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Five MMO Facets that Need Innovation

William Murphy Posted:
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I’m not one that’s prone to complain.  Generally, even as a critic, I can find the upsides of every negative.  I’m habitually and uncontrollably a “glass half full” kind of guy.  Still that doesn’t mean I’m content with everything to remain as is because there’s no room for improvement.  I love MMOs, and I’ve long since learned that their weaknesses are sometimes what define them as a genre of games.  There’s a growing sentiment that MMOs aren’t evolving but rather remaining stagnant because of some cynical viewpoint that everyone just wants to duplicate WoW’s success.  I think companies are starting to realize that WoW is a fluke of the industry, and hopefully that means that the designers will be able to seek what designers should always strive for: innovation.  It may be incremental, but I do believe the evolution of the MMO is already underway with currently released titles and those on the horizon.  Here then is a laundry list of things I’d love to see touched by innovation.

#5 Instancing

There is a sizable group of folks who believe that instancing should simply be done away with.  I can’t quite agree with them, but I understand the sentiment.  Instancing serves as a very valuable tool for story-telling among other things and rather than have it done away with, I’d love to see developers find a way to disguise it and utilize it in a way that goes unnoticed by the player.  The current main use of instancing is for dungeons as a way for developers to control the complexity and difficulty of specific epic encounters.  It’s a good way to help your characters feel powerful in the face of a dangerous enemy, or to deliver a specific scripted encounter that serves a narrative purpose.  But what else can the tool be used for?  And no, separating players because your technology isn’t designed to have lots of people in the same area isn’t a good evolution.  Let’s keep these games massive in their population please.

#4 Questing

We’re already seeing signs of the evolution of quest design, if ArenaNet’s claims for GW2 are to be believed.  And it’s about time.  The first real innovation in the questing interface came from the fine folks at Mythic with Dark Age of Camelot’s “quest window” being the GUI that started it all.  Since then every game does the quest interface and quest journal in its own way, but in the end they all boil down to “click-this-NPC” and then “do-what-the-summarized-text-says”.  As seasoned MMO gamers can attest, you hardly need to read the thousands of words some poor quest designer has created in an effort to set the tone of the content.  Questing is the new (albeit disguised) grinding for levels, and that means in my book that it’s time for some new ideas.  Or at the very least, let’s get rid of the static NPC and scrolling text windows and find a way to offer up adventures that seem less procedural and more dynamic.

#3 Leveling

MMO design, like history, seems cyclical.  In the beginning character development was more about individual skills, leaving players to design their own strengths and weaknesses as they played.  Later the consensus changed to a class-based system and with it came the traditional leveling system we know and love/loathe today.  I believe that one of the most compelling parts of MMO gaming is character progression, but is there a better way to represent such achievement than simply assigning numbers next to a player’s name and tossing them a few new flashy spells to torch enemies with?  Inherently MMO design boils down to numbers on spreadsheets, and I think characters obtaining “levels” is a perfect example of something that just doesn’t fit in the notion of our characters being real people in the world they inhabit.  Along with instancing, I guess I’m trying to see the importance or visibility of the leveling mechanism lessened so that real character development might be able to take place.  Maybe I’m wishing for too much, but I’d like to be attached to my characters because of the actual events they took part in within the game world, and not just because I spent 300 hours getting him to an artificial cap.

#2 Story

Story in MMO gaming is a hard thing to handle.  I would liken it to a TV series except that the story in MMOs is meant to be a participatory event.  The goal is to have the players feel like they’re driving the narrative in some way, however small it may be.  In most games that have been released in the past ten years the story for each world seems more or less just like a TV show.  Sure we get to play in the world, but rarely do we actually participate or affect real change that’s not already been predetermined by the designers.  I guess I’d just like to see the story in these massive worlds become less like reading a regular novel and more like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book with thousands of people driving the plot.  Not only would it help real community thrive as it once did in games like Ultima Online, but it would have the added benefit of making these games feel less like static theme-parks where only paid expansions can change the world.

#1 Combat

I feel like I’m always clamoring for this one.  Maybe since I began my gaming career on consoles and in arcades, where combat always felt a little more vibrant and fluid, I feel compelled to search for an MMO that actually delivers on the visceral feel of combat the way games like God of War do.  There are games that have tried and succeeded to some extent (Age of Conan springs to mind), but by and large the majority of games simply fall back on the highlight and hotbar mechanic.  It works.  It is fun.  But it’s sort of passive and uninteresting after many hours of gameplay spent pressing the same few keys.  That’s the problem to me.  It doesn’t have the legs that these types of games really require.  But then, I’d wager my life’s savings that any combat system would be boring given enough time.  I guess I just want the combat to be a reason I keep playing rather than a reason I need to always be progressing my character or risk being bored.  In short, it needs to be more fun.  Hopefully some of the upcoming titles’ focus on trying something different will address just that.


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.