MMO Mechanics: 2017’s MMO Mechanics in review


I cannot quite believe that we’re saying goodbye to 2017 and ringing in 2018 so quickly: It certainly doesn’t feel as though an entire year has passed since I last looked back on the progress of the column and delved into the comments section to see how the topics at hand were debated there. MMO Mechanics is my favourite column to write, though I didn’t visit it quite as often this year since Guild Chat received quite a few submissions, and what makes it so fantastic is the way the comments section extends the topic beyond my offerings for a more rounded look at the topic at hand.

With mulled wine in hand and festive decor all around me, I’ve curled up on my couch to craft another look back at a year of conversation: In this edition of MMO Mechanics, I’ll recap my thoughts on the main topics I covered this year and will highlight the comments that stood out to me because of how they furthered the conversation. This should be a great column snapshot for you if you’ve missed some editions along the way, and I also love having a chance to highlight the commenters that make the column great. Be sure to check and see if your comments are featured!

The modern sandbox MMO

Back in February, I decided to highlight some upcoming sandbox MMOs that I felt had mechanics to get excited over, and I was delighted with the response in the comments to my short list and rationale for each decision. Looking back, I’m still delighted with the mechanical offerings of the titles I chose to highlight and am still convinced that they will make an enduring mark on the MMO sandbox model. I’m sure I’ll revisit this piece in detail in 2018, perhaps with a follow-up that explains the state of each game today and discusses how the mechanics have transpired or grown in the last twelve months.

Some commenters seemed to suggest that they’d love a truly sandbox MMO that didn’t devolve into a PvP gankfest because of its freeform nature, which I found interesting since I also prize exploration and worldbuilding over combat. This was summarised best by Robert Mann, who explained that a strong societal system could be the way around this problem.

The game that will really capture my interest as my next MMO will have to include a more interactive world, less focus on just combat, and also not leave players wide open to constant griefing or ganking. Ideally it will have an actual society in which everyone plays a role, rather than a storyline in which everyone is yet again the special one of a kind hero. — Robert Mann

I also really appreciated Isarii’s assertion that a good deal of dumb luck and good timing would be needed for any modern sandbox to find the strong niche community that helps such games thrive: Many developers have tried and failed with similar mechanics, after all. MMOs are nothing without a dedicated playerbase that regularly logs in and their success often boils down to how well a studio can maintain concurrency, so it’s hard to fault the logic here.

There’s definitely a lot up in the air for whether or not it will actually capture the magic of any of those games though. Even if it nails the systems design, there’s quite a bit of sheer dumb luck involved in getting the right kind of dedicated, niche community that games like this need to thrive. — Isarii

Interesting healing mechanics

All too often, the healers among our ranks feel a little bit lacklustre and groups can struggle to find a player willing to take on the task in some MMOs. I made the point that mods and add-ons have the potential to dilute healing mechanics in some games down to little more than click and repeat, which isn’t much fun for anyone. This article was inspired by another: A Daily Grind had so many excellent healing setups in the comments section that I just had to explore what was discussed for myself in MMO Mechanics. I decided that healing mechanics that kept the same sense of heroic exhilaration as tank and DPS builds was the trick to making compelling healing mechanics before opening up the debate and gathering your thoughts.

Sally Bowls took the debate in another direction by questioning whether or not healers should even exist if players dislike filling the support role and tend to gravitate to DPS. Mentioning that some MMOs can afford to cater to those who do like niche roles but most cannot was also very astute: Player trends dictate future development, so how has the healer been largely left in a state of second-best? It was definitely food for thought, and I’d love to have the capacity to research what sort of roles players select when given freeform reign over character skill building and do some analysis to see if healing really is as unloved as I suspect.

I like healing, but think this warrants asking the meta question: should there be healers? If people greatly prefer buying blue shirts instead of lime green shirts, then instead of existential ruminations on how to better market/make lime green shirts, you could just make more blue shirts. If the customers are always going to prefer DPS, then at what point do all but the largest devs (WoW can afford to be an everything MMO; CU et al can not), after much “pearls before swine” and “back in my day” rants while drinking, decide their resources are more effectively spent trying elsewhere than trying to get their customers to not DPS? — Sally Bowls

I found myself nodding along while reading the points made by Zuldar too: The focus for the healer in far too many MMOs is, by the nature of the role’s mechanics, locked on the game’s UI and not on the action. It’s a tricky conundrum: Of course healers must be aware of the status of all teammates in order to strategically heal, but there are more appealing, intuitive ways of displaying that information that we see in some games.

My biggest issue with healing is you spend more time looking at the UI than the combat. I’d like to see at least one healer become a bit weaker DPS with healing as a side affect of doing damage. Every damaging move should then either have a varying level of heal or buff attached to it.

Then they could do something cool like giving multiple ways to rotate through skills, so in order to successfully heal the encounter you have to match the tempo of the fight. Use a big heal when you only needed a small one and you might not have it ready to deal with spike damage.

Then they could even tie it into the music, with the rhythm giving a hint as to what type of heal or buff would be best to use next. — Zuldar

GW2 mechanics on the brain: Materials and mountgate

The final quarter of the year was dominated by Guild Wars 2: I wrote not just one but two game-specific MMO Mechanics entries about the game. The first piece was about material storage and the game’s economy, and I explained that some new materials that came along with the Path of Fire expansion would not have a storage slot in the game’s rather useful material storage bank. I discussed why I found it so problematic and also considered the reasons why it would be ineffective at preventing the problem described by ArenaNet in which players would hoard new materials until they were sure they had no use for them, which would set an artificially high trading post price for them.

The comments section was excellent for this topic and several important questions were asked: Some readers found the measure taken by ArenaNet to be prudent and unobtrusive, while others found it problematic and pointed to wider mechanic faults that could be addressed rather than relying on temporary fixes for stabilising the economy. Other players noted their enjoyment of the storage mechanics in the game and were happy to store any number of things provided their purpose was made clear. The diverse range of opinions on this one was interesting as it’s a bit of a reflection on how much we struggle with balancing real-world economies, but that’s an entire topic of its own!

I still believe that the team have blamed the wrong mechanic for the flax problem and are really comparing apples and oranges here. One reader, Ashfyn Ninegold, summarised it quite nicely! Many thanks to Sally Bowls, Miol, Arktouros, and James Slate in particular for the inspiring debate here too.

You can say it. The problem is one of design that they created themselves. The premium on storage for mats is a design they created themselves. They are pushing it back to players in what will be an ineffective attempt to modify behavior that is the result of their design. — Ashfyn Ninegold

Finally, I wrote a piece on Mountgate that discussed the company’s experimentation with hotly debated lootbox mechanics when it came to providing players with access to new skins for the recently added mounts. The timing was absolutely atrocious and, as far as gambling mechanics go, the mount licence is by no means the worst offender on the market, but it was interesting to discuss what happened and the lessons the company could learn. I discussed the company’s response and what I would have done to make the lootbox more player-friendly while still incentivising its sale.

The comments section was a fantastic source of points for further thought and I thoroughly enjoyed reading the opinions there. While some people saw the lootbox as a non-issue, many agreed that it was poorly executed and that the company needed to rethink its purchasing mechanics for such highly coveted items. A few players, such as Aywren, even stated that, despite making purchases for coveted items previously, the principle of the licence meant that they wouldn’t spend at all on the mount skins.

I have a pretty staunch stance that I won’t pay a game for a chance at getting something I like. And I do like some of the skins, but the RNG is a no-no.

I would have purchased a few of these outright if I was able to choose the skin, even at a higher gem price — similar to how I have purchased glider skins in the past. However, because skins are locked behind RNG, I spent no money at all. ANet’s loss. — Aywren

Over to you!

I always really enjoy looking back through a year’s worth of column entries and reevaluating all the thoughts, discussions, and suggestions that fly around in the comments section. The MOP community makes writing the sort of content I do a joy because the discussion doesn’t end at the end of the article, and even when I don’t have time to weigh in again in the comments section, I read, digest, and value them all. You lot have caused more than one household debate in my home… long may it continue! Happy holidays!

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively’s Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. MMO Mechanics explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs. If there’s a specific topic you’d like to see dissected, drop Tina a comment or send an email to
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