Defining the worst MMORPG never to be made... or is it found in every massively multiplayer game we play?
by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
First, A Disclaimer
As a network, we've talked ad nauseam about the improvements we'd like to see in our favorite games and in the genre as a whole. This week, I thought I'd change things up and ask the gents and gent-ettes to describe the anti-MMO, the game that embodies everything they absolutely loathe in an MMORPG. Well, within reason: we're pretending this anti-MMO 1) actually made it to release, and 2) has crossed sufficient technological barriers so that the servers are actually on-line and functional at least most of the time.
For me, the assignment was harder than I thought it would be. I have no desire to be another sycophant praising the triumph of the casual MMO over yesteryear's MMORPGs that, let's just say, required a more prolonged effort to earn real success. A number of the Ten Ton Hammer staff are now playing on the rejuvenated EverQuest progression servers, and after listening to their gushing enthusiasm all weekend, I'm fully aware of the community benefits of the much maligned "time sinks" - slow travel and slow non-instanced spawns that, yea, ate up a good deal of our life that we'll never get back, but actually got players talking to each other and forming bonds like today's MMORPGs don't.
So as I've been describing the anti-MMO, I've also been constantly asking myself: Have I been spoiled by the current crop of games like World of Warcraft, or is what I feel has spoiled me truly good design and the genuine, certifiable next step for the genre?
It's an important question, especially since I don't believe that subscriber numbers alone determine the quality of a game's design. I'm about to rip on the most and least popular MMOs of today- all in the name of learning. And learning is one of the things this genre does best. I'll wager that no other form of entertainment has evolved more in the last seven years than MMO gaming, and certainly MMOs stand alone in the sheer amount of interaction between artist and audience, both in and out of the game. Popularity used to be determined by the gamer's dollar alone; nowadays we have that spastic opinion wasp nest called the official forums and months and months of alpha and beta testing before a live studio audience of thousands.
With that disclaimer, I present to you, tongue firmly in cheek, the anti-MMO: the game whose developers haven't learned a thing from the rise and fall of other massively multiplayer efforts in the last seven years.
The Anti-MMO Defined
The making of the anti-MMO starts long before launch day. The anti-developer must begin a careful campaign to build gamer expectations to a fevered pitch; using buzzwords and hype phrases like "hybrid" or "aging," "bloodiest ever", "revolutionary", "unique", "[insert feature] better than [insert old MMO]", "[insert old MMO] version 2.0!", anti-developer promises a world that only the boardroom daydreamer in him thinks he can actually deliver. As a corollary, anti-developer must re-invent the game several times before and after launch; as the market won't punishes a dev for changing horses midstream, right?
The anti-developer thinks HUGE, and since anti-MMO game will be the WoW-buster, anti-MMO needs a gigantic world to harbor its millions and millions of players! Never mind that you could build countless small servers to scale anti-MMO to post-launch subscriber numbers, the anti-developer knows that bigger is always better. This is why anti-MMO offers several dozen character classes. Balancing for PvP won't be a problem since the classes are basically cookie-cutter imitations of fighter, healer, damage-dealer archetypes (no one will notice, right?).
Anti-MMO won't go with a storyline steeped in high fantasy, the 95% of MMORPG players playing in a medieval / fantasy setting are so ready for a change. No franchised or licensed content either, we certainly won't generate an audience by presenting something that gamers are already comfortable with. Anti-developer will, however, use a proven, formulaic theme. The genre needs another game based on the struggles of two confederations, good and evil, struggling to recover from a passing calamity. I was going to suggest 50s robot horror movie, but retro could become hip and trendy.
Character customization is the enemy of the anti-MMO; players will feel more at home if wherever they go, they see a twin brother or sister. We should say brothers and sisters loosely, since anti-MMO won't offer human characters. Since an overwhelming number of MMO players prefer humanoid characters of roughly average stature, anti-developer's talented artists will render a revolutionary race something like a cross between Mothra, inside-out boy, and what a bio-engineered Picasso / Dali lovechild might have drawn. This brings up an anti-MMO core design principle: fight a gamer's intuition and perceptions all the time and on every front. They're here to play our game; when we play theirs, they can have it their way.
Character development must include plenty of irreversible decisions, especially ones that you don't find out about until dozens of levels later. Making player decisions weightier will force players to think hard and long before making a choice. Employ the same concept regarding the hundreds of interesting factions players are forced to juggle; letting players know about faction effects of completing a quest or killing a mob will only force players to think more. And anti-developer should limit player choices wherever possible; gamers prefer to grind, not think. When you do have to present a set of choices, make sure you have dozens of bad choices and one good one. Every decision made should be the product of hours spent scouring fansites and forums for the slightest hint; an established set of affiliate sites will pick up where poor design left off.
Moving right along: gameplay. No tutorial… who needs a tutorial? That's what the 5 page manual is for. And anyway, the zone likes being asked every 30 seconds about the most mundane aspect of gameplay; it's a community builder. Speaking of community builders, a great way to get the cattle to herd up is to prod them with some early quests that require a group. There's no better way to teach people the game than to put them together with other people who don't know the game.
Anti-MMO's quest journal should be capped at a low number of quests, let's say 20, and this cap shouldn't grow over the course of a character's development. A low quest cap will force players to be purposeful about what quests they pick up, and forcing players down a single path is one of anti-MMOs core tenets. Different quests should never have overlapping objectives; it might feel good to do two things at once, but we don't want to make the game too carebear, right? The same goes for quest dialogue; it shouldn't point players in the direction they need to go or tell players anything about the difficulty of the quest, and definitely say nothing about the reward for completing the quest. If we're going to ask a players to give the game the next few hours of his or her life, the least we can do is make the reward a total surprise.
And, ah, quest types. Kill and delivery tasks: the dynamic duo. The time anti-developer's designers save on writing real quests can be put into writing lines and lines of typo-rife quest dialogue. Anti-developer will force players to read this one-small-step-up-from-fanfic drivel by displaying the dialogue character by tedious character. Most gamers are by nature roleplayers and are absolute lore addicts. And who doesn't love repeatable quests for a modicum of experience and a weak potion or two? It's like someone took the best aspects of the grind and real quests and baked it all together in one pie. Multi-step quests are ok, provided players are required to return to the quest giver upon completing each of the dozen or so steps. And who can forget the scads of collection quests and other inventory intensive quests? Gamers studying for their degree in logistics enjoy the challenge of managing dozens of otherwise useless items.
When it comes to PvP, anti-developer knows that every MMORPG player is an pulse-pounding FPS enthusiast deep down. That's why every anti-MMO server offers non-consensual PvP, offering experience for player kills. Since death must be meaningful in anti-MMO, losing your life means losing a few hours or days worth of experience depending on level. Anti-developer will even throw in a "king of the hill" style mechanic to make one basement hermit the lord and king over the rest of the groveling server. With luck, servers will devolve into something like Chapter 9 of Lord of the Flies, and players will forget all about the pretense of a game outside the savagery.
Stop the insanity!
So there it is: my anti-MMO. It's not exhaustive by any means; I didn't touch the endgame, for example, because I'm not sure what I would do with it aside from what's being done: repeatable instances. I was going to list the live MMOs I drew from, but I've managed to touch upon every massively multiplayer game I've ever played. With most, their charms far exceeded what I perceive as their shortcomings. If there's one thing this small experiment has shown me, it's the ease with which some of these bad mechanics and features are justified and therefore perpetuated. Just about every MMO gamer thinks he or she is a designer on some level, but hats off to the pros - there's nothing easy about making the games we love.