Recently I played through the new PC port of the open world RPG Horizon Zero Dawn. While playing it, I was struck by how much it felt like playing an MMORPG… but in all the wrong ways. Endless chores, forgettable side quests, and unfocused design. That’s not to say that the game doesn’t also have its strengths, but it was definitely worse for its MMOification.
It got me thinking about how elements of MMO design seem to be proliferating across all genres of gaming, and how that can be a double-edged sword. Today, I thought we could look at the dos and don’ts of stealing ideas from MMORPGs.
Do: Offer (optional) multiplayer
I’m a strong advocate for making MMOs more solo-friendly, but I’m also a strong advocate for making other genres more multiplayer friendly. I think everyone should always have the option. If you want to experience the game without ever needing to interact with another player, that should be an option. If you want to do the entire game with one or more friends from the moment you leave character creation, that should also be an option.
I know it won’t ever be practical for every game, but I dream of a day when the line between single-player and multiplayer games dissolves entirely, and it’s totally up to each person how to play.
So I’m generally in favor of more games offering multiplayer, even if it’s a separate mode like StarCraft II‘s co-op. It just needs to be an option rather than something you need to participate in to fully experience the game. Forcing multiplayer on people who don’t want it is never a good way to win fans.
Don’t: Pad your game with endless boring chores
Some people might be excited when they hear a single-player game boast about its massive open world and hundreds of hours of gameplay, but these days such claims mostly just make me wince. In practice, this usually means that the game has been padded out by reams of shallow sidequests and boring minigames.
When reading that Horizon Forbidden West will feature a larger world and a greater emphasis on exploration than its predecessor, I let out a sigh of deep spiritual exhaustion. Zero Dawn was already about twice as big as it needed to be.
This kind of design makes more sense in an MMO. An MMO is a virtual world; the point is to be able to set down roots, not to “finish” it. When I play other genres, I’m looking for a tighter experience I can finish in a reasonable length of time. It’s like the difference between a movie and a TV show. A twenty hour season is totally reasonable for a television show, but who wants to sit down to watch a twenty hour movie?
Some single-player games can make the sprawling open world concept work, but the fact is this is a style of gameplay that an MMO is just always going to do better.
Where it gets fuzzy is pseudo-MMOs like The Division or Anthem that aren’t single-player games but aren’t full virtual worlds either. I won’t say that going big is necessarily a bad idea there, but it is important for developers to remember that more content doesn’t always equal a better experience. Don’t sacrifice quality for quantity.
Frankly, even a lot of true MMOs could stand to learn that lesson.
Do: Continue updates in the long term
As someone who isn’t particularly social, for me the best thing about MMOs is their longevity. It’s wonderful to be able to keep coming back to one of your favorite games for months and years and have new stuff to do every time.
Not every game needs to continue updates indefinitely like an MMO, and assuming that they should could lead to disappointment, like for those people who unjustly consider StarCraft II a failure because it doesn’t have the same level of ongoing support as World of Warcraft. But certainly continuing a steady stream of updates and DLC for at least a year or two can be a wonderful way to extend the life of a great game.
I’m also excited by the idea of moving towards expansions and updates to existing games rather than traditional sequels that fracture communities and force people to start over from scratch. The upcoming Overwatch 2 is a great example of a way to breathe new life into an existing game. Perhaps there are technical issues with the idea, but as a consumer I don’t really see why The Division 2 couldn’t have just been a large expansion to the original game. Price it the same if you like, but there was no need to divide players and make us start over.
Long-term updates can also present a partial solution to the above issue of too much filler. Instead of providing hundreds of hours of gameplay by doing a single release padded by tedious filler content, provide hundreds of hours of gameplay by regularly introducing new updates that continue a game’s story or otherwise move it forward in a meaningful way.
Don’t: Jump on the endless balance roller coaster
As one of my esteemed colleagues recently pointed out, balance is overrated. In reality precise mechanical balance is necessary in games only when direct competition between players is the focus, and even then perfect balance is virtually impossible to achieve without watering a game down so heavily no one would ever want to play it.
Balance changes may still be necessary to deal with extreme outliers in terms of over or underpowered classes or abilities, but for most games it shouldn’t take too long to achieve a sufficient level of balance.
Unfortunately, the open-ended nature of MMO development often leads to an equally endless cycle of buffs and nerfs as developers chase an unattainable ideal of balance. It may keep things fresh for the most dedicated players, but for everyone else it’s exhausting, and a massive barrier to re-entry for lapsed casual players.
This isn’t something you should want to emulate. The value of endless balance adjustments in an MMO is questionable at best. For smaller games, it’s downright toxic, and people who aren’t used to an MMO’s cycle of balance are unlikely to tolerate such instability.