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The Social Hub: What MMO Developers Can Learn from Dragon Age: Inquisition

By Christina Gonzalez on January 12, 2015 | Columns | Comments

What MMO Developers Can Learn from Dragon Age: Inquisition

I’ve spent a good number of hours in Dragon Age: Inquisition since that game’s release. By now, many players have gotten enough of a taste to criticize some of the game’s flaws. By far, some of the more prevalent criticism is in how the game’s vast, open areas, and sidequest types make it feel like an MMO. Contrast that to how many MMO players feel like MMOs have now veered over and feel too much like single player games. Ultimately, design decisions happen for many reasons, but when things begin to blur together, is it still possible to preserve some of the things that make MMORPGs special, multiplayer experiences?

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Dragon Age: Inquisition’s vastness was both inspired by Skyrim and a reaction to the highly negative response over Dragon Age II, which saw rushed development, a completely different combat style, and excessive reuse of environments, all while taking place within just one city. Inquisition thus offers up many open, explorable areas full of fetch quests, whimsical tasks like returning a ram to its owner, and collections, in addition to opening new map areas, going through small dungeons, and your run of the mill ‘kill everything’ quests. You do have your party of choice running around with you all throughout, but you can’t talk to them at will and must wait for scripted snippets of party banter to trigger. Most NPCs you encounter in some of these areas that aren’t part of main area quests rarely even talk to you. It’s not uncommon to merely come upon enemies and have to kill or be killed. In essence, it really does feel like you are soloing an MMO to some degree. Mixing things up with companion, story, and area quests is recommended.

MMOs too, these days,  most often drop you in the role of a hero in the making and set you off on a guided story to follow. While setting you up to be heroic isn’t inherently bad, when you’re a hero and he’s a hero, and she’s a hero, and they’re heroes all on the same track, some do necessarily feel that MMOs can do better. Giving players the option to choose to be the hero or choose to play other roles is not limited to sandboxes, but sandboxes are more likely to be the ones that offer such versatile choice of identity. Given that many sandbox titles are working with lower budgets, taking cues from paper and pencil or even MUDs and letting players’ imaginations fill in their origins or current roles is an advantage over not having to create cutscenes and map out a road with markers along the way. Letting players create their own stories and their own destinies can be done, even while there is a core story to accompany advancement. However, it can’t be haphazardly put together or full of barriers, either.

Open worlds and even just feeling like worlds are also thrown around as partial solutions, but given what’s going on in Dragon Age: Inquisition, that alone is not enough. Dragon Age looks beautiful and feels like a world (minus the loading screens) but there’s a blandness in what you’re doing inside those lands that is a flaw in an otherwise rich game. With even single player games taking cues from MMOs, the lessons we’re learning seem to be that letting the world sprawl isn’t always the best idea if it stretches quality content thin. 

Building a graphically beautiful, detailed, and mostly open world would merely be a start, but giving players something to do that is engaging as well as encouraging or even mandating some form of cooperation (with an option that allows completion solo for some penalty of time, coin, or other disadvantage). Some will inevitably complain at being “forced to group” or the solo penalty, but there need to be some reasons to work together. Making cooperation, or at the very least, interaction of some sort, integral, can build on that foundation of a world. Add in quality quest design and we’d be getting somewhere.

MMOs becoming more scripted story-driven, as well as solo-friendly didn’t happen in a vacuum. Personally, MMOs just don’t hold me that well if I’m not playing with at least one other person. I might as well just play a single player game at that point. Yet I seem to be in the minority. All the reasons you’ve likely heard before do apply, from MMO players aging, adult players having lots of other responsibilities, to all the choices people have today, to devouring content faster than it can be developed due to leveling speed decreases. Yet when going from MMOs to Dragon Age and back again, the muddled genres feeling doesn’t leave me. I want to combine both even more, with a good amount of interdependence. Maybe that’s the roleplayer in me talking. Or the optimist.

The way Dragon Age: Inquisition feels like an MMO without the social interaction is a bit troublesome, since what hooked me (and others) on MMORPGs in the first place was the ability to play with others, to become immersed in a world and meet others in our collective adventure. MMORPGs continue to have those features, to present multiplayer things to do, but the effect feels more on autopilot in many games. With MOBAs and other competitive or cooperative games that let you play in small groups for a short time on the rise, we might be on the cusp of some definitive changes in MMO development.

Christina Gonzalez / Christina is a freelancer and contributor to MMORPG.com, where she writes the community-focused Social Hub column.