MMORPGs - Limitations & Options

The SWG thread reminded me of something I figured out a while back about MMORPGs - each MMORPG has a very narrow range of ideal playstyle, compared to the average PC game. This is why you often see such pronounced differences of opinions: b/c the user has almost no power to customize the gameplay to their taste, MMORPGs are a “love it or hate” choice.

I realize that most MMORPGs promote themselves as having a wide choice of activities: fighting, crafting, exploring, socializing. But the design limitations of the genre actually cause the overall gameplay experience to be quite narrow. What I mean is, most PC games these days are very customizable, not just in interface, but in difficulty, gameplay options, choice of using codes, easter eggs, hacks, trainers, mods, new skins, and on and on. The biggest variable that users control is how challenging they want the game to be: most games have difficulty settings, and if not there are usually numerous ways to either configure or hack the game. Also, in single player games, there are lots of ways for the user to control the risk/reward ratio, and to control how much time it takes to play.

MMORPGs on the other hand must force a “one size fits all” approach onto players on basic issues like difficulty, risk/reward, length of time to accomplish tasks and so on. Because cheats and hacks must be strictly prohibited and b/c the devs cannot treat one group of players differently than another, the core gaming experience is going to be the same for most players. Also, when designers create restrictions to “encourage social interaction” it often forces all players to a lowest common denominator behavior. If you think the game is too slow, too fast, too easy, too hard, too bad! Unlike single player where the players adjust the game to their own taste, in an MMORPG, if the game fits your tastes, then great, and if not, then you may as well quit early and often :).

Theoretically, the addition of more titles to the market should give players the choices they want, but there seems to be a big barrier to entry on these games: the vast time committment all have thus far required, and also the monthly fee which deters a lot of customers. Also, many of the big releases have used a cookie cutter approach to core gameplay issues (they are all treadmills for example) which perpetuates the sameness. It may be an inevitable consequence of the desire to retain fat monthly subscriptions and to appeal to the broadest possible market.

I’m still waiting for an MMORPG that is designed around my ideal tastes. Not b/c I have the perfect design in mind or b/c I am the uber-consumer. I just want a game that appeals to MY playstyle. What I want: a game that can be played in a rewarding way in small doses, that freely allows me to play with my friends whenever I want to, and also allows me to play on my own when I want to, that has a low risk/reward ratio (hey I LIKE easy games), that has very little (or none) prep time and down tiime, that doesn’t have punitive death/failure/loss penalties, that features a good amount of content to explore, plus random maps, has an interesting (and hopefully large) game world, has decent graphics and sound, and that has interesting character development and tactical options. Obviously, YMMV. I don’t pretend to think that everybody here (or even most) would like such a game. But I would be happy to pay a monthly fee for it.

I’m not sure what the future holds. What would be best for players would be an explosion of niche games, each tailored for a segment of the market, or alternatively a game that offered much greater variety of play choices (like having “hardcore” vs “softcore” servers ala Diablo 2). However, the economics tend to favor large “generic” game designs. We’ll see.

A part of me hopes to see a design that is not so time intensive. A move away from the core “put in time, earn virtual reward” paradigm might possibly open up a variety of options for designs that appeal to a wider range of gamers.

Overall I am most interested in WoW of the next crop - but I still have a lot of unanswered questions about core issues.

B/C in the long run I really don’t see that a single MMORPG can be all things to all gamers - you are always going to have players who say “hey this is perfect” and quite a few others who say “what a pile of crap”. And unlike a single player game, there’s no way to hack, mod, or configure an MMORPG that you don’t like into one you do.


I’m always surprised how deep the developers think that everything need to be linked.

Why not make a MMO that is a couple of good games, and give the classes a small window of economic relations. I play my game, you play yours, and we connect where those things link up.

I’m also surprised by how much the devs expect that there massive enconomies are going to be magically self-correcting. As in life “The invisible hand of the marketplace” often needs a good dose of regulation or it will slap you hard on the ass.

Your (self regulating) Power Pill

The games to look out for (IMHO) are:
Ultima X
World of Warcraft
Tabula Rasa

(and in that order of anticipation for me)

GuildWars being notable mainly because it has NO MONTHLY FEE (yay), as well as dynamic missions for parties like some of the other games on that list.

EQ2 sounds like SWG-izing EQ, and nothing else out there that’s coming out has really interested me (ie Middle Earth Online, D&D Online, Warhammer Online, Lineage 2, etc) feature wise.

I have a passing interest in City of Heroes, but as we all know comic book games are just barely coming out of the evil lingering curse of doom since Freedom Force came out.

Oh and I wouldn’t hold your breath that Matrix Online will be worth two shits either (in case you weren’t already pissed off by the last two movies to not care regardless).

The only things you really need to be concerned about regarding new MMOGs are:

  1. Why should anyone want to play it for any length of time?

  2. Can the developers and/or publisher sustain it that long?

Sadly, it’s taken developers this long to realize that those are questions worth asking. No, MMOG designs don’t necessarily have to be all things to all people, but the ones that managed to establish themselves already -are- all things, at least to the people already playing them.

Unfortunately, no one seems to understand the business of finding people who have never played a MMOG before, and how to get them started. So the only ones likely to be paying attention to any new project are those who are already happily playing a MMOG, or the ones who have played a MMOG, and quit for whatever reason.

Pretty well puts the screws on your options, marketing and design-wise. But while I’m on a roll, here’s another sick little secret about the whole business:

If a new MMOG is in development and they haven’t given you enough information necessary to answer the first question (either by telling you outright in great detail or letting you figure it out on your own,) then they don’t know, either.

Seriously. They might tell you they know, but they lie. It doesn’t mean they won’t ever figure it out, given enough time. But don’t believe for a second that they aren’t telling you just because they don’t want to spoil the surprise.

MMOGs aren’t about being surprised. It’s not about going “oh wow cool.” It’s about planning to enter a whole new world and finding your place in it. The sooner potential players are able to think about that, the sooner their imaginations are piqued, and the more likely they are to be interested in actually playing.

But again, if developers don’t know what to tell them, it’s because they haven’t worked it all out yet, aren’t sure it’ll work, don’t want to make promises that they can’t keep, or just have no clue how it’s all supposed to come together. And that happens no matter how simple the design is, just because they’re working on a game meant to be played by thousands of people at once.

In other words, there is no such thing as a simple MMOG design, because designing a whole freaking world is a whole lot more complicated than most people assume it is. It’s not just about good themes, or good features, good economy or even good technology. It either all fits together, or something will be missing.