will actually only damage your progress because enemies XP and quest rewards don't scale with it. Grouping up with, say, 2 other players doesn't mean that you will now be able to do quests 3 times as fast or kill mobs 3 times as fast.
The reason for this is because solo mmorpgs copy the class system of games that were designed for group play. Lets take World of Warcraft for example and examine a few of their classes: The Paladin, The warrior, The Rogue, The Hunter and The Priest class.

If you want to have fast progression, you will pick the Rogue, The hunter and to a lesser extend, the Warrior class. Picking The Paladin and Priest class will seriously damage the speed at which you progress through the game. Why? Because these classes were designed for a group environment, which only makes up about 20% of MMORPGs nowadays. The design philosophy of the Paladin is, low damage (which means killing mob goes slower as well) but the ability to tank and heal. But because everything needs to be soloable for Rogues and Hunters as well, Tanking and healing is no longer required for about 80% of the game. Priest has the exact same problem, it has low damage, low defense but has the ability to heal, but again, as Rogues and Hunters need to be able to solo as well, being able to heal is not required at all to progress, only in the 20% of the content that is built for group play.

The result is that you'll be playing with the handicaps of a group designed character with none of the benefits of your class for 80% of the game. Rogues and other DPS classes will still benefit from their high DPS but don't have to suffer for not being able to tank or heal because 80% of the content doesn't require tanking or healing. When it does, You can just eat food or even bandage yourself. Result for group play is that If a DPS class groups up with a healing or tank class he will cut his XP gain in half, but he won't kill mobs twice as fast. the duo also needs to kill twice as many mobs to get the same amount of XP which means more time spend looking and walking to mobs and since you need to do more quests, more walking to quests as well.

In my opinion, the combat and class system of mmorpgs need a complete overhaul.

The last issue I want to touch upon, and which also touches upon what I think is the core problem, is the quests of MMORPGs. When you compare the storyline of a game like Final Fantasy (The offline ones) to MMORPGs, you'll notice a huge difference. One offers a storyline about trust, friendship, love, betrayel, politics, evil, good. The other will tell you to deal with the local wolf population. Why is that? Because it's impossible to do in an MMO? No. It's because, and here is the big problem, MMORPG have a design philosophy of Quantity over Quality. Instead of developing 1 very well done quest with a good storyline and awesome events, A developer will chose to create 10 quests that involve to collect 6 spider legs or clean a farmfield of rats by killing 10 of them, but you don't actually have to clean the farmfield, you just have to kill 10 of them, so if there are still 20 more running around, don't worry about that. The reason for that is because it makes it seem as if the game has a lot of content, it offers more chances to reward the player (hand out candy) and because we have a very unrealistic expectation of MMORPGs: We expect to be able to play them for 4 or 8 hours a day for months, even years. Now you might say that that is not unrealistic at all, because MMORPGs have been played for years.

Thats true, but they sacrifice quality of content for that. The only reason people play MMORPGs is not because the gameplay mechanics are fun, but simply because they keep rewarding. Character progression.

When you do a quest, it will tell you you will get XP, Gold and maybe even a new weapon. When you level up you will get better stats, new skills, access to better looking armor, a mount, a flying mount heck even a motorcycle.

Why is it that when people speak about video game addiction, they are almost always refering to MMORPGs? People have died while playing MMORPGs. Because they are addictive, they keep giving you more and more candy if you keep playing.

Something interesting I noticed was with the recently released Aion. There have been a number of people who say that around level 25, they suddenly hit a wall and claim the game suddenly becomes a grind. What's actually going on is that around level 25, the quests suddenly become more rare. Ofcourse there is nothing stopping the players from going to different areas and kill different mobs themselves, after all that's exactly what they have been doing all this time. The reason why it suddenly becomes a grind is because suddenly it takes longer to get their reward, their next piece of candy. There is no NPC to give them a piece of candy. One of the most commonly asked questions about an MMORPG is, what is the endgame like? People ask this because they know that once they reach the endgame, there will be no steady supply of candy comming in anymore. Suddenly the only thing the game has going for it are it's core gameplay mechanics such as combat and questing. Combat and questing are both poorly designed and the result is, people will quit.

There is a good reason why PVP is such a highly demanded end game feature. Because when you're PVPing, you'll actually get to enjoy the game not because it's rewarding, but because the gameplay mechanics are enjoyable. Enemy players don't have only one or two skills, they have tons of skills, entire skillbarts full of them. They don't attack you head on front the front, they will attack you from all directions, trying to sneak up on you and work together with other enemy players. They all provide a very different challenge for each person and class you encounter

So why can't developers create just as much indepth PVE enemies as they can create player classes? Again, The quantity over quality problem. We have a very high expectation of the amount of content, but not for the quality of content. We expect to play MMORPG games for a very, very long time.

But I wonder, what if games became shorter and went for a quality over quantity design philosophy? How would it be to play a game for maybe only a couple of weeks before you're maxed out and play games with a smaler world, less dungeons and less quest but in return you get a more beautiful world, higher quality dungeons and higher quality quests with better storylines and objectives? Here is a silly thought: How would it be to create an alternative character not just to get that sense of progression again but because the actual game content was so much fun to play through? How unreasonable would that be?

theAsna writes:

Good article.

In my opionion the character progression is restricted only to increasing a character's level and gaining new skills or increasing existing skills get more powerful equipment (getting the "candy").

It's less about story or the way you go (how you "solve" quests/interact with NPCs/etc.). To be honest only few CRPGs tried to implement it (e.g Planescape Torment). I don't see this coming to MMORPGs soon.

Tue Oct 06 2009 12:29AM Report

MMORPG.com writes:
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