Hey, designers, we need to talk. So, if you haven’t noticed, I like MMOs. And you’re making an MMO. This should be a good thing. I should be interested in your game! Like, maybe it doesn’t have much chance of becoming my main game, but you still have a more-than-decent chance of piquing my interest and at least giving your game a shot. Except… now I’m not even trying it, despite the fact that the dang thing is free-to-play and I don’t have other games to play right now and I have plenty of space on my hard drive?
Why is that? Well, there are a lot of potential reasons. Some of those are reasons specific to particular games, but a lot of the mistakes that make me say “yeah, not even worth trying” are the sorts of things that I see happen again and again even though they are entirely avoidable pitfalls. So here’s a list of stuff that’s going to turn me off from trying a game right away. No one of these things is an automatic “nope” from me, but the more of them happen, the more I’m likely to just… peace out.
1. Gender-locked classes
Look, I don’t care how good people say the game is: Gender-locked classes are a bad decision and they earn the side-eye from me. For that matter, it surprises me how many people are willing to defend this option with various qualifiers. “Oh, it’s all right, there’s almost always a similar version for the other gender.” Hey, you know what would be even more similar? Not gender-locking your classes in the first place. “Oh, it’s a cultural thing in [INSERT COUNTRY HERE] so it’s normal.” My dudes (and it is always dudes), that is not a defense; that is an admission of failing. “Oh, they’ll unlock the classes later.” Yeah, that often doesn’t happen.
Point being that if your classes are gender-locked, I’m a whole lot less likely to give your game a first look, let alone a second look. Seriously, drop this shiz.
2. Avowed PvP focus
If you’ve read my stuff over a reasonably long span of time, you know that I really like PvP. If you don’t know that, you’re probably running into the problem of reading that header and not understanding how both of these things can be true. How can you really like PvP but not like it when a title is very explicitly focused on PvP? The answer is that it’s fundamentally kind of a malformed question because games that have an avowed focus on PvP nearly always rely on having non-consensual PvP, and that’s not the same as not liking PvP.
To re-use an old analogy: I like ice cream. I do not want to sit down to a meal that is not ice cream and then suddenly have someone run up to me, slam my face in a hot fudge sundae, and scream “It’s time for ice cream now, bucko!” This does not make me excited for ice cream.
3. Ugly or bland graphics
For the first point, I want to make something very clear: There’s a difference between something that looks dated and something that looks ugly. Ultima Online looks dated. City of Heroes looks dated. RuneScape looks ugly. The former two games are both very capable of looking attractive, even if their graphics are clearly a product of the time when they were made and have limitations. But if your game just looks ugly top-to-bottom, then no, I’m not going to be inclined to spend my free time in a game that generally disappoints my aesthetic sensibilities.
This is also true about games that aren’t ugly but are just… bland. There are countless games where I literally cannot tell what game we are looking at if the game is not stated right in the title, and if that’s the case something has gone wrong with your game. I wrote a whole article about how pretty can be kind of lacking in terms of definition. Maybe it’s weird, but there are an awful lot of projects that feel like having a distinctive stamp would be anathema to the game’s prospects for some reason.
Screenshots from Lord of the Rings Online look distinctive and pretty to me, and that’s an older title that isn’t known for its graphical heft and its source material is kind of the template for fantasy in general. What the heck excuse does your title have?
4. Poor specialization explanation
Lots of games offer class promotions or skill growths or whatever. That’s fine. I like that. But far too often, games that offer this frequently completely whiff on explaining how these things are different. You know the sort of thing I’m talking about:
When choosing your class promotion, your Fencer can choose between the Sword-Dancer, focusing on elaborate and graceful combination strikes, or the Bladeweaver, focusing on specialized attacks and sweeping assaults.
That is word salad. I have no idea how the two are different. You technically listed two different options but there is nothing to actually latch on to. When I am choosing a specialization I expect a clear picture of how these mechanics are different, not vague language usually reserved for a portion of the newspaper explaining how the relative position of Mercury indicates you should avoid Sagittarius and Leo.
Y’know what, folks? World of Warcraft has three specializations for Warlocks. All three of them are basically “summon a demon, apply periodic damage to the target, then blast it.” And the game manages to find a way to describe all three specializations in such a way that you can tell the difference between them. So if you can’t rise to that level, either you haven’t differentiated them enough or you’re not trying very hard.
5. Lack of melee options
What? Not all of these were going to be hard to understand. I like smacking stuff. If your game doesn’t let me do it, that’s going to kill my enthusiasm pretty quick.
6. Weirdly cliquish community
Dear designers everywhere: I do not want to join your Discord server. If you tell me that’s where all the interesting news/developments/whatever are posted, I am going to give you some side-eye because that is a great way to not set up a community feedback loop but an echo chamber. Similarly, if I’m told that the way to properly play this game is to join this private community where players coordinate so the game stays active and it’s really friendly, don’t worry, we’re happy to have new players, just come hang out…
Yeah, y’all are probably lovely people, but I think I’ll just keep walking.
7. Starter packs
So it’s worth noting that there are an awful lot of games I have played which do, as a point of fact, have things for sale dubbed “starter packs.” These are usually games where my play predated the inclusion. It’s not an instant dealbreaker, no.
That having been said, something about this always just kind of rubs me the wrong way. When you are starting a new MMO – whether it’s free-to-play or not – the stuff you need to start off should be stuff the game gives you anyway. If you’re selling me a “starter pack” you’re implying that I need this to start playing the game properly, which either means that you’re trying to start me overpowered (and thus get me to spend more once the power rush wears off and I need more of that overpowered dopamine) or your early game isn’t balanced right any more and the game starts me off underpowered. Neither one speaks well of the design.
8. Strangely familiar lore
US supreme court justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in a case discussing obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” (That’s not the full quote, obviously; here’s the whole history and all for those who don’t feel like searching. See? Our site is educational and stuff.) I have to apply a similar standard here. It’s hard to define exactly what this is in an abstract sense, but I know it when I see it, and when I see it the whole project bears the unmistakable feel of someone who just… was not trying very hard.
It’s not really just a matter of specific plot elements so much as that sense of… not trying. You get the feeling like the setting was less about “we want to adventure in this land which offers lots of opportunities” and more about “hey, let’s bang out something to explain why we’re winding up in the same linear fantasy grinding zone to start off as every other game to get cranked out for minimal effort in the last five years.”
9. Oversaturated content or leveling
Leveling up is nice. It’s a dopamine hit, sure. But sometimes games just go all in on leveling with the intensity of someone who’s afraid you’ll lose interest if you don’t level quickly enough. Finished a quest? That’s a level. Walked down the street? That’s a level. Have a favorite color? That’s a level. And usually this goes hand-in-hand with the game announcing that I’ve unlocked dungeons and mini-raids and item enhancement and skill specialization part one and whale upsetting and just please stop. One at a time.
A good MMO, like any good game, uses high activity as punctuation. There are moments when you are firing on all cylinders, using all your skills, really going to town in a high-energy combat… and there are moments that are just you quietly going from one place to another, a chance to think and sit back and breathe. If your game never stops being at that high-octane level, people are going to get worn out quickly, and I’m not inclined to give you a shot.
Theoretically you could also go the other route where nothing is high-energy, but I see that a lot less.
10. NFT crypto blockchain scams
You have just ensured that I will never support your game, or try it, or give it the benefit of a doubt, or write about it in a neutral fashion, or treat it as anything other than a scam (because it is a gigantic, obvious scam). So, yeah.