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.
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?”
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?
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!
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.