Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Dear MMO Creators,

It's been a while, lets chat.

Looking around there's a lot of turmoil in the MMO World. Subscribers down or flat at best, PC free to play models being trampled upon by mobile free to play models, big guilds folding up shop and moving into the annuls of history, huge new projects announced and then knifed in the dark of night never to be heard from again, and so on. Which raises the question: how did the MMO market go from the king of the heap to meandering along on station at best?

Imitation is the Worst Form of Flattery

Well, let's throw the big reason out there: no one really did anything new. Seriously, we're about 20 years into this genre and it's stagnated for the last 12 of them as everyone and their uncle has tried to reverse engineer WoW and failed. Repeatedly. It reached a point where the biggest joke in gaming was a new "WoW Killer" launching to stories exclaiming: "1 MILLION SUBSCRIBERS!!!!!! It's gonna DOMINATE!!!!" and then being on life support 6 months later.

These games all exist in different universes, but they all play in the same manner and even their classes are all just variations of each other in the end. Oh, sure, the buttons you press differ but ultimately what you do comes down to this: move from quest hub to quest hub collecting bear butts and earning experience until you reach Max level, run max level dungeons/raids or PvP until you've got the best gear possible, sit on your hands until you get new content. Why? Because no thought goes into making the rest of the game world involving at all. Ultimately, anyone is going to get bored when the only game differentiation on offer is whether they want to collect bear butts, womp rats, or radioactive waste.

In the middle someone came up with World Events - "Hey, look, something's happening over there!" - and everyone adopted them but players quickly realized they were repetitive smoke and mirrors and tired of them.

What's missing in the marketplace is something that breaks the mold and drives "What an MMO is" forward again - what WoW initially delivered and Everquest Next promised before tugging out the rug. But, with every next generation MMO known finding its way behind the barn in the last year that's not coming soon...

Where's the Mystery?
Early MMO Players had a whole world to explore and figure out, now everything is cataloged and filed online within 15 minutes of a beta patch hitting the test servers. Top end raid guilds spend the two months before a patch fighting the next Tier's raid bosses for "testing purposes" and then folks are amazed that they clear the instance on the first week. The mystery and exploration aspect is gone.

A big bone of contention in WoW during the last expansion was the idea that Flight must be verboten. The developers argued that flight damaged the world by making it feel small and too easy to complete quests. They're not necessarily wrong; they just misdiagnosed the root cause because the problem is that the world is small.

This gets back to a budgetary concept of Video Game world design that argues any space not directly related to gameplay is a waste. So, things are done as follows:
  1. Design a Quest Hub and determine the quests
  2. Create and populate the surrounding areas needed to serve the quests
  3. Repeat until sufficient content for max level
  4. Add some roads, fill in the holes on the map, and compress it down because players need to walk from point to point
Thing is, players don't need to walk anymore so maybe it's time to throw that concept out. Supersize the world and create non-quest related content in the open spaces; things to find, rare monsters to kill, hell even glorious vistas you have to trek out to the middle of nowhere to find and will never see without leaving the beaten path. Use fast transit to link the hubs. Create a separate world of gameplay around exploring and finding something new instead of just throwing more daily quests at people. To a certain degree this is what Guild Wars 2 did and was quickly imitated by WoW because it was the most fun part of that game; the problem is that the world was still small because it was designed as the above.

Mind you, WoW is now 12 years old and there are still only maybe what, 10 unique caves in the game? So, maybe creating extra open space content is harder than I think. Or they're lazy. Your call

Also, lets be honest here for a moment: they really should've added flying Fel Reavers to Tanaan when they brought flight back.

Everyone's Asleep at the Wheel
We're 12 years into WoW and the developers still pretend not to realize anyone min-maxes. Prime example: the Garrison. Sure, it's integration of monotonous Facebook gameplay into an MMO but one has to question why it does what it does.

Game breaking things the garrison allows you to do:
  • Gather resources for any profession without having to train a gathering profession
  • Chat in Trade without being in a city and access the Auction House (with the right building)
  • Earn 20K to 40K a month/toon just sending ships and people into the field
How did such an immense pile of avoidable damage that lets me earn $250K Gold a month on 20 minutes a day of login time make its way into an MMO? Ultimately it's because WoW design seems to have been taken over by: "Wouldn't it be neat if..." and every time they cook up something completely half-brained it somehow manages to now find its way into the game regardless of the potential consequences.

As much as I want to see change happen they need to start making smart change that understands the consequences.

Where do we go from here?
Honestly, other than the suggestion to expand the world above I don't know. The procedurally generated content promised by EverQuest Next (even if pseudo) had my ears perked and interest set but that's out the window now as "too hard" so who knows where things go. All I know is that what exists now only exists to be stomped upon by something that radically changes the landscape.

The sooner that happens the better.

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