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The Way Back Machine: My Ultimate MMORPG

By Drew Wood on February 27, 2011 | Columns | Comments

The Way Back Machine: My Ultimate MMORPG

On July 19th, 2005, Jeremy Star gave us this little gem of an article about his “Perfect MMO”. Covering a broad spectrum of topics, Jeremy touches on such important topics as character customization, crafting, combat, and on and on. What's amazing to me is this article, written five and a half years ago, is still so very appropriate. Sure, the phrase “the immense popularity of games like the Sims Online” would never be uttered now, but the sentiment remains pertinent. What I think Jeremy tries to touch on, and I feel does successfully, is the subjective nature of entertainment, MMOs in particular, and how you can almost always please some, but you can never please all. Some games have achieved some of his wishes, but to mixed reviews. Take a look at his article, and then let me know what you think.

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Right now it is the age of the “next generation” MMORPG - or so we are told. Of course, from now until eternity it will, in fact, be the age of the next generation of our beloved games. There will always be newer, better games just over the horizon, taunting us with promises of better graphics, newer features, and more immersion than ever before.

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What I want to know: where is the “ultimate” MMORPG? I have read about the new games on the horizon, and they seem to all have one thing in common: They focus on a few key features, and leave out brilliant concepts that have already made it in to modern games. That means that in order for the players to get all the features they enjoy in a game, they would have to play more than one MMORPG, if not many MMORPGs. I do not know about you, but I struggle with playing one at a time.

What we need is for one bright young developer to sit down and take the best concepts from all games, and put them in to one game. No one will ever agree on what features are the most important in an MMORPG, but if one game had all the features, then it would make sense that that one game would have a great majority of the market.

What features should the “ultimate” MMORPG game include? Well, I’m glad you asked. (You didn’t ask? Well, let’s pretend that you did.)

Character Customization: Oh, WoW, why dost thou deny me mine uniqueness?

Our first feature of importance is one that starts the minute you begin to play the game: Character customization. This is a personal favorite feature of mine, as I love to spend an hour tweaking my character to look just right.

Star Wars Galaxies, to this date, is the best example of a game that got this feature right. You can tweak just about every physical feature of your character until you have the exact avatar that you want. They even implemented further tweaking as an in-game feature, allowing the Image Designer class to style your hair, give you a tan, or give you the MMORPG version of liposuction.

I cannot tell you how disappointed I was when Everquest II launched with such limited character customization options; especially since they built the game on the same base engine that Star Wars Galaxies uses... and do not even get me started on World of Warcraft. While I like the game, the avatar options come to us from the decade of grunge music and Starbucks.

Character customization is so high on so many peoples lists for a reason: People want their characters to appear unique. The better the customization scheme is, the more unique I can make my character. The more unique I can make my character, the happier I am right at the start of the game. What better way to draw in customers than to start them off happy?

Combat: Ok, I have pressed the auto-attack key, time for a bathroom break. Honey, have you seen today’s paper?

The second feature of importance is also one of the most controversial: Combat. How do you make an interesting combat system without alienating half the players? Some people are good at “twitch” based games, and so they would love to see this type of combat system, but others don’t have the reflexes or desire for that type of combat, and prefer something based on character skill that puts everyone on even ground.

The problem is, most MMORPGs use the common “auto attack key” method, which is dated and – to put it bluntly – boring. The solution? Combine twitch and character skill based systems.

A little post-apocalyptic MMORPG called Neocron has a great combat system. You are required to aim your weapon using the mouse, just like a classic First Person Shooter, but your character’s skill with the weapon determines its accuracy and damage. You can be dead on with the cursor, but miss by a mile if you have low skill in the weapon you are using. Every mouse click is a shot fired, but your character skill determines the rate of fire.

Almost every other modern MMORPG I have played uses a variation of the auto-attack key. Now, instead of just pressing that key, I also get to wait for special attack keys to light up so I can press them as well. Not only is it just as boring as before, but now I also feel like Pavlov’s dog.

Crafting: Honey, I thought you were playing your game. Why are you watching Magnum reruns on TV?

Ah, crafting. Some people love it, some people hate it. Regardless of your personal feelings on crafting, there is no doubt that player crafted items and the economy they generate play a major role in the modern MMORPG. So, if they play such a huge role in the game, why do most developers find a way to make it an exceedingly boring time sink?

Again, I turn to Star Wars Galaxies for an example of a good crafting system. An automated gathering system turned getting resources from a chore to a quest. All one had to do was find out where the resource they needed was located, seek out a good concentration of it, and place an automated gatherer on it. You were then free to adventure or do other things while your resources were being sucked out of the ground.

The actual act of crafting was just as liberating. While you were free to craft each item by hand (And, indeed, things like clothing required you to if you wanted to style each piece differently), you could also create a blueprint of your item and have a factory crank out several hundred of them automatically. Again, this freed you up to do other things.

One other thing I feel I need to mention was the level of customization for items in SWG crafting. Not only did the game let you learn to make hundreds of different items based on your crafting class, you could also customize a large amount of them using colors. Variety in crafting is key, and Star Wars Galaxies has very good variety.

Some would argue that while automated crafting makes sense in a sci-fi setting, fantasy is quite a different animal. Not so. Just use a little imagination, and you come up with dwarven diggers instead of a mining machine, elven botanists instead of plant harvesters, and a smithy run by Minotaur cranking out your weapons instead of a factory.

Seeing as how Star Wars Galaxies was such a crafting gem, it makes no sense that another game using the same engine has such a tedious system. Everquest II takes crafting and makes it the whole of a character’s existence. Not only does the game force you to run around and manually extract resources repeatedly for hours on end, but then you must also hand craft each item. Handcrafting would not be so bad if it was not for the fact that each item takes minutes to prepare, and you end up spending your entire night stuck in a crafting instance.

Player Housing and Cities: What do you mean I do not have a house? Where am I to hang my cloak and display my trophies?

Player housing is another key factor in the modern MMORPG, albeit another debated one. Is it really necessary to have a virtual house for your virtual self to live in? Judging by the immense popularity of games like The Sims and The Sims Online, I am going to go out on a limb and say that a good percentage of players like having a virtual place for their characters to hang out.

Housing for characters gives us a place to display items that we have collected, store things that we don’t want to carry with us all the time, and hang out with our guild mates and friends. Player cities give us the ability to form communities based on our housing, and give us a centralized place to base our guilds and crafting activities.

Two games pop into my head as having outstanding player housing and cities. The first is, of course, Star Wars Galaxies. SWG had a great variety of player house styles, depending on which planet you built on. There was also an excellent variety of decorations for your home. Topping off the personal housing was the ability for players to form entire cities complete with cantinas, parks, and shuttle ports. All this, and you could essentially build your city wherever you wanted to, barring physical barriers and proximity to NPC cities.

The second game is Shadowbane. While the housing and cities were not as noteworthy as Star Wars Galaxies’s, the ability to attack another player built city and raze it to the ground added a new level of game play. NPC guards patrolled your city walls and entrances, and enemy thieves could slink over your walls at night and create a stir.

Unfortunately, games like World of Warcraft and City of Heroes offer no options for player housing at all, and Everquest II – while it contains an inn room to place decorations – has no option to allow you to build your own house or city.

Player housing is another example of something that – like character customization – seems like such a small thing, but including it just makes me a happier customer. It is sort of like the real world, in that people tend to be more comfortable if they have a place to put their things and call home. Also, I always like to display trophies of my adventures, and I need a house to do it in. Now, if I can just get that dragon skull to stop tilting to the left…

Quests and Spawns: Of Pests and Yawns

It’s an age old problem. There is always some princess in a kingdom long ago and far away that is forever being kidnapped by ogres. No matter how many times this princess is rescued, she is always recaptured and in need of rescue. I shudder to think what her ransom is doing to the kingdom’s coffers, since it is being paid over and over indefinitely.

Quests are a key issue in MMORPGs, since they are a staple activity in this type of game. Quite a few games have problems in this area, though. Because the quests are repeated by a high percentage of all the players of the game, the challenge is often ruined by a quick “Googling” of the quest title. This leads to developers trying to artificially extend the length and challenge of the quests by imposing timers on the spawning of certain NPCs or monsters. This leads to player boredom.

World of Warcraft has a decent quest system. Spawns are either dynamic – meaning the NPC you need spawns when you need him so as to allow you to further your quest – or on very short timers, so you don’t have to wait more than a few minutes for the necessary NPC to show up.

Unfortunately, WoW suffers from the same repeating quests that every other MMORPG to date has. Some sort of random quest generator for some of the quest giving NPCs would be ideal for future games, allowing players to do quests that only a certain percentage of other players have received.

Star Wars Galaxies suffers from a distinct lack of quests, and Everquest II suffers from an extreme number of quests that require you to wait for NPCs that are on ridiculously long spawn timers. Meanwhile, in Paragon City, City of Heroes fell into the trap of making every quest exactly the same (Beat up some peons, then beat up their boss).

Character Skills and Class: Why can my mage not swing a sword? Gandalf did it!

My final topic for this article is your character himself. Not how he looks, but what he does. Most MMORPGs go for the tried and true character class, which stems from the RPG part of our gaming history. Ever since Dungeons and Dragons, people have been trying to pigeon-hole characters into a specific class. This method of character growth is not only very limiting, it also leads to all high level characters of each class being clones. Sure, modern MMORPGs have tried some small methods to alleviate this, but in the end, you still feel like a clone of the guy next to you.

The answer is to let characters develop free from classes and restrictions. Let people call themselves whatever they want, and let them earn the skills to back up their chosen title. Do you want to be a swordsman? You had better start swinging your long sword around and gaining skill with it.

Neocron is closest to this ideal. While you are required to pick a class, you can learn skills and abilities outside your class as well. They base your skill with an object on your experience using it, so the more you fire that assault rifle, the better you become with it.

Star Wars Galaxies also gets good marks for allowing you to pick up skill trees from any profession, provided you have enough points to learn it. They fall a little short though, as you cannot earn skill with a weapon or tool just by using it, you have to advance in the skill tree to get better.

World of Warcraft and Everquest II receive low marks in this category. Both games have strictly limited classes that gain skills and abilities based on level. Every mage of the same level has roughly the same skills and abilities. Granted, both games have adopted some limited differentiating devices, such as WoW’s talent points, and EverQuest II’s level traits, but these do not make up for the extreme lack of variety in characters.

I would like to see a game where you could be anything you could dream of. I would like to be able to play a rogue who, finding his lock picking abilities inadequate, blasts a lock off of a door with a small spell. Or perhaps a mage who wields a glowing sword of ancient elven design. (Wait…I already used this joke, didn’t I?) The whole point is to limit me based on what technology will allow me to do, rather than limit me based on character classes designed for a pen and paper game over three decades ago.

The Future

These are, of course, not all of the features that make a MMORPG great, but they are some obviously important ones, and many developers overlook quite a few of them. Other features, such as player vs. player, public transportation, and a thousand other tiny jewels all come together to help define a MMORPG as well. In fact, all the features must ultimately combine to create the one feature that any MMORPG must have to survive: Fun. After all, we already have jobs, school, and real life responsibilities that we must endure daily, so why play a game that does not entertain us and let us have fun?

I have scanned the horizon, and many shining stars lay just over its precipice. Perhaps one of these stars will indeed arrive in our sky with the perfect mix of all the elements that would make our “ultimate” MMORPG, but that depends on the developers. Let us hope that they pay attention to the elements that make our current games fun, and incorporate them into their own games.

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So there you have it. Even now, five and a half years later, it's hard to disagree with a surprising amount of the gripes that Jeremy has with the (then) current state of MMOs, because it could be argued that they still apply today. Rift has been called a WoW killer by some, and a WoW clone by others. Does it bring in anything new, or is it just more of the same. DC Universe Online brings us a brand new combat system, loved by some and critically panned by others. Crafting comes and goes, as does Housing, and some will argue how much these features have to do with MMOs, while others will argue that their inclusion (And quality) will make or break a game. What about you guys? What do you think of Jeremy's article? Especially how it applies to today's game marketplace. How much has really changed in those five years?