AngryJoe recently put Elder Scrolls Online on his list of most disappointing games of 2014. And from what I've seen, he was right. The game was supposed to be that one thing that players of the The Elder Scrolls franchise have been longing for, for years. Finally a chance to play together in such an immersive roleplay game experience!
Yet what came out was just... Underwhelming. When someone streamed it for me, I remember my response to it being, essentially: “This looks just like any other MMORPG... Just with a humongous price tag.” And that is a drawback of epic proportions. I've played a lot of MMORPGs, Flyff, Fiesta Online, Perfect World, Forsaken World... The problem is that once you've played a few, you've kind of played them all.
The MMORPG market is saturated. There's thousands of MMORPGs all vying for your attention. How does it happen that some MMORPGs stand out, and some don't? In my opinion, it has to do with dodging that “This is just like X” feeling, so I'm going to outline a few points on how to avoid that, with some examples.
To start off, let's define the basic MMORPG package. This is the kind of gameplay a run-off-the-mill MMORPG will have. The world setting is most likely some simple fantasy world. You have a character of your own creation, and you can choose from a few classes. One will be a caster class, there will be a warrior class, a support class and a ranger class, essentially. The game always treats you as incredibly unique, the same way it treats the other 150.000 players. You get sent on a lot of fetch quests where you have to kill X monsters to get Y loot. Combat is stale, you engage an opponent and just roll your spells off in a premeditated combo string. You attack, monster attacks, you attack again, monster attacks again, to the point that it looks like a turn-based fighting game.
So now, on to how to deviate from this...
Step 1: The world.
Most MMORPGs don't stray far from the nest. A lot of worlds are exceptionally similar. Lush nature, houses are a bit rickety and in a sort of medieval-ish style, small villages, etc.
It helps when the world itself is something that's built up well. FlyFF takes place on continents floating in the sky, and the truly peculiar thing is that there's massive cogs strewn about. It might just be a detail, but the cogs do fascinate players who are partial to stories. What are they from? How did they get stuck here?
MapleStory is another game that went all out with its world design. With its unique graphic style, it was able to pull off a lot more, and the mix-and-match of various types of fantasy created a very vibrant world to play in. Scraggy mountains, lush forests, crime-infested cities, palaces in the clouds and much more, it made it a lot more fun to get around, or even just look at the map.
Another example of a game that stands out in terms of world design is Sword of the New World. Instead of taking place in the standard medieval/oriental fantasy world, this game took it to the age of exploration, creating a somewhat baroque feel to the environment. The style is completely different, down to the female elementalists wearing long dresses that they have to pick up when running. It makes a world more fun to explore when it's a kind of world that you don't often see. Not many games go for this kind of setting, let alone MMORPGs.
Step 2: Defining the Characters while keeping Solo Players in mind.
Usually the thing to make me quit MMORPGs is the fact that I end up playing solo. It's not quite as fun without a party to play with, in part because you miss the banter, in part also because some classes can't quite reach their full potential without teammates. If you want to draw in people that come into the game by themselves, it's a good idea to give them some sort of self-sustainability.
Now there's good ways to do this and bad ways. In my opinion, Guild Wars 2 did it wrong. The mission statement for Guild Wars 2 was to make every class capable of everything. It just depended on your equipment what role you would fulfill. The problem was that it turned out to be some kind of... Forced all-round. Every character was capable of taking hits somewhat like a tank, deal damage somewhat like a mage and heal somewhat like a cleric. Now, this isn't bad in and of itself, but the few times I ended up in a party in Guild Wars 2, it just... Didn't do anything. There was no party dynamic because every class was, in terms of role, a carbon copy of the next. Everyone was just doing the same thing.
A good example of this is, once again, Sword of the New World, where instead of making one character, you make a whole family! You create a party of three that will sustain one another as they venture out into the world. Your characters will join forces with one another and support each other in battle, fulfilling their respective roles.
Another good example is Rappelz. Most games feature a pet system, but Rappelz REALLY features a pet system. Usually the pet is some insignificant thing that's tacked on as a selling point, and all it does is boost your stats, pick up items, or just plain nothing. Rappelz invested a bit of time and made the pet like a secondary character. A Tortus for example, is a great pet for mages, as with a bit of training, they can actually take quite a few hits. This allows the mage to focus more on refining his damage output. Rappelz' pets are actually like three quarters of an actual party member. The game went even further into it by creating three classes that are entirely dependent on pets, and are focused on making those pets as strong as possible. As such, in Rappelz, you never fight alone.
Step 3: Combat reinvention
Once again, I feel this is something that Guild Wars 2 didn't do properly, or at least, not as good as it could've been. In most MMORPGs, combat is limited to two characters flinging attacks at each other. There's no relevant hitbox, no aiming, no heading for cover, no point in positioning... Guild Wars did state it as their mission but never really seemed to invest in it, with all that was added being a dodge that would make you immune for its duration, if I recall correctly.
This doesn't just limit itself to the way most MMORPGs devolve into turn-based slap fights, but also in the way classes are sometimes defined. In all the MMORPGs I've played, the mage class is basically defined as “Your casting time is about 10% longer, but your damage is 10% higher too.”
Once again, Allods goes out of its way to smash this. Oh sure, you have the standard 1 second cast time fireball, like in every single other MMORPG, but it also dared do new things. Channeling a stream of ice for example, or the firebomb that had five seconds of casting time but would obliterate enemies.
Of course, in the wake of Vindictus, there's more MMORPGs running off a similar engine, where during instanced mission runs, you actually DO have a hitbox, and you have to aim your skills. That's a vast improvement over what the game type’s been offering up till then.
Another example of combat reinvention is Dofus/Wakfu. Ankama turned the entire MMORPG genre on its head by making it a strategy RPG. Battles take place in instances in which the player and the enemy fight on a grid-based field in properly defined turn-based fashion. Every turn, each character is given movement and action points which they use to interact with the battlefield.
By fully embracing this type of combat, Ankama opened the door for far, FAR more defined classes and a humongous variety of playstyles. Some of their characters are unlike anything you've seen in MMORPGs so far. To give an example, there's a class that specializes in giving and taking away action points, allowing allies to use more attacks during their turns, or preventing enemies from using theirs. Or a class that can lay tracks to allow allies to travel farther for less movement points.
This is a major liberty, as it allows the player to sculpt their character into far finer detail, and get more clearly defined results. Instead of +10% damage, he gets a very clear and concise +3 Action Points, allowing him to cast one more spell during his next turn!
Similarly, Dragonica managed to reinvent combat by switching from large over world style gameplay to a more side scrolling beat-em-up style. It might break from conventional gameplay, but it does make for far more exhilarating combat.
To sum it up: A quick list
Just a few tips, off the top of my head, on how to make an MMORPG stand out.
1) Stylize your world. Don't go for the same, tired old concept of a somewhat medieval-ish fantasy world. Try your hand at new areas, fantasy is wider than just traditional fantasy. Try cyberpunk, á la Transistor. Or give Fae Fantasy, like Trine a try. A unique world will get players more interested and immersed.
2) Define your classes. Don't be afraid to give rangers some serious range on their attacks. Don't be afraid to give mages longer cast times with bigger effects. Players choose these classes to get those particular things, don't hold back their classes. This also vastly improve party dynamics, where everyone has a clear cut role and will more easily co-operate, and more easily recognize the benefits of co-operation.
3) Help the solo player. A good pet system can give a player the ally they need to sustain them. Or try and invent something else to allow a player to simulate the effects of a party by him or herself. This also grants you greater liberty in defining the game's classes, as the ranger and mage no longer need to worry about taking too much damage for example. Also, don't lock away instances behind forced grouping up.
4) Invest in the combat. It's something the player will participate in a lot, so the less monotonous, the better. This one's the hardest to tackle though, as it seems to be very difficult to set the engine up in such a way that it can run a full-fledged, open world MMORPG server while also allowing for genuine real-time combat. Then again, if Global Agenda could do it...
5) Quest Design. Fetch quests are filler at best. It helps if quests have a little more substance than “Go here, kill this, get that, and then come back”. It's a lot more resource intensive to make something better, but I think it'll be worth it. Try turning your attention to Secret World for ideas on how to create quests that really stick with your players.
What do you think? Are there any MMORPGs that you remember fondly? And what makes an MMORPG really appeal to you?