New MMOs are coming into the world every day, from various locations of the world. Some of their content is largely unique, but as a player of 6+ years in the MMO genre, I have seen a lot of overlap. Many of these features have become 'standards' and appear in places such as the surface-level UI, or can exist deep in the core mechanics of game play. The purpose of this series of posts is to explore what features have become commonplace in MMOs, their significance, and if they should (or shouldn't) receive some love and innovation. Ultimately, I will post a comprehensive note on the subject of game mechanics in MMOs based on the material covered. Keep in mind that this will not be a completely objective article; I'll mix in my personal thoughts/perspectives while also adding an element of empirical research. I also fully welcome comments and contributions from the community to help fill in gaps I may have missed. Also, personal opinions and thoughts on the subject are always appreciated.
I'm not completely sure I can start somewhere that could be considered the 'basics', so I'll start at a point that everyone should be familiar with: the UI (User Interface), otherwise known as the HUD (Heads-Up Display). Across the board, several aspects of the UI can be commonly found in MMOs. Take the mini-map, for example. This has become a staple in online games, providing a relatively simple and easy reference as we navigate from place to place. Depending on the quality of design put into this feature, it can be a great help. In some games, it can just be an unpolished mechanic that simply shows the player, "You are here."
So what is the main purpose of the mini-map, and what features of it make the mechanic stand out? The mini-map, as many of you can guess, is at its core a reference tool. It is a convenience for the player so they will not have to pull up that big old map to see where they are. That's it; simple. Early on in MMOs, this is the singular purpose it served. However, a number of additions and contributions have been made to this piece of the game that has turned it into an encyclopedia of local knowledge. Take a look at World of Warcraft and its minimap. It fulfills the standard function of showing the player where they are, and has the function of zooming in or out to show more/less of the surrounding area. Cool addition, no? On top of that, they added the functionality of highlighting specific points of interest such as class trainers and gathering points to help the player find their way around. Again, nifty. Add in the community contributions and you have a tool that can almost serve as a comprehensive GPS navigation tool; the only thing missing is the auto-pilot. Oh wait, that exists too.
Next on the UI list is the skill bar, or the area of the UI where you can store specific action icons or macros (user-created functions that often string together a sequence of commends for the ease of the user). This can be considered a quintessential function of game play in a world that is based on user-activated skills. Consider Age of Conan, World of Warcraft, Saga of Ryzom, or (an assumed estimation of) 95% of other MMOs out there. With this feature, you can (relatively) easily place your handy little icons in an organized fashion on your game screen, or you can place every single action you can do all around the edges of the screen, depending on the mods available.
A third and also vital part of the UI is the personal status indicator. This is the portion of the UI dedicated to gauging your (or your pets/party member's/enemy) health and mana/stamina/energy, or whatever the class mechanic uses. This, I feel, is the most core piece of the user interface. The player, I assume, always wants to know just how many vital resources a character has left in order to determine what they need to do next. But again, this can be considered a luxury. Though we take it for granted, consider if a game didn't have this function. How would this change the game play? Consider this food for thought.
The fourth mechanic of the UI I'll cover is the chat/combat log window. Since MMOs are the massive multiplayer worlds they are, chatting with friends and enemies is a core part of the game, and we need a way to do that comfortably. Different games a various levels of functionality within the chat window. As stated previously, it can function as a combat log to show us what the enemy is doing to our character and (textually) how much we're doing in return. The chat room function also gives us the means of talking with players across the game world, or those in our immediate area, depending on the need. We also have private channels to speak one-on-one with players, or with specific group of players (guilds.)
These four mechanics make up what I think is the core of the UI, and every game has extras that make it unique (or not.) Here are some of my personal feelings about them, which are up for discussion.
The Mini-Map - How important is the mini-map to the MMO? Honestly, I feel it's a luxury item. Though it has a very practical and comprehensive use, the more it does, the less you have to do. To me, it takes away from the immersion factor of looking around for the next creature I need to hunt, or the mining node I need to excavate. However, in regards to the game in which it is placed,I think it depends on the way the game is crafted/presented that determines the importance of the mini-map.
The Skill Bar - Considering the amount of MMOs out there that are skill-based, having the skill bar makes for some pretty simplified game play. Great empasis has been placed on the skill bar(s), but is it as important as we make it out to be? Is having a massive array of abilities that may or may not be available to use at the time on your screen a good thing, or are we getting carried away? Considering the room for customization given to the user by the game developer, the answer to this question is largely determined by the user themself.
The Status Indicator - As I said in the post, this, I feel, is the key element of the UI. I do think though there is room for experimentation. Is it necessary to always see our health? How would the game change if it were gone? How would game developers adapt to this change if they decided to take the convenience out of thie game? I think it is something to be explored, for certain. If implemented well, it could add a whole new level of immersion to the game, and change the mechanics of the game itself. How do you all feel about this?
The Chat Window - As far as the chat window is concerned, I think it is a useful tool that gets taken overboard often enough. Global channels, though nice in function, often get overtaken with advertisers or people looking to draw attention. What is nice is that you can turn it off, but then you're limiting yourself in function to avoid the hassles it entails. Having logs of what is said is an appreciated feature, especially in long conversations between multiple people. I think it has been developed to a nice point, but now it comes down to quality control.
In coming posts I'll talk about deeper portions of MMO game mechanics, from combat to world interaction to transportation. As always, I encourage the community to post their comments and constructive criticisms to help me gain a greater perspective and experience on the topics I care about. Post away!