The Soapbox: It’s the little things that make an MMO special


In the years that I’ve been playing and covering MMOs, I’ve noticed that there are two distinct phases when it comes to introducing a new game. The first is the big marketing push, as the team introduces the MAJOR TALKING POINTS and attempts to overwhelm players with how this will be the MMO to end all MMOs due to its sheer feature list. We — the press and the community — get a lot of talking mileage out of this, although it typically devolves into a straight-up comparison of other titles.

But then there’s a lesser-noticed but perhaps more significant stage, when people start checking out the game and commenting not on its impressive feature list but on the little details that stand out. I’ve read and written my fair share of posts where the author burbles excitedly about some cool little thing he or she noticed and enjoyed, and that sort of enthusiasm seems more genuine and personal.

What I’m saying is this: It’s the little touches that make an MMO truly special above and beyond its features. A game can offer everything in the world, but if it lacks a soul in how it details the world, then it will turn away all but the most masochistic gamer.

A game can offer everything in the world, but if it lacks a soul in how it details the world, then it will turn away all but the most masochistic gamer.
For me, the little touches are what I think of when I’m asked about immersion. I am drawn into a game world not by its mighty dragons but by seeing a cobbler having a row with his wife in the street while an urchin steals a loaf of bread and runs away. I am delighted when I notice how my character’s breath fogs in the cold air or how the sound changes when I’m running over different surfaces or when I find an out-of-the-way hidey-hole that exists simply to be interesting.

Each extra detail may not seem important to the overall effort. These touches may even appear to be a waste of resources for designers and artists who could be working on a new PvP map or yet another dungeon. But present or not, the tidbits matter. For a new player, the details could create a meaningful moment that could trigger a lifelong fan. For the jaded vet, they could jog someone out of a rut to notice the virtual world all around.

MMOs need far more of the little things, not only as set dressing but as interactive objects. I’ve played some single player RPGs, platformers, and adventure games that have more interactive doodads than I do in MMOs, where it seems that if it exists, it’s to intimidate or impress. Just because it lacks stats or doesn’t contribute to the growth of a character doesn’t mean that such details are meaningless. Fun alone has meaning.

Whenever I notice one of these small things, I think of how a developer put it in the game knowing that it wouldn’t be acknowledged by most players sprinting to their next quest but would¬†be deeply appreciated by those rare few who stop to embrace wonder on a micro level. I wish they knew it when I stopped to marvel, which is why I do try to write about such things from time to time.

I’ll bet that you’ve noticed and marveled over something small and seemingly insignificant in an MMO, and in so doing, bestowed it with significance. What was it?

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