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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

Do Today’s MMOs Have Too Many Convenience Features?

Posted by Ortwig Saturday January 19 2013 at 12:10PM
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One of the comments on my last blog got me thinking about how many of the features we take for granted in today’s MMO were not so common in early games in the genre.  In the same way technology has made huge changes in real life, those same kinds of convenience features have appeared in the MMO—to the point where these features are expected, and a game is considered deficient if they aren’t included.  Here are a handful of them – will talk about the pros and cons further on:

  • Automated dungeon/raid finder: Queue up in any location, be paired with a dungeon group and be teleported immediately to the dungeon.  Once the dungeon is complete, you are teleported conveniently back to the city.
  • Automated PvP arenas: Queue up in any location, be teleported to the PvP battleground, complete the fight, then be conveniently teleported back to your starting point.
  • World banks: All banks throughout the world are linked, so that an item stored in a bank halfway around the world is conveniently available in the closest city bank
  • Automated auction house: place an item in the auction house, set a price, and come back to your mailbox later to see if it sold, and collect your money
  • World postboxes: mail an item to any character, and pick up the item at any conveniently located box
  •  Linked waypoints: Fly or teleport yourself across the map for a small fee.  Instant or expedited travel.
  • Hearth/home stones: Teleport yourself to the inn or common location where you have set your stone
  • Automated bank deposits: Click on an item in inventory, and have it immediately sent to the bank to clear up bag space

I’ll be the first to say I have used and appreciated all these features.  Getting into a dungeon group quickly can be great fun, especially when I have a limited amount of time to play.  Setting and forgetting an auction house item, then coming back to cash in later makes selling stuff a snap.  Getting at my stuff in the bank where I am adventuring makes it easy to guarantee I have the right supplies for the local challenges.

But have we thought at all about the costs of these conveniences?    I expect not, since we rarely think about the cost of convenience in real life either.  “Smart phones?  Of course you need one!”  It’s especially easy in a computer game, where, you have a foundation of technology overlaying a fantasy setting.  But here are some things to think about, especially in a rustic or medieval setting, where many things were not convenient:

  • Automated dungeon/raid finder: If I am automatically being teleported to the dungeon, why would I ever want to see the actual dungeon location?  Is there anything interesting about the approach to it?  Any lore or items or NPCs in local villages I might find that could help in completing it?  Why would I worry about any contextual story surrounding this dungeon if it just becomes a self-contained entity?  And since I am being paired with strangers, why would I talk to any of them?  In fact, I rarely do, since the group is there to blow through the dungeon at the fastest possible pace, and gets impatient at any slowing down to check out story or lore.  They are there to defeat the boss, get their loot and get out.
  • Automated PvP: Again, battlegrounds may have some place in the lore, but it becomes extraneous as the teams teleport into the free-floating, isolated zone, run the match and then leave.  The setting, objectives and reasons for fighting become irrelevant, really.  Now, one real exception I’ve seen to this is Warcraft’s Wintergrasp, which is a large zone actually open on the map.
  • World Banks/Post Office: Making all storage conveniently accessible makes planning for travel unnecessary.  So an area that might be considered a remote, challenging area of adventure is made immediately less so, since you can simply zip over to the bank and resupply without any forethought.  In fact, it makes the largeness and variation in the world rather irrelevant since it’s always an instant teleport to and from a supply area.  A vast world suddenly becomes small and trifling.
  • Automated Action House: The convenience of selling items at the AH makes it unnecessary to do any trading with other players, unless they are close friends, creating yet another reason for less social interaction within a supposedly social game genre.  And if you just want to quickly get rid of items, just stop at one of the many static NPCs around the world.
  • Linked Waypoints and Mounts: Easy enough to miss the entire world if all you are doing is riding the subway. 

So, just to clarify, I am not a Luddite trying to abolish all forms of convenience in life.  I really do like my iPhone.  But in a fantasy/medieval/post-apocalypse/rustic setting where smart phones or FedEx are not available, and where magic, I believe, should not be a 1:1 replacement for technology, I think we are losing some of the flavor we come to these games for in the first place.  That said, I’m not even recommending a complete removal of said features, but rather thinking about them in a way that makes the game more immersive, promote more interaction, and even more importantly, fun.

So a few what-if’s: 

What if, instead of throwing groups together and teleporting them directly to a dungeon, there were a bulletin board where groups could post what and when they are planning to do in-game, and who they are looking to find to help them with the task?  You could set meeting places at a village close to the dungeon, so that characters can make their way there and then actually have a chance to interact as they travel to the dungeon entrance.

What if bulletin boards had both a Groups Looking for Individuals section and an Individuals Looking for Groups section with contact information so that players could reach out prior to the meetup?  All the kinds of vetting (and bickering and fighting) that take place within a teleported PUG could be taken care of up front, to ensure the individuals and groups are suitably matched for the task at hand.

What if there was value in exploring the villages and area near the dungeon as a group, so that when actually going in, you had valuable information and items that would make it easier to succeed?  What if you could learn about the mobs and bosses and treasures and puzzles of the dungeon through interacting with the actual environment instead of looking it up on Google?

What if there were trade bulletin boards as well, where you could advertise items you wished to sell, and you could trade them face-to-face in-game instead of through automation?  Perhaps there’s a great incentive to sell things in person rather than the automated auction house – no auction house fee, better margin, items that are too rare and valuable to be sold automatically. 

What if there was a true, player-run marketplace where you could find rare, custom-made items you couldn’t find any other way?  What if you could actually haggle?  What if you could be swindled?   What if there were player run auction houses?  There is much fun to be had on the marketplace as in fighting the monsters if there were a system in place to support it. 

What if there were a network of post offices and banks instead of a world bank?  So once you visit (in-person) a bank in another city, you can open an account.  But you have to actively send items to that branch to have it available locally.  And with post offices, you’d send an item to a specific location, so that it’s necessary to think about where people are within the world, bringing back the idea that the world is a moving and dynamic place.  This might actually involve some interaction with other players, too, so that you’d be sure to send items to the locations where it makes sense for them.  And if you are exploring a new territory, you’d need to decide what to carry with you from your home city.

What if there were fewer and more expensive waypoints?  What if flying mounts were incredibly hard to obtain?  Would it really be that horrible to take travel back into consideration in these game worlds?  This is the one I think most players would rebel hardest against, but even WoW has removed flying mounts in their latest expansion until level 90 with the stated goal of getting players to experience the world again.  What if using a waypoint was expensive magically and using one was a rare privilege? 

The idea with all of these convenience replacers is not to punish players.  Rather, it is to bring back experiencing the vastness of the world at hand.  This would of course, mean that developers (and players, if we’re talking player created content) would need to fill that world with plenty of interesting items along the way, but that’s an article for another day.  What say you?  In this modern day of technology, should we forget about bringing “difficulty” back to MMOs?  Or have we lost something along the way?

MurlockDance writes:

I like some of your ideas since I agree with your questions about whether the convenience is all really needed. I like EQ2 for that reason since I think they did so much right with the balance between being in a world and bypassing some of the irritations.

Games have moved away from supporting communities of players to just force feeding content and that is bad.

So yes, convenience speeds things up, and adds too much emphasis on combat in my opinion because there is less and less reason to stop and smell the roses.

However, we do need to stay away from the wait times of up to an hour to form a group that the older games had. I remember spending lots of time at the Bronto Burger in Omni trade waiting for that doc to log in so that our group could go and do difficult team missions. It was a bit of a waste of time, but the WoW dungeon finder is at the other extreme.

I like EQ2's system of having a clearly laid out group finder backed up by a global lfg channel. I usually had groups set up within 15 minutes even pre-F2A in that game.

And similarly, EQ2 and SWG had great ways for players to sell their goods. Part of the fun for me in SWG was pegging out a great crafter, finding his main store and looking at his house. The auction houses remove that completely.

Sun Jan 20 2013 4:59AM Report
rdager writes:

While I agree with all you points Ortwig I think you should look back even farther. During my early days of playing MMORPGs I started with Everquest. I remember trying to make it from Queynos to Freeport. All I had was a map from the internet. I didn't even had a compass. I made my way there just by watching the clouds. I had heard that the clouds always moved west. By knowing that I was able to make it to Freeport about 50% of the time. If I made it through the mountains packed with goblins then I knew I was going to make it there.

I often miss those days. Playing DayZ has kinda taken me back to The Journey is Half the Adventure. I think the developers need to stop spoon feeding the masses and make it like it should be. I played EQ2 and SWG as well. I also miss the days where you could go out as a guild on Dantooine and just hunt packs of animals to level instead of endless quests. Online games have become to structured. Such is the rantings of the aging gamer lol.

Wed Jan 23 2013 3:48PM Report
bayanmerkid writes:

rdager I completely agree, I agree so much that I created an account just so I could agree lol.

Now im not saying everquest was a sandbox but at the same time it left space, intended or not, for the player community to come together. I found you made more friends because you simply couldnt find a group as easily so you looked for the people who you had previously grouped with. I think auction houses although are convenient definitely take away that face to face meeting and haggle, I remember the tunnel in Eastern Commonlands full every Sunday night because thats when people would sell.

What frustrates me more than anything else in MMO's is the lack of support for players who join a couple years after launch. Unless you luck into someone running an alt through a dungeon you can never find a group. I think a knight and squire system should be implemented in some capacity to new games. How many times have you had a friend tell you how awesome a game was and he had been playing it for a couple of months and when you start playing there was no way of catching him in levels or even grouping with him in any meaningful way.

Also as was mentioned combat is in the center of way too many games now, to a point where everything else is backstage. I need to mash so many buttons while i play and kill so many monsters that it does not leave me anytime to do anything else in my couple of hours I have to play a night, Auto-attack was lame but atleast I could respond to someone mid combat. Along those lines im tired of every game trying to please everyone. I agree some people love pvp, some people love pve and why not have both in a game, but dont cram them both in at the expense of eachother. Game developers need to understand that sometimes you need to make an MMO for one market, not try to capitalize on getting HUGE numbers, which most of the time do not sustain themselves.

As a casual (former moderate hardcore) player I crave to have a game where there is a true community where i feel like i know the people, i feel like i have a place within the game and i enjoy logging in, even if its just for a few minutes.

Forgive me if I ramble on but honestly im so frustrated with MMO's churning out the same boring experience. Some games are getting some of the elements right with some innovative ideas, but then flopping on others.

Wed Jan 23 2013 8:51PM Report
Ortwig writes:

Hi Murlock -- thanks for commenting! :)

I definitely need to check out EQ2 (or be first in line for EQNext), because it sounds like it had a nice mix of community promoting features as well as a world worth exploring.  

I agree that I don't want to necessarily go back to spamming the LFG channel or hour long waits either.  A matchmaking-bulletin board feature with some kind of notes or chat channel would be ideal I think.  Anything that fosters communication and prevents the speed dungeon run mentality would be great.

I really do think some tool improvements can be made to pairing up players and options and incentives to do face-to-face trading and markets.  Maybe we don't get rid of all the automated tools completely, but create some powerful incentives and tools to actually get players socializing and exploring again.  Really keeping an eye on EQNext.

Sat Jan 26 2013 11:18AM Report
Ortwig writes:

Hi rdgaer -- thanks too for commenting!  :)

Wow, I love the idea of an unfilled map where you have to use a compass and cloud patterns to figure out your location.  Yeah, I guess all modern days MMOs come with a GPS system as well...

I loved the old Ultima games where you had to take notes about which NPC was in which village and what he or she knew about a particular subject.  The plotline became apparent only after you had explored a sufficient area and talked to enough people to figure out what was going on, and only if you bothered to pay attention (and take notes).  Today's MMOs definitely feel like they are tailored to the ADD generation.

I actually don't mind story and plot, I just wish it weren't so obvious and filled with so much hand-holding (it is one reason I like TSW).  Let us discover the story as we explore!

Here's hoping the pendulum swings back in the other direction a bit with some of these new sandboxes coming our way.

Sat Jan 26 2013 11:30AM Report
Ortwig writes:

Hi bayanmerkid -- thanks for writing! :)

That's a great point as well regarding grouping with new players as a veteran.  I guess GW2 and CoH both had ways of addressing this by putting you in sidekick or training mode if you traveled back to a starting area to group up.  The whole notion of "catching up" up in an MMO is kind of annoying actually, and it has more I think to do with the leveling systems that are so prevalent.  I always found it irritating to have some high level player killing everything in sight as I was being "walked through" lower level content -- what ever happened to experiencing the challenge, even at lower levels?  I like your idea of the knight-squire pairing, but am curious how it would work.

Funny, I just wrote too about the combat-centric nature of the modern MMOs as well recently.  Anything that provides options and alternatives is a good thing -- it requires building those non-combat systems as part of the main game, but more than often they are afterhoughts.

Looking forward to seeing what EQNext and ArcheAge do with the sandbox -- I'm actually in favor of hybrids myself, with a sandbox leaning.  We'll see what comes in the next couple years.

Sat Jan 26 2013 11:53AM Report writes:
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