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Three Things MMOs Can Learn from Isometric RPGs

Som Pourfarzaneh Posted:
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As a fan of the Shadowrun setting and isometric RPGs in general, I find it ludicrous that I’m so late to the party with playing Shadowrun Returns, but I’m loving Harebrained Schemes’ entry into the cyberpunk RPG genre.  It manages to convincingly capture the Shadowrun ethos while, somewhat surprisingly, fit the game setting’s mechanics into a modern isometric RPG mold.  Shadowrun Returns plays to its cyberpunk and RPG genres’ strengths very well, while avoiding many of their corresponding pitfalls.

The isometric RPG genre may stand on its own with its rich pedigree (Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, Planescape: Torment, Fallout) and recent renaissance (Divinity: Original Sin, Wasteland 2, Pillars of Eternity), but there a several key things that MMOs and other games can glean from RPGs like Shadowrun Returns.

Here are three things MMOs can learn from isometric RPGs!

Character-Driven Storytelling

How ubiquitous have quotes from characters like Minsc and Boo become in the modern gaming lexicon?  Baldur’s Gate, along with other games of its time, gave primacy to character-driven storytelling, effectively setting a gold standard for Bioware-driven RPGs - and those of their competitors - for years to come.

There’s something about isometric RPGs that lends them towards telling stories that hinge upon the actions and personalities of the characters therein, as well as the development of those characters as incentive for gameplay.  It may be due to most isometric RPGs’ dependence on text and audio dialogue, as opposed to cutscenes, to advance story, or something else inherent to the genre’s capabilities and limitations.  But for most of these games, with the exception of more mechanic-heavy entry entries like Icewind Dale, storytelling that necessitates character development is integral to the gameplay experience.

Some MMOs have taken the cue of character-driven storytelling to heart, particularly in ways that encourage the development of relationships with iconic NPCs (Star Wars: The Old Republic, Guild Wars 2, and The Lord of the Rings Online come to mind).  MMORPGs in general can learn from the isometric RPGs mentioned by making character development a focal point of their overarching narratives.  NPCs can be much more than simple quest givers or one-dimensional protagonists - they can encourage players to become invested in the game world and its inhabitants.

Crunchy Mechanics

An overabundance of skill trees and other complex game mechanics may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially if they’re not explained or presented well.  I must say, however, that one of my favorite pieces of games like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale is the clear intention on the designers’ part to stay true to the source Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset while making it appropriate for a digital setting.  I’m finding the same with Shadowrun returns, in that the game systems, while streamlined for digital play, feel true to the original setting and appropriately crunchy.

Although MMOs tend to move towards streamlining to promote more user-friendly systems, there’s something to be said for giving players more granularity if they want it.  Dungeons & Dragons Online does this well, for example, giving you control over skills and feats that have quantitative effects in the game world (like Jump and Tumble).  I’d love to see more of this granularity in more MMORPGs, rather than tried-and-true character progression systems that only give you incremental bonus percentages to hidden stats.

Quality of Life Improvements

Throwing myself fully into this pretty awesome RPG renaissance that we’re currently experiencing, I installed and tinkered around with the new-ish Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, and let me tell you, that was an eye-opener.  For the one or two people out there that haven’t heard me say this, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn is one of my favorite video games ever created, and serves as a benchmark to me for all other games released before or since.  Playing the Enhanced Edition of the first installment in the series helped lift my rose-tinted glasses a tiny bit, starkly pointing out how far video games have come in terms of quality of life improvements, and reminding me that what I remember from those games are the characters, stories, and D&D gameplay, not the laboriousness of some of the user interfaces and systems.

As is the case with other hobbies and activities, there are certain things that we may have been willing to do in the early days of video gaming that now seem antiquated or tiresome.  I don’t, for example, want to have to take notes to keep track of quest clues or NPCs.  Having played countless other modern games that do that for me, I’ve gotten used to the convenience of relying on journals that act as more than simply a repository of quest dialogue.  I also don’t want to have to go around clicking every piece of loot on the screen to pick it up, as I’ve grown comfortable with autoloot as a standard rather than a feature.

There are countless other quality of life improvements that the recent rash of new isometric RPGs have made that simplify and build upon some systems from previous generations, without compromising the depth of gameplay and granularity offered by their predecessors.  Some MMORPGs have taken the same kinds of steps to make the tedious aspects of MMO gameplay more streamlined or fun, including improvements to inventory management and quest tracking.  Others seem to place less importance on these small tweaks and refinements, which is a major oversight that detracts from the in-game experience as a whole.

What do you think are some things MMOs can learn from isometric and other RPGs?


Som Pourfarzaneh

Som has been hanging out with the MMORPG.com crew since 2011, and is an Associate Director & Lecturer in Media, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. He’s a former Community Manager for Neverwinter, the free-to-play Dungeons & Dragons MMORPG from Cryptic Studios and Perfect World Entertainment, and is unreasonably good at Maze Craze for the Atari 2600. You can exchange puns and chat (European) football with him on Twitter @sominator.