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Mark Kern: Why Multiplayer Is Missing from Modern MMOs

Column By Mark Kern on June 06, 2014

In my last article, I wrote about the role of GMs in old school text MMOs, MUDs, and how they enriched the experience rather than performed customer service. This was one of the features that we’ve lost in the transition to streamlined, modern, graphical MMOs. This article continues exploring old MUD elements that are worth revisiting and, perhaps, reinventing for the modern era.

One aspect that enriched play in MUDs that is largely gone today is class interdependence: the roles of fighter, mage, thief, cleric, and so-on, had strengths and very glaring weaknesses. Unlike today’s homogenized classes that can do nearly everything themselves (but in slightly varying degrees), old school classes simply did one thing and one thing well. There was no healing unless you had a cleric, and no way to unlock chests without a thief.

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Modern MMOs have largely shed this convention. Every class has access to some form of healing, damage, agro management, and other necessities. We did this (and I say “we” because I remember doing this deliberately on WoW), because we wanted to make solo play possible. We didn’t want you to have to stop playing the game and spend a lot of time hunting down party members so you could go on to the next big quest or zone. We made sure every class was “solo-able” and in doing so, made the game accessible for a whole bunch of new players.

Why was this so appealing? We live in an on-demand age where everyone has increasingly little time. Our online time in particular has gotten even busier: between twitter and Facebook updates, we have proportionally less time for online gaming. When you get home from a long day, you want to PLAY, not hunt down group members for an hour.

But in pursuing a solo-able MMO, we weakened a few key elements of the genre. When you make classes more and more solo-able, we strip away a lot of the identity and customization and role that the class used to offer. Classes start looking more and more like each other functionally, with just a different lore or graphic effect to differentiate the same ability on two different classes. As a designer on a modern MMO, it’s not just a matter of making sure every class has cross-over abilities, but also weakening the specialities of each class. This is because making any class MUCH better at a set of abilities is the same effect as increasing class dependence and weakening solo-ability.

You don’t miss having a healer (as much) on your party if that healer is not that much better at healing than other mechanisms offered to you as a solo player in your own class.  As a result, classes feel less “special” and “unique” to the player, and character identification decreases. I argue that you actually feel less attached and invested in your character because of this effect. In an MMO, that powerful attachment we have to our character is a very special feeling, and we weaken that when we dilute classes in the name of solo-ability. Our characters become generic, disposable, and that feeling then extends to the game, making it easier to hop to the next MMO out there.

Homogenizing classes, increasing solo-ability, and eliminating class dependencies also does one big thing that is the white-elephant in the room: it makes an MMO effectively single player. This is probably the largest thing we’ve lost, the social aspect of MMOs. If you can play the whole MMO without having to group with others, then guess what, most people will play that way. It’s just easier, takes less time, and is less frustrating than dealing with “other people” sometimes. But what sadness, to blaze through a MMO to max level without ever having to group up or socialize. The lasting friendships, shared adventures and social aspects are what made MMOs so compelling. Yet again, we have weakened our attachment to the particular MMO we are playing, because when we leave an MMO we are leaving a game, not a social group, and that’s much easier to detach yourself from. Even guild play is streamlined, from requiring 40, to then 20 and now just 5 people to do the hardest raid content of most modern MMOs.

These moves away from class dependence are good for business, certainly in the short term. But are they good in the long run? We’ve made it easier for players to leave their characters and entire worlds behind, and therefore MMO hopping is worse than ever. There is no longer as strong a sense of community or belonging, and everything feels more disposable and less special. We’ve created Massively Single Player games, as many players cynically joke today. 

What if we could bring back class dependencies in a way that fit our modern play-styles? It’s not an easy problem to solve, but I would argue it’s worth it to invest R&D in this area. We can’t, as developers, afford to keep making disposable MMOs. They are too expensive to make in this fashion. We have to find a way to create worlds that players have strong social ties and high attachment to characters. Re-introducing class dependence, in a modern way, is key to this. The MMO that can recapture the group play aspects of older games is going to feel more special and be far “stickier” for players than current MMO offerings.

I’ll have more to say on socialization and potential solutions to these problems in my next article on downtime. Stay tuned!

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Mark Kern
Mark Kern is a long time game maker and designer, having worked on games like Starcraft, Diablo 2, World of Warcraft and Firefall. He writes articles on game design and business in his spare time, and makes mmorpg.com his writing home. You can find him on Twitter at Grummz.
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