Five pillars of MMORPGs that should be torn down

The MMORPG has carved out a niche for itself in the video game industry using a tried and true formula that is founded upon five unshakable pillars of the genre. These features that, when combined together, mark a game as an MMORPG simply by way of their existence. Therein lies the problem, of course: if a design choice has become so commonplace that the mere mention of it conjures images of feral druids or frantic group fights against various colors of dragons, it’s also something that can be subverted. The MMORPG genre has been justifiably criticized as stagnant at times. Here are the worst offenders, and the ways in which game developers have begun to change them.

5. Auction Houses

Auction houses, despite being the closest most MMORPGs have come to achieving a global economy and thus a centerpiece of game design, are often strikingly similar. Whensome games innovate, the results are disastrous. Diablo III, though not a MMORPG in the strictest sense, tried (and failed) to incorporate real money into their auction house while the upcoming Black Desert is doing away with the auction house system altogether. All items in Black Desert will be physically tied to locations they’re dropped, and if players want to move them around, they will either have to drag them back to the nearest town or hire someone else to move them. There’s a reason nobody has developed a “help your friends move” simulator.

Failed attempts at innovation aside, there’s room left to experiment on the auction house. Imagine a game in which players have to actively choose who they want to be – epic slayer of monsters or savvy financier. Although players already use alts to achieve a similar effect in games like World of Warcraft, it would be interesting to see a game that took this to the next level. Perhaps an NPC economy could be initially placed into a MMORPG, with players forced to work their way into it before competing with each other and the game’s already-established big businesses to earn a reputation and profit. There are still many opportunities to create something innovative and exciting with game economies.

4. Big Narrative Moments Tied to PvE Raiding

Virtually all of the biggest MMORPG titles are guilty of this kind of dissonance. Someone who prefers being tested against other players rather than end bosses could’ve played the entirety of World of Warcraft’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion without realizing that Arthas actually dies in the end. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn’s story is a bit more centered around questing, but PvP players still miss out on deep, fun raids like The Wanderer’s Palace, which contains a callback to one of the most perplexing Final Fantasy villains of old.

These kinds of narratives are the crux of what make MMORPGs viable as constantly evolving worlds, but currently these stories are told in an exclusionary way. Tying the conclusions to stories that every player sees while leveling to only one end-game feature is a cruel reminder that MMORPGs seem to believe story and multiplayer are mutually exclusive content.

3. PvE/PvP Server Splits

Although this quality does not characterize every MMORPG on the market, it is present in enough of the bigger ones – including the biggest, World of Warcraft – that it deserves a closer look. At first glance, separating players based on their play-style preference makes a lot of sense. In doing so, developers ensure that a player who likes to meander about in the gorgeously rendered fields outside of a major town can do so without worrying about anyone slipping a dagger between their shoulder blades while they’re picking daisies.

Under the surface, however, these kinds of splits can cause some unwanted consequences. How often do updates release to criticism from both PVE and PVP players, who contend that the other group is being favored? The decision to merge these two player groups closer together would create a more communal environment within MMORPGs, and could push gamesin increasingly interesting directions. What if PvP players could affect how PvE stories play out, with each multiplayer skirmish representing political intrigue and power grabs akin to Game of Thrones? What if story changes affected the game’s multiplayer, as factions constantly shifted alliances and players found themselves allies after months of fighting?

2. Traditional Quest Structure (Go Here, Retrieve X, Kill Y, Come Back for Z)

World design in MMORPGs typically breaks down into three categories: sandbox, themepark, and zoo. Sandbox games are typically the most player-driven of the three – think EVE Online, and the way the players dictate virtually everything that happens within that universe. Themepark games, by contrast, are largely influenced by their developers. World of Warcraft’s fixed spawns, long and straight-forward quest chains, and predictable progression typify this type of game. Finally, there are zoo games, which attempt to hybridize the former two categories. Guild Wars 2 is the most apt and relevant example here: it lets players affect the world dynamically while also offering storyline quests that are choreographed entirely by the developers.

Despite the illusion of variety, these quest structures are still largely similar to the questing gameplay popularized by EverQuest so long ago. Players must kill enemies for items and then retrieve those items for someone who inexplicably has a vested interest in, for example, eyeballs. Then they are rewarded with gold or items, and they move on to the next person (who wants livers instead of eyeballs just to be difficult). The problem with these quests is that they can feel too much like work, where a developer has simply taken a grocery list and disguised it as a kobold that lost something in a mine. Developers need quests to take up a certain amount of time in their games, however, as quests make up the bulk of content before a MMORPG’s end-game and need to keep players involved beyond just a month or two of investment.

But what if players didn’t need to grind out levels to reach the most exciting content?

1. Experience-Based Character Growth System

Let’s be honest – the concept of a small number placed inconspicuously beside a very powerful dark wizard named Jeff indicating his skill is deeply engrained in MMORPG culture. It might be the first thing people think of when they think of the genre; long-time adherents to the online grind have probably discussed what level they would be in real life with friends at least once. For a genre that promises constantly changing worlds of endless possibility, having the large part of a character’s worth be summed up in a two or three digit number can feel jarring or outright wrong. Guild Wars 2 recently tried to tackle the problem of worth-as-numbers by implementing an automatic level scaling system, where players in PvE zones will be scaled down to match the recommended level of that area while PvP or World vs. World players get scaled up to max level. The problem, of course, is that this system is just a temporary fix, and can result in some horrible mismatches when a relatively inexperienced player gets thrust into combat with a seasoned PvP veteran.

Levels are the easiest, most efficient way to measure player progression and gate content. Levels also severely restrict the ways in which MMORPGs can be innovative. Of the five pillars discussed here, the concept of an experience-based character growth system is the most sacred. It’s also the one that needs to be reduced to rubble the fastest. Skills are so central to character progression and overall sense of accomplishment that they are, without hyperbole, the oxygen that breathes life into the rest of a game world. Skills are also the most difficult change to make, as many developers have already discovered. Games like EVE Online and Elder Scrolls Online offer complex and different looks at how player skill and experience can be integrated into gameplay, but no game has managed to create the de facto successor to the current standard model. It’s clear that developers have identified a breakthrough moment in the ways skill and experience work together in MMORPG progression could create the next World of Warcraft, but until then, fans of the genre should remain patient and open-minded as studios continue to try new ideas and chip away at this rather unruly pillar.

Games are being produced at a faster rate than ever before, and the talent surrounding the industry has never been more impressive. Video games are being given a never-ending stream of opportunities to grow and evolve, and it’s time for MMORPGs to become a bit more introspective and take advantage of the expertise and brilliance surrounding the genre. Developers should hold no element of MMORPG gameplay sacred, and reinvent the genre into something bolder, louder, and newer. These pillars are ancient, and their cracks are many. Using them as the foundation to build something new is a preventive measure as much as a revolutionary one – sooner or later, they’re going to fall on their own, and wouldn’t we rather tear them down on our terms?