Over the years of playing MMOs, I've come to wonder just how original some of these games are. I come from a beginning and background of pen & paper RPGs, so my focus primarily lies in the fantasy domain. I am not very experienced when it comes to the sci-fi genre, so I'll leave that to someone more experienced.
Coming from the imagination-dominant setting of D&D, I have noticed many MMO games in the fantasy setting running together. Dragons and iconic figures of the genre are largely unavoidable, and I like seeing them in each game, but does it have to be, "a dragon is a dragon is a dragon?" The same can be said of buildings, which I feel are often made as more of a pretty feature instead of something functional. Other aspects pop up on the list as well. In this post, however, I'll primarily cover the variety of monsters and NPCs I've come across in games, how I have seen them handled, and what I think about them in terms of the originality of their presentation.
Let's start at the beginning. Quest types and game mechanics aside (which are a totally unique area of discusson), your first encounters with monsters or hostiles is pretty generic. My first impression with some games have been, "Wait, I just created a character who is supposed to become a great hero; why am I fighting rats?" The "rats" may be the pesky rodents, or represent something different and equally generic/awkward; small walking mushrooms, for exmple, or spiders.
I know that, as a new character, you are supposed to start off small, but how small, and with what degree of projected difficulty? I am not a fan of killing creatures that could be considered household pets in order to reach that next legendary level, so killing that wandering myconid presents little to no reward for my ego. What games do well with this, then?
Since I have most of my MMO experience in the World of Warcraft universe, I'll start off here. Having played in every race's starting ground, I can say with considence that there is already an imbalance here. My favorite starting ground has been in Dun Morogh, the place where dwarf and gnome players begin. The valley in which they enter is filled with wolves, troggs, and ice trolls, but therein lies a problem. At a glance, I logically see the field of play and think, "Wow, with this many enemies out here, these dwarves should have been overrun a long time ago." The scale, I feel is off. Sure, you have to have a healthy number of creatures around to present an opportunity to gain experience proportionate to the average number of players in the area over a period of time, but there are just too many.
Moving on from the scale of creatures available to an actual encounter between the player and enemy, there very little challenge. Again, this falls into overall game play and mechanics, and that is another topic in itself, but I still consider this an issue. If I'm fighting a wolf with nothing but a hand axe, shouldn't I at least have some danger of getting my throat torn out? As it turns out, not really. A few swipes with my axe vs. an equal number of "ferocious" bites from my opponent and "boom," I come out on top with a minimal loss of health. Does that really conjur the feeling of triumphing over a ferocious animal? To me, no.
Now the game ramps up in difficulty as you go along; I get that. The starting area is there to help ease you into the game, but is it meant to be that easy? What do I learn about survival in a game that leads me by the hand for the first ten levels? Woah, getting off topic...
Moving on with the WoW example, I come across various types of wolves in the game, and aside from coloration changes, they largely look the same. I will grant, however, that they did have a different model of wolf that looked shaggier. In later exansions, they added a ghost wolf model that was a transparent form of one of the original models. Woo. Then there are the riding wolves, but those are mounts. Looking at the hours spent grinding away at these mobs, and those few variations (which you don't see at once,) get very stale. But it isn't just wolves I'm talking about, but other wild creatures like giant spiders, bears, and so on. The experience of fighting these things feels the same, no matter what model you face.
The same thing can be said with more unique models, such as dragons. Again, referencing in World of Warcraft, I don't see much model variation, and they largely fight the same way. Ho-hum. The only real appreciable differences I have seen in these epic mythological creatures has been in the WotLK expansion, and to see that makes me happy (or at least happier.)
Now how do these things stack up on the NPC side? Wth the ability of a player to customize their equipment, shouldn't NPCs also have their unique style of dress (where applicable?) I actually don't have many complaints in this area. In the games I have played, the visual presentation of NPCs has been pretty smooth. I will however, say that their personalities need some real work. Interacting with different contacts seem largely generic, and the fact that I usually zip through quest dialogue says something pretty big to me. How many of you do the same, and how do you feel about it? There is actually a lot to be covered on NPCs, so I'll leave this subject to be explored in its own post on a later date.
Getting back to monsters, I have been disappointed over time at the lack of variation in the enemies I have faced. It does seem to hold that many popular MMO games think along the lines of , "a dragon is a dragon is a dragon." So what could be changed to increase the unique features of these otherwise generic creatures? Some ideas do come to mind...
1. Have a random unique trait generator. Let's go back to the wolf for this example. You see a pack of wolves running around through the woods. Instead of having them all look the same, have the same base model, but add different traits to make their appearance more unique. They can have scars in multiple places, be missing patches of fur, be bloody from a previous encounter, have blunted/elongated fangs, or different clor or glowing eyes. These small things may seem insignificant, but I feel they would add to the experience of fighting them.
2. Re-scale the difficulty. You don't usually see 20-30 of the same creature milling about the forest in a small space, so why do we see them in MMOs? Again, I realize players need to get their kill count, but this just doesn't feel right. Instead of killing 20 bears, why not just fight 2-3 big, challenging bears that (gasp) might kill you and have more of an experience that way? Make encounters more significant, thus (I think) taking away from the "grind" aspect and giving more to the player.
3. Add some more/variable AI! This is something I have seen largely ignored in games. Do all hostile creatures just charge in and fight to the death? Come on now, there's a lot that can be done here. Back to the wolves! If you encounter a pack of these things, have them spawned with different UI. Some may be more cautious, others reckless. Let them work as a team against the player with that pack metality. Some try to weaken you, while others look for an opportunity to get a strong hit in. If injured, why not have them run away. Even if you don't kill them, you could still get experience for the encounter, and have a more unique experience for it.
4. Range/Status of motion. If you injure something, shouldn't it limp, stagger, or otherwise? If my character is near death, I don't expect to be able to run around as if I were fresh out of the inn. Adding a more immersive element to battle in that you do get fatigued and affected by your wounds makes battle more strategic and good for group play. Even when soloing, it adds that greater element of danger and tactics to how you fight.
Now, I will admit, these things would take a great amount of time to develop, test, and implement, but why hasn't anyone (that I have seen) tried this out in MMOs? If I could learn the skills necessary, I would gladly spend the time to create these features, as I feel they would make valuable additions to gameplay.
This has touched on my feelings about creatures represented in the fantasy MMO genre. I know this post insn't exactly comprehensive, or in any way representative of every MMO out there, but they do represent a large portion of my experience in this game type. As always, please feel free to post comments and constructive criticisms to add to the topic and my understanding of the industry.