Fight or Kite: Features MMOs could borrow from successful esports titles

    
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This week I wanted to try something a little different in our PvP-centric Fite or Kite column and take a look at a number of successful esports PvP games to consider whether there are common features or design decisions they’ve applied to grow so popular. Perhaps we could co-opt those ideas to bring more players to our MMOs.

I’m not here to suggest that our MMOs need to be designed around esports; however, we cannot ignore that something about these games is sticky. They grab great numbers of players, and that alone is a key component of ensuring our games are alive and enjoyable. So let’s see if I can find any commonalities in these games and consider if those are features our MMOs could take advantage of, or if they already do.

Intrinsic can mean lots of things.

The titles I’ve considered

Before I dive into the topic, I’m going to touch on the games I looked at when searching for features. Fortnite, Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO), League of Legends (LoL), and Rocket League are the four I’ve picked out. There isn’t any particular reason that I picked these titles other than they are the most familiar to me, although I haven’t played all of them myself either. At first blush, yes, these are in fact some of the most popular esports games. And yes, I know that there are successful PvP games that aren’t esports. However, we can’t deny that the esports industry isn’t growing, so they must be doing something right.

My choice of games to examine here covers several different game types. We have cars playing soccer, two different shooters, and a lane defense game. However, if we squint our eyes and carefully thread this needle, we’ll see that there are actually several features they have in common that any MMO studio considering PvP should keep in mind.

Free to play means no barrier to entry

Let’s start at the very first thing a potential player sees when looking at a game: the price. With the exception go Rocket League, all these games are free to play. Removing price as a barrier to entry is huge. The primary reason I’ve played over half the games I have in the last 10 years was because they were free-to-play. In fact, a close friend encouraged me to play Rocket League for years, yet I never could find the wherewithal to plop down the money on it. It wasn’t until a sale that just happened to include the game that I snagged it and haven’t put it down since.

I don’t want to rehash the subscription vs. free-to-play battle here, but I do believe we should recognize that it is an important factor. I don’t think it would be entirely impossible for games like Guild Wars 2, World of Warcraft, or Star Wars: The Old Republic to have a method for this. Design a token that allowed free to play players to log in, restricted to PvP/arenas only, and play with all other players but only in that mode of the game. If you want more players, make it easy for them to join.

Multiple game modes keep things fresh

All of my games have multiple game modes. Many of them include variations on the same theme, such as Fortnite’s Solo, Duo, and Squads, where the game play is basically unchanged, but the way you play is different. In other cases, the gameplay even changes. In Rocket League’s Dropshot mode, you and your teammates are trying to bust holes in the floor to score points rather than knock a ball through the goalposts.

It is extremely important for a PvP-focused game to keep innovating and trying new game modes. One of the things I loved from the original pitch of Crowfall was that there could be different campaigns with different rule sets. I really love that concept. It reminded me of playing tabletops or board games.

So, studios listen up: Don’t be afraid to innovate. If you look at nearly any industry throughout time, you’ll find a common thread. Companies in a dominate position will begin to stagnate because they are afraid to change for fear of cannibalizing their current products. Don’t be afraid your players will move to the new mode and leave the old behind. That’s not bad – that’s progress.

Gamers want to own their looks

It’s a no-brainer: Everyone wants to be able to customize his or her character (or vehicle). It is one of the keys to having players feel invested in the game. When we play, we want to look exactly how we want. We want to be special in our massive worlds with other players. Owning a look we really love can truly lock us in. Granted, there are some controversies about this because it’s one of the most common methods of monetization.

I know most MMOs already do this, but some of them excel at it. As I listen in on more and more of the City of Heroes discussions, the one thing that always comes up is the extensive and awesome character customization options it had. At the same time, I hear about the fervor and anger when studios choose to restrict character choices (gender-locking anyone?). Do customizations right and you’ll earn a loyal fanbase.

Keep the playing field level

One of the most common approaches to balance for an esports game tends to be that your character’s stats are fairly constant or don’t change at all. Instead, levels or ranks are primarily driving the matchmaking algorithm. In Rocket League, your car never gets faster or carries additional boosts. In Fortnite, players’ stats are flat, but the gear you pick up matters.

Reducing the effects of granting players with more time in game an advantage is critical to success. Not so much because it means that a newbie has a chance of beating a veteran, but more because of what that really means: Skillful play leads to victory, not power as a result of buying gear or playing longer.

The game should be fun to watch

The number of people watching each of these games right now is a testament to how important it is for the game to be fun to watch. It is difficult to know exactly what makes a game better to watch than others, but I’ll take a stab at it.

The action needs to be fairly constant. Fights/moments of action cannot (usually) end too quickly. It can be exciting to see a quick kill-shot, but oftentimes it’s the rising tension of a close bout that really leads to an exciting viewing experience.

These aren’t the only factors that a PvP focused MMO should keep in mind or try to integrate. I also considered the importance of matchmaking, balancing, and discussing the studio’s role in moving the games PvP scene forward, whether toward esports or otherwise. However, I do think that all of these are things that our MMOs can include.

So, readers, typing messages vigorously into a scrolling chat window that I could never hope to keep track of: Do you agree that these items should be included in our PvP MMOs? Do you have any other features from esports games that we could tackle? Or do you think this whole analysis was absurd and has nothing to do with MMOs?

Every other week, Massively OP’s Sam Kash delivers Fight or Kite, our trip through the state of PvP across the MMORPG industry. Whether he’s sitting in a queue or rolling with the zerg, Sam’s all about the adrenaline rush of a good battle. Because when you boil it down, the whole reason we PvP (other than to pwn noobs) is to have fun fighting a new and unpredictable enemy!
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Jeremy Barnes

No, just no.

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Brown Jenkin

I think the level playing field issue is a huge one, and one of the big things MMOs struggle with. Since to some a defining feature of MMO play is vertical progression, you get a ton of push-back against this idea, but particularly in PvP it is essential to having actual competition.

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tiltowait

Game modes is a big one for me. I’m among those who dislike deathmatch/team deathmatch/battle royal, which puts me in a minority. So if buy a game there’s a good chance the game modes I want to play are dead (looking at you CoD4) if the game’s population is low. So having a healthy population so I can play tactical games is essential to me (I keep just going back to overwatch).

Because of that basic anti-cheat measures are important to me. Not spyware/rootkits, though I guess those have their place. I’m talking about simple things, like matchmaking people with others who have similar play-time, so that after a point if someone is going to cheat, they have been caught, and are only destroying gameplay for other new players… half a solution, but if you know that you can level past the cheaters you might have more hope for the game.

I blame rampant cheating on destroying the population in a lot of otherwise good games. I’d like to see more games come up with creative solutions to dealing with it.

Also, how come there are no MOBA shooters, like Smite+Counterstrike but with soldiers?

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

GW2’s base game (no expansions) is free. IIRC you can participate in both Arenas and WvW but don’t have access to expansion specializations. I think there are one or two base specs that can be effective in those modes. At the very least you’ll get a taste for how they do it and as a B2P game it’s not a huge financial investment unlike some of the sub-required games.

One of the big problems with MMO PvP is that the designers keep trying to force-fit RPG PvE skills into something it wasn’t designed for. PvP needs to do burst damage to a small HP pool while managing objectives. PvE needs to whittle down a large HP pool over time while managing mechanics. PvP and PvE modes require independent balance. Trying to shoehorn one into the other does. not. work.

PvP should be all about personal skill and experience. Class levels and gear only creates lopsided fights which is not fun for the out-geared or out-walleted.

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Anstalt

Horizontal Progression (or, keeping the playing field level in your own words) is the abolsute highest priority out of those you’ve listed.

In every MMO I’ve ever played, the PvP community has suffered due to power creep. Those guys at the top of the power curve (which is where I usually am) get to enjoy good, fun, mainly balanced pvp. Everyone else has a shit time, getting stomped by people with massively superior gear and who also have the experience to be higher skilled.

Getting stomped sucks and does not make players want to return, thus vertical progression cuts off the life blood of most MMO PvP communties.

In your typical esports game, horizontal progression makes sure pretty much everyone can contribute and have some fun, right from day 1. Matchmaking takes care of the difference in skill level. If you look at modern shooters, anyone can log in, chuck a grenade or fire a rocket launcher and get some kills. It requires no skill or gear and provides fun right from minute one. That doesn’t happen in MMOs.

I disagree on F2P, on the assumption that you’re talking about MMORPGs and not just MMOs in general. With an MMORPG you want the community to be as good quality as possible as it increases retention, F2P restricts the quality a lot. But, if you just want 500 people in an arena and they’ll never see each other again then F2P is fine (I just won’t play it).

The rest I agree with (well, except watchability, I can never understand why people would ever watch other people gaming, its a concept that defies logic in my mind. if you have time to watch other people play, why the fuck arent you playing yourself?!).

There is another one that I’d like to add to the list, though I don’t think it comes from esports: long time-to-kill.

In my experience, a long TTK gives everyone the impression that they actually have a chance and that they’re contributing. Even if they’re guaranteed to lose, a fight lasting 1 minute at least gives the loser a chance to enjoy the fight. If theyre dead in 3 seconds, not only have they lost (which is bad) but they havent even really been playing (which is worse). A long TTK also opens up more tactics as its not all about burst damage, and gives a chance for friends to come help which improves the social aspect.

This is kind of related to downtime, in a way. With esports pvp, downtime is quite limited because you’re always in small arenas, so even if you get stomped in 3s, you can be back fighting 10s later after the respawn. In MMO PvP, it might take you a few minutes to run back to the fight which is why a long TTK is even more important.

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tiltowait

TTK is a tough one for me. With a long TTK the balance can easily favor healers, and I could see that becoming a snooze-fest on the battlefield, with no sides dying. On the other hand with a short TTK you make gear more important, as everyone wants to one-shot their targets.

I don’t have an answer for it, other than playtesting.