The Soapbox: Stubborn MMO players are sleeping on autoplay mechanics

    
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The Soapbox: Stubborn MMO players are sleeping on autoplay mechanics

Autoplay, huh. What is it good for? Absolutely something! I’ll say it again: There is value in autoplay. It’s got such a bad reputation in the western MMO community. From our perspective, anyone who plays it is either a sucker, a lazy whale, or both. But does that really justify an instant-uninstall, or is our adherence to ideals from the dawn of gaming holding us back from discovering new worlds that we can call home?

The first time I encountered autoplay was in 2017’s Kritika: The White Knights, Kritika Online’s mobile game. It was just a tiny, unassuming button that said “auto.” I tapped it, and my character started running through the dungeon, slaying mobs as they came, and finished the dungeon.

“What the heck? Why is this even a thing!? This is so sad!” was my exact reaction to the moment.

I deleted the game two days later. Something just felt so wrong about it. It felt like the first signs of a late-stage MMORPG. You’ve seen them before: the generic fantasy MMO with big shoulder pads. Some of them play on nostalgia, others have the sex appeal, but all of them have the promise of unlimited power and an immersive open world. It checks all the boxes of what made past MMOs great, and on paper it really does look like an excellent game. But it’s got no soul. It feels like there’s a certain cynicism to it all, and playing games like that makes you feel as if you’re just a number instead of a valued player.

From this perspective, adding autoplay to these types of games just feels like salt in a wound. It downgrades player inputs into typing a credit card number into the store. And that’s autoplay’s stigma in a nutshell: It suggests a game that plays itself and suckers the player into spending money on it. Weary gamers give a wide berth to these games, and it’s understandable. I’m not the first gamer to uninstall a game because of the autoplay features. It’s such a disruptive playstyle that many veteran gamers just don’t understand its existence, and that’s sometimes even included me.

Since my first encounter in 2017, this type of gameplay is in pretty much every mobile MMO now. Even Black Desert Mobile had it, and it made me upset. I remember even saying that I was “sad to report it had autoplay” in my first impressions, like it was the first sign of a deeper sickness. It was a deal-breaker for me when I realized Caravan Stories included it as well.

I didn’t realize it sooner, but having auto-hunt activated also allows for more entertaining camera angles.

So for a long time, I was right there with everyone else. I thought autoplay wasn’t good for the genre. But recently, after actually giving Nexon’s V4 an honest try, I found my thoughts on it changed. I’m glad I stuck it out and chose to keep playing despite its inclusion because I legitimately enjoy it this game.

But why does this even exist in the first place? In many ways, it’s just a natural evolution in the traditional grind-heavy MMO design. And without it, this subgenre of MMO might just disappear.

Who asked for this?

At its very core, having the game automatically play itself addresses a major problem that plagued many MMOs: bots. They cause economic instability, create an unfair advantage amongst players, and of course they break the EULA, risking a ban. There’s also the risk of spreading a virus that compromises the users’ game accounts and computers. But despite the risk, players still did it.

Adding an autoplay system attempts to normalize the behavior without the risks to the game and its players. From a studio angle, it makes perfect sense to add it too – after all, if players are willing to risk their accounts and computers, there must be demand for it, which means it’s probably monetizable too. Right?

Well, they were right about that! In no time at all, it became a normal part of many mobile MMOs. Despite the controversy, it’s hard to deny how helpful it is for accessibility and practicality. Lineage M, the mobile port to the original Lineage, touted it as a feature instead of quietly putting it in the game. And that game has been printing money for NCsoft since its release in 2017. That accessibility piece is huge. Players who might have a disability can play the game without problems. Players short on time can leave the game running while they work and live their lives.

At this rate, I would be surprised if the Final Fantasy XI mobile game didn’t have the feature. Square-Enix wants to cast a wide net with that game. The advantages of including it far outweigh the grumblings from the (let’s be realistic) minority of grumpy gamers.

But why does it work?

After sinking in roughly 150 hours into V4, I think the the easy answer is that the game plays itself. That might seem incredibly counter-intuitive to the argument I’m trying to make, but you have to look at the game itself, not the feature in isolation. And this game? Folks, V4 is a grind fiesta. Kill mobs, get money, level up, improve gear, repeat ad infinitum, all while looking cool. And I love it! “But Carlo,” you say, “you’re not even playing it.”

That’s what’s so magical about it, though. I’m still making gains on my character, slowly getting stronger and stronger without turning myself into some poopsocking powergamer with bloodshot eyes, a bad wrist, and an IV that directly fills my bloodstream with a special blend of Mountain Dew Baja Blast and Doritos. This is a demanding game; the grind is going to be a long journey, and it will take a lot of time to reach the max level of 90. When I do have time to play, I can just go to a much more difficult grindspot and play, knowing that if life (and especially the wife) calls, I can drop the game at a moment’s notice.

In V4, your character gets stronger by maxing out their kill count on a specific enemy. As fun as that sounds, I know I cannot realistically do that with my lifestyle.

I can also get more in-game clerical work done while my character is grinding. I can read the journal entries from past quests to deepen my understanding of the story (which I auto-quested through). I can familiarize myself with the game’s systems as I read the game’s instructions. Most importantly, I can figure out how I can build my character for the long term, plan the rest of my gaming session, and focus on understanding the skills. I’m still playing the game, but all the growth, both with my character and my understanding of them game, happens simultaneously. And let’s not forget the community. While your character grinds away, you can chat with folks and get to know the regular players (assuming you block the daily spammers)! We’ve got nothing better to do than kick the shit like in the old days anyway.

Let’s be realistic, a game like V4 has no chance to succeed without autoplay. It is far too grindy, and there’s nothing to be learned by manually performing that grind. And there are many working adults in the East and West who miss the days of grinding their nights away in Lineage II but have far too many responsibilities now to even spare half an hour. With how crowded the games industry is already, a grindy game with an early-2000s gameplay loop will not ignite the world anymore. Today’s kids won’t be playing these games. This game needs to catch those former grinders without compromising their lifestyle. Otherwise, this sub-genre will die out.

We have to consider that there are players out there who prefer to strengthen their characters through endless monster grinding rather than play an MMO with a bloated storyline that “gets good after 30 hours.” I honestly think a future where bland, story-driven themepark MMOs dominate the genre is far worse than a world where MMOs can play the boring parts themselves and leave the good parts for the player. So if a good grindy MMO comes along with a well-implemented auto-fight feature is included, I’m willing to give it a try now. I’m trying to be less stubborn. Now, I’ve seen it really work.

I can imagine this article coming back to haunt me someday. Some company might cite this article as some justification for its inclusion in its crappy obviously-a-cash-grab MMO. I’ll be simultaneously flattered and horrified, I’m sure. But just because there are games that are good with autoplay doesn’t mean every game is good for it. There’s are plenty of games that make both the MMO genre and this playstyle look bad. But the next time you see a game that just might scratch that MMO itch you have, don’t let the autoplay by itself stop you. You might end up finding a new home.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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kjempff
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kjempff

Is this a sad exercise in playing the devils advocate ? Click bait ?
Just NO.

MilitiaMasterV
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MilitiaMasterV

Uh, yeah, no. If we’re going to start making games that just play themselves, without needing player input, then people shouldn’t need to pay for their games either.

I will grant that the disparity between people with time on their hands/no money and people with no time/lots of money does need some addressing…but I don’t agree autoplay is an answer to that.

This is coming from someone who played a hardcore grinder game (One of the more obscure games.) for 4+ years and never maxed a single skill on that game…because it had so many skills to do. I watched a person with a bot army living beside me in-game do more than I could ever do solo in like half/quarter the time…they barely/never spoke to me but maybe 3 times.

How is that better for socialization?
How was that better for inter-play?
How did that help trade?

They never needed anything I could offer, never wanted anything I could do, because they always had another alt that could do it better because they ran so many and they were constantly going.

I’m a person who’s disabled with a severe social phobia(Among many other issues), and I was willing to reach out/branch out/help others…and they would regularly spurn me/ignore my overtures. I mean, I inquired about them enough to understand they were a person who was ‘inter-sex’ IRL (Hermaphroditism) who probably wasn’t exactly comfortable interacting with the general populace due to said issues being a ‘problem’ for some, and they also apparently worked a phone job of some type that involved stepping away from the computer at periods of time, but I don’t see how they were doing much for ‘participation’ in the over-arching ‘grand scheme of things’ for that game…other than occupying/blocking a space someone else who would interact with the environment/other people would (And putting money in a companies pocket for sub time for multiple accounts.). Yeah, sure, that was wonderful for the game company, but it severely ruined the game for me…made me feel like my contribution was useless, and like I was undesired.

Would I want to go back and automate those years? No. I enjoyed ‘achieving’ things, running into random strangers and chatting them up. Working on random things. Saving the occasional stranger. Being saved by others. Trading with people, interacting with the community in chat (Some of that was awful…and lead to lots of drama, but other bits got me through some days feeling better than I otherwise would have…), helping in my own small ways with community run events…

Heck, nowadays I just run around solo in games (Currently Elder Scrolls Online subbed…at least for a few more months…I paid for a year at the end of last year.) and don’t talk to most people and do my own thing because I got tired of seeing all the bots and seeing people who don’t even understand what these worlds are even about…who just bash their character’s heads on the grind wall to get to max level and then show off like that was the whole point…when it was the adventure, the getting there, the seeing(participation in) the interactions of the world…that was the fun part. If your computer just did all of that for you, what exactly was the point? Did you get any gratification, other than maybe to open some loot boxes and get that serotonin rush because that’s really all games have become to people now?

I actually just kind of feel sad that the worlds we knew and enjoyed seem to be going away and turning into these games where a computer just plays itself/someone sits there ‘AFK’ farming (Which if you’ve played Runescape at all, you know that you USED to be able to be skilling AND chatting at the same time…even that game has instituted nonsense like you’re referencing by changing up certain skills to be able to be AFKed…I actually left that game again a little while back after testing a spot and spending literally half an hour picking mushrooms on an island…because that was a feature to AFK/autoplay they had added, which was on an INSTANCED island, alone. Nobody else to speak with. Talk about boring as hell.)

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Lethality

Great writeup! I feel the exact same way… I’ve come to the conclusion that to preserve our leveling experiences and large worlds, AND offer them to hardcore and accessible to casual players at the same time, this must be a feature.

I adore the way Black Desert allows for auto-pathing to travel. This is a boon, and I was against it at first. But it’s this very feature that allows the world to be so big. And that ultimate outweighs the value of me not having to steer my horse (unless I want to.)

The worker system in Black Desert is another splinter of autoplay, a sort of offline progression, that I think is important to the future of these games.

Auto-playing doesn’t have to be as efficient or of course offer as much agency as you taking control of your character, but if they can offer it as a way for me to keep up my character in a relative way, it’s the best thing we can hope for to preserve the MMO genre as we’ve known it.

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iamluner

I feel like this could be ok for a mobile game seeing as how maybe you just play these on the way to work, but I hope to not see this trend accepted into the mmos that are played on the pc version, I’ll admit I’m selfish when I say what a person puts into a mmo/game is what they will get out of it, if you only have a half hour to play what’s the point of this “auto play” anyways if once your char is geared you don’t have enough time to test out your auto leveled power house? What is next? Auto play for raids? Auto play pvp?

I remember as a kid and even now sitting in whatever capital city looking at these geared guys obviously envious because of the amount of time and or skill they have put into the game to acquire what they have and I remind myself and my subpar gear that I don’t have that time and that’s ok. At least I can still play the game and feel some what in control and have a connection to my character.

My dad, 53 years old works drywall, goes to work at 4am gets home at 5-6pm spends time with my mom and plays classic wow for a hour before he goes to bed if he can and maybe a few hours on the weekend and the guy has a one lvl 60 and is working on a lvl 53 rogue and a 52 Warlock. Sure he isn’t a end game raider but he has a blast.

I’m ranting. I’m sorry. I want there to be something for everyone in the gaming genre. So if auto play is your thing great, but if there’s one thing the gaming industry loves to do when they see something become a success and regardless of why it is a success they adopt the heck out of it and you see it in every game forever.

GLHF out there all, may the loot be plenty.

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Tom Gray

Autoplay is a replacement for content. It doesn’t belong in a MMO. By its very mature it is anti-mmo because it removes the player. Auto pathing could be replaced by a travel system that actually works and questing people actually want to participate in. Autoplay can be replaced by play that people actually want to do. Remove the grind instead of automating it.

Walk through your game..if you hit any spot where you think players might need to afk grind, remove it. Any time they might get tired of walking, rewrite it. Any quest you don’t care about, replace it. Stop trying to shoehorn everything you think a mmo is into the game and make it fun to play..that is the point of a game.

Autoplay only fits one genre and that is idlers. Progress Quest is what autoplay is. It is not a mmo.

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Vunak

Autoplay is created by lazy developers to appeal to people that have no standards on games and cover shitty design.

Autoplay is a bane to MMOs and the future of MMO design. We dont need more shitty mobile features being introduced into games, we need them removed not glorified.

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memitim

I didn’t mind autoplay in Mobius FF since you could only use to it get extra mats from content that was trivial to you, if you used it on current content you just got smashed but in some of these games it plays the character better than you probably could yourself and I just find that weird….

I asked a guy who’s spent thousands on these things why he paid money for a game that plays itself and he said “I’m not the hero, I’m the heroes manager” I could probably get into an idea like that if there were actual meaningful decisions to be made other than how big my credit card bill is going to be this month…I feel like there’s an untapped genre here but if you run with this idea make it run offline and pause and send a notification when a decision needs to be made or don’t come crying to me when eco terrorists burn your office down… :D

Zulika Mi-Nam
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Zulika Mi-Nam

For me, Twitch and/or Let’s Plays are better options.

If the game is nothing more than developing and sending a team or members on missions like STO Duty Officers or W0W Garrsion missions, then let it be that. No need to spend time on graphics and animations that do not matter.

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Alatar

I’m reading this article and thinking “man, this won’t end well in the comments.” And it didn’t. MMO players, hell…people in general these days, are completely caught up in the rightness of their opinion and the utter wrongness of anything else. If someone wants to put autoplay in a game, let them. If someone wants to play that game, let them. If the game makes money because people who want to pay money play it, let it happen. What does it matter to you? Play the game you like, for the reasons you have, and stop giving a crap about what other people do. Do I like autoplay?

It doesn’t matter.

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Bruno Brito

No one is judging auto-play players. We just don’t want it in MMOs because it’s a feature created to cover up for bad design.

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Lethality

Actually, just the opposite. It allows innovation and opens up the games to more players. Far more.

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Kickstarter Donor
Vunak

It does matter when those systems start weaseling their way into the main industry. Not caring and being accepting of shitty mobile design got us where we are with lootboxes and P2W BS.

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Kevin Smith

I have never been a fan of autoplay features in games. I gave V4 a try and it is a good little time sink here or there. Yes it does play itself. You can choose to gather or autokill. The choice is yours. I just load it up on my second monitor and let it do it’s thing till I want to check it out. This type of game is good for the carrot on the stick people. The people that enjoy that type of play but have very busy lives would enjoy this game. Even though it does play itself there is a lot of player interaction required. The game has a lot of flaws like it rewards people that are already powerful while hindering those that are not. It’s one of those games where the people that started day one will have an advantage over those that didn’t and the only way to overcome that is to pay real money, basically like most mobile games. Overall I will say though I have had fun with it on the side. I couldn’t imagine trying to actually play this game manually on my phone that would be a nightmare though.