Should developers make money? Abso-freakin-lutely! Should “making money” be the number one priority? Absolutely not… If they really want to be successful they are going to have to return to making a product that gamers are going to fall in love with as opposed to making a product that a gamer falls into and then scratches and claws their way out of the emptiness that is the game. How do they do this? How can the corporate world understand what makes a gamer so involved in the game they are likely to invest in? ESPECIALLY if the game wants to step it up and tag their game with the subscription model and claim they aren’t just an MMORPG but they are a AAA-MMORPG (and yes there are differences, but that’s for a completely different conversation).
One of the first items is the story. It’s the story that engages most of the players before they even begin to play! A lot of the games have made it to where the story doesn’t happen until you start playing but completely forget about a key aspect of the greatest MMORPG’s to date: lore. While in game story is amazing it’s also this pregame (even drinkers do it) story that makes people say “I really want to get in there and become a part of this world!”
Now let’s pretend that the last eight years of MMORPG gaming hasn’t been about getting to max level and beating the “end game” content first. Let’s go back to before that time when EverQuest was barely a year old! Most MMORPG gamers didn’t even know what “end game” content was! People played EverQuest because it was a brand new experience, and in truth, presented (along with three other titles of that time frame… all pre-WoW) the standard at which all MMORPGs would be judged for a lot of reasons.
When you first bought EQ1 you received a giddy grin, an immense realization that you had no clue what was going on, and a book almost as thick as the Bible. Sure a few pages of this book covered the general controls of your character and your interaction with the world, but far beyond that was the story and detail of every race, city, and deity within this realm of existence! I, and countless others, spent hours upon hours reading this tome while we weren’t playing just because it was amazing (even on the throne). These developers put back stories mixed with back stories mixed with racial feuds mixed with wars between gods and asked us… no dared us to thrive in the middle of it all! Even if you weren’t a Role Player you wanted to go and beat up a few gods!
Next we have character development. Now here is something directed to the MMORPG developers that I have to get off of my chest: STOP THINKING THAT THE ABILITIES AND SPELLS WE HAVE DEFINE OUR CHARACTER! This is just a piece of our character, a piece of the puzzle that makes up who we are in this virtual space. If you game developers keep thinking that the only way to create a unique gaming environment is to change how the spells and abilities are obtained, used, and grow then you’re blindsiding yourself entirely. How about character level? How do I obtain a level? Is it even important to have character levels? What happens when my character DIES!?
Let’s take a look at a prime example of how a game failed to capture the essence of the character, and I know a LOT of you are going to be upset about this but bear with me: Final Fantasy XIV (FFXIV). Overall the game has great play value, though no longevity nor replay value. One of the oddest parts about this game is that the level is utterly irrelevant! For those of you that watch the Big Bang Theory, do you remember the episode where Penny questions the value of the role of Indiana Jones in one of Sheldon’s most beloved movies? If you do, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you don’t, allow me to paint you a portrait…
In FFXIV you’ve got the typical MMORPG leveling system: do quests, kill monsters (though you got little to no experience at launch) and of course do more quests… and there’s a few dungeons but those yield less experience than just killing monsters for your time spent. They added in this “world quest” system called FATEs, but it’s just the same as doing a kill quest with other people. During all of this you are obtaining new levels and finding new gear to equip and learning new spells! Now you’re level 50, and to do so you’ve decided that you wanted to do FATEs up until max level and then hit the dungeons up!!! One problem… The dungeons don’t unlock because of your level, you have to beat the story quest in order to do a lot of the dungeons… even the ones at 50… the dungeons have a level requirement on them… Okay.
Wait a minute… You’re telling me that you just got to max level after days (lol days) of playing and you have to go back and complete content that’s level 20 first? Huh… Okay then let me ask you this: If there weren’t any levels and you just had to beat the story quests to unlock content… then what is the value of the levels? Honestly! Can someone answer this? If Indiana Jones hadn’t have been in the movie the Nazi’s would still have the damned arc and still would have died! Same. Exact. Issue.
Sure it’s “traditional” but I’ll be perfectly honest, I don’t like “traditional”… I feel like it takes away from my growth and in this case the entire MMORPG genre. There isn’t a single instance where anyone could convince me that FFXIV couldn’t thrive without levels. Have the same spells and abilities unlock with quests and that solves that issue, obtain new stat values with each story quest complete and that solves that issue, what else is there? It’s the perfect example of a game that has become so blinded by the industry that original design doesn’t exist.
What am I getting at? What are you saying Layenem? Create a character experience the way YOU want to create it… but make it the whole package. Involve features such as the way you first build the appearance of your character, how your character interacts in the world, special items throughout the world that will always have value to your character (regardless of the level of your character)… There are SO MANY aspects to our character that have been grossly ignored! Moving on!
Okay now we have an amazing story and now we’ve got a complete character progression system down to the last letter. But what good are these items if we don’t have a world to explore? Where are the people to interact with or bandits to beat up on? What if we don’t even want to kill anything, we don’t want to fight at all? What if we want to become master crafters in order to sell, trade, and haggle our way through the game for the next two years? Well, we need content then don’t we? And not this measly “here’s content to level up through and two dungeons once you get to max level”… no… and hell no! We want, no we demand that you provide us multiple different paths to walk down from the moment we walk out of our tutorial phase!
Now don’t get me wrong here I’m aware that a game can’t release with an EQ1 or WoW sized world worth of content. WoW is the youngest of the two by 5+ years and it is still eight years old or so. I get that it takes time, years’ worth of time, to provide that much content. However, when they launched they had plenty of content for everyone to go through. I remember five years after first playing EQ1 I would meet people I had never seen before (it wasn’t nearly as big of a community as WoW’s 10 million) because they “grew up” on a completely different continent (in game) than I did. These are original MMORPGs we’re talking about, and you’re telling me that new games don’t have the resources to create content the same size as the first 3D MMORPG? (Sorry WoW fans… I’m referencing EQ1).
Alas, here’s the major issue with content though: games have started to come out with zero “end game” content. For those of you who are new to MMORPGs end game content is simply (lol simply) content that you can engage in after you hit the max level. The problem is that games have started providing two dungeons and little to no raiding, a leveling system that takes days to get through without rushing, no crafting, no PvP… and expect us to what? PRETEND there is content? If you can’t please the three aspects of the community with content then you’re done. (Just to be perfectly clear, the three aspects are Player vs Environment, Crafting, and Player vs Player… not “hard core” and “casual”…) Okay next!
Here’s one that I feel has been overlooked entirely over the past eight years: Community Interaction. This is a two part mechanic: players interacting with players and developers interacting with players. The first of the two is going to happen simply due to how the MMORPG works… thousands of people in the same space at the same time. You’d have to be a serious introvert to get no interaction out of that (and you likely are only looking to play with a person you already know, which is fine). However, community interaction goes far beyond “Looking For Group” (LFG) tools and an Auction House (AH). (I won’t even get into how I feel a global Auction House is bad for the community in whole.) You can’t just give us ways to interact; you have to give us reasons to interact! Why are we using the LFG tool? Who needs an AH when I can go get my goods on my own?
Most MMORPGs created over the past eight years can be soloed all the way to the max level dungeons. I don’t even group with people when they send me group invites because there’s no reason. I always feel as if I’m far more powerful than them or they are far more powerful than me and I can’t get any combat going. That’s uncomfortable for me… why would I even group up with other players? On top of that, if I come across any crafting materials I know the AH is going to be flooded with them that I either destroy them from my inventory or sell them to a merchant if it’s worth my time in gold. Again, the AH is there but what is the value in me using it? Which leads to the second part of community interaction: WHERE ARE THE DEVELOPERS???
There are hundreds of ways developers can get involved in a game but one of my favorite is the GM Event. Game Manager Events are spontaneous, entertaining, and rarely disappointing on the reward side when/if you complete them! They don’t give us schedules for them, you can’t predict them, and most of the time they happen because a GM is bored out of their mind and want to stir up some trouble! In short: THEY ARE FREAKING AWESOME!!! I mean, how often do you get offered the chance to win a stack of Invisibility Potions as a new player by simply creating a level 1 Halfling, getting naked and drunk (alcohol provided by the GM), and doing a run through Kithicor Forest at night? Now this is simply my favorite way that the developers interact with the community but there are more ways in which it is done.
Developers have to be more involved on a personal level as well. Now I’m not talking about GM Events or suggesting the developers play and group with people who play the game. I’m not even saying they all come out once a week the way football players do after every game and have a conference. I’m saying that if you don’t have that one guy who can bridge the gap between gamers and developers then the developers are going to make gamers feel like the developer is the god and the gamer is a peon… Gamers are far from peons and will destroy your content in ways you can’t plan for, you must bridge the gap. A prime example of this would be Smedley from SOE and how he has been in the pool with the gamers back when Verant ran EQ1.
Then we have a key mechanic which could be jumbled in with the developer side of the “Community Interaction” but it’s been so scarce lately that it shocks and amazes me: Customer Support (CS). Some people can go their entire MMORPG gaming lives and never require the use of CS… some have, lucky bastards! Most of us, however, will require CS for many different reasons throughout a few months’ worth of time. The most disappointing thing to see when you pick up a P2P game is that if you accidentally delete an item you can only ever refund one (1) item for the lifetime of your gaming account… WHAT??? You’re telling me that I’m not paying enough to put in a trouble ticket with the date and time and item name, have a GM verify the data, and reimburse me the item?
Or if I’m trying to pay my subscription and your system is giving me problems… I’d better be able to call you and give you my money. I’m already going out of my way to invest in you, which means you’d better go out of your way to provide me with a method to invest. Here is my favorite though: If you implement a “Coin Lock” system, and force me to retrieve an “Unlock Code” from my email… but you refuse to send the code to my email then you’d better pick up the phone and fix my problem! There are so many things CS can do to keep the players in the game and engaged that they simply don’t take care of any more… It’s not just sad to see, it’s frustrating!
Lastly, and not the least by far: Immersion! I’ll say this upfront; if your only interest in the game is to simply be the first to beat the end game content then you will never be immersed! You are not playing against the game at this point; you are only playing against other competitive end gamers. If you’re a part of that crowd then this entire section will be lost on you. However, if you actually play video games for their entirety (single player, MMORPG, FPS, etc…) then you will understand exactly what I’m talking about.
Immersion isn’t something that can be created as a primary effect. Immersion comes when all of the previously mentioned elements (and all the minor elements that go into each of the major categories) come together. In order for them to come together, they must all be there in the first place… then and only then can immersion exist. It is organic. You cannot plan for it or crop a game around it or expect people to inject it into themselves… It happens as a result of the combination of human interaction based on enough fluid elements that cause us to forget we are in a virtual world in the first place.
You don’t have to guess if the game is immersive because the signs are all around! You’ve got people doing things in the world developers hadn’t even considered a possibility. Immersion inspires gamers to come out of their comfort zone and create their own world inside of the developers’ world. There is no purer element of a AAA-MMORPG then immersion. Immersion will NEVER be the “reason” why something doesn’t work in a game! I just don’t feel I can state this enough. You see people saying “If you don’t add *insert selfish perspective* then it will break immersion…” No! It won’t! Immersion isn’t broken because if a game is missing an element in the first place then immersion was never there.
Immersion is beyond petty threats and hand carved statues of Zeus (I don’t even know where I was going with that… /shakes head)! Immersion is there or it isn’t and you can’t “guide” someone to immersion! Stop using it in your arguments because you think it will get someone to listen because they can’t, it’s just not possible to garner an argument as simple as “If I don’t have hand to hand combat I can’t get immersed…” Firstly, that’s a selfish argument and shouldn’t be respected anyways. Secondly, and again, you cannot force immersion by adding in a single element (such as a weapon, or a hat, or the ability to fart…) Sure the /sit command is nice to have but it’s not an immersion breaker! I remember when you couldn’t even exist in a virtual world and it all happened in your mind while you played on a board with some dice! Yes something as simple as sitting should be included in an MMORPG, I agree 100%, but you’d better show me hours and hours and HOURS of video of you role playing in the sitting position or I’m calling you out!
I could go on and on about immersion and how beautiful it is to witness. Anyone who has ever experienced a game that was so intense they were swallowed up by it could go on and on reading about it and smiling the whole time saying to themselves “Yes! YES I WANT THIS AGAIN!!!” Unfortunately, I don’t feel I have the personal restraint to allow logical thoughts to guide the explanation of immersion since every time I think about it that childish joy of Christmas Morning springs up within me and takes over. This element is something you must experience for yourself and is the number one reason why MMORPG gamers have absolutely no concerns investing in a game that can give this to us. It is a drug, pure and simple.
Have you ever wondered why EverQuest was called EverCrack? Or why WoW still has millions of subscribers to this date? I would dare you to go to those games and experience the immersion for yourself but the truth is we’re simply living on nostalgia at this point. Nostalgia doesn’t mean we remember the games being better than they were mind you! The truth is, though, that no other game has been able to deliver these elements in one place since WoW and its forefathers, and that is what makes us nostalgic. There are no delusions about the greatness of the games that were and the lack of quality games since… I… I guess I did go on and on about immersion didn’t I? Kinda got away from me there. Okay I’m good *heavy breathing*… Let’s finish this!
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to seem as though I’m overlooking some of the other elements that go into the game. We’re talking about raid progression systems, itemization and stat priority, mounts, visuals… I could go on and on… But most of these other items I haven’t mentioned can be easily squeeze into the six key elements I laid out in this article. The point here is to answer a simple question: what makes a great MMORPG great?
With a few big name MMORPGs coming out over the next twelve months I thought it would be cool for gamers, as a whole, to take a look at what it is we seem to be missing. Whether you’re a P2P, F2P, or B2P MMO gamer is irrelevant at this point since none of us can truly call any MMORPG a quality AAA-MMORPG without these key elements first. The business model won’t ever break the game (though some will rage against it whichever model is put in place), there are plenty of people who reside in each category and almost as many that don’t care what model is used. Games fail because they lack the core elements that make the game worth spending hours of our adult life inside of and I hope those who didn’t understand what they were seeing, and why it was so important, might now be able to see why some of these games have failed or succeeded despite their payment model and the argument that always follows those that come out as P2P but is conveniently missing when the B2P and F2P games fail.
"To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing." ~ Elbert Hubbard
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