Before I start this column, I want to say two important things. First, my experiences do not extend outward to the limits of the MMO genre; it’s quite possible that the good versions of these systems are already out there and I just haven’t seen them. Second, all of these are ideas that I want to be present. The core ideas behind all of these systems are really top-shelf and I like the concepts there. I come here not to damn these systems, but to exult them.
For as much as I might like the ideas behind all of these systems, I have yet to see them actually work out super well in pretty much any situation. Some of them I’ve watched getting ported into several games, some of them only show up rarely, but every single one sounds great on paper… and I haven’t seen it work out all that well once we get down to brass tacks.
1. Follower missions
In theory, this sort of thing is really cool. The idea of having a group of dedicated minions going off and doing missions for you is pretty cool, bringing to mind the idea that as you grow more powerful you become a de facto commander.
In reality… every time I’ve seen it in action, it turns into rolling the dice and then getting results so long after the fact that any emotional connection is effectively severed. It’s micromanagement that, at best, adds what amounts to marginal extra rewards without inspiring any new stories or emotional connection. It also can be tedious as heck, too – only Star Trek Online seems to avoid making something so simple as having a competent group of characters for missions a matter of luck and tedium. Mostly.
2. Rewriting the trinity
I will never understand what prompted the team behind Guild Wars 2 to introduce raiding into the game when dungeons alone are a jumbled mess. The game’s designers made a big point of removing the classic trinity of tanks, healers, and damage, but the result has apparently been replacing it with nothing much and letting everyone flit through dungeons as if these were solo ventures with three more people.
You can critique the hard trinity all you want, and it has a lot of issues, but simply removing it in and of itself doesn’t do a whole lot. Talking about how the system used to involve more of a control focus or dedicated support characters isn’t terribly helpful, either. What’s helpful is replacing the trinity with a better division of roles, and that requires a fair bit of design work beyond just removing tanks and healers.
3. Jumping puzzles
Jumping in most MMOs tends to be floaty, imprecise, and not really the focus of the game. Understandably so, even. Filling the game with jumping puzzles on top of that is a bit like kicking off a professional sport requiring players to cook food with car engines. You can probably do it, but it feels like the tools aren’t even remotely suited to the task.
Clearly, what we really need is to poach some of the people responsible for aerial acrobatics in, say, Super Mario Galaxy or Assassin’s Creed. Or just stop using jumping puzzles to pad out game stuff, that’d be cool too.
4. Completely freeform abilities
Champions Online has a lot of problems, and one of those problems is that it’s been struggling for years to let players choose whatever powers they’d like without producing characters that are disgustingly overpowered or disgustingly underpowered. Which is sort of the nature of letting players do everything. Freedom to choose usually means more freedom to screw up terribly.
Honorable mention here goes to Darkfall, which is a game that seems to be actively offended at the suggestion that maybe every single character shouldn’t be a plate-wearing teleporting fireball cannon.
5. Arena PvP
In theory, pitting two teams against one another in a cage match is such a good idea that we’ve modeled basically every form of competitive fighting in the real world upon that premise. So it should work even better in an online game! But it usually winds up being the least interesting venue for competition when its mere presence doesn’t deform PvP and the nature of said competition.
6. Open PvP
This may surprise people, but I like PvP quite a bit. I also like ice cream. What I do not like is sitting down to eat a hamburger, picking it up, and then having someone run up to me, shove a banana split in my face, and scream that it’s ice cream time now, punk! The idea of a hostile world that isn’t necessarily safe from other players tends to mean, more often than not, that trying to do something else gets you murdered upon stepping out and turning your back away from a wall.
I’m watching games like Camelot Unchained and Crowfall intently because they’re taking on the problem in a way that’s more robust than “let’s turn the clock back before Ultima Online decided open PvP was a bad idea,” and I’m curious to see if they might be able to solve the problem. But as it stands, the idea may be cool, but the execution isn’t.
7. Add-On support
The idea that a UI could be modified specifically to address the needs of specific player types and goals rather than just universally modified is really cool. It would be even cooler if dealing with add-ons didn’t require messes of third-party sites and additions that break with each major patch (and some minor ones). That’s without getting into nonsense like gearscore, DPS meter schlong-waving, and so forth. Great idea, but again, the execution gets messy.
Let’s not even discuss what happens when the add-on that makes the game playable is broken and the creator simply abandons the concept.
8. Item upgrading
I still think the idea of the legendary items in Lord of the Rings Online is really cool. My friends who play Lord of the Rings Online have told me that the main reason I think it’s cool is because, again, I’m not playing the game. Not that it surprises me. Most item upgrade systems wind up some mixture of tedious and frustrating, turning what should be a really simple idea (take this thing you like and continue to use it forever) into a slog and an exercise in misery.
I suppose the closest we’ve gotten to a good system here is Star Wars: The Old Republic‘s item mods, which involve completely yanking out every part of an item and replacing it repeatedly. So… hooray?
9. Built-in voice chat
Look, I don’t like voice chat, I never have liked voice chat, and the odds are high I’m never going to like voice chat. But if your game has any content that could remotely benefit from voice chat, you’d think that the designers of a game would ensure that said voice chat works elegantly and reliably rather than being a garbled mess.
Hey, if I never have to run Mumble again I’ll be quite happy about it, but if you’re already saying that I need to run it, you can at least make it a native part of the game. Right? Right.
10. Puzzle quests
The Secret World comes closer than any other game to making these things work, and I commend Funcom for making the effort. But it still winds up with me stepping up to the first puzzle, sitting down, thinking about it, working out solutions, and now it’s been half an hour and I’m out of “Play Video Game” mode because I’ve shifted into “Solve Elaborate Riddle About Musical Notation” mode. It slows the process of the game down to a crawl, in other words.
I really don’t want to say that the best solution here is to remove riddles, vagueness, and obscure solutions from the genre altogether. But you have to admit that it tends to bog the game down and makes the fastest solution just looking up the answer on the internet. And TSW does it better than most games which include riddle-based content.
Dishonorable mention goes to Final Fantasy XIV here, which has a riddle quest for an achievement that ultimately awards 1 gil for completion. That’s not a quest reward, it’s a quest insult.