You know what gets me excited about upcoming MMOs? It’s certainly not the list of expected systems and features that have since become standard for most games in this genre. Good-looking fantasy online RPG? Neato, that’s terrific, but what else are you selling?
No, what truly grabs my attention is when a dev team uses its imagination and comes up with a creative feature that makes me sit back and say, “Wow, I wish they all had this!”
It’s a shame that we have seen plenty of these systems over the years that were tried maybe once or twice but never adapted into the greater sphere. Today we’re going to come up with 10 examples of such features that truly did try something revolutionary (or at least pretty cool) but haven’t seen follow-ups in games since.
1. Nearly unlimited character creation (City of Heroes)
Here’s what I think happened with MMORPGs. I think that when the graphical era came along, the devs really got keen on the idea that we’d have all of these different visual and stat-boosted armor pieces to chase and wear that this gear grind would become one of the tentpoles of the game. And so the more that this became standard, character creation was watered down into a bland watery gruel that allowed for very little personal expression.
Then City of Heroes came along and said, “You know what? Make the character you really want to make. Dress them how you want. Look like you’re endgame awesome right out of the gate, and we’ll handle the whole ‘stat progression’ thing a different way.” And it worked. It worked so well that this became one of the most beloved features of the game, spurring millions of alts and costume contests and a level of instant accessibility with new players. So why aren’t we seeing this more? Why is it still about that visual gear grind?
2. NPC social “combat” (Vanguard)
Maybe it was a less-than-thrilling minigame when you really look at it, but Vanguard’s diplomacy system had the spark of a genius idea. Namely, it turned interactions with NPCs into a social combat system to represent players getting the best of other characters, working their way up in society’s circles, and gaining influence over key people. I’d really love to see other systems put into MMOs that are just as deep, well-thought-out and engaging as combat, and this one truly has that potential.
3. Player housing as a central feature (The Sims Online)
We’ve got plenty of MMOs with player housing, and some of them are so good that’s all part of the community ever does in those games. But what about an MMO that put player housing as its core feature with others revolving around it? That’s what The Sims Online (and, in a different way, Second Life) attempted. There’s a lot of reasons that TSO didn’t work, but I don’t think that it failed because of the overall idea. After all, The Sims continues to be a red-hot franchise even in 2018 and has proven that people love to play virtual dollhouse and life simulators. Maybe someone needs to step up to the plate and take on EA with their own unique IP?
4. Collectible soundtrack music (RuneScape)
For all of the things we collect and prize in MMOs, it’s weird to me that one thing almost every game has — music — is never one of them. When RuneScape allowed players to collect tracks as they played through the game and access them any time via an in-game music player, it became an instant smack-yourself-on-the-forehead awesome idea. Which hasn’t been done before or since. Even in games that have truly gigantic soundtrack folders. Er, why is this?
5. Branching quest choices (Star Wars: The Old Republic)
SWTOR’s storytelling “pillar” was always propped up by the promise that players would have actual agency in the quests themselves thanks to choices. Sure, many of these were cosmetic or unduly influenced by the dark/light system, but I stand by the opinion that branching quest choices was a terrific addition and one that made the game as a whole much more robust. It’s something that I think a lot of us would love to see in other MMOs that give us no choices and very few twists as we blindly follow “kill ten rats” and FedEx chores to their conclusion.
6. Sailing (Ultima Online, ArcheAge)
When someone pointed out to me how few MMOs were ever made with sailing (or any watersport, really), I was flabbergasted. We have far, far more fantasy MMOs with flight than we do that allow you to board a boat and cruise up and down bodies of water. Isn’t that weird? Seems weird to me. It seems like this would be a very natural way to expand a game world, give players a different way to experience that world, and pave the way for even more related systems. Heck, I’d be happy if I could kayak down rivers in some MMOs, wouldn’t you?
7. Monster play (LOTRO, EverQuest)
Ever get tired of being the hero all of the time? In a world of online roleplaying games, the roleplay is often limited to anything on D&D’s “good” tier. But sometimes we wouldn’t mind taking a trip down morally grey or even downright villainous routes, which is why it’s cool that some games have provided experiences where you can play as monsters and have a bit of out-of-body fun. I think that an MMO that would allow players to jump into the skin of any mob in the game at any time would make for a deliciously unpredictable and exciting experience, even if the mobs themselves would be far below an average player’s power level.
8. Alternative specialization paths (WildStar)
Ah, WildStar. So many interesting ideas, so many failed executions. Perhaps the greatest of these was the path system, which promised players alternative ways to experience the game through exploration, science, (more) combat, and building. The system was obviously gutted and implemented in a half-hearted way, but if you look back at the reception of the hype when the game was in development, you’d see a lot of players who were hungry for such an idea done well. We’re kind of tired of killing non-stop all of the time, but we also know that combat is the most supported sytem in MMOs. But… what if it wasn’t? What if combat shared the stage with other leveling paths that were just as engaging but in different ways?
9. Expanding player journals (Warhammer Online)
When Warhammer Online launched, it took the idea of achievements and RPG character journals and melded them together into the Tome of Knowledge. At the time it was marketed as an ever-expanding story of a character’s journey through the game, although in execution it was a slightly more cumbersome achievement system. Still, the team had a germ of an important idea here and one that’s worth exploring further. A character journal that you would constantly unlock (granting rewards, information, and special bonuses) has roots in RPGs of yore and could help to plant roots deep into a game. It would be pretty awesome to have a one-stop place to look over your path in the game to date, including the story, encounters, and progress.
10. Swappable classes (Final Fantasy XIV, RIFT)
Out of the many ideas that FFXIV does right, the one that gets the biggest praise from me is the ability to swap classes (jobs) without having to reroll a character. We should long be past the era where a character is forever locked into a single class and offers no option for a bored player at endgame to either stick with it or reroll (or field an army of alts). Being able to change and level classes on the fly is a brilliant and very user-friendly concept and should be used far more than it is.