The last MMO I played at any length was Guild Wars 2, though I’ve played a lot of other ones that just never really took for me. Before Guild Wars the previous MMO I really enjoyed was Warhammer Online, though a lot of my enjoyment from that is simply the fact that I love the Warhammer world. I played WoW when it first came out, but stopped after not very long as I think we can all agree that objectively it isn’t a very good game.
MMOs always seem to hold this mystical potential to be these fantastic amalgamations of all the things you want from a game, right up until the moment you start playing them. I think the major problem is that most MMO makers are still basically being made from the WoW cookie cutter shape. Even those breaking this mould tend to only push the boundaries a little here and there, conservatively refusing to throw out the design entirely.
Okay, so now that I’ve ragged on the MMO genre a bit, here are my ideas for a better MMO for you to sarcastically point out the flaws of! Keep in mind though that the point of these ideas is to change the very core of MMOs away from the “level up, get loot!” paradigm.
First, people want to make a difference in the world, even an electronic one. This seems to be the number one complaint about MMOs, since how can you be the hero of a game with a thousand other heroes running around? Well, the easiest way is just to make it so most people aren’t these world saving heroes. Why is there nothing in between “meaningless NPC” and “superhero player character” in MMOs?
Imagine an MMO where particularly good or devoted players were actually known by the rest of the player base, since their actions actually impacted the world around them. Some would say that it isn’t fair to have some players being more heroic than others, but I would make that trade off in a heart beat if it meant that I had the chance to be that hero. When everyone is heroic, no one is. Also, what’s wrong with not being a hero? I actually like the idea of existing in an MMO world where I struggle to be noticed and to make a difference, and all of my accomplishments are earned, not inevitable.
Here’s another trope of MMOs that I hate: levels and loot. First of all, the idea that I have to be a certain ‘level’ (whatever the hell that means) to use a certain item is idiotic. I have hated that from the first time I played a game with that concept. I can’t use this sword because I haven’t killed enough people yet? No, bad game designer! When your persona within a game is defined solely by their gear and their level, that’s a pretty meaningless character. Every single WoW (or any other MMO) character is meaningless because all they are is a set of gear and a level, exactly the same as the next character with no chance to have unique qualities or accomplishments.
I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be an increase in power of player characters, but the level system is just silly. I’m all for players gaining skills and abilities, but they should do so organically. By doing something well and repeatedly a character should get better at that thing. Notice that I say “well”. I think that player skill should have way more of an effect in MMOs than they currently do, but I’ll get into that later.
This brings me to one of the major overhauls I think needs to be seen in MMOs: I think a skilled low ‘level’ (just using that term for now as people understand it) player should be able to defeat a less skilled high ‘level’ character. I don’t think it should be easy, but I do think it should certainly be possible and even plausible. To do this you need combat to be much more involved and much more carefully paced. Each swing of a sword should be calculated. Each spell should be meaningful. Overall things should be slower. By having a superior pacing for tactical thinking it brings player skill into the equation without making it a twitch game.
In most MMOs, characters continue to run around in combat in the same way that they do when they are traversing the world. What reality is this? In any real fight, if you just run around at top speed you while neither be able to attack effectively, nor defend in any way. Characters should have an entirely different stance when in combat (which would in itself make a cool mechanic), where they move much more deliberately. Breaking into a full run should leave a character incredibly vulnerable. Blocking, ducking, weaving, and dodging should all be actively controlled by the player. Skills and abilities should make attacking and defending easier or have additional benefits (things like being able to counter-strike after a dodge), but shouldn’t be automatic or more powerful at higher levels.
Endurance should play a large role in combat. Every manoeuvre, every attack, every block, should all decrease endurance. This in itself forces a slower, more thought out pace. As endurance decreases you should be less effective overall in combat. Gambits, feints, and positioning should be meaningful. Players should need to react to their opponent. No more “just use the most effective ability that isn’t on cool down”.
Abilities should let you do new things (like that counter-strike attack) or do things more easily (like actively blocking an attack), rather than just always making the character do more damage or have more health. Now, I’m not saying that as you gain ‘levels’ that you shouldn’t be a little harder to kill or be a little stronger when dealing damage, but I am saying these things should be incredibly limited. Something in the realm of if it would take 3 hits to down a new player it would take 5 or 6 of the same power hits to down the toughest players.
Slower, more methodical combat also allows for much more meaningful team work. Players can work together to get through an enemies defences, as they can time their attacks to make their opponents dodges and blocks ineffective. An outnumbered player will need a lot of skill to overcome the odds, and even a high ‘level’ player will have to be careful when the enemy has numbers in their favour. When a player can just get beat on by a gang of lower level players and they can just stand there and take it indefinitely, that ruins the verisimilitude for me. To paraphrase Peter Griffin, when this happens I’m very aware that I’m playing a video game.
Now that I’ve discussed reducing the power gap between players by getting rid of the very concept of levels, I want to touch on the other thing that separates players: gear. One thing to get out of the way with this: NPCs should only drop things that they actually have. Period. Not open for discussion. Okay, with that out of the way, I think the two (other) things that MMOs need to change about gear and loot are power differences between high and low level gear, and where good gear comes from.
The power level thing is simple to fix, just make the best weapons only a little better than normal weapons. High quality gear should be more durable than low quality stuff and it should be a little more effective. It shouldn’t make up the difference between a low skill player and a high skill player. Again, the theme is getting a little advantages here and there, not ‘higher level = automatic win’.
The idea of changing where good gear comes from is all about putting this back into players hands. Players should be the ones who make great gear, not random loot drops. There has to be some way to combine player skill and in game abilities to have great craftsmen in the world. I think the idea of being known on a server as the greatest blacksmith is an amazing idea. This is someone who has focused on being a great crafter rather than a great fighter, and they should be rewarded for their devotion to their craft. You could still have some items of legend that can be found in the world, but these should obviously be one of a kind. If someone has the best sword in the game, that person has it. You can’t also have the “Legendary Sword of the Deep” because that other person has it. This comes back to the whole idea that not everyone is automatically the big hero of the world.
The idea of player crafting being meaningful brings me on to the next major point in need of change in MMOs, which is the world economy. First things first: only money printed by the player controlled (and elected) government(!) actually exists in the world. When a bandit is carrying 2 gold pieces it will actually have come from somewhere, it has not just been placed there. If a player dies while attacking a bandit camp, guess who now has the gold that player was carrying. When these same bandits raid an NPC farm (built by a player!), guess who now also has the money that those farmers had. But wait, do farmers really carry gold? Usually not, they tend to barter for what they need, which brings me to the next interesting point of a player economy built like this. What do you do if you want to sell something (like the “Legendary Sword of the Deep”), but there literally isn’t enough money in the economy to sell it? Well, you can barter!
Now, what if the people demand that the government print more money because they don’t want to barter? Well, that economy suffers inflation and suddenly their money isn’t worth as much as a neighbouring player controlled nations currency, hurting their ability to trade. Now, this economy and government stuff is getting pretty complicated, so we’ll need players who are basically entirely devoted to being politicians and city builders. Wouldn’t a player elected and player controlled government just be awesome? I picture players being able to grid out cities a la SimCity, and then other players building and operating homes and businesses in these cities. Everything that exists serves a purpose and is run by players. Stopping at an inn to pick up supplies? That inn is run by a player. Buying a sword in the market? Created by a player. The shopkeeper you bought the sword from? Employed by a player. You’d have to limit spaces for these people, but that again ties into the whole “not everyone is automatically the hero of the story” idea. If you want to be the hero, you have to earn it. If you want to be a successful shop owner, you earn it. Best blacksmith? Earn it. And you don’t earn it against some computer algorithm, you earn it against other players. If you want to be the best you can’t just put the time in, you have to actually be better than your competitors, and maybe have some ties to people in government…
World resources should also be limited in an organic fashion. A player builds and operates (and protects!) a mine that produces a certain amount of iron per real world day. That iron enters into the economy through this player. It is sold to players who turn it into weapons and armour. They sell to the government what they are demanding to keep their troops armed and armoured, and the rest is sold to merchants who bring it to the marketplace. Of course, the government takes their cut in (player determined) taxes at every step!
Governments will need to supply their town guards, army soldiers, city workers, etc with pay and supplies. This is collected through taxes and is a realistic money sink, since the NPCs getting paid are actually represented in the game world. Soldiers patrolling the roads and protecting that inn from those bandits are only there if they have been paid by the government. Cities crumble and fall apart if workers aren’t paid. Thieves roam the streets if there are no guards around.
Oh, and here’s a thought on that bandit camp I keep mentioning: it was started by a player. Why does everyone have to be a good guy? Just a thought.
Since I’ve rambled on enough (and could keep going for a while), I’ll leave one final idea here: let players jump into NPC monsters if they don’t feel like playing their character. Basically, players can either play the game normally, or at the menu screen choose to play the ‘monsters’. The player would simply take over AI controlled monsters that are near other players and let them do the fighting. This would not only give players something to do if they just want to fight for a while, but it also keeps normal players on their toes. “Oh, don’t worry about that ogre, I’m well out of it’s aggro range… wait, why is it charging right at me?!?” Ugh, and don’t get me started on aggro…
Okay, I could go on, but I’ll stop since I think I’ve already gone on too long. If you’ve made it this far then we are now best friends. I will be asking to borrow money soon, and quite frankly I don’t value our friendship enough to intend to pay it back.