The Soapbox: Stubborn MMO players are sleeping on autoplay mechanics

    
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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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