Massively Overthinking: MMO ideas that were ahead of their time

    
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I'll be gone soon.

I’m gonna say something wild right now: In some ways, CliffyB was ahead of his time. My husband and I came to this realization a while back when he was trying to find a replacement for Overwatch and dipped his toe back into Paladins and Apex Legends. I was watching him play and realized that those games were using all the same retro ’80s and ’90s skaterboy motifs that were in Lawbreakers and Radical Heights – CliffyB titles that flopped out of the gate (before the gate, really). People mocked it at the time, but regardless of the prevailing low opinion of the dev and the gameplay, he was most definitely right at the head of those themes coming back into fashion, and games like Apex prove it.

Obviously, this week’s Massively Overthinking isn’t about CliffyB; I want to talk about MMOs. Which MMOs did something clever that they never gets credit for pioneering? Which MMOs came up with wild ideas that went nowhere in their day but were vindicated by the industry later? Let’s talk MMO ideas that were ahead of their time.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Asheron’s Call 2 had WoW-style leveling before WoW. For those of you who came into the genre after that game, most MMOs basically required grinding before that. Quests were often something you discovered, not something that guided your experience from character creation to level cap. While I do recall that AC2 did require a little bit of grinding in some awkward spots for people who played hardcore, as well as the last few levels, it was completely wild at the time.

Andy McAdams: I always appreciated the flexibility and trade-offs you made when creating a character in Anarchy Online. The “breeds” (races) could all do any of the professions, but some breeds were just better at some professions. For example, playing a “nano-mage” breed (which has stats like a caster) as an Enforcer professions (which is like tanky, meatwall kinda class) was possible, and people did it but your skill cap was lower than a nano-mage breed who played as a nano technician profession. But contrary to the min/maxing of today’s gaming landscape where every character has to be given every possible advantage and handicap to be good, a lot of people made non-optimal characters. I thought this was really innovative and created a huge variety of characters and kept the min/maxing to a minimum in that game (at least when I played it). AO also had player and guild housing (actually, whole cities), but I don’t know where to place them in the timeline of those features other than “early.”

I also really appreciated the fact that being at max level in Anarchy Online was an achievement – that someone hitting max level generated a server-wide message about it. There were valid reasons to play (and keep playing) at lower levels, like claiming and protecting Notum wells (low key open-world PVP with objectives). All the best stuff in the game was crafted, and there was synergy between classes; to be able to craft the absolute best stuff, you almost always needed a Trader to buff your crafting skills (which you tipped for) and would have implants. It was a wonderfully complex system with lots of horizontal progression all throughout your character arc, not just horizontal progression at the end.

Anarchy Online was also a free-to-play game before it was cool (and it did so without an exploitive cash-shop – who knew?!).

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Justin and I have a running “Simpsons did it” joke on the podcast where he says a thing and I get to say Ultima Online did it first because of how absurdly often it’s true. Ultima Online gets credit for being the pioneer of the genre, yes, but the vast majority of the general MMO public never actually played it and doesn’t know much about its systems beyond vets’ stories of the first half year or so of unmitigated ganking.

For just a couple examples, Ultima Online was the first to work out customized housing and housing rules, the first to sort out a PvP flagging system and factional PvP, the first to try bounty systems. It came up with seasonal and classic and hardcore servers before anyone else. The game invented not just the MMORPG but the term shard for servers. It even had rudimentary quests. And of course, the game was intended to have a fully responsive ecology, but it never quite meshed with the tech – that took a few more years before time caught up with the ideas. I have to look pretty hard to find MMO concepts that it didn’t do in some way first, and most of them are technical, like instancing and phasing. That’s to its credit!

Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX, YouTube, Twitch): Hoooo-boy, this one’s kind of tough… but the most obvious answer to me is Guild Wars’ free-to-play model. We look at it now as a staple of the genre, but I remember the feeling of being the only one playing Guild Wars in a city full of folks playing World of Warcraft at their local coffee shop. The community college I went to back in 2006 had exactly one other guy playing Guild Wars. Everyone else was playing WoW. I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised if some also saw it as “the poor man’s MMO” at the time. But look at how things are today: It’s the norm, and subscriptions are now the exception.

The way the game was formatted, with towns being player hubs and the areas outside as instanced areas, pretty much launched the subgenre of lobby-based MMORPGs found in many MMO titles. Those games never really got it quite as right as Guild Wars, but those things are a dime a dozen.

Also, who would’ve ever thought that tab targeting would became a norm in the genre? From what I understand, it was created because of the technical limitations of the early 2000s and early networking technology. Tab targeting was a way for players to consistently get into combat while accounting for server lag and any other technical issue that might come up. It seemed so innocuous and a little uncomfortable for me at the time. But now, it’s as natural as breathing. And while some games are moving away from the system, there’s something comforting about the reliability of tab targeting.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): When I think of innovation in MMOs, my mind usually runs towards The Secret World and its investigation missions. These things were so far ahead of their time that I don’t think any other game has tried to crib the style, which is a damn shame because these were some of the best combinations of game setting, gameplay, and reward ever devised. They drew you into the overarching narrative of the area (whether you watched the cutscenes or not), they were very often clever, and they were also extremely rewarding, meaning that even those who didn’t care about the first two points could at least get something out of the third.

I know the question was about games that took that brave first step and never got the vindication they should have as that blazed trail was followed, but I am hard-pressed to think of many examples that eclipse TSW’s investigation missions, and I would really really like it if some game dev studio somewhere ripped the idea off wholesale. It’s not like Funcom is going to do anything with it.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I still maintain that The Sims Online was ahead of its time — and ahead of its own ability to deliver on its concept. I truly think that a massively multiplayer virtual dollhouse/social simulator is very doable, considering how much we like player housing, with or without the Sims brand name attached. It’s just such a shame that they used such antiquated graphics and had no idea about what players could do together other than grind out a handful of jobs. It’s something that really should be dusted off and tried again (in a more structured environment than virtual worlds such as Second Life).

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I’m no MMO historian, so if the games I mention here that weren’t technically the first to try out a certain idea, then oh well. I really liked SWTOR’s four pillars concept. The primary one that stuck with me was the inclusion of good, bad, and neutral story arcs. There were plenty of single player games that included those options but it was really fun to see it in an MMO.

Guild Wars 2 initially launching without a traditional trinity model or raids was cool. ArenaNet tried to fill the gap that those features left with world bosses and other content instead. It worked for me, but maybe not for ArenaNet.

Warhammer Online had a pretty cool out of game puzzle for players to uncover before its first (only?) expansion launched. That was a fun stores of events where I think they dropped clues on the forums or Twitter and you had to race around to figure it out.

City of Heroes’ ton of different travel powers is really great too.

Tyler Edwards (blog): I actually had a lot of trouble coming up with an answer for this. I think for something to be “ahead of its time,” a design has to be rare or unpopular at the time but become vindicated by wide adoption later. “Ahead of its time” implies that its time later came. I can think of a lot of designs that I think are great innovations but haven’t yet been widely adopted (like basically everything The Secret World did).

The one thing that comes to mind that was truly ahead of its time in all senses is City of Heroes’ character creator. These days, it’s fairly common for MMOs to have extensive visual character customization, but it wasn’t something you saw a lot of when CoH was new. The myriad costume parts might not be quite the same as the endless sliders you see in games like Black Desert Online, but I still think you can see one as the precursor of the other.

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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