The Massive MMO Problem

Over the years, I’ve been strangely fascinated by one particular game genre. I need to try out almost every single one, just to see what each does differently. It’s a genre that exists in its own bubble, but after one particular release, saw many copycats, and a lack of innovation. Of course, I’m talking about MMOs, or more specifically, MMORPGs. These Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games are designed to be playgrounds. From the early days of Ultima Online and Everquest, even the juggernaut World of Warcraft, and now to more modern versions like Black Desert Online and The Elder Scrolls Online, it’s a genre that needs something new and fresh, or even, just something different.

Final Fantasy XIV

Final Fantasy XIV

Black Desert Online

Black Desert Online

I’ll be sharing some of my characters from the variety of MMOs I’ve inhabited over the years. These are all snapshots into my time delving into a new world. Worlds with new landscapes and lore that are either entirely new inventions, or trade on prior knowledge or nostalgia for specific properties. The latter isn’t inherently a bad thing if it takes this property in a new direction, rather than treading over familiar territory.

The elephant in the room is, of course, World of Warcraft. That elephant is still here. Even after 13 years, it still continues to influence every game that has come after it. It cannot be understated how much of a cultural milestone this game was, and it’s continued looming shadow over the genre. Games that followed have that influence built into their DNA in both overt and subtle ways. Whether the combat’s almost identical, (in cases like The Lord of the Rings Online), or have communities forming in very similar ways around these time vortexes (a point I will get into in a moment), these games are weighed down and have the monolith that is World of Warcraft shouldered like a modern Atlas.

Wildstar

Wildstar

Neverwinter

Neverwinter

Over the years, these games would begin to break that WoW mold in small ways. Whether it be to change the combat slightly, and move away from the “taskbar,” or to just pile features and functionality on, like player-housing, in an attempt to get themselves out from under the shadow. In many cases games were successful: Star Wars: The Old Republic explored a section of Star Wars lore in a new and interesting way. Both Guild Wars games allow players new freedom in their characters builds, give new ways of fighting fellow players, and work towards making exploration interesting, with varying degrees of success. Final Fantasy XIV successfully reinvented itself with A Realm Reborn, and became its own beacon of achievement. Even Marvel Heroes chose to ignore Warcraft entirely, and instead went after another Blizzard property, Diablo.

However, even with all of these successes, the World of Warcraft DNA and the MMO structure lives on, and is hard to break. It’s these problems that I think a new MMORPG should try to explore solving. Certains aspects, such as slow combat, auction houses, mounts, traditional leveling systems, theorycrafting and character sheets, reputation systems, crafting, chat channels, inventory systems and even player grouping, should be looked at with new eyes and a fresh take. The other main problem is that of lore, plot, and the aforementioned communities that surround these games.

World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft

I knew I wanted to delve into the nature of MMOs after my time spent with Black Desert Online. This MMO ostensibly does many things differently, and solves some of the genre’s problems, particularly slow combat. However, it also falls into many of the same traps, and one of the biggest technical problems MMOs face.

MMOs are dense, and aren’t gentle when a player enters into their worlds or systems. Booting up Black Desert Online was an exercise in futility, with many of its complexities hidden in Youtube tutorials and outdated Wiki pages. In many ways, MMOs are designed to be a walled garden. Both hard to learn and hard to master, they lack proper ‘tutorialization’, and obfuscate game mechanics and complex number systems. Theorycrafting is a practice in which players use math to obtain the best possible equipment and abilities to use for certain situations. It’s a practice benefitting those deep into the game, but make it hard for a casual player to do anything but skip over the surface before moving on. Even booting up a game can lead to a cavalcade of windows popping up, informing the player of limited time events, in-game currency they can purchase with real money, and other jargon that is lost on them.

Ultimately, MMOs are rough for new players. Especially for those new to the genre, thanks to entrenched mechanics, a myriad of overly complex systems interacting without proper tutorialization, and a reliance on a game’s community to provide entertainment and free documentation. MMOs should introduce their game worlds, story and mechanics with a single-player (or co-op) only experience. Instead of throwing the player into the deep end right away, keep them locked into a linear experience for the first few levels that can be played with a friend if they choose. This would let the narrative and world of the game breathe, allowing players to ease into the mechanics. After completing it once, it could be skipped for alt characters. It won’t be a solution to fix every problem, but it’ll help initial interactions with games in this genre.

Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2

There are games that have done something similar to this, such as the beginning of the original Guild Wars. Making it genuinely a tight and linear experience that would slowly reveal the open world, is important. Good stories never start by throwing their protagonists directly into the bulk of the story – there needs to be precipitating events and a slow build. It could even be done in a Destiny-like way by phasing other players in and out, gradually allowing the world to open up. Without immediate violence and danger, the game would also feel comfortable enough to explore the crafting or non-combat options, without shoving them to a small tutorial window, or a mediocre series of quests.

Defiance

Defiance

Star Wars: The Old Republic

Star Wars: The Old Republic

I’ve recently spent a large portion of time with indie games, and I think they should be looked at for inspiration. I’m not sure what a indie-produced MMO would look like, because these games inherently need massive budgets, as they require worlds and content that will span hundreds of hours. Indie games, nevertheless, subvert many game tropes successfully, and tell human stories that are deeply personal and about identity. These stories need to be told more. An MMO successfully touching on the human element, while successfully subverting the tropes that cling on to this genre, is something to ponder. The human stories that come out of games like EVE Online for example are something to aspire too, and successfully giving the tools to your community to craft their own narratives, is better than relying on them for tutorials and game balance.

We may see the solution arrive through something simpler like a text-based interface, seen in games like eRepublik, or through new technologies like those found within No Man’s Sky, allowing a small team to procedurally generate a universe. Whatever method is used, the genre has to rise out from the long shadow cast by the games that came before, like World of Warcraft. Thereby giving players not only new worlds to explore, but new ways to interact and tell stories in them.

Growing up in a small town, going to school for graphic and web design and finally moving to Toronto, Colin began to look for a new project and landed on Third Person. He has always had a passion for video games and finally decided to do something about it. Inspired by websites like Giant Bomb, Polygon, and Waypoint, Colin has founded Third Person with the intent of covering games using a mix of the old and the new.

Colin loves to dive into RPGs of all kinds, exploring their worlds and developing his character. Well-crafted stories draw him in too, and he is always on the lookout for a new adventure.

When he's not spending a billion years in a game's character creator, he can be found behind his camera, reading comic books or probably sleeping.

Some of his favorite games: Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen, Alpha Protocol, Mass Effect, Overwatch, Life is Strange, Persona 4