The MMO pt1: Genre Analysis and Personal Relations to MMO Games

The MMO. Probably one of the most ambitious types of games in the world today. An MMO is almost conceptually comparable to an alternate reality; An entirely new world has been created, which you inhabit by playing the game alongside millions of other players. [1] As a person that has spent 15-16 years of his life almost literally immersed in video games, the concept of a video game where I can completely exercise fantasy escapism within an alternate reality is a concept I get almost too excited over. Unfortunately almost every time I try to play an MMO there seem to be several barriers that prevent me from becoming really invested and involved with the game. I have friends that present me with various MMO titles and I do attempt to play most of them in the hope that maybe I can find a title to become truly invested in. Sadly no MMORPG to date has been able to successfully deliver the all-encompassing virtual escapism that the genre’s name implies. In this series of blog posts I will be investigating the MMO, what aspects make it to inaccessible to me, what MMO’s thus far have done both correctly and incorrectly, and conceptualizing what would make the ideal MMO experience would it have been tailored specifically for me. This is going to be an experience for the both of us as I try to find out why I tend to dislike this genre of games.

Groundwork: Establishing expectations of the genre.

First of all lets establish what defines a game as an MMO and compare and contrast some of the elements and aspects that commonly occur in the most popular MMORPG games that are available today.

MMO is an acronym which is short for “Massively Multiplayer Online Game”. [2] The basic aim of an MMO is to deliver a multiplayer online experience whilst being connected to other players over the internet. Beyond this there is no pre-defined elements that have to be included in the game to maintain the MMO definition. The MMO acronym is often augmented by various other videogame genre acronyms in order to clearly define what should be expected of the game. A few examples of which include:-

MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game): World Of Warcraft, EVE Online, Guild Wars 2.
MMOFPS (Massively Multiplayer Online First Person Shooter): Planetside 2, Gotham City Imposters.
MMOTPS (Massively Multiplayer Online Third Person Shooter): APB:reloaded, Global Agenda, Crimecraft.
MMORTS (Massively Multiplayer Online Real Time Strategy): The Settlers Online, Age Of Empires Online, Travian.
MMOSG (Massively Multiplayer Online Social Game): IMVU, Habbo Hotel, Playstation Home.

(All links tested working 28/04/2013 23:38 GMT)

NOTE: Some websites linked above are EU versions of the sites and as such may not re-direct according to your region.

So a common trend that is visible in all of the above games is the fact that the player connects and interacts with other players online. By connecting to the game you are connecting to an alternate online universe which has its own rules, currency, politics and cultures that are not only experienced by all of the players but also perpetuated by all of the players.
Even after identifying 5 of the most popular subgenre’s for MMO games there are still no clearly consistent recurrences that help to define what an MMO is outside of “it’s massively multi-player”. I don’t want to spend the majority of this blog post debating the definition of what MMO means so I will simply make my own definition of what MMO means and quickly move on.

“An MMO game is a type of game whereby the player can freely use the internet to connect and disconnect from a non-instance based, server-side perpetuated game-state alongside a multitude of additional other players” – Albert Milton 2013

In addition to genre, the way an MMO plays can help further break down and simplify defining the game which will help both you and me when it comes to the second part of this blog post.
The YouTube user “MrBtongue” has a video called TUN: Un-Ruining the MMO. At one point in the video he divides all MMO games into two categories with the following statements:

“…and MMO’s can be divided into two broad categories. The Theme Park and the Sandbox.
The Theme Park MMO is one with a comparatively high level of control and direction on the part of the developer. The player inhabits a world created by someone else, completes tasks designed by someone else and mostly has the experience that the developer intends.”

“…on the other end of the scale you have the Sandbox. Like the name implies the sandbox style MMO allows for more freedom and creativity, but also expects the players to provide their own direction.” [3]

What MrBtongue fails to acknowledge is the presence of a third type of MMO which is the Coffee Shop MMO. A coffee shop MMO is a name attributed to social MMO games. Coffee shop MMOs will often have no combat features and will exhibit a purely social dynamic in which the players can explore.

Now that I have established what an MMO is and laid some groundwork for identifying the genre’s commonplace features, I can begin picking apart the reasons why I am so incapable of fully enjoying this genre of games.

Identifying and explaining problems I have with current MMO titles.

For this section I am going to highlight some of the reasons why I dislike MMO games thus far. While they may not be a recurrence across all MMOs they are a cause for distaste nonetheless.

PROBLEM 1: Combat

To help illustrate my point I am going to analyze my experience with Guild Wars 2; a game that I got extremely excited for and then ended up being let down. I am using Guild Wars 2 as an example here because it is the MMO that I have the most experience with not because of a strong dislike the game, or the developers or anything like that. In addition, ArenaNet is (in my eyes) a great example of a developer that has fallen victim to Molyneux Syndrome.

Guild Wars 2 is a theme park style MMORPG that is developed by ArenaNet and published by NCSoft.
The game is set in the world of Tyria which is a high fantasy world spanning 94 km^2 [4]. While still about half the size of vanilla World of Warcraft (Version 1.1.0) [5] it’s still the kind of colossal in-game world that should and has come to be expected from MMO games. Regardless of anything else that may be featured in the game, the MMO acronym coupled with the sheer size of the map gives the impression that this game is going to be absolutely enormous in scale and I can play this game almost as if I were living a second lifestyle in the amazing fantasy world of Tyria.

gw051
The in-game map of Tyria. In-game map doesn’t allow zoom far enough to capture the entire map. [6]

My first encounter with anything to do with the Guild Wars franchise was ArenaNet’s MMO Manifesto circa 2011. [7]
Throughout the manifesto the developers at ArenaNet make clear and concise statements about why you should play Guild Wars 2 in a very serious manner. Nothing about this presentation falls short or feels amatuer, ArenaNet clearly has a point to prove about making an MMO unlike any other and it seems as though they are making points based on issues with previously existing MMO games, most notably World of Warcraft which is the biggest and most popular MMO of all time [8]. By the end of the manifesto its clear that ArenaNet want to do nothing short of re-defining the MMO, which is an absolutely colossal task, but one they seem absolutely prepared to do.

“We founded ArenaNet to innovate, so Guild Wars 2 was our opportunity to question everything, to make a game that defies existing conventions. If you love MMOs you’ll wanna check out Guild Wars 2 and if you hate MMOs you’ll really wanna check out Guild Wars 2. …” – Mike O’Brien, ArenaNet founder [9]

Out of all the things I could have expected from this game I was looking forward to a combat system that was more action oriented, that didn’t lock players in arbitrary animation cycles whilst cycling numbers, that didn’t have me cycling through and waiting on ability cooldowns like a late train. Or in other words, click & wait is not my idea of engaging combat.
I may be missing something but it doesn’t seem to me that ArenaNet delivered on their promise of a much more engaging combat system. Trading blows in Guild Wars 2 is certainly more impactful than most other MMO combat systems, however it still feels so unfulfilling.
I can’t quite identify exactly what it is. Maybe it’s the third-person perspective combined with the hotbar and tedious cycling of cooldowns. I have come to the conclusion that I simply don’t enjoy this style of combat. It is present in Guild Wars 2 and it is also present in non-MMO games with similar combat systems such as Forge.

The combat that an MMO choses to implement also has a huge impact on its longevity. Defeating the end-game boss and getting the best gear will only be able to keep people interested for a limited amount of time. No creative studio in the world can output quality content as fast as people can play it. The ideal end-game goal for an MMO is in theory the PvP. Player vs player, skill based, fast paced and lightly tactical combat.

An example of Forge PvP
An example of Guild Wars 2 PvP
An example of World of Warcraft PvP

Sometimes intense 3rd person PvP can be extremely enjoyable, but the only example in which I can see combat being engaging is in high level EVE: Online. Even then it’s mostly the atmosphere surrounding the combat. The combat itself is cycling cooldowns from a third-person perspective and at some points the battle just seems like a bit of a mess, and its not too comprehensible what is going on. Also from what I can collect, it’s a click & wait combat system. rather than an active one, albeit this suits the spaceship style of the game to some degree.
Here is an example of what im talking about. A really engaging build up, that leads into what looks like an incomprehensible exchanging of lazer beams; to me at least.

An example of EVE: Online PvP
NOTE: Throughout the video there are annotations explaining roughly what is happening.

I enjoy PvP & competitive games however as someone who really dislikes the style of combat that Guild Wars 2, World of Warcraft and forge all bring to the table, end-game PvP is not even a possibility I would consider due to me being unable to enjoy their combat systems in the first place.  It just feels like a let down and a huge disappointment that MMO’s can be entirely fruitless because developers are refusing to utilize the untapped potential of alternative PvP methods to both improve and add sustainability to their game.
The reason I say it is most likely a combination of TPS (Third Person Shooter) elements and cooldown cycling is because some non-fantasy MMOTPS games have an entirely reasonable (but not amazing) combat system to a certain degree as the firing of a gun is not locked to an animation cycle. The example of which I have the most experience is APB: Reloaded.

An example of APB:Reloaded PvP

As I have said it’s really difficult for me to explain and is most likely the third-person perspective and the controls that come with it. As a person I am aware that I am unnecessarily picky about how combat is conducted in my games. ArenaNet did deliver on their promise of a much more engaging combat system, I however  just can’t stick with it. Its not new or innovative like ArenaNet said it would be, its just a differently flavoured WoW combat clone. ArenaNet did have the potential to change the combat system to something different and they chose not to, which in hindsight is entirely reasonable and a smart creative decision on the part of ArenaNet when it comes to providing for MMO fans.

PROBLEM 2: Questing, Grinding and Scaling.

“In most games, you go out and you have really fun tasks occasionally that you get to do, and the rest of the game is this boring grind to get to the fun stuff. I swung a sword, I swung a sword again, HEY I swung it again! That’s great! We just don’t want players to grind in guild wars 2. No one enjoys that, no one finds it fun, we wanna change the way that people view combat.” – Colin Johanson, Game Designer [13]

Quest-hub centered gameplay. This is another huge problem that I have with MMO style games. It’s the way in which you start the game and how both the game and your character game effectively scale over time.
So in every MMO I have ever played with few notable exceptions, you start the game as a new character, default starting gear and a basic tutorial of what the basic buttons do. Everything is fine. So you go to progress the game, you want to go and do something with your new character and you do so by picking up your first quest. Now this is where a series of anti-climactic events generally begin dumb down the experience of the game. I can accept that my hero needs to start small before he can become great, in theory this sounds like a great design choice when it comes to indoctrinating new players. But running around a starting field with 20+ other players watering old McDonald’s plants or killing 10 slimes instantly makes the entire experience very… lacking. It’s not like this is an impassable brick wall and I can easily ignore it, but it by no means leaves a good impression on me as a player.

QueensdaleFight2
“This is not what I envisioned when I signed up to defeat the lord of darkness.”
A screenshot of Queensdale in Guild Wars 2,
The starting area for humans. [10]

This video by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw assists in illustrating my point with the help of some classic British irony. GUILD WARS 2 (Zero Punctuation)

So carrying on and after completing a few other small quests I am finally presented with a quest worthy of my character, that has thus far learned how to create flaming phoenixes and turn invisible thanks to his extensive experience in irrigation and pest control. The task is to kill the big bad boss. So I gear up, party up, head off with friends and head into the cave where this tyrant lurks. We confront the boss and combat begins. I fire off my everything I have at the boss, sparks fly and torrents of ice are hurled at the boss’ face. My friends are also unleashing salvo’s of arrows flurries of melee swings. The smoke clears and after our party have successfully thrown everything we have at the boss, the damage he has received is next to nothing, we seem to have had no effect. So now the game feels entirely pointless. We rotate around the boss dodging his various attacks and again, fruitlessly cycling the cooldowns that we have available. After about 5-7 minutes the boss finally collapses to the ground, I get some below average gear and some XP as a reward for my walking around in circles.

So now I am at a conjuncture with the game. I start out performing underwhelming and medial tasks and by the time I am fighting something big and important the numbers are tweaked so high that combat is entirely unfruitful. This is especially the case where multiple characters are all surrounding a boss and the boss doesn’t seem be killed any faster. It just seems as though in order to add longevity to their game MMO developers and designers are turning the grind requirements and combat numbers up to 11 in order to squeeze every drop of playtime out of the game they can.

This video illustrates a typical example of what I am talking about. Guild Wars 2 Shadow Behemoth Event.

An example of a game that deals with questing and in-game tasks well is APB:Reloaded.
In APB: Reloaded in-game tasks are largely PvP driven and objective based gameplay. A player opts into the mission pool by pressing the ready key (Default = K) and placed in a queue not too dissimilar to a matchmaking system. When suitable players are found or once a certain amount of time has expired the game will arrange a sequence of objectives. The player has to then complete the objectives to gain rewards. The rewards are small if there is no opposition. If however players from the opposing faction are also opted in then you will be pitched against them and they will fight to prevent you from completing your objective. Rewards increase as more and more players are pitched against you and if you are out-numbered then you can opt to call in extra players and other queueing players will be added to your mission. This creates an engaging PvP driven experience from the get go and you are as immediately useful as your knowledge of the game allow, which naturally increases as you play the game more. While the system itself is fairly basic and incredibly difficult to balance, there is some huge potential for improvement and I feel that more MMO’s should be looking to adopt and enhance this method of activity and basic PvP in order to help progress MMOs. In addition it adds to the combat experience as some small scale engagements can quickly become huge 10v10+ gang wars! This way developers can hopefully unlock much of the hidden potential that remains with the genre.

This video illustrates a typical example of APB: Reloaded’s mission system in action. APB:Reloaded mission gameplay.

PROBLEM 3: User-Interface & efficient use of resources

An MMO’s interface is key to how a player interacts with the enormous sprawling world that lies before them. In my experience MMO interfaces tend to be extremely messy, by which I mean there is far too much information on the screen at one time. There may are two possible reasons for this:-

  1. The players are purposefully opening as many information tabs as possible in order to have access to as much information as possible during key events such as boss fights. They then screenshot this to showcase how good they are at the game and to an inexperienced MMO player like myself, it looks a mess.
  2. The developers are trying to provide as many features as they possibly can, some intuitive and others not so much. The end result being a screen that is so full of both useful and unuseful information that the MMO in the screenshot could easily be mistaken for a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.

crazyui
A screenshot displaying an extreme example of World of Warcraft’s UI [11]

fleetbattlewithUI
A screenshot displaying an extreme example of EVE: Online’s UI [12]

NOTE: I am aware that the WoW UI screenshot may be making use of user added modifications to enhance the player’s experience.

While the screenshots above are certainly extreme examples, I don’t want to have to get to a late-game scenario in an MMO and have all these open windows as a requirement to perform well when raiding a dungeon in WoW or conducting a fleet in battle when playing EVE: Online. Even if the windows are hidden or not open then surely there must be no need for that much information?
If MMO games could make use of the screen/menu space they have to present useful features, or keep some of the super advanced features to be accessible via console commands or custom configs, then I feel that MMOs would probably be a lot more accessible for me. This also works 2 ways as the UI is effectively simplified for newer players, while more advanced players can actively look to research the possible console commands and become more involved in the game.

Of course the games UI depends on a lot of factors. Typically MMOs are presented with a third person view however there many other variants. To explain a solution to the problem of messy UI is something that should be dealt with on a case by case basis. This means both augmenting and diminishing the UI based on how the game plays, what is the game about? What are the players expected to do? What do the players have the potential to do? What is the style which we wish to convey? For example: a third-person perspective space themed MMO where you must captain and manage a ship or fleet may benefit from sprawling spreadsheets of data and information. By contrast a first person space themed MMO where you captain and manage a ship or fleet may benefit from having some of the UI data externalized into the game world in the form of consoles or interfaces. This is just a quick example and I am by no means saying that UI is the be all and end all of a good video game. I am just saying that an MMO’s UI seems to be yet another source of unused potential for the game. Instead UI elements are slapped on the screen in what seems to be a very haphazard way. This of course has improved over time. The two examples of cluttered UI were from MMO’s now bordering being 10 years old (EVE Online had it’s 10 year anniversary yesterday 27/04/2013). Guild Wars 2 has a very clean interface throughout, which is great and shows progress in the genre. I am by no means advocating extreme clarity to appeal to “casual” or new player at the expense of the experience for advanced players, I’m a huge fan of complexity. I just feel that once MMO developers stop treating a game’s screen like advertising space and think what they are doing with the information they are presenting in the UI, then some truly fantastic progress can be achieved.

PROBLEM 4: Size, Scale & Environment Interaction

MMOs are big. Their maps are big, their ambitions are big, their scenery and structures within the game are big. Often I see the size and scale of things in an MMO betray itself. By that I mean, there will often be a large structure or area that looks large and impressive on the outside, but features 1 person to dispense quests on the inside and thus has the inate functionality of a doghouse. These MMOs that often boast the scale and size of their maps, in their hurry to create an enormous and tangible world, have forgotten the small and subtle functionalities that you can add in order to give depth and interaction with the environment. If for example I want to write a hugely pretentious and self-interested blog post on MMO games and why I don’t like them. I use the door and enter the room, then I walk over to the computer, sit down on the chair, use the computer to make my blog post and listen to some music, maybe head out to the kitchen, make a drink before coming back in the room to finish my blog post then lay down on the bed. What I don’t do is walk into the room, press the action button on the computer to begin a countdown timer (That is in a UI submenu) then run around outside and stand on other people’s heads while I wait for the blog post to complete and receive the “-10 public opinion” buff that I have worked so hard for.

Capitol_Building
Player: “Where’s the bathroom?” Guard: “Bathroom?”
A screenshot of the Capitol Building in Aion [14]

I can understand the difficulties of integrating this into a massively multiplayer environment. The most glaring problem is opening and closing doors with so many players possibly wanting to use that door. Again it retracts to Molyneux Syndrome. Developers seem so fixed in creating a world at the largest level that they forget to include interaction, depth and detail at the smallest level.
One MMO that seems to have stated tackling and experimenting with this problem at a basic level is EVE Online.

While the feature was never available upon the games release, in EVE: Online you can now dock into a station with your ship, exit your ship and walk around your quarters in the station. There are also various elements of the environment that you can interact with such as television and seating.

2011.04.20.19.25.53
A screenshot of the EVE: Online captain’s quarters [15]

A video showing the full functionality of the captain’s quarters can be found here: EVE Online Captain’s Quarters

This amount of interaction while small and in this case personal, is certainly a step in the right direction. I feel that if more MMOs adopted this kind of environmental interaction then it would improve the capabilities of the huge worlds that they are creating. Of course it also goes without saying, that this kind of environmental interaction while potentially beneficial to any MMO that chooses to integrate and experiment with it, will benefit sandbox MMOs a lot more than it will theme park MMOs. This is due to the natural freedom and creativity that sandbox MMOs allow.

Analysis summary.

I feel that these are some of the core problems and trends in MMO games today that really prevent me from becoming invested in them and enjoying the game. Key points being combat is uninteresting and non-engaging, questing is uninteresting and non-engaging, UI is messy and MMO’s don’t have great attention to detail that I can so easily expect from other games. It’s most likely due to the fact that World of Warcraft, in its popularity, ruined MMOs without ever actually meaning to by setting a standard to which all other MMOs must attain if they hope to be successful. Challenging WoW’s template is dangerous and risky. This notion is covered in its entirety in MrBtongue’s “UN-Ruining the MMO” which I highly reccommend [16]. This is all I can summarize for now, however in the next entry of this two-part exploration analysis I am going to be exploring what I would do if I were to create an MMO. What creative decisions would I make? If the points I have made are such problems then how would I do them differently? and of course would the MMO I design hold water and work as a fully fleshed out product?

Part 2 can be found here when it is completed

References

[1] http://wow.joystiq.com/tag/wow-subscriber-numbers/ (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:39 GMT)

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massively_multiplayer_online_role-playing_game (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:39 GMT)

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=nvK8fua6O64#t=201s (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:39 GMT)

[4] http://www.guildwars2guru.com/topic/41150-ive-worked-out-the-total-pve-area-to-be-just-under-100-square-km/ (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:39 GMT)

[5] http://www.mmorpg.com/discussion2.cfm/thread/306052/page/1 (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:39 GMT)

[6] https://dviw3bl0enbyw.cloudfront.net/uploads/forum_attachment/file/1787/gw051.jpg (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:39 GMT)

[7] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FU1JUwPqzQY (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:39 GMT)

[8] http://www.statista.com/statistics/208146/number-of-subscribers-of-world-of-warcraft/ (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:40 GMT)

[9] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FU1JUwPqzQY&feature=player_detailpage#t=29s (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:40 GMT)

[10] http://gw2.junkiesnation.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/8/2012/08/QueensdaleFight2.jpg (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:40 GMT)

[11] http://forum.square-enix.com/ffxiv/threads/27966-The-new-concept-screenshot-is-a-real-time-in-game-render!/page30 (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:40 GMT)

[12] http://freebooted.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/eve-online-video-marketing-promises-or.html (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:40 GMT)

[13] http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=FU1JUwPqzQY#t=82s (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:40 GMT)

[14] http://aion.wikia.com/wiki/Capitol_Building (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:41 GMT)

[15] http://www.daitengu.com/2011/04/20/literally-walking-in-stations/ (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:41 GMT)

[16] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvK8fua6O64 (Tested working 28/04/2013 23:41 GMT)

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