Miscellaneous Game Features
An Industry’s Best Assessment
The Newest MMO’s
This is the third article in a three-part series. In the last two posts, we have looked at some of the best features of older generation and more recent MMO’s. Additionally, we have also looked at some of the best party maneuvers used in MMO’s. The point in all of these posts is to review the MMO genre and identify some of the best practices. We know that Yoshida has indicated that A Realm Reborn is supposed to build upon the best in industry while drawing in the core elements that make Final Fantasy stand out.
These Industry’s Best Assessment columns are intended to identify some of the features we would like to see incorporated into future MMO’s. For these three miscellaneous columns, I am trying to stick to game mechanics, not artistic elements. So, there won’t be a discussion of art style, apparel, character creation choices and the like. While those are certainly worthy of a “Best of” column, they are just a bit more subjective than I’m shooting for in this column.
Star Wars: the Old Republic
Star Wars: the Old Republic (TOR) attempted to bring the KOTOR series to the MMO genre. As such, it brought along staples of the Bioware RPG: companions, alignment choices, and branching stories. Most recently, TOR generated some controversy with their conversion to Free-to-Play, Gamasutra ran a feature panning the move as a poorly implemented cash grab. While TOR wasn’t the MMO many were looking for, there are a few things in TOR that merit future consideration.
- Companions – The primary feature of TOR is the companion system. Sure, MMO’s have had pet-classes since inception. In TOR, though, everyone is a pet class. The companions open the doorway for additional gear sinks, and party-based combat in very small group settings. Aela and I were able to routinely finish Group-4 content in TOR simply running with two companions.
- Faction-free PVP scenarios – the modern MMO tends to feature arena based PVP. These scenarios pit “balanced” teams from two (or more) sides to compete over set objectives like the classic capture the flag scenario. The modern MMO is also largely faction driven, be it Alliance/Horde, Guardians/Defiant, Republic/Empire, or whatever your two-sided red-team vs. blue-team mind can dream up. Among the many problems of faction based game play, side imbalances wreak havoc on PVP scenarios. One side (the small side) gets pretty much instant access; the more popular side gets queues. TOR attempted to solve this with Huttball, which can queue teams from the same side to help balance the lines. While not without its own problems, this is a good start at resolving population asymmetry.
- Raid Puzzle Bosses – I really dislike the gear model TOR uses for end-game, but I did like some of their raid bosses. In particular, the puzzle bosses in Eternity Vault (the pylons) and Karagga’s Palace (the Heavy Fabricator) were pretty cool ideas. Raid designers strive to build encounters that keep everyone on their toes, these were fairly neat approaches to that goal. I would hate to see an entire raid like this, but one per zone (blocking the final encounter) is kind of cool.
The Secret World
This is the MMO I am currently active in and it’s the reason I write blogs about video games. There’s a lot to be said (mostly good, some not so good) about The Secret World, a game that has had a troubled life. Recently, they joined Guild Wars 2 in the “Buy to Play” (B2P) business model, one that I have been advocating since my Box+ editorial a few months back.
- The Single Server Model – RIFT probably began this trend through their free and reasonably easy server transfer program, but TSW kicked it up a notch with their architecture. In TSW, servers behave a bit more like instances of a single server. Your home server determines the “instance” you normally play in. However, for grouping and chat, you talk across server lines seamlessly. Indeed, the only thing your server choice irrevocably impacts is your side server balance, which only impacts PVP play. In an industry where players are free to hop between titles (even more so with subscriptions largely removed), building flexibility in your server populations is critical.
- Puzzle Quests – One of the staple features of TSW is the investigation mission. Beginning in your very first zone, players are challenged by fairly difficult mysteries to unravel. For an example, see our TSWGuide for the Kingsmouth Code. These mysteries get very meta, it’s more than just simply figuring out clues in world (although some steps require this), you often need to do quite a bit of Internet research to figure out the solution. We’re not talking about a hop over to a guide site like ours, we’re talking about translating Hebrew or deciphering Morse code. I do question the value of these from a developer’s perspective – they take a lot of hours to develop and pretty much have zero replayability. Then again, that’s true of epic quests in any game, so I suppose it’s not that big a deal.
- Lair Zones as a Template for Contested Dungeons – Lairs are the TSW take on a contested dungeon. Once the staple of MMO’s like EQ, AC and DAoC, the contested dungeon has pretty much been fully replaced by instance only games like WoW and RIFT. That’s a shame because there are some aspects of contested dungeons that are really worth preserving. I’m not talking about spawn camping (which instancing resolves), I’m talking about the chaos created when groups indirectly overlap. For instance, respawning contested dungeons can turn a “safe” fight into a serious “oh crap” moment. “Oh crap” moments are some of the more fun moments in games and, unlike scripted encounters, you can’t read/watch a guide for these types of “oh crap” moments, you have to play through them. However, contested zones do bring about the afore-referenced spawn camping problem. The TSW lair solves this by making bosses “summons.” You accumulate patterns for a boss by defeating various lair denizens and quests. Once you have enough patterns, you pull a boss who is group-locked to your team. While the TSW model needs some tweaking (it’s very inventory intensive), the core idea is rock solid.
Guild Wars 2
The most recent AAA entry into the MMO genre is largely the 300 lb. gorilla in the room to WoW’s 300 lb. elephant. Guild Wars 2 largely repackages common MMO tropes into a friendly an accessible package. GW2 also represents the current zenith for the action oriented combat model which began with Age of Conan. GW2 will also be remembered as the MMO that largely sank the subscription only market. While it remains to be seen if players will purchase add-on packs with any regularity, the additional box purchases plus in-game micro-transactions leave GW2 a far more fiscally successful title than their recent competitors.
- Branching Dynamic Quests – GW2 is a quest hub game, some don’t realize it, but it is all the same. However, GW2 innovates on the quest hub model by injecting a number of their quest hubs into the dynamic content trend popularized by Tabula Rasa, Warhammer and RIFT. GW2 takes their public quest events a step farther than the competitors, though. Many of their dynamic events are chained off of prior events. Indeed, in a number of cases, the next event is determined by the success or failure of a prior event.
- Zone Exploration – Every GW2 zone has a number of discoverable objects. Be they points of interest, quest hub hearts, or vistas, there are a number of accessible and hidden destinations. Completing an entire map is an achievement, rewarded with a treasure grab. Completing the entire game’s maps is a separate achievement with its own rewards. Explorers are one of the four recognized Bartle player-types, no game has offered so direct a game for the explorer.
- Fast Travel linked to Exploration – You can fast travel to virtually any village you have found in GW2. This allows the world to still feel vast (you had to walk out there once) and yet remain accessible for the many dynamic events which can erupt.
- Looting with UI popups – On our first play through of GW2, this little feature really impressed me. As loot falls into your backpack, the side of the screen displays a context sensitive icon for the loot. You can do a hover-over compare from it if you desire. After a few ticks, the icon goes away. Loot never gets in the way of play. Nice feature, but not an innovation. It turns out this is actually a staple of Wizard 101, a kid-focused MMO by Kings Isle entertainment.
- Auction Buy Orders – GW2 gives us the most complex auction house outside of EVE. In the GW2 auction house, you can place (or fill) buy and sell orders. Most MMO’s only give you a sell option. On top of this, GW2 merges the auction houses of every server into one giant auction. Additionally, you can see the quantity and price for every level of buy and sell nearest the going price. These features combine to provide the fragmented competition, high velocity and open transparency needed for an efficient market. The economics folks behind the GW2 auction should be proud; they did one hell of a job.
That wraps up our examination of miscellaneous MMO features. This has been a long, and nostalgic, walk through a number of virtual parks. There are some features that just make sense in MMO’s, once introduced they quickly become a standard. As an example, the ubiquitous idea of clickable (or hoverable) chat window elements (e.g. gear, abilities, map locations, etc.) was pretty innovative when AO pioneered it a decade ago. While some of these great ideas get snatched up and become part of the industry recipe for an MMO, a number of the ones listed in these three columns have been missed by their competitors.
There has been a lot of ground covered in this series of articles, but I certainly haven’t hit every neat feature in every MMO. I probably missed some neat features in the ones I did cover. In our next set of Industry’s Best Assessments, I will return to a single feature study (similar to the party maneuver post). Until that time, are there any great features I missed? Are there any single features you would like to see explored?