Massively Overthinking: The MMO innovation we long for (or do we?)

    
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This week’s Massively Overthinking topic comes from Kickstarter donor BigMikeyOcho, who wants to talk innovation:

“Sometimes when I play MMOs, I get the feeling that I’m just performing the same tasks as other MMOs, just with a new covering. What innovations would you like to see to prevent that ‘same as all the others’ feeling?”

I posed BigMikeyOcho’s question to the Massively writers and our July guest!

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): We have some big innovation on the way with things like No Man’s Sky’s exploration focus, but the truth is that I don’t think we want big innovation. The MMO genre has largely stuck with the same RPG style gameplay because it sells. Progression-based gameplay with items, stats, and levels scratches a particular itch that players have, and MMOs without those mechanics have historically been quite niche titles. We’ve shown through our purchasing and playing habits that we don’t actually want major innovation, just a fresh lick of paint on the same game mechanics to stop us from getting bored.

In that vein, the innovations I’d like to see are more procedurally generated content and more creative tools that let players directly modify the game world. More MMOs should definitely take a leaf out of the action RPG playbook with something like Diablo III’s rifts or Path of Exile’s randomly generated map system. If RuneScape can add a procedurally generated dungeoneering game, then other MMOs have absolutely no excuse for infrequently shovelling only approved hand-crafted content at us. With regard to modifying the game world, Crowfall’s time-limited campaign world idea sounds like a great step forward for the genre. Players can be given much more control over a portion of the game world if it’s understood that it will eventually be destroyed and reset, and that’s something we could see adapted to plenty of existing MMOs.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): We might complain about repetitive grind, but I don’t think that most of the existing players of the MMORPG genre are looking for real innovation. Most gamers are happy with something that already exists or at least once existed. A lot of people really like WoW-style themeparks and just want another big successful one again, true, but the reason people bore of those is that they are designed to be more of the same on a small scale. Gamers are less likely to get bored in a game with a ton of things to do. A lot of people really want to see three-faction RvR again — that’s not repetitive. A lot of people want a return to player-designed content, dynamic events run by actual gamemasters, and free-form sandbox gameplay that isn’t about ganking — those things never felt the same way twice, believe me. Roleplayers are tragically almost entirely underserved by the MMORPGs they play, and roleplay is all about creating new experiences. Ultimately, I think the constant quest for pure innovation at the expense of everything creative that we already have (but haven’t perfected or polished or propagated) is extremely overrated. There are so many barely tapped but brilliant ideas already floating around the MMOverse; why not put those ideas (back) to work in — gasp — a real sandbox?

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): To an extent, I think the feeling that I’ve done something before is my own stupid fault. I’ve been playing MMOs for 12 years now, and that’s mean the window for things that I’ve never done is much smaller than it was back in 2003. Logging into Final Fantasy XI and existing on a shared world with other people by itself was novel when I first played, and there’s probably some commentary to be had on the fact that I now consider “experience a massive world with other people in real-time” to be almost rote.

So what I frequently wind up falling back on is that it’s not necessarily the tasks themselves that I’m finding boring; it’s the manner in which I’m told to go about them. Give me more interesting ways to advance my character and create a build that I find satisfying. Don’t make crafting a click-and-forget enterprise, make it something involved, something I have to focus on over time. Don’t assume that there’s only one way for players to socialize. Give me the option of doing things in the way that most appeals to my particular sensibilities.

One of the reasons I love Final Fantasy XIV is that I have a plethora of different ways to take on the game world and what I have to do, including several options that I deliberately do not take. The option is still there, and it’s neither better nor worse than the ones I do enjoy. I want to see more games embrace the idea that players don’t all like the same thing, and rather than trying to funnel everyone into the same performance of the same tasks, I want game to offer something that can be approached a variety of different ways.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I think what really needs to happen is for developers to give more agency to players to develop structured content, such as quests, games, and events, for their fellow players. We have a bit of this with mission/dungeon designers (such as in Neverwinter or EverQuest II) and with the occasional player-run event, but there is such a wealth of creativity that’s there to be tapped if just done the right way. Let players make and operate more content. That’ll shake things up.

Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): I believe mechanically that only a limited number of quest types in MMORPGs and RPGs exist, in general. A competent developer will change the framework for receiving or completing the quest or both. In other words, there might only be three types of RPGs quests, but the way those quests are presented or mixed together makes them more interesting.

My first idea would be to frame the quests with other game types. For instance, in Free Realms (which was so ahead of its time it hurts) to harvest a node you had to play a minigame similar to Bejeweled. But I’ve also seen similar but less complex minigames work as well. But the basic formula would be get quest, go to objective, solve puzzle, get objective, then return quest. I’m really over simplifying it, but the idea would be to mix in completely different game elements within the RPG framework. If I might pull another example from a single-player game, Batman: Arkham Knight mixed puzzles with racing with beat’em-up, and it made the questing system a lot of fun. To a lesser extent, I’ve seen MMORPGs do this, but on a smaller scale. I just think that RPGs need to go deeper into the puzzle or minigame creation so that the simple fetch quest or kill quest no longer feels like the one you just finished two minutes ago.

A little more invasive mechanic that would be interesting to see would be direct integration with mobile apps. The idea that you could battle your friends while they were on a phone or maybe they could assist you on their phone by sending you resources while you’re fighting a boss would be amazing sauce.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): My answer: Make a sandbox. Seriously, if you have a feature-rich world with many different things to do to appeal not just to different gamers’ playstyles but also the various playstyles of individual gamers based on their moods, then you can stave off the feelings of same old, same old. That’s because each new day literally can bring something new instead of just a scripted path. Give me tools to create my own fun and I can entertain myself — and others — for much, much longer than if you just give me a standardized set of tasks. Pretty much any innovation that puts these tools in the hands of players is the key. Here’s a small smattering:

  • Player-made books give me the chance to write (something I sort of like to do); more than that they give me the chance to seek the world over to find other volumes to create a library.
  • Ability to build and decorate. After all, I will need that spiffy library to store all my books!
  • Quest generators. This is a must! It’s an endless supply of content. A way to moderate/report/rank is also essential.
  • Music. Players need a way to play and listen to music in game. And I mean way beyond a few scripted notes; I mean really play, including own compositions.
  • Player interaction and interdependency. As far as not knowing what will happen next, the biggest asset an MMO has is the players. They are the uncontrolled variable. So put systems in place to have players interact.
  • Optional PvP. Seriously, a good PvP feature can really enhance things and bring in that spice of life — but it has to be consensual. Remember, this is about letting me play whatever the mood strikes me, and I don’t always want to be open to death at another’s hands.
  • Deep crafting that goes beyond a single click, and includes personalized naming. Make my efforts matter.
  • No set classes, no set skills. If I want to change my mind, let me. It doesn’t have to be totally easy, and I may have to work my tush off starting over from scratch, but if I decide to try another line of work then give me that opportunity without rolling an alt.
  • Related to above, provide a ton of skills so that the choice is dizzying!

Basically, I think it is less a matter of innovating a new feature — though I do really find the new things awesome like voxel worlds and when mission generators/storytellers first surfaced — than it is successfully implementing the principles that are already out there. Anything that lends to single-click mindlessness and does not engage the players’ attention and thoughts will always feel monotonous. Engage players, don’t let them switch to auto-pilot!

Patreon Donor Roger: You’re not alone, BigMikeyOcho; I get that as well. But I counter with this: Is doing the same tasks with new coverings really a bad thing? I just spent the last few hours playing the latest Civilization game, though not an MMO, it’s a good analog for this question. A lot of the game is pretty much the same as previous Civ games, but it constantly proves to be fun. What they do to keep it fresh is that they tweak the balance, and change key mechanics — for example, going to hexagonal tiles in Civ 5. The lesson I take from this is give people something new to learn to keep it fresh, but don’t change too much so they still have familiar ground.

Your turn!

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hults2
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hults2

BigMikeyOcho That’s why games like Ultima, SWG, City of Heroes, and Eve have such rabidly loyal followings. They each fly a great big middle finger in the face of traditional Holy Trinity RPGs in their own way (or did when they were active and functional). In particular, SWG and City were so wildly open format that you could play whatever the heck you wanted in any combination you wanted, and still play the game effectively and have fun doing it. ((probably why  thousands of people are trying to reactivate each game right this moment somewhere on the internet))

BigMikeyOcho
Guest
BigMikeyOcho

All awesome, thought provoking responses, both from the writers and the readers! And I agree with all of them. It’s absolutely true. We *don’t* want innovation. Our collective wallets have proven that time and again. The best part of MMO’s are the other players. Other players make us stay a lot longer than any gameplay does. Again, absolutely true. 

What prompted my question was pure… burnout, really. Each game approaches it’s different methods of hiding it’s gameplay in different ways, but they’re really all similar. Kill this, escort that, collect this, etc. That’s fine. But then more than the games, it’s also the gamers themselves who approach the games in the same exact fashion… only play with the most effective builds, follow playing guides to play the most effectively, spoil the story for yourself just so you don’t look like a fool when entering a dungeon with other people, speed level to rush to endgame, and grind your face off just for another incremental increase in power. 

The players approach every MMO exactly the same way, which just promotes the devs to keep making more of the same. Like the holy trinity… is the trinity *really* the be all end all, just because what has tried to be different than the trinity hasn’t killed it, which just leads more designers to lean towards it more. But the trinity is *BORING* at this point. When a new class in a game is created, generally the first question is… well, it is a healer, a tank, or dps? And forget those “hybrid” classes, we all know “hybrid” just means “one way to really play the class, and even more ways than a normal class to be told you’re playing it wrong”. But anything different? That’s niche… it’s a dead game… etc. 

But playing the same exact game with a Star Trek skin, or a horror skin, or a fantasy skin, or a sci-fi skin…. it creates burnout not just from one game, but for the entire genre. And sadly, other players are, in a sense, not making it better but making it worse.

MrPoolaty
Guest
MrPoolaty

I want a game where the collective player base can build things together. Even if it was from templates already in the game. Instead of having forts already pre made or buildings have templates where players need to farm the resources and turn in items at the sight for the building to be made.

MrPoolaty
Guest
MrPoolaty

I was so on archeages nuts until I seen a twitch channel and asked the dude to show me his house area. Everything was awesome until I seen real life pictures slapped in the side of the house… That ruined it for me.
Eso is where I’m at now. Voice over is so much more better than reading geezus. Why can’t new mmo have voice overs like eso. Ffxiv would be the shit with voice overs full time.

hults2
Guest
hults2

Speaking as one who has been buzzing like an over-sugared fruitfly around Paragon Chat the last couple of days, I posit this. when enjoying an MMO, it is not the tasts you are doing, but the people you are doing them with… the MULTIPLAYER in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. those of us who’ve come home to Paragon City largely couldn’t care less if we’re allowed to kill skulz… (though we all want to on some level) What we want and need is each other and out loving and fun community, watching the chat panel tick over endlessly with chatter and watching people be active in the game.

But when a game gets repetitive, it’s because you’re playing it alone. the game has been scaled not for community but for skinner box grindage, to keep you playing rather than making you want to play. Yes pretty much every game utilizes new twists on old mechanics… you’ll find much the same idea behind finding wolf pelts in wow or thorium particles in sto… the twist comes in the environment you do it in or more importantly the people you’re doing it with. are you with people who chat happily and eagerly about the game they are playing? or is the channel mostly silent as people slave away mining for fish?

innovation can hang itself… obviously the old mechanics continue to work… what people crave is the multi-player function. otherwise we’d all still be playing off of DVDs and SD cards on our PCs.

Neo_Wolf
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Neo_Wolf

breetoplay wolfyseyes My 55 characters agree lol

Vunak
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Vunak

Everquests Nexts first vision with a living breathing world. NPCs that you can actually have interactions with. Story Bricks was on such a good path to creating and innovating the genre, and not just this sub genre but something that could of been used in all games. 
Its annoying that great ideas get crushed by large publishers. AI advancements would do wonders for this genre. 
Consequence needs to be brought back from the dead. It makes accomplishing things with friends and allies that much more satisfying and failures that much more tragic. Games are too easy now a days. People want more content more content more content. But don’t want something that might keep them busy for a few months. Developers can’t keep up with the cycle. But they cant make it to difficult either because people complain too much about the difficulty. Its a double edged sword. Do we make the content difficult enough to last the players a little while? Or do we attempt to keep pace with the hardcore and push content out?
PvP. PvP hasn’t been done right in a game since old. L2, DAoC, Shadowbane. Now we have instances that are super repetitive. Where is the old world bosses getting fought over by multiple guilds. Where is the GvG or bounty system at. Why aren’t caravans being attacked by pirate/bandit guilds. Why aren’t there any mercenary guilds for hire anymore to guard shipments/caravans. 
Player housing. Why is it not a thing anymore? It used to be a staple of older MMO’s to have your own little part of the game world. Its only just now starting to make a return. But its all instanced so far aside from ArcheAge. OW Player Housing/Building how I miss thee. 
This genre is full of creative potential but all we ever get is instance fight/instance PvP as our overall endgame. I was so excited when I heard EQ: Next wasn’t going to have instances. But with the way that game is going now, I wouldn’t be surprised if it never even got made.

Dajhryne
Guest
Dajhryne

Real risk with world changing consequences or even destruction along with the people on it including your character, saving the world doesn’t mean anything if there was never a chance of losing it, and actual massive battles and engagements, Helm’s Deep/Pelennor Fields as examples, would be a good start. Enough with the rote, mind numbing, safe bubble, can’t fail even if you try to, grind til you puke time sink excuses for a game.
Amaze me with the scale, scope and brutality of an entire universe, or perhaps several, and challenge me to apply real tactics and/or diplomacy to save, ally with and/or conquer cities/continents/entire worlds with 10,000 of my closest friends or to die trying.
I’m tired of pretending to save the world one large rat at the time.

kgptzac
Guest
kgptzac

Oleg Chebeneev I too come to believe that anything short of new types of hardware, like VR goggles, will not bring real innovations to our games.  There are only finite ways we can interact with our gaming machines and even less ways to make a profitable product.

Another thing to take note of is that innovation and fun aren’t necessarily related.  The industry is the living proof that fun (implied by sales numbers) doesn’t require much innovation.  I only hope that with more people get tired of the existing formulas we will finally see something new.

Polyanna
Guest
Polyanna

The longer I play MMOs the less I care about the games and the more I care about the people who play them. If I want to play an amazing game, then that’s what the single player market is for. The only innovation I look for in an MMO these days is consistency: consistent quality, volume, and pace of content output is what keeps people playing. I don’t play an MMO to play alone, so if you have figured out how to consistently keep tons of other people playing your game, then that’s all the innovation you need to get my money.