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


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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