Massively Overthinking: Changing the mindset of the MMO genre

    
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Massively Overthinking: Changing the mindset of the MMO genre

I recently saw a journalism professor argue that generating a widespread thinking shift in an entire profession can take decades. “You have to keep making the case in different ways,” Jay Rosen wrote. Granted, he was talking about the American press, but it struck me that it’s also true of a whole lot of other industries – and genres.

The MMO genre in particular seems to get bogged down in specific ideas and has a hard time shedding them, and I mean the players as much as the developers – maybe even more. Look at some of the arguments we’ve been having as a genre over just the last decade: crowdfunding, free-to-play, lockboxes, toxicity, designed downtime, addiction, game preservation, elitism, nonconsensual PvP. Player opinion on some of these topics has shifted a lot, but others? It hasn’t changed much in two decades. And as press, we definitely feel the pain of trying to “make the case in different ways.”

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked the MOP writers what they think about shifting the “mindset” – which major points of debate and subjects of constant discussion on our pages or in the wider genre have not shifted nearly enough in the last 10 or 20 years? What, if anything, can players do to generate the change we need?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Man oh man, where to start? Maybe the easiest part is socialization. Yes, there’s this whole “together alone thing,” but as one of my colleagues has pointed out previously, forced grouping isn’t social, but I’d change it to “not necessarily social.” I do think forcing people to work together is important, but socialization is more than just being around other people. It’s both learning and teaching what the societal norms are. When there are little to no consequences for poor behavior and people can just bounce around random groups to avoid their punishment, socialization simply isn’t happening. We know companies can already track some pretty deep social information, so why not use it to create more social games?

In my mind, the simplest thing one could do is collect the social data Yokozuna talked about, like identifying social groups and who is the center of said group(s). Attach a kind of social reputation to that, which affects others. For example, perhaps a game allows people to give awards for positive behavior, such as for being a team player, mentorship, and mood making. The opposite can also be factors that get reported. Gary and Bob and friends, and Bob is friends with Pat but not Gary. Gary is constantly reported for mood making, positive and negative. Bob always gives Gary positive points for mood making. Gary and Bob’s voting are less weighted less because they play with each other often. However, they also will be less likely to matched with people who vote against Gary. Pat, being friends with Bob, isn’t weighted as much since there’s a tangential connection when on his own, but when grouped with Gary and Bob, any complaints against Gary will weigh on him more than if he were alone. Having similar ratings keeps similar people together, and if someone wants to redeem themselves, they have to interact with a wider range of people outside their network to repair the damage.

We’ve already seen similar systems in MOBAs where cheaters or people with poor behavior get lumped into the same group, but this would be something that scales. I think it might be a bad idea to give players access to hard numbers, but maybe some kind of color gradient to see how well people match in certain values (deep blue being allies, dark red being opposites, so neutral people would be kind of purple) could be beneficial to identifying how careful you might want to be when grouping with someone or recruiting them in your guild.

Oh, and in-game families. These should be in every MMO. Enter the game world near a friend who’s already playing, have a choice about sharing a similar tag/housing, shared chat channel. Not only would it help identify who’s rolling together, but it would help people feel like they don’t necessarily need to be in the same guild, so people can have multiple social circles. We’re seeing more of this kind of thing, but it doesn’t feel like a staple yet, just an experiment.

Andy McAdams: I have two! The first, I wrote about this already, and it generated a Reddit-hate-thread of my very own: our concept of what social means and what games who are “social” have. We are still defining what social games look like so narrowly – only as coming together for group content. Actual social features – like guilds, player housing, player owned-business, hell even chat – are more or less exactly the same as they were 20 years ago. It’s not as if these features can’t be innovated and made better, but players have such a Stockholm syndrome over just getting these things to exist in games that it rarely occurs to us that these things are basic, stale, and wholly unrealized as social aspects of the game. Instead, we cling with a zealot-level dogmatism that forced grouping is the only possible way. It’s ludicrous, insanely limiting, and ultimately self-defeating.

The second is the genre obsession with combat as the only method for interacting with the game world. I’ve mentioned before – why are non-combat classes not a thing anymore? Hell, we largely can’t even get developers to create support classes because conceptually it doesn’t fit into the “meat shield, keep bars full, or stab until it falls over” dynamic. Let me be clear: Combat and combat classes are fine and important. By why are there only combat classes? Where are the traders, the couriers, the merchants – or even the gimme, a released modern game where crafting is more than something bolted on to check a box? (I might give you FFXIV… kinda.) The virtual worlds we inhabit are one-dimensional murder-hobo zones due to nothing more than pure laziness and inertia. Our games should be far more than running around stabbing things. We should demand worlds where we can run around and stab things and also be a delivery boy, start a player-run shop, be a traveling trader, be a traveling bard.

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I see a lot of comments and complaints about what “passes” as an MMO nowadays. I’m sure if you search hard enough, you could probably even find some incensed lunatic ranting about the content of this site and how the industry has “sold out” for clicks by covering games that don’t fit squarely into the classic MMO template. Slowly but surely, players have begun to accept that online games are more than just Ultima Online, EverQuest, and World of Warcraft, but there are still many who don’t accept this. I think it’s a good thing err on the side of more inclusiveness with our definition. Taking such a posture will ensure that the genre will be around for many years to come, albeit perhaps an adapted version of our original definition.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Just looking at my own list, I’m heartened to see major shifts are still possible. For example: crowdfunding (people have gone from thinking it will save gaming to outright suspicion and hostility for old and new games with abusive crowdfunding models) and game preservation (the positive shift for emulators and rogue servers is dramatic, and all the studios had to do was start arbitrarily closing down more and more good games! Oh. Oh no.). Still, all in less than 10 years? Really heartened.

Toxicity, on the other hand? I don’t think the needle has moved much. I’ve seen people argue convincingly that it’s gotten worse. I’m not sure I personally agree; I think the toxicity that was always there has gotten louder and more desperate to hold on to the dark pockets of our industry in response to the pushback against it, which is deservedly getting bolder and angrier and more vocal. We have a long way to go there.

I didn’t really ask about mindsets that have changed negatively, but that’s happened too and there are fights I think we’ve simply lost. It’s too late, for example, to rescue the original idea of MMORPGs as true virtual worlds rather than combat-and-questing sums, for this current generation of players, anyway. I never give up hope for the future, but right now, we’re not progressing or standing still – we’re sliding backward.

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX), YouTube): The mindset I think that hasn’t changed nearly enough has to be the cynicism. Oh. My. Gosh. The cynicism. I swear, with all the moaning and groaning you’d think the current MMO industry lives in the Valley of Ashes from The Great Gatsby, the yes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg providing a stark reminder of what was and what never will be. It’s nuts.

I see it too, but being cynical about it isn’t going to fix anything. Those are the people that stand around and whine about how broken things are. They inevitably turn people who want to get into the genre away. And then they complain about how the genre is dying.

Positivity! Being positive goes a long way. A lot of us are veterans! We’ve seen everything this current MMO generation has to offer. What we can do is show younger players the joy of MMOs. Let them get inspired and let their ideas innovate. It’ll go a long way.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’m going to put out a mindset change that I myself have been experiencing of late and one that will probably win me even more enemies than I probably already have: Mobile MMOs are just as fun as “real” MMOs. I’ve been having a great time with Black Desert Mobile and AdventureQuest 3D on my phone, and I’m growing more and more willing to at least try out and accept mobile MMO and MMORPG titles than ever before. At the same time, I still play plenty of “real” MMORPGs on my PC or on my console, it’s just a question of what sort of experience I’m looking for or where I happen to be at any given time. I appreciate that a lot of mobile games are worthy of some derision, but just because an MMO — or any game, really — is on mobile doesn’t automatically make it garbage.

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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Nephele
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Nephele

There are so many places where I think the MMO genre could evolve both for developers and players.

In world design, making things more open, giving players more agency, and a more complex web of interactions. Making the environment matter more, including things like terrain and weather and even day/night cycles. Better interactions with NPCs, making them less a form of set dressing and more a component of the living world.

In content design, moving away from linear content to an approach that presents players with meaningful choices. Making content not only about combat but about achieving goals through a variety of potential means (imagine a dungeon built around stealth/misdirection and NOT killing the guards, or a raid where the goal is to hold off the end boss for long enough for something to happen, instead of only to defeat it). Moving away from monolithic, linear blocks of content to things like branching storylines, webs of choices, and asynchronous storytelling.

In gameplay design, a better balance between combat and non-combat gameplay. Making non-combat gameplay truly matter, making it a viable (and actual) choice for players. Instead of being an warrior, be a merchant, or a crafter, or a diplomat, and have that role be both important as well as provide access to unique forms of content. Giving players more long-term or strategic goals to pursue, things that they work towards over time, the culmination of many choices along the way. Moving away from “endgame” and towards “depth”, so that the journey starts to matter as much as the destination.

For players themselves, it’s harder. Ideally, doing the things above could steer players into a more social, less toxic approach to things. The key, I think, is in making players really need others, and not just a small group of friends or guildmates, as well as in setting up pacing and content to give people opportunities to socialize and prevent unwanted conflict over objectives. Reducing toxic elitism by making progression less about stats and numbers and more about the things players have seen and done, while at the same time insuring there are many paths for players to take, not only one.

When I write it out like that it sounds like a lot, but I honestly don’t think it would be too hard to do. It just requires both players and developers to take their blinders off and start thinking about how their next MMO can be *more* than the ones they’ve been playing recently.

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Castagere Shaikura

I really miss the first generation MMO days. It was this new idea and only computer geeks knew about them. Once we got wow the genre was going to crap and we all knew it back then so here we are. The genre went mainstream and wow made more money than anyone has ever seen and in came the suits that were not gamers and only cared about making that wow money.

MurderHobo
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MurderHobo

It’s too late, for example, to rescue the original idea of MMORPGs as true virtual worlds rather than combat-and-questing sums

“Too much sanity may be madness — and maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be!”

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Lethality

Carlos – the cynicism is the big one for me. I have been suspended from commenting here more times than I can recall, and it’s almost ALWAYS connected to a comment I made to stomp out blind bandwagon cynicism from someone…

I actually think these days, a cynical comment should be treated no different than any other form of flame-bating or trolling. They should not be allowed if you want rational discourse to persist.

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Dug From The Earth

You dont think the mindset of the mmo genre hasnt changed drastically overtime already?

Compare games like UO and EQ, to games like Ark and Fortnite… All of which fall into the “mmo” category.

I think the mindset of the mmo has changed dramatically, and unfortunately, influenced by stakeholders and publishers based mostly on money (shocker!). Its unfortunate for those who loved games like EQ. Its also a big reason why we havent had major mmorpg releases in many years, and why no big studios are even considering making one.

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Lethality

It hasn’t changed nearly at all. But let me explain.

What has happened is players from games of that era, with that type of sentiment, have moved on with their lives for any number of reasons, just as that same crowd used to buy Motley Crue records but don’t anymore.

You now have a different mindset influencing games (and music) and vastly differing tastes. Doesn’t make the old stuff bad, but the new consumers don’t want it.

What’s popular doesn’t necessarily mean what’s good in games (and music) but it most definitely is a reflection of the consumer mindset most likely to be the primary consumers of those goods or services.

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Dug From The Earth

I agree

but thats the mindset of the players

not the mindset of the genre :P

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Danny Smith

I absolutely hate the idea that “T H E E N D G A M E” is treated like the actual game and everything else is a second job to get to it. Some of the most fun i’ve had in mmos like WoW, Rift and FFXIV to name a few was “hey, whats over there that doesn’t direct me to quests?” and exploring and having fun with friends.

The very reason i fell off WoW was when it reached the point Blizzard was going months of our real lives with a single instanced location as the focus of all activity. I realised then that the “world” part of the title was a sham and didn’t matter anymore. With massively multiplayer no longer being the niche novelty it used to be that can’t hold my interest any more than a battlepass can. Its just farming the same shit with the hopes of a different reward for the same gameplay experience.

Remember being sold on mmorpgs for the first time? Was it someone giving you some schpiel like “oh and you can be accosted on the road by a bandit BUT ITS ANOTHER PLAYER!?!11!!!1ONEONE!!!”? or was it “yeah you basically bum rush to cap and then its all about farming this one closed off area for ten or less players as a second job”?

xpsync
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xpsync

I’m playing wow, for the first time in over a decade and yeah, got two toons up there and they are so f’ing broken it’s disgusting tbh, one shot mobs lmao, well that’s all exciting at first and if you want to grind M+ to get a little more broken af than you already are then that’s cool, i don’t condone peeps that love it but for players like me who are not all about end game, you kinda run out of interesting/intriguing stuff to do.

So i rolled another alt to level my shodowbarb as i hauled it all the way through that quest to end up getting slammed with a pet battle wall ffs. An alt is far more interesting to me over all than grinding the f out of m+’s but f’me it’s like my 9th 120 i’m about to churn out.

Once i got the uldum mount i wanted, farmed that rep for quite a bit, i am pleased that it’s a tiny mount was worried it’s be too big, gawd i hate obtrusive mounts, but i’ve been on my Dark Phoenix for so long on all toons, got some acclimating to do there, but yeah once i did that i dropped my main like a 120 alt i didn’t like getting to 120, doesn’t exist anymore (atm until SL drops).

Lucky enough i started messing around with boxing as the second i got that rep capped i dropped that main so fast i’m kinda surprised, i could care less about aotc i don’t like the mount, 2 aotc runs last night i could have gone on but f’me if boxing to me is 1000 times more interesting.

I mean if i was not boxing i doubt i’d be playing wow atm and be waiting like everyone else is. They really need to stop being all about the 1%. But that’s like talking to a brick wall. I mean they try and bring in more “rpg” where “DECISIONS” matter and look how that turned out. We’re only a step away from…

Hey Npc i want to change my covenant.

OK player you’ll have to do this most legendary hard quest to get back in, this is huge are you ready for this player 1, i’m serious af here this is going to be very long and hard, you sure you’re ready to start?

Yes i am NPC, I’m ready

Alright then player 1 here we go, you asked for it, to start talk to the npc beside me.

OK i will npc, thank you!

(Click on npc beside him…)

CONGRATULATIONS CHAMPION you’ve DONE IT!!! You’ve switched covenant’s!!!

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

The “problem” with leveling content is one of population segregation. Solve segregation and you’ve solved the “bum rush to cap” behavior.

Why is segregation bad? Because it prevents me from playing with the people I want to play with and forces me to play with the folks in whatever narrow level/skillset/gearset band I fall into.

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Eamil

I think that forced grouping isn’t the only way to go, but it’s certainly a niche that’s not being catered to and hasn’t been for a long time, and I think the response to a game like Pantheon trying to sometimes comes across as “how dare you?” which is a little baffling to me.

I think it’s more important to enable meaningful grouping – not just by designing dungeon content to be challenging and not “daily random tasks to check off with randoms,” but by enabling it in the open world, even if it’s not required. I’m not sure if there’s a good way to make open world grouping “enabled but not required,” but that’s what I’d like to see. It’s not fun to play with friends in the open world in most games because then you just steamroll everything.

The trouble is even with WoW-style seamless scaling, if they somehow let you play as a group with enemies scaled to be challenging to a full party at your level, one person NOT set to be scaled that way could run up and instagib your targets, so what’s the point? Maybe something like FFXI’s trusts (but more controllable – maybe GW1’s heroes?) would be a good solution. Right now I have a fantastic group I play with, but nothing especially interesting to DO with them because we don’t raid, and in FFXIV if you don’t raid then there’s basically no challenging content at all.

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PanagiotisLial1

I remember I used to dungeon or raid class bosses patrolling the open world in pre-dumbdown PWI. Many people even helped others kill them for fun.

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Utakata

I have two. And I’m not speaking of the pigtails for once…

Gating content behind grouping. Why?

Gating content behind grinding. What’s the point?

…moving away from these two mindsets could dramatically evolve how MMO’s work. And likely for the better, IMO.

Yet, we’re still here. /sigh

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Sarah Cushaway

One of those times I agree with you 100%.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

> It’s too late, for example, to rescue the original idea of MMORPGs as true virtual worlds rather than combat-and-questing sums, for this current generation of players, anyway.

I’ve been seeing a lot of people lauding virtual worlds as the next nirvana yet they never say why. So, uh, why do you think that’s something the gaming fan base should want? I consider them of academic interest at worst and niche at best.

Many VW concepts like permadeath, survival mechanics, and non-optional PvP have been stripped out or cordoned off. Rapid transit is an expected bit of quality-of-life that MMO’s ignore at their peril.

The other problem is how do you make non-combat tasks both interesting and rewarding without making them feel like chores or unpaid labor?

> y u no support roles?

There’s a continuum from role-less to hyper-specialization. In my experience role-less severely limits encounter complexity. As you add required roles to a team it increases the difficulty of forming.

IMO Tank+Heal+DPS is the accepted balance with utility spread among the various classes.

> Forced socialization

I love playing with other players but they should never become an impediment to achieving my goals. 30+ minute queues to clear mandatory content is a travesty.

The content should almost never prevent me from playing with others. Quests should be sharable.

Most (PvE) content should support flexible team sizes (+/- 20-25%). Small team content should be solo-capable and never solo-only.

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

I don’t consider “Permadeath, survival mechanics, and non-optional PVP as virtual world characteristics. Those would be closer to games attempting to simulations of the real world – and I don’t think that’s necessarily what virtual worlds refer to. Virtual worlds can have those characteristics, but I don’t think they define what a virtual world is.

Virtual world, in my definition, is a world where there are more options on how to interact with the world. For example, in a virtual world an adventurer could go out and gather resources, sell to a player-trader, who then hires other players are mercenaries to escort the caravan continue the materials to a different city, where the the trader then sells them to a player crafter, who then turns those resources into items and sells to the adventurer.

Say nothing of how magic could be used in a system like this. Or even a game where you could hire a courier to run your mail to another city? Take out bounties on other players, have political gameplay. Imagine if you could have a game with actual inter-guild politics?

The possibilities are endless, and the pieces are all there. In many cases, these are characteristics older games already had, but they totally dropped on the floor in favor of “Combat is the only way.”

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

You’ve just described EvE Online.

Andy McAdams
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Andy McAdams

I thought about including EVE, except for the incredibly newbie-hostile environment, the extreme imbalance between new players and veterans. In essence, a new player has no chance of being able to compete with a veteran without years of play. It’s an incredibly insular, incestuous community that makes little attempt to bring other people into the game.

Not to say it hasn’t made the attempt, just that nothing they’ve done has really address that fact holistically.

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Sarah Cushaway

Also the setting is boring AF for a lot of us.

PlasmaJohn
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PlasmaJohn

Short of the nuclear option of an account ban nobody has yet developed an effective deterrent to grief-style play. You don’t need PvP to enable the griefers.

Until that is solved a true virtual world is impossible.

Godnaz
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Godnaz

Anonymity or not, consequence has little sway in the virtual world when it comes to toxicity and even those employed or sponsored in the gaming industry, seem to have little regret when called out by their actions.

Monetization is all that matters and those who “vote with their wallets” have spoken load and clear that a person or companies actions have little effect on their purchasing decisions.

I would like to come up with some optimism that society will act with more decency but the at the top, they are proving that even if people know you are bad, you can still get away with and still be supported.

I’m still voting for Meteor 2020