World of Warcraft has proven to stand the test of time in the MMO industry. The game is now five years old and still sits atop the MMO pantheon. Other games have tried to reach Mt. Olympus and failed. Now a new crop of MMOs coming out in 2010 and 2011 are looking to tumble WoW's dominance of the industry. In the latest Patch 3.3 WoW has taken its end game character advancement to a more casual friendly approach for players. As games get faster and more player friendly, the days of hardcore MMO grinds are soon coming to a close and WoW's Emblem and Dunegon Finder systems are examples of how MMOs might evolve in the future.
We all know WoW was not an innovator. Five years ago WoW took the best elements of games like EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, and Ultima Online and fused them together into a game that worked well for everyone at a much faster and more colorful pace. Blizzard did not invent the MMO, they perfected it. As the years have changed with MMOs WoW has also made changes to the game to give players more access to content. In the beginning the number of players in WoW who actually got to see hardcore raid content was small compared to the overall population of players. Forty man raids were the only way to get top end epic gear at level sixty and with forty people rolling on a few drops, it was hard to get the best gear in the game.
Some time ago, during Burning Crusade, WoW instituted the Emblem system for players. This system works so that players are now relying on a game currency to buy the best items for their character. There are still random world drops and top end gear dropping in raids. However, the Emblems drop in Heroic Instances now and this can give players reason to join all kinds of content. Yes I know, these emblems can be seen as the carrot on the end of a massive Blizzard stick just leading players along, but at least it solves two problems:
The first is time. Players can now pick up Emblems of Triumph by running five man Heroic Dungeons. While they are not the top end for gear, they are a close second and offer players a fighting chance to gain the gear needed to get into higher end raids. A player can amass anywhere from twenty to thirty emblems in a two hour game play session depending on how fast they can run dungeons. In two nights they have enough to purchase a good piece of gear. The carrot is not so far away from the horse anymore. Sure it bounces up and down, but we get to nibble at it daily to feed our drive for better gear. If you only have a short time to play, you can still jump in and run one dungeon. Using the random search tool you are rewarded extra emblems for a random group and it cuts down on the wait time. This advancement system for PVE game play really help players move quickly toward their goals. The down time is taken out to a large degree.
The time factor also helps solo players. Groups are now much easier to get into and players who may want to stay solo have a chance at getting gear to stay competitive in whatever play style they prefer. Playing in guilds and doing the raids still wins players the best equipment, but solo players have more access to content now, something they never had in the past.
The other problem that the emblem system solves is loot drops. I do think Blizzard comes up short here though by not adding weapons and shields to the mix. Most suits of armor can be put together through emblems and players who can farm some extra gold can even find some decent gear in the auction house. So with just a few weeks of end game play and farming some extra gold you can get yourself pretty well equipped. In the early days of Lich King, players could purchase shields and weapons with Emblems, but they have been taken out of the rotation in later patches. This is too bad, because players who work hard for gear even if they are not running ten or twenty five man dungeons still miss out on valuable weapons.
That being said, emblems do solve the loot drop system. Molten Core back in the early days of WoW would drop two items per boss for forty players. That was not much when you look back on it. Now with this system, your chance of getting some better gear is increased. So as we see the emblem system grow and change it makes one think about the impact that Cataclysm will have on the game. Soon all these emblems will be for nothing and gear at level eighty one will trump the epic gear you are seeing now.
The other system that WoW has implemented quite well overall is the cross server Dungeon Finder. Now players can jump into the tool and be group into instances across all the servers in their group. This system takes advantage of the number of layers in WoW. Even if you are on a low population server, you can still find groups to run with for heroic dungeons. The Dungeon Finder system is something that all MMOs in the future will likely consider implementing unless they are sandbox games. The advantage for players to use this system and be rewarded for grouping with random players gives a lot of incentives to log in every day.
Dungeon Finder solves one major problem for all players and that is downtime. It cuts out the spam in chat of LFG and gives players a direction. It creates an atmosphere that is player friendly at least in game terms. Players still run the ship and there have been many unhappy people voted out of groups because they were not up to par. The vote to kick system though is another tool which helps players out. Now the group leader no longer has the ability to boot people. It is put to a party vote, much like the old RPG systems in table top. Remember back in those days when the paladin made all the decisions for one night in the party? Usually he did not last too long. At least Blizzard has given democracy a voice in five man runs, which does help players overall.
Both of these systems solve several problems that have plagued MMOs for years. Please understand, they are not the end all solution. They are just systems that make the game easier to play and take advantage of WoW's large player base. They give players a reason to log in every day and run an instance dungeon, even if it is only for thirty minutes at a time. It keeps the players logging in which can be a struggle for MMOs when they reach their end game.
There are definite flaws in the systems too. WoW has a vast world and many players once they reach level eighty only spend their time in instances. Is this where Cataclysm will step in and change that area of the game? The one thing about this system that is sorely lacking is discovery. The rinse and repeat methods of getting gear can and do get old. Will Cataclysm give us some random world bosses that drop good loot and can be found in the old areas we grew up exploring? That would be something that Blizzard could do well is throw you back to the old Everquest encounters with Cataclysm. Sure they would be farmed mercilessly, but there would be an element of discovery in the game, at least for a short while until everyone figured things out.
For now we will just have to go with the system they have given us. It is good to see them releasing portions of Ice Crown Citadel though to give players a chance to move on to new content after running the same dungeon a few weeks in the row. As mentioned WoW's emblem and Dungeon Finder systems are not the answer for MMOs. They do however bring us a long way from the endless hours of waiting for a drop only to lose it on a roll of 98 vs. 99. If another MMO and see the system and improve on it while heavily incorporating discovery into the game play, you will have some very happy explorers in your game.