Perfect Ten: MMO systems that could be great (but I haven’t seen it yet)

There were some decent tabletop Star Trek games, but no.

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.

Kind of taking a drubbing here, Tyria. I'm sorry.

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.

Can we make this cool again?

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?

Let's bring back the worst version of Valor ever, won't that be fun!

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.

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at or with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”

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6 years ago

I’m exactly the opposite from you in terms of pvp. I love non-consensual pvp, from both sides of it. I love the hunt, and I love the sneaking around to prevent yourself from being hunted. The problem with most titles in open world pvp games, is they don’t make it faction based… and if it is, they don’t foster faction cooperation. The most fun I’ve had in one of these types of games was in darkorbit, a little browser game, before they screwed up game balance.

6 years ago

With regards to the trinity…I think we’re running into all sorts of problems in standard games (i.e. sorta-like-EverQuest/WoW) that limit the ability of designers to do something new.  Right now combat is uniformly fast and various classes and abilities are usually balanced against each other (for PvP purposes and for OP purposes).

If you get rid of that and slow combat down a bit, the need for the trinity goes away and you can do some really interesting things.  It requires a different mindset…each group needs to plan out each encounter to play to that group’s strengths and weaknesses.  Combat becomes a dance, but the dance changes based on the group involved rather than just based on the boss.

Imagine a group of five characters up against a big dungeon boss (imagine a giant dog, because that’s amusing).  The dog hits once every 10 seconds or so, and does a big AOE every fifth hit.  Most characters will die on the third hit.  Character ‘A’ is as tanky as you get in this system.  She won’t die until the fourth hit, and she has an instacast taunt usable once every 30 seconds.  Character ‘B’ has a high damage, 20 second cast fireball that acts as a taunt.  Character ‘C’ has a trio of abilities that, if used in one particular order, trigger a taunt after the third one is used.  Character ‘C’ is also a bit weaker, dying on the second hit.  Character ‘D’ can cast some ground-targeted shields that survive a single blow, and a snare that can slow the boss for a short while.  Character ‘E’ has a massive ritual that requires total concentration, playing mini games to draw a big circle of runes and then doing a staggering amount of damage to anything in the middle.  It takes about 2 minutes to scribe and cast.

This group can engage in a dance like this:

Time: 0 seconds
A engages boss and takes one hit while the others position and start.

Time: 10 seconds
B starts casting the fireball, E starts scribing the runes, others plink away at the boss.
A takes two more hits.

Time: 31 seconds
A is now almost dead and withdraws to heal up.
B’s fireball goes off and takes the boss down to about 80%.
Boss now on B.
B takes one hit

Time: 41 seconds
A is now healed enough to survive another hit.
D casts a shield over E’s current location in prep for the AOE

Time: 50 seconds
Boss does AOE
B is now almost dead
D’s shield dissipates, but E’s ritual was not disturbed.
C is half dead and does a quick heal to be able to survive one more blow.
C charges in and begins the combo to taunt.

Time: 60 seconds
Boss is on C just in time to save B.
C is now almost dead.
A is now healed up to full and uses the insta-taunt.

Time: 70 seconds
Boss is now on A and A plans to take three blows (two more).
C is healing up and B is almost healed.

Time: 89 seconds
B begins to cast fireball

Time: 91 seconds
A is now almost dead.
C is healed up and begins the taunt trio again to give A space to heal before the AOE.
D casts a shield over E’s current location in preparation for AOE.
A begins to heal up with the goal of barely surviving the AOE.

Time: 100 seconds  (boss is down to around 65%)
Boss does AOE
A is now almost dead.
C is now almost dead.
D’s shield dissipates, but E’s ritual was not disturbed.

Time: 109 seconds
B’s fireball goes off and boss goes after B (boss is down to around 50%)
C falls back to heal

Time: 110 seconds
Boss hits B
B is almost dead
A is heal up enough to survive one more blow
A uses the insta-taunt to take the boss

Time: 120 seconds
Boss hits A
A almost dead
A ensures boss is inside the circle runes E has been drawing.
D casts snare on boss
Everyone runs out of the circle

Time: 125 seconds
E’s ritual goes off and the boss melts.  Success.

Something like that can’t happen unless different characters and abilities are radically different, essentially making 1v1 pvp balance something we aren’t even trying for.  And it can’t happen unless combat is slowed down enough to allow people to try new things rather than practicing one very fast dance for each boss.

But, something like that would be what I’d like to see in the next-next generation of games.  We’ll see :)  Maybe even with more interesting things, like an hour long spirit quest ahead of time that the group undertakes to make sure the zone’s weather is rainy, which is what permits A’s insta-taunt to work every 30 seconds instead of every minute.

3 years ago
Reply to  luxundae

Sadly, I think this is one of the main reasons that Wildstar failed big time with its ultra hardcore raiding mode. Long sequences where if even a single member messed up, everyone dies and the whole thing fails.

Always sounds good on paper (like perma-death and full loot non-consensual PvP), but almost never works out in practice, at least for MMOs.

6 years ago

sray155 the trinity is an inevitable outgrowth of any combat system that involves a resource that is decreased when damage is done, I.E. health/hitpoints. In any such system, there are three things that contribute to an encounter:

Subtracting health. I.E. damage.
Adding health. I.E. healing.
Redirecting loss of health. I.E. tanking.

Support classes can seem to add a fourth, but ultimately all they’re about is making DPS or Healing better, so they’re either useless outside a group, or they fill one of the trinity functions in addition to support (such as in City of Heroes, where Defenders were able to solo because they were DPS as well as Support, but Controllers had problems unless buffed to the point they could take over a tough mob and thus assume a DPS role). Any attempt to eliminate one part of the trinity imbalances it, which inevitably leads to DPS becoming paramount, since Healing extends encounters but DPS ends them, enabling players to move on to the next fun thing quicker.

Game design that tries to eliminate the trinity without changing fundamentally how combat works to not include a health mechanic is just wasting everybody’s time.

3 years ago
Reply to  syberghost

Actually, there used to be a major place for support in classic WoW dungeons and raids. You just did not effectively do some content if you did not have a Mage to sheep, or a Warlock to banish, or a Thief to clear traps and so forth. Yes, the content could be done without the support, but it was a heck of a lot easier with it.

6 years ago

With regards to item upgrading, I’ve always thought it would be cool if items changed to reflect their history, rather than to reflect steps on quest.  For example, if you slay a hundred bears with a sword, you’d suddenly get a popup offering to allow you to name it “__ the Bearslayer” or something similar.  That would then give it a minor advantage against bears.  It may still be a very bad weapon, so you may go with “Pipsqueak the Bearslayer”, but now it has history…it brings back memories…you may keep it around or trade it off to friends or new guildmates to welcome them to the game.

That’s the other thing, actually, this system really works much better when all this “soulbound / character bound / account bound” nonsense goes away.  If I’ve used a battered old staff for the past year and taken it on great adventures, and now it’s a little more battered but a bit cooler for the wear, I should be able to give that away as a gift or in exchange for something else.  Otherwise what’s the point?  Or display it in a guild hall, or something of that sort.  Game worlds should give us a way to showcase our memories and achievements for our friends and guildmates, hilarious and strange though those achievements may be.

You can imagine all sorts of cosmetic or impactful effects too.  Using a weapon to land the killing blow on Ragnaros would make it appear firey in the future, and deal some fire damage to targets.  That’s not gonna help you kill Ragnaros again, but it does look pretty cool and offer some help with other endeavors.  Or maybe something nonviolent…if you can find the sacred waters in the cave on the mountain peak and dip your sword in them under the light of the full moon, then it will have a pale white glow whenever the sun is down from then on.  Or maybe it will act as a token to allow passage through the Moon Gate.  

Point is, it would be awesome if, instead of specific quests or kits to upgrade specific weapons, there were just events or triggers out there in the world that would work on any weapon or item you happen to have.  Want a toothpick of massive flames?  Good luck killing Ragnaros with a toothpick…..but it gives you a goal!  And potentially a cool and interesting one that you and your guildmates can work towards, laugh about, and remember later whenever you see that toothpick merrily burning away on its stand in the guild hall.

6 years ago

MOP should use “dishonorable mentions” more frequently :)

6 years ago

From my perspective, the only way you can do away with the trinity is fundamentally change the approach to group combat in a game.

MMORPG group encounters are essentially just slight variations on the exact same thing over and over: a group ganging up on a giant monster. Get rid of the giant monster, and then you have to invent a new type of group combat encounter. Once you’re looking at things like split squad tactical assaults or large scale medieval type battles for your group combat encounters not only does the trinity become replaceable, attempting to use it in those type of scenarios would actually look silly and immersion breaking.

6 years ago

1) Meh, MMOs don’t need no stinkin’ NPCs to take up team/group play.  Spending too much time fiddling with minions and you -the player- end up playing more with them than with actual players.  This works great in a game like Mass Effect and Dragon age and Skyrim….i.e. single player games.

2) Yes, GW2 screwed up with trying to axe the Holy Trinity.  They’re trying to redeem that with the HoT expansion and introducing more dedicated roles and content designed for them (raids).  But who has yet found a solution to trying to replace this core RPG feature?  Not one game or person yet.

3) What’s your beef with jumping puzzles?  They’re fun.  GW2 did them right, whether or not you enjoy them is moot to that fact.  The only thing that GW2 could have done to make them better is to have double-jumping, but adding that would also make several of the current in-game jumping puzzles turn cheap and somewhat broken. 

4) Freedom is a lie.  All players seek guidance and direction.  Even with “free form abilities”, there will be mass seeking of guides that tell others which is the most optimal build for abilities, skills, and other such things. 

5) Lets see if customized guild hall arenas in Guild Wars 2 will make things much more interesting with the decor placement and different set up game modes. 

6) GW2 didn’t do too shabby with making WvW separate from PvE to prevent murder ganks and keep that open world PvP feel, however the boiled down version it currently is kind of is bland. Hoping that HoT’s new map and changes will make the fights far more interesting, bring back siege usage, and have better map conditions than just zerg-vs-zerg.    As for CU, keeping a keen eye on that game because everything I’ve seen thus far is ‘like’, ‘like’, and more ‘like’.    Crowfall is P2W and should be harshly judged as such.

7)  Add-ons open the gate to cheats and hacks far more than base clients already have as far as issues with those things. Plus… gear and DPS/heal meters? No thanks!

8)   Item upgrading is okayish, but there are significant flaws.  First it has to be in a gear treadmill system (which is just wrong in the first place), secondly it would have to be in a game that has gear degradation.     Lastly, a chance of the upgrade “backfiring”, destroying the item and damaging/killing the player at the crafting station in the process.  

9) No, no, and more no.  Talk about client lag, server troubles, voice harassment, extra resources, shouting 12yr olds, and so on.  Just no.  Guild voip out of game is fine, in-game SUCKS!

10) There are a few in Guild Wars 2.  One micro one involves opening a giant clam by playing a specific melody on a coral pipe organ.  The melody is one hummed by a nearby Quaggan.

6 years ago

PvP, as many have said, often turns into the castration mess that was Age of Wushu.
As much as it keeps getting harped on, Star Wars Galaxies had a solid PvP idea in that it pretty much had every kind of PvP including open world PvP. Then again, SWG had the advantage of multiple worlds. If you were the casual PvPer that tagged in and tagged out, there were plenty of quick matches out in the middle of nowhere for you. Outposts scattered all over the galaxy served as real time battlefields. More of an open world type? Go to Restuss, the entire planet is PvP. It exists solely for PvP. You even got PvP rewards for PvP specific gear.
The problem comes into play when developers try to make PvPers and PvEers coexist like some naive bumpersticker. Like the laughably bad aforementioned bumpersticker, it sounds like a feel good dream on paper but reality is a cold hard demanding wildcat where the truth is it’s kind of hard to coexist with people that want to kill/bully you.

schlag sweetleaf
schlag sweetleaf
6 years ago

melissaheather FeveredDreamer  Stormbringer was my first introduction into the concept of named swords..

6 years ago

Jarin Yeah, I should have given the game a bit more love for its jumping puzzles – I still don’t think they’re good, but they’re well into “not awful” and can be quite fun to clear with friends. The camaraderie is doing the heavy lifting on the fun there, but at least the game isn’t actively kneecapping it.