Perfect Ten: How MMORPGs become so darn complicated

    
48
WHY IS STUFF SO HARD?!

MMOs are complicated. This seems like a fairly non-controversial statement; there are more or less complicated games, but they all tend to be complex as heck. I frequently cite Star Trek Online as an example of complexity run amok, where the game is significantly more complicated than it even appears to the point where the game has reworked its skill system some three separate times and it’s still difficult to understand, but even World of Warcraft has plenty of bits of complexity that aren’t really explained to new players.

Of course, it’s also been significantly simplified from its early days; who remembers Crushing Blows and 102.4% defense? Most tanks, I’d imagine.

But even seemingly straightforward systems like dungeon rewards tend to increasing complexity over time. Heck, I’ve been dealing with Guild Wars 2’s boost system with Path of Fire and found that hosting some complexity and weird exceptions when it comes to hero points and unlocking Elite Specializations. So why do MMOs tend to be so complicated, even when dealing with simple stuff? I think that’s a fun topic that I can explain in, oh, let’s say ten bullet points.

1. Some new system is introduced

“New system” is here used as a euphemism, of sorts, for anything new. A new game is launched, for example, and it’s totally possible for some of these systems to be in place when the game launches fresh. Other times, it’s a distinct piece of content or a new system of some sort. Guild Wars 2 has its character boosts, for example, while Final Fantasy XIV had its tome gear at launch. Star Wars: The Old Republic had planetary commendations at launch.

Basically all of these systems are designed, it should be noted, to address some conceptual problem. I wasn’t sitting in on design meetings, for example, but I’m pretty sure Final Fantasy XIV’s tomestones were there from the word go to encourage players to make progress on content and still have an advancement method at the level cap while also avoiding issues with the luck of the drop. Guild Wars 2 character boosts are there to make sure that players can skip ahead to new expansions, as close as you can get to the stand-alone expansions of its predecessor. SWTOR wanted to encourage players to follow all of a planet’s storylines. You get the general idea.

Hello, and welcome to Problem!

2. Genuinely degenerate gameplay is considered

“Say, Rodney, I wanted to talk with you about the planetary commendation system.”
“Oh, sure, Melissa. Yeah, I’m real proud of that. You earn commendations by doing quests and cash them out for good level-appropriate gear, and then -”
“Right, I was there for the presentation. Why should I spend them?”
“Huh? You… you get level-appropriate gear, and -”
“But if I save the commendations on the first planet, can’t I just spend them on the next planet?”
“…good point.”

This entirely fictitious scenario is meant to illustrate a point – something comes up that breaks how players are intended to use the system. This doesn’t just mean the system is being used in a different way than intended, this means that something actually unintentional is coming up and the designers have to address it. Luckily, that in and of itself isn’t complicated, right?

3. Counterbalances are introduced to avoid this

So GW2 boosts you up to level 80, but new players might not know how to spend hero points, or they might use that to just unlock and master elite specs and never bother with other stuff. Thus, all your hero points are spent to unlock your basic skills and the normal specializations; issue solved.

So FFXIV lets you get good gear by spending tomestones, but it’s just as powerful as gear from the game’s progression content, which removes incentives to work on progression. Why not add in a very slightly weaker version of tomestone gear, then let players upgrade it to a more powerful version with drops coming from progression content? That means progression players still get good gear and there’s more motivation to push. Issue solved.

4. The counterbalances themselves cause issues

Oh wait; that didn’t solve any issues at all. Sure, now SWTOR planetary commendations are now something you ant to spend on the planet you get them; now they’re totally useless when you level past the planet. You have all of your hero points handled in GW2, but you now need tons of additional points just to unlock new elite specializations. FFXIV players include lots of people who actually liked the game’s original tomestone system, and they want some approach to let players upgrade gear without going into progression content – and the designers recognize that not everyone enjoys that gameplay style anyway.

It’s not that the initial fix was bad, exactly, it’s that solving one problem causes others to crop up inevitably. But if you fixed one, you can fix others, right?

A counterweight to a counterweight to a counterweight.

5. Counterbalances are introduced to fix the counterbalances

Well, this is all solvable. After all, you just add some system to FFXIV to let non-progression people upgrade items too, that’s fair – just put it behind some other content and behind a time gate, right? Why not tie that into the 24-person raid content? Why not just give players more hero points for challenges in further content for GW2? Why not make modifiable gear rarer in SWTOR and make it most reliably obtained from planetary commendations?

Of course, there’s another problem that’s probably tickling at the back of your brain now. If all of the last set of fixes introduced new problems, won’t this round introduce another set of problems? In fact, doesn’t this mean that you’re going to…

6. Repeat steps 4 and 5

There are two important things to consider here. The first is that this is usually something that happens over an extended period of time, with various solutions meant to gently nudge players into the intended play flow. Sometimes, it even means adapting the flow to be something else together, because it turns out players like the unadjusted format and it’s not doing bad things to the health of the game.

It’s also important to note that this is not indicative of an actual problem with game design. To use a different FFXIV example, the developers realized only after launch that players were chain-running Amdapor Keep at max speed to obtain the at-the-time desirable Allagan Tomestones of Mythology as fast as possible. That meant no one was doing Wanderer’s Palace, which was meant to ease players into Amdapor Keep. So the rewards for WP were improved… at which point people started running that at top speed at all times, which is why the next major patch introduced the roulette feature to avoid chain-running one dungeon.

Of course, at the time roulettes couldn’t be entered in a party, which was another problem… but again, you get the idea. It’s a series of fixes meant to balance things out over time, and while there may be issues with each individual fix, the set of counterbalances is a good thing.

7. The system works if you understand its intent

For a while, everything is gliding along nicely. Each counterbalance to earlier counterbalances is introduced in a way that makes logical sense, and so finding out “you get gear from these merchants, but you need to have this currency, and you can get it in any of these maps, but you can’t get it from the same map twice in one week” and so forth makes sense because, well, you were here for the changes.

And hey, for your money, what does it matter? You know what you’re supposed to be doing, and the system rewards you for it. So everything is fine!

Wait, no, this is actually a problem.

8. Explanations become harder to access

In fact, everything is so fine that increasingly stuff fades into the background, because you’ve been there for each step of the path. It no longer even pings on your radar that in order to get a new tomestone weapon in FFXIV, you have to run the story version of progression content for several weeks, getting an automatic drop once per week, and save your tomestones along the way, and later upgrade. It’s a trip to like four or five different vendors, but since you understood the process along the way, it seems simple to you.
And it seems simple to the designers, too. So rather than explaining what you’re doing or why, you just sort of glide along, upgrading normally. Which is all well and good, except…

9. Everything becomes too complicated for new players to understand

Suddenly, things have looped back around. The system which was designed to solve all of these various issues has created a new degenerate bit of gameplay where a new player wouldn’t understand that. Heck, it doesn’t even need to be a subtle thing. There’s a repeatable challenge for hero points right by the first city in GW2’s latest expansion that offers a whopping 10 points right away, so you can unlock your elite specialization nice and quickly… but there’s nothing pointing you in that direction. It just assumes you’ll head that way automatically instead of actually pointing you that way.

Now you reach the point where things are complex, but they seem simple to existing players. So existing players feel like the system is fine, and new players have nothing pointing them to the stuff that is, in fact, important. What’s to be done? Well…

10. Remove all counterbalances and start from the beginning

From a design standpoint, you knock things back down to square one. You start over from a basis of no assumptions. And this time, in the back of your mind you think that you’ll get it right. Strip away the artifice and make the system nice and straightforward, right?

Until you need a counterbalance for the new system, anyway.

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 justin@massivelyop.com or eliot@massivelyop.com with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
newest oldest most liked
Subscribe to:
oldandgrumpy
Reader
Kickstarter Donor
oldandgrumpy

The complexity doesn’t help games as they age either. When all the theory crafters and guide writers leave the game it becomes opaque to new players and they don’t stick around.

Reader
Maggie May

Thevarion onions or whatever they were called. I became obsessed with growing them and when I finally had them ,I lost interest and went onto the next thing like the tomes, which I really hated. Never got all the books either. At one point I had to ask myself … Why am I doing this? I loathe gear grind, I’m fine while I’m lvling but repeating content over and over tends to drive me away. That said I miss my Goobbue and Chocobo. I also went nuts to get a house when they first came out became a crazy merchant to raise the money to get the last house at the time. I guess that’s it. I need to have something on the line to jump all in, not the grinding for no reason, having to mine at a special time to get the good stuff. Crafting at higher lvls got nuts.

Reader
styopa

FWIW I’d offer an alternate but not entirely unrelated list:
1) Develop charming MMO with interesting mechanics.
2) Wide-scale play uncovers some gaps in mechanics. Patch them away
3) Your patches broke other mechanics. Re-set a little, re-scaling some stuff and re-implementing others.
4) Theorycrafters finally catch up, narrow your beautiful variety of 14 classes with 3 different specs each to about 5 worth playing. Players all chase this FotM. Rejigger classes to mess with theory crafters equations.
5) People reaching level cap, getting bored. Introduce grindy new mechanics trading massive amounts of time-wasting for incrementally-tiny improvements in gear.
6) Game is big hit, you need to implement expansions, find out mechanics scale poorly, re-set some mechanics. All tiny BiS gear completely outclassed by early-adventuring drops in expansion. Former conceptions of talent trees either entirely rewritten (WoW) or implement another new talent tree system that sits on top of old one (EQ2, Rift).
7) Marketing dept says they need some reasons for people to buy expansions. Intro new class that uses new mechanics.
7.5) New class is grossly op. Rebalance with the nerfbat “TO THE GROUND, BABY”
(return to 6, rinse, repeat).

Reader
styopa

I’d just be happy if web page standards included a composition date or significant-edit date as HTML standard. Just being able to usefully filter out “everything before 2016” would make any Rift, WoW, EQ2, SWTOR, etc-related search 100x more useful.

IMO google’s date flags or sortbydate functions don’t seem to do much at all.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Tandor

“Complexity” and “World of Warcraft” in the same sentence? Really?

I don’t think MMOs have become more complicated, on the contrary most have been consistently dumbed down over the years mainly because, or so it seems to me, the players themselves have become dumbed down. They’re not prepared any more to talk to an NPC unless there’s a quest marker over his head and even then they don’t want to listen to the voice-over or read the text, they just want another marker on the map to show them where to go next and a quest tracker in the corner of the screen to tell them what to do when they get there. They’re not prepared to read about skills and allocation of points, they need a streamer on You Tube to show them what to do and which build to follow because they certainly aren’t willing to devote any time to finding stuff out for themselves.

As for new players in a game, it’s all handed to them on a plate. At least half dozen levels in the first hour. There are few games that do anything differently to the rest, and those that do try and offer something different are immediately panned because “they’re not like WoW”. The only new players that struggle are those that don’t read, don’t listen, and don’t think.

I still enjoy MMOs 20 years in, but are we seriously claiming that they’re becoming more complicated? I simply don’t believe it!

Reader
Sray

Don’t confuse reduced depth with complexity. Most MMORPGs today have multiple different progression systems that are never well explained in game. And many of these systems are interlocked in various ways to keep players chasing some carrot. The fact that leveling is faster in order to herd players into the endgame, or that skill point builds have been simplified doesn’t mean there isn’t still a load of poorly explained, needlessly complex systems cluttering up your average MMORPG.

Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Tandor

Sorry but I don’t see “needlessly complex systems cluttering up” any of the MMORPGs I’m currently playing or have played, I just see ever more simplified ones.

Reader
Sray

Then I’m guessing you’ve never been in a position to try to explain in 25 words or less how housing generators work in DCUO, or Dark versus Light in SWTOR to a complete MMO newcomer. These are the sorts of things that I’m talking about, and if you think that these are really simplified systems, I’m scared of what you would consider complex.

Reader
Schmidt.Capela

They are simple enough for MMO (and gaming) veterans. I mean, take me for example; I’ve been playing games for enough decades that just about every system a dev could think of I’ve seen (and played with) in some other game, so it’s easy for me to understand even complex game systems.

Forgetting that is one of the traps that devs — who are often veteran gamers themselves — can fall into. If they forget that the average gamer has far less experience than them, they could end with a game that only a small part of the player base can understand with a reasonable effort.

Reader
Sray

Exactly, and it gets even worse when you consider that many of these sorts of systems have little to no in game explanation. My best example: the Dark versus Light system in SWTOR has literally no explanation beyond a small pop up window that briefly skims through the system; and at no point is it ever given any context within the game itself. If you’re just getting into MMORPGs (and SWTOR is a very common “my first MMO” these days) that system and its complete lack of in game context makes zero sense and pushes many a new player out of the genre just as they’re getting their feet wet.

Reader
Melissa McDonald

given that you’re trying to create a living world, it can honestly never be complicated “enough” to reach that goal.

The important thing is to keep it fun and keep focused on the fact that it’s “just” a video game, ultimately.

Vexia
Reader
Kickstarter Donor
Vexia

Not gonna lie, the endgame gear progression in Heavensward hit me like a confusing bag of bricks because I didn’t hit 60 exactly with the curve. I’d been taking for granted my progress going in lockstep with each new patch, but if you don’t keep up with both the major patches and the inbetweens, it’s an easy wagon to fall off of! I’m grateful to the guide-making community though.

Reader
Mark

Excellent article

Reader
MesaSage

The problem is time scale. If the game has been around for a while, then complicated additions don’t seem so complicated to the player base. They’ve already absorbed the game to that point. For the newbie, coming late to the game means have to absorb a variety of systems, some of which supplant the systems with which they were just becoming proficient. In a game that’s 10 years old or so, it’s a daunting task to start from scratch and get to max.

Reader
Patreon Donor
Kickstarter Donor
Loyal Patron
agemyth 😩

So complex yet none of them have the variety and complexity of some of the old greats of the genre.