Vague Patch Notes: The verbs of MMOs

    
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Welcome to funky town.

Even if you don’t like crafting, you should care if your MMO of choice has meaningful crafting. And you should especially care if it has housing because one tends to lead to the other for connected reasons. Even if you don’t care about housing, you have a richer experience in a game by housing being there.

The reason comes entirely down to verbs.

I’m deliberately using archaic terminology here, of course. There are a lot of reasons why these things are good beyond just verbs (which I promise I’ll explain in a moment), not the least of which being that robust crafting means a robust economy, which attracts a different set of players and thus helps bolster the overall playerbase. But I’d argue that whether or not it’s discussed, even that comes down to an issue of verbs, and it was something that the industry got right as early as Ultima Online, even if later titles have sometimes eschewed this to their detriment.

So what is a verb? It’s a way of interacting with the game world. The term comes from the earliest computer games, wherein you often literally had verb-noun combinations as your means of commanding the action. “LOOK DOOR,” or “USE SWORD,” or “BUY BOOK,” or “IMMOLATE BAD GUY.”

It should be immediately obvious that the more verbs a game could handle, the more different sort of actions you could perform on the game world. If all you could do is USE, then any given object only has that as an option. But if your options are USE, LOOK, OPEN, and BREAK, you have more options. More verbs mean more options, and even if you won’t use UNLOCK SWORD or EAT DOOR, it gives the developers a wider world to play with.

In broad strokes, you can look at verbs for more or less every video game. Super Mario Bros. has basically three verbs: JUMP, TOUCH, and SHOOT. Every part of the game moves out from those verbs. But it also means that you cannot build a house, or craft new things, or talk with anyone… the game has a very linear and limited flow by design.

So what are the verbs in your MMO of choice?

Fish.

I give World of Warcraft some amount of guff for its limitations, but I’m hardly the first one, and the reason comes down to what sort of interactions you can have in the world. The game lacks any housing. Crafting is generally meaningless, and the current attempt to make it meaningful in Shadowlands comes down to making it mandatory for endgame gearing. The verbs you have and will be using come down to killing things. If something moves, you either get a quest from it or you kill it. That is how you interact with the world.

By contrast, look at Black Desert. You’re definitely killing things in that game. But you can also be working on a house or building trade routes and so on. There are more verbs to interact with the world. The Elder Scrolls Online has its elaborate crafting system for both appearances and functional improvements, not to mention an explorer-centric antiquities-hunting system. Final Fantasy XIV has an entire game system just for racing chocobos, complete with breeding and stat grinding.

You may not care about that. You may have never cared about that. It’s entirely possible that you have not once taken part in the chocobo racing and it is functionally irrelevant to you. But it is present in the game, and there’s an entire bespoke interface and gameplay system to explore there. You always know it is there. If you want, at any time you could start grinding it out and discover the depths to that system.

The key is that the option is there, even if you never use it. RACE GIANT BIRDS is a verb in the game that you can take advantage of any time the urge strikes you. FIGHT WITH MINIONS is there. CRAFT FURNITURE is there. There are options, and that leads to a richness of the game that offers a greater variety of options than just killing or talking to everything that you meet.

But that extends beyond the obvious. Sure, it’s good to know you have the option if you want to indulge in it. But having these bespoke interactions also means that the game stretches out as a result.

Waifu

For example, WoW also has a minion fighting game. That means that minions that drop have an extra dimension beyond looks; you also might want one of them because it’s rare and useful in fighting other minions. Games with more elaborate and relevant crafting mean that more items that show up in the world have a use beyond being vendor trash; you’ll need them for crafting. (FFXIV, for example, has almost no vendor trash for exactly this reason.)

Housing means that you need furniture, money to buy that furniture, different parts of the map dedicated to housing, and an entirely different incentive set to consider. Even if you don’t give a fig about having a virtual house, you benefit from being able to potentially loot a chair (or the components to make a chair) and sell them to someone else. Relevant crafting like the sort found in City of Heroes means that you materially care about what enemies drop – and potentially can sell certain recipes for big money, only to buy the results for even more money.

And let’s not forget that crafting was added to that game after launch. It was an expansion of the game because it launched with very limited verbs but players wanted more. The net result was a better overall game.

For some players, these different verbs are really the core of their play experiences. Some folks are mostly about crafting or housing or roleplaying, or whatever. Other players look at the various verbs available and want to experience all of them at some level. If you have two dozen options, than those players will at least sample all of them even if they wind up focusing primarily on a smaller number of them.

But the key is understanding the difference between options and breadth. Most games don’t expect you to interact with everything equally. It’s perfectly fine and even expected that, say, some players have zero interest in crafting or housing or entertaining or any one of the other verbs you wind up in some game. The fact that these options are there is to provide a greater overall experience, a breadth of options that result in a richer overall game even if you never interact with some of them.

I never cared a lot about crafting in CoH. I didn’t make missions in Mission Architect, and I didn’t have reliable groups to make a functional base. But I benefitted just the same from having a game that offered that breadth of option. Even if the verbs I tended to use were TALK TO OTHER PLAYER and KILL SKUL, the game was richer by having other options available – and attracting the players who did love them.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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Utakata

I prefer to use adjectives though. Such as, in most games crafting sucks… >.<

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Baron von Munchausen

This logic shows up in tabletop gaming too. In general, players appreciate a magic item that gives them a new verb, rather than an item that lets them do an existing verb, only now it’s +1!

e.g., Boots of Mad Hops are more interesting and beloved than Boots of Armor+1

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Schmidt.Capela

I just found the article by Raph Koster that got me thinking about this in the first place many years ago:

Do auction houses suck?

I still think it one of the best articles on this subject, even though I’m in the opposite side of the Virtual World – Themepark spectrum.

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Anstalt

I am definitely all in favour of adding more options for how to spend my time in game. In fact, I consider it pretty essential to the long term retention of players.

First, a diverse community is a stronger community, for a whole host of reasons. So, having lots of options to attract a diverse community is great.

Second, we all have mood changes and changes in tastes over time. Just because you are loving PvP today, doesn’t mean you’ll still want to do it tomorrow. So, having diverse options for playstyle means you are more likely to stay in game, having fun, and contributing to the overall community and health of the game.

That said, like others have said below, and you alluded to in your article, these verbs require some depth to be worth having. If you are going to have crafting and have it mean something, then you can’t have a loot-based game. If you are going to spend dev resources on a pet system, it had better last more than a few minutes and have some reason behind it.

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Schmidt.Capela

First, a diverse community is a stronger community, for a whole host of reasons. So, having lots of options to attract a diverse community is great.

It’s not so simple. Every option you add to attract certain players has the very real potential to drive away other kinds of players. Unless it’s made completely optional, in the sense that players can completely ignore that aspect of the game without incurring in any disadvantage or handicap in other aspects of the game, but when you do that the option becomes inconsequential and it’s capability for attracting new players is greatly weakened.

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TomTurtle

I wish more players felt this way because so often when anything that isn’t combat is brought up it gets shouted down pretty hard. (Hello Guild Wars 2 subreddit!)

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Schmidt.Capela

It’s not that simple.

Game systems don’t exist in a vacuum. Adding something to the game means you need to change the tuning of everything else to support it (or else risk the new thing either being irrelevant or granting more power than you want players to have). And if you do change the tuning of the rest of the game to support your new shiny feature, it makes the game less enjoyable for those that don’t like that feature.

The economy is a great example. Making player-to-player commerce meaningful requires changes to a lot of systems to guarantee that the demand is always there, which will make the game better for those that do enjoy trading with other players — but at the same time that will make the game far less enjoyable for those of us that don’t enjoy trading. Heck, if the devs declare that a player-driven economy is among the main features of the game there’s a good chance I will skip that game, because I not only dislike trading with other players, I know the usual changes needed to make a good and robust player-driven economy also make my preferred play style — the self-reliant crafter that never has to depend on anyone else for materials or components — less viable, often to the point of being unfeasible.

The same is true of raiding. When adding raids the devs tend to change the whole incentive structure to push players towards raiding, which in turn makes the game far less enjoyable for those of us that dislike raiding.

End result, I prefer the games I play to focus more tightly on the player experiences I enjoy, without much extra cruft. If a MMO aims to be a virtual world where you can do or be anything I will avoid it, because I know beforehand that it will push me towards gameplay I don’t enjoy in order to properly support the game systems I don’t care about.

(I do like, and play a lot, virtual world games that are single-player offline affairs, but that is because I’m usually given full control over the experience — be it through official options or through cheats and mods — and, thus, can just disable anything that detracts from what I want to experience. It’s why, for example, I consider vanilla Skyrim a game bad enough that it’s not worth wasting time with, but consider it when properly modded one of the best games ever made.)

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Schmidt.Capela

The article about Dual Universe posted a couple hours ago is a good example of what I said above. The devs are making a series of changes which are very much intentionally ruining a certain play style (small, isolated and autonomous player communities that don’t interact with the larger community) in order to allow for the player economy to work well.

Which, as I pointed above, is why I tend to regard any MMO that aims for a strong player economy as not worth even trying; tuning it so the economy is strong and important also makes it very much impossible for me to enjoy. Just like it’s impossible to make a game that will please both exclusive PvE players and fans of hardcore open-world PvP, it’s also impossible to make a game that will please both individualists and players that enjoy interdependence at the same time.

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Ironwu

An interesting, but limited perspective.

Chess – One verb: Move Piece.

It is more about what one can actually DO with the verbs one has, more than how many verbs one has, I think. :)

Still, a fun article and worth thinking about across the games one plays.