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MMOs Need a Shot in the Arm

General Articles By Guest Writer on September 28, 2010

MMOs Need a Shot in the Arm

It’s a brave, new world … well, maybe more familiar than new, but just about every new MMO tries to make players believe that it is innovative, fresh and full of wonder. Generally, each new title is bogged down by a business model that is predicated on making a profit, and that means taking few risks. Can't really blame the developers and publishers for that, though; after all, this is a business.


Sure, the graphics may be a bit glitzier, the worlds may have a few new sights, but the gameplay and general game mechanics are well worn. Rarely is there much of a ‘learning curve,’ and that very phrase seems to mean the game will be more niche than mainstream. There is nothing wrong with niche, but it does seem that a lot of developers are rather hoping to capture the WoW lightning and that means ‘tried and true’ instead of innovative.

And yet, each game that comes along tries to make it sound like the game is fresh and features new mechanics. After all, who would buy into a (brutally honest) marketing phrase that states "This is what you've played a dozen times before, but it's been repackaged and we hope we can dupe you into trying it." The bottom line is that 80% of the new titles sport mechanics that are exactly what has already been done. Quests are familiar, combat systems are familiar, general game themes are familiar.

There are so many games in the space that communities are diluted and players may bounce around testing different games, trying to find the one that fits their personality and preferences with a vibrant community that creates a true sense of joy. Generally, though, they settle into one and return when they find that the next new thing is the same as they are already playing. Why move when time has already been invested in one game, with have an upper level character or top-tier gear already acquired?

The problem is not necessarily the foundations of the game – which would be the combat systems, the leveling systems, or even the customization elements. Maybe, if a game wants to feel new, if it wants to create an environment that is compelling and keeps players interested and active, that other areas of the game should be addressed.

Like what? Hmm … let’s take a stroll through the streets of an MMO I would like to see:

Light from the three moons lit the tower garden of the keep to an unnatural brightness. Stillness ruled, though, making it almost impossible to tell the living from the statues. The lord of the keep was there, immobile, lost deep in thought. The council room still echoed with pleas and the reverberations rippled through his mind. There was so much to do …

… the scholars had finally agreed on a system that would run water throughout the town around the keep, but need materials for the construction.

… the local constable was corrupt and was extorting coin from merchants. He had offered to feed the coffers of the keep in exchange for a blind eye, but the merchants were nervous, afraid and looking for help.

… there were reports that a slaver’s guild had taken up residence in the Wharfrat Quarter down by the docks and a few children were missing. If there were indeed underground tunnels in that part of the city, tunnels being used by the slavers, then the rumor of those tunnels connecting deeper into areas best left forgotten might also be true. It should be investigated.

… Merchant Jolis pleaded for help on behalf of the traders' society. Supply routes were being disrupted and it could be bandits, but the rumor was of something much more sinister, something old and tainted.

The lord’s eyes closed. So much to do, but where to start. He longed, in some ways, for the simpler life once lived, for the ability to roam the plains, battle the invading armies on the northern steppes, journey the isles of the Western Seas, but instead, he had taken the commission of the king, accepted the lordship and taken on the weatherworn keep as his lands. He had built up the keep, restoring it to become a beacon of hope for wanderers and they, in turn, took up residence around it. From a dozen to a hundred, from a ramshackle settlement to a small, thriving city – this was all his doing, and it was far too late to turn back.

Perhaps he could assign one or two of his clansmen to the slaver problem, and then marshal a few others to accompany him to see about the disrupted supply routes.

Yes, there was much to do …

As gamers, we have been spoiled by the broadness of RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins, where we can make choices and the world seems alive. But what if developers were able to take some of those attributes, as well as elements from RTS civ games and combine them.

Many years ago, Microsoft was working on an MMO (eventually cancelled) called Mythica and while there was the common greater world for all players, there were was also instanced zones where groups of players could journey together. Expand that idea a bit. Being the lord, or lady, of a keep, running a community might not work in the wide-open common world, but what if developers could create separate instances, like the rooms of an inn or guild hall, but on a much broader scale with a vibrant city that can be built up. The NPCs have quests and there is interaction with them, faction to be gained, decisions to be made that could affect whether the city thrives or fails. The cities just are not for one player, but could be run by one player (with NPC help) or even clans (with players acting as ministers and dealing with NPCs). Keeps can be built up (like the cities in Age of Conan but with more customization options), players can visit other cities, trade with merchants and perhaps a city becomes known for weaponcrafting, or for making the best sails or hulls for the ships that travel to the islands of the fictitious Western Seas, or even as a haven for brigands who wish to prey upon sea-bound adventurers.

The cities could generate their own quest lines, updating frequently with more involved quest lines that build upon previous completed tasks, all geared toward drawing deeper intrigue. Maybe there is a contentious element in place and faction gained with one local group may alienate another group in either the host city or another city run by another player. It could get to the point where the two players are brought closer to a war state, having to rely on diplomacy to ease tensions or imposing economic sanctions. Failing that, of course, there could be war and the cities are locked into war-time economies.

Then there is the greater world, full of wonder, full of favor (or faction) to gain that could affect the city or the area which is under the stewardship of the player, full of other adventures. If the game is high fantasy (meaning elves and dwarves) then the customization options would reflect the players’ choice of race. If low fantasy, then location of the keep and stewardship affects customization and needs of the city. And maybe players don’t get to select where they wish to establish their city, maybe it is an offer from the king for service rendered, and players can either accept or decline the offer.

And if this is truly an MMORPG, then there are greater story arcs in place, affecting the whole world and creating an atmosphere that evolves and pulls players deeper into the fantasy.

Of course, these concepts run much deeper than the few paragraphs here, but what it really comes down to is that developers are too comfortable within the box and need to think outside of the confines currently in place with the majority of MMOs. The grinds are too commonplace, and players need to feel more connected to their worlds of choice.

Video games, and MMOs in particular, allow us (as players) to step outside of the boundaries of the real-world, to escape to another place and live a vicarious life in another realm. The key is greater connectivity between the player and the game. Forget the hyperbole, engage the imagination and stop merely reaching for the bar – try setting it or, at the least, create different bars.