Massively Overthinking: Solved problems in MMOs


One of the most annoying pet peeves this genre seems to spin up frequently is some companies’ tendency to treat solved problems as unsolved problems – or more colloquially, to keep on trying to reinvent the wheel, all while pretending wheels never existed and then not focusing on cool things that can done with said wheel. For example, fast travel, griefplay, gear repair, auction houses, megaservers, level crunch, and faction PvP pose problems that have all been solved dozens of times, some of them so resoundingly that to deviate from them is breaking from a strong tradition, and yet studios keep trying to position these as unsolved problems in need of solving so they can reinvent all these things as if they’d never been done before and then say please clap.

For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked our crew to consider a solved problem in MMOs and offer an example of a studio trying to solve it again. Why do they keep doing this?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): Open world PvP as a whole. I think EVE has a good model, in that there’s a risk vs. reward in the “sectors” you travel, which a few other games have done, going back to even Asheron’s Call 2 but even Crowfall and ArcheAge. The more safety you have, the fewer rare materials you have access to, but you can always buy or trade them with other players.

Flagging systems, such as in SWG and for certain events in Asheron’s Call, also felt like a win. If you saw something happening in SWG, you could flag and participate. For AC1, certain portals were accessible only to PvP players, and PvP flagging took place at far away locations, ensuring that PvE players couldn’t abuse the systems. Games like World of Warcraft may have flags, but they are arbitrary and easy to abuse, with little to no benefits. New World sounded similar enough, which just made the game seem like more of the same.

Let me pivot to MMOARGs for a moment. Pokemon GO is essentially an either/or PvP system. The only way to gain coins is through PvP or direct purchase; you can’t trade for coins with another player. There are also tasks that force you to battle at gyms. You cannot opt-out without being locked out of even some basic quests. And this is a real problem because people get very worked up about “their” territory, which may be bad enough in a purely virtual world, but very problematic in meat space.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Orna does have locations people can fight over, but it’s not required. In fact, actively playing the PvE parts of the game will give you the same rewards with much less of a headache and restrictions, as damage dealing builds make your “territory” easier for other players to take. There’s even a PvE version that still encourages exploration without the potential for human-to-human conflict. The game also has arenas and guild wars, but none of them send you against people in real life, but randoms online, kind of like in traditional online lobby shooters. This is often how other ARGs such as Jurassic World Alive include PvP without risking the creation of real-life gangs committing real-life crimes over virtual territory and goods.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Every time a studio comes up with a crypto-oriented pitch about how it would be so great if you could be rewarded for your time in game and cash out when you’re done, I want to bang my head on my desk and roll it around and let my keyboard massage my skin. Guys, we already had that. This was a solved problem. We had that at least 25 years ago. We had online video game companies that were perfectly fine with letting people sell their MMO digital crap and their whole accounts on auction boards. We had one major video game company set up an entire system so it could act as the broker between players trying to safely sell their accounts. I know all this because I was there and I did it. The company was Electronic Freakin’ Arts, and I made $1800 selling my (original) Ultima Online accounts with my keep and my box of heads I cut off PK corpses and my stash of illegal runes and pre-patch gear, and it was all perfectly legal.

What happened in the aughts is that MMO companies – some for altruistic reasons and some not – put an end to the free trade, and Ebay caving cemented the deal. Some didn’t want to encourage gold farming or the criming that it often entails (though the criming got much worse when it was outlawed, as it always does, and the black market still thrives to this day). Some thought it harmed the in-game economy and integrity of the game. Some didn’t like the legal implication that players owned any piece of the digital landscape. And some were just annoyed they weren’t getting a cut, which is why 10 years later they’d fully normalized and brought under their control cash shops and pay-to-win currencies and so forth.

I could go on here, but my point is, we don’t need yet another system for buying and selling pixels. That part at least was a solved problem, even if you didn’t like it for any of the reasons I just named or could’ve thought of safer ways to do it than EA’s own brokerage. We already had a solution, and the reasons it was dismantled are not at all negated by the introduction of new scam currencies and third-party hucksters who, just like the studios, are in it only for a new way to skim off the top.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): A recent example that stands out is when Embers Adrift proudly put out its travel node system, making what read like a lot of hay about the fact that they basically “created” fast travel points that are discovered by roaming the map as some sort of amazing confluence of the game devs’ desire to encourage exploration while understanding that people wanting to group up and head to an activity faster was probably a good idea.

The vast majority of examples that I can come up with spawn from Star Citizen, which gleefully touts things like the Player Status System (aka basic freaking survivalbox mechanics) or inventory systems as game-changing, life-affirming updates that only CIG’s Building Blocks tech or development team could have put together.

As for why studios keep doing this, I can only assume it’s a lack of initial research or development happening in a bubble. I admit that those are both assumptions on my part, but it happens with such frequency that I don’t think those are hard conclusions to leap to. Someone should be paying attention at what’s happened before or is happening now when thinking of a game’s feature, but often it doesn’t seem like it.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): This could be a fun one. Just about every studio that is currently developing a game but hasn’t “released” it has done this at least once. Even lots of released games do it. New World was, and I believe continues, to be notorious about this. Hopefully I’m not misremembering this. I recall just prior to launch they were hyping up their combat as being the first of it’s kind in MMOs. I had to double check because yes they did.

Perhaps this isn’t exactly an old problem being solved again. Let’s go to the judges and… yes, I’m being told it plays.

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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