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The List: Seven Underrated Systems

By Jon Wood on February 16, 2010 | Columns | Comments

Seven Underrated Systems

When World of Warcraft first launched and started to get the critical reviews from players, journalists and developers alike, the biggest take-away for many was the idea that Blizzard's developers had taken very close stock of the features of the MMOs that had come before it. They looked at each game's systems and saw the both the good in how they worked and the bad in what caused players frustration and complaints.

The story goes that the developers then pared away the frustrating parts and expanded upon the more popular aspects which resulted in the success of the game that would go on to define the genre after it.

Since then, MMO companies have continued to look at the games that have come before, in the hopes of coming out with the perfect set of features to run their game, ostensibly looking to create the next big breakout hit to which all future MMO developers will look. Unfortunately, the list of what has come before has become so large that some developers don't look too far beyond the top of the heap.

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The result is that over the last few years, there has been a heavy emphasis on what I'll call core systems: The game's PvE system, advancement, and overall combat systems. These are the features that developers seem to feel are necessary to have in-place (in some form or another) on launch day.

The problem is though that these features, while obviously necessary in the crafting of an MMORPG, should really only be the beginning. They may be the guts of a game, but they're really only the skeletal foundation on which virtual worlds should be built and after all, virtual worlds are what MMOs were originally supposed to be all about. With modern MMOs, in the rush to get a game out on schedule, it's the other features that always seem to suffer. The virtual world experience is being replaced by the more obviously financially viable "game" factor.

This week, I wanted to focus our list on some of the systems that seem to be underrated these days, but that would help in constructing honest-to-goodness virtual worlds, or at least providing the illusion of one.

#7 Tutorial

I know that this particular feature isn't necessarily forgotten in MMOs, but I think that the craft of actually making a good tutorial has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle.

MMO tutorials, at least the ones that I've played recently, have all had a similar problem: While trying to introduce players to the specific intricacies of the game, the developers seem to have forgotten how to seamlessly teach new players about the conventions of an MMO.

This surprises me a bit because it's something that World of Warcraft did fairly effectively (and without being too obvious about it). They made the game accessible for all players, whether they were familiar with MMOs or not. Newer games tend to simply assume that new players will have some idea of the conventions common to most MMOs. This leaves new players feeling alienated and less likely to continue on with a game. A bad first experience is difficult to recover from.

#6 Malleable World

In an ideal world, all MMOs would have worlds that are ever-changing based on the actions of its players. The truth is that it's actually a really difficult goal to achieve and very few have actually done it before. Still though, in order to give your players the feeling that they are contributing to something greater than themselves, and that their actions in the world have some genuine effect beyond personal levelling.

This is why I feel like features that create a world that is somehow changeable are missing from many games. These features can take many forms, from territory captured in PvP, to world events that open up based on play actions. Without these features though, you run the risk of creating a very static game that only skirts the edge of being called a "virtual world."

#5 Crafting

Crafting is another one of those features that actually does make it to launch more often than not but is presented as such an afterthought that it may as well not be there at all.

Because crafting is seen by many as a "must-have" feature, it seems to be rushed into the launch version of a game without much consideration for the actual role that it plays within the virtual world.

For some developers it seems that little more thought than: "you get stuff, then you make stuff" is put into the system. In an ideal world, the crafting system should play a number of roles. First, it should play a large role in the game's overall economy. Crafted items should hold a distinct and significant value to players, and strong crafters should be rewarded accordingly. Second, it should give a new challenge for players to persue above and beyond questing. If all of the elements of crafting are easily accomplished as a side note to questing, it isn't really a full system. Finally, it should add to the overall flavour of the game, making it once again feel more like a virtual world than a multiplayer single player game.

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