Massively Overthinking: Are MMO developers stuck in the past?


Earlier this month – so what feels like at least a few years ago – the MMO community amused itself jousting over comments from former Blizzard developers that seemed out of touch with socializing in MMOs, World of Warcraft, and even the historical record. In the midst of it all, we discussed on the MOP Podcast an email from MOP reader Brazen Bondar wanting to know how we got to this place where developers who really ought to know better are pining for old mistakes instead of trying to innovate.

“Why are these developers stuck in one mode? Every one is trying to recreate something that existed over a decade ago instead of experimenting with what socialization might mean today and perhaps telling some, dare I say it, new stories. People are still social today, but they want other avenues and ways to express it. Yet developer after developer insists on building games that go against the grain of how people socialize today. Corporate capital is driving some of that decision making, but that can’t be the whole story because the game starts with a team of developers. Why do you think they are resistant to rethinking what it means to be social in game?”

Social gameplay certainly isn’t the only example, either; look at how little has changed in most dungeon and crafting systems over the years. So let’s tackle Brazen’s question: Are MMO developers stuck in the past, and if so, what is going on here?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I don’t blame just MMO developers but developers in general. Let’s take something basic: communication. There are games like Tactical Iraqi that have the player (US military personnel) use voice chat and in-game gestures to interact with a foreign culture in a foreign language… and we’re talking about NPCs. I was especially surprised that VR games, when headsets often came with built in mics, did not have players, say, uttering magic words to shoot firebolts. I know movement tracking tech isn’t perfect, but voice recognition tech has certainly improved, and it’s a mystery to me why more games don’t try to utilize it. Old school MMOs used “gesture” (via emotes), but we don’t see that so much anymore.

Then there’s basic aggro systems. It’s usually good guys vs. bad guys. We know games can be smarter. Why don’t our MMO worlds have something more complex? If we approach a sentient NPC slowly, announce our presence, and offer a gift, why can’t we perhaps find a way to join them? Why can I kill a wolf within earshot of other wolves without them scattering or attacking me? Heck, why aren’t more dungeon strongholds designed to force the player to endure waves and waves of defenders searching for them as they move forward? We could have stealth play – or if you want players to feel powerful – give players the sense they’re taking on armies, not just static NPCs waiting to be attacked and returning from thin-air in five minutes.

Heck, let’s look at combat! For Honor had a really interesting take on things, with more than just block or dodge, but matching a block/parry area in one of 3 locations with the attacker to repel them. We can’t archers shoot oil-soaked arrows for mages to light-up?

Tech limitations are a thing – let’s be honest. Staying with what’s known is easy. But I feel like Nintendo in particular is a successful company because it looks at tech and strategies that have been tested for awhile (and have fallen in price) and takes them for a whirl in a new direction. What’s sad about Nintendo (and I’d argue VR as well) is that even when someone else does the heavy lifting and does something unique and innovative, other developers are rarely inspired enough to follow in their footsteps and try something out for themselves. I know I’ve said this before: It’s why even though I play mainstream stuff so I can try to connect with more gamers, the indie stuff usually is what excites me the most, and as MMOs are hugely expensive, that’s why I feel our genre in particular struggles with a lack of innovation.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I guess I don’t see this, or maybe I’m just happy with how social (or non-social) MMOs are at the moment. The chat box has seen a decreased significance with the rise of more active combat systems that don’t allow for simultaneous chatting and battling. However, that seems to have caused an increase in the use of external hands-free voice chat systems, which actually afford the player more privacy protection as the communication cannot me monitored by the game company. Is that not innovation, or at least evolution?

A separate debate may be how few actual RPG features are developed and incorporated into MMORPG’s currently. In LOTRO, there’s an entire music system that allows for actual composition and playback. In ESO, your instrument simply cycles through a few pre-determined songs. In neither case do I see recycling of old ideas or systems. Whether that’s good or bad, I’ll leave to the reader.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): This wound up being a rather long conversation on the podcast, but the answer is yes, some developers are stuck in one era of the past when it comes to some MMO topics. The Blizzard devs who sparked the “social” discussion, for example, are stuck in one specific, painfully myopic slice of WoW’s past. Many Kickstarter MMO devs are stuck trying to recreate the golden days that never were when it comes to Ultima Online’s PvP and EverQuest’s PvE. There are other systems that are still seeing significant iteration by modern devs, guilds being the big social one we discussed on the show. And then there are still more that haven’t really progressed at all, crafting and economy being the one that strikes me as most dire.

I do want to stress that I don’t think borrowing from the past is bad. I think it’s critical! Way too many great ideas are abandoned for reasons that had nothing to do with merit. We need to be taking the best past ideas and melding them with the best modern ideas. We need modern devs to be learning from old mistakes and triumphs alike.

But we have reached the point in the genre’s lifespan when new blood is diverting to non-MMOs, and it’s becoming a balance problem. The brain-drain to easier, faster, cheaper, and richer genres has left us bereft of the developers, financing, and new ideas that would keep MMOs fresh and current, and those we have left are concentrated in a handful of studios and games now. It shouldn’t really surprise us that many of the designers who weren’t lured away to MOBAs, survival sandboxes, and battle royales are the people who built the old MMOs and want to build them again, the same way many MMO players are the people who played the old games and (at least say they) want to play them again. Sure, sometimes it’s nostalgia. But sometimes, for devs and players, it’s not.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): I remember having a super passionate position on this two weeks ago, I don’t think developers are so out of touch they’re super bought into “the good ol’ days.” When people mention how things are less social in MMOs, I think they’re referring to how quiet chat can be when blazing through a four-person daily dungeon. I honestly don’t ever want to return to a time where I’m yelling “Assassin LFG” so I can run a mission in Guild Wars. It was fine when I had a million hours to play, but today I just want to go. But there was a bright side to it: You were happy to finally get that tank or healer. And you can befriend them for future runs.

Duty and raid finders have their advantages too. They address the issue of spending hours searching for another person. Did we go too far in a certain direction, though? I’d say so! But when mass appeal is a major goal, the bigger MMOs are going to go for the lowest common denominator. That’ll attract all sorts of people. Duty finders and whatnot really help support the more introverted people, but when you pair that with a stringent trinity system, players will be more judgmental of each other rather than happy to see each other. Of course, this is all based on my experiences. I’ve been subject to scrutiny and even kicked out of parties without a word because of my performance. Just read a subreddit for an MMO and there’ll be rant threads so folks can rant about how offensively bad that person in their party was. When players are reduced to just “tank, healer, ninja,” it’s dehumanizing and insensitive. But I think it came from a combination of the duty finder and a trinity system.

Speaking of Reddit, MMO culture goes beyond the game now. People rally to streamers, subreddits, and Discords. The community is there. Just go to the PSO2 discord and read all the grief these folks are going to right now. You’d think the game is sunsetting with all the frustration and anger stemming from their inability to install the darn thing.

While being forced to group up is social, it’s not the same as standing in a spot with a bunch of people grinding monsters for hours at a time. Even when the group is slow, most of duty finder experiences range between 10-30 minutes (less than that because my tanking is on point and players I’m partied with should be grateful. I’M KIDDING.). That’s not enough time to warm up to the people you’re playing with (unless you’re partied with me; I’m very warm and people warm up to me easily and they should be thankful I’m there! KIDDING AGAIN.). But even with that model, something can be done to make things more social.

If people want a more positive, non-judgmental atmosphere, design the game around it. I honestly think some simple additions can go a long way. PSO2 has so many things it’s getting right (assuming it installs). In PSO2, players get more experience just by playing with other people. When you buy something from the game’s marketboard, you can send a “kudos” to the seller to thank them for having the item in stock. Sending the kudos not only spreads the love but even rewards the players for it! The game rewards behavior it wants to see more of, and that’s a step in the right direction. Sending good vibes should be rewarded in the game if devs want more socialization to happen.

Here’s another one: sending positive reports for positive behavior. I remember when Guild Wars did website shout-outs to players who helped other players. I was sooooo motivated to be even more positive to the players around me. It doesn’t need to go that far, but instead of having the typical “add friend, block, report” buttons when you right click on a name, why not add a “send hugs” button or something? It’s basically a report for positive player behavior. Players can send a screenshot of the positive messages, and it can be compiled on a week to week shout-out or something.

I’ve got another: Players could earn a little for doing dailies with the same stranger day after day. For some reason, it feels really good when I run into a player I played with the other day. It’s like a happy coincidence. So lets say you run a leveling roulette in Final Fantasy XIV on Tuesday. If you run another leveling roulette the next day with someone you ran a daily with the day before, you get a little extra! It encourages mixing up the playerbase! Sometimes, simple is best.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’m not sure it’s a question of being stuck in the past so much as going with what works. There are a lot of moving parts to an MMO, and some of the primary ones — the ones that get top billing on the sizzle reels — are presentation, world, and combat. Those are where most dev focus lies and where most first impressions are made, so things like social systems get copypasta’d in the interest of time (presumably).

That’s not to say that social systems can’t be a headline focus. Inns could easily become a standee for the group finder as well as a social place and a location for players to get some food and/or music buffs before heading out a la Monster Hunter World, for example.

Samon Kashani (@thesamkash): I’d say developers are completely stuck in the past. At a glance it’s easy to see too. Just look at the absolute over abundance of Kickstarters with the main goal of bringing back the good old days. Legends of Aria and Pantheon are the first two to come to mind, suggesting that they’ll make games fun again the way they used to be.

A big part of that attitude comes from nostalgia, whether those developers would admit it or not. Rose tinted glasses and all that. Although we’ve run this river a dozen times, it’s clear it hasn’t been said enough. The way games used to be may have been great for the time and for what they had going for them, but it definitely isn’t the only – and especially not – the best way to make games today.

We give Fortnite and its ilk a hard time. We say, “Well just because it’s popular doesn’t make it right.” The same can be said about those old games and how we remember them: Just because they were popular at the time doesn’t mean they were right.

Tyler Edwards: MMO developers are people just like anyone else, and subject to the same biases as anyone. A lot of the MMO community is blinded by nostalgia. There’s no magic formula protecting developers from falling into the same mindset.

I’m not defending it. I find this all extremely frustrating. But it’s not hard to explain.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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