MMOG Features Version 3.0 - A Wish List

Because they’re released faster and with greater frequency, single-player games have the advantage of being able to keep up with the technological times.
Because they’re released faster and with greater frequency, single-player games have the advantage of being able to keep up with the technological times. MMOGs, however, don’t have the same luxury. While advances are made and new features are added with each new patch, innovation tends to end with whatever time period the game happened to have been released.

As 2009 comes to a close and we look back at a decade of gaming that was, in large part, shaped by MMOGs, it’s only natural to wonder what the next ten years will bring. In that spirit, I set out to dream a little dream of what the next generation of MMOGs could incorporate to improve our collective gaming experiences. Here, in no particular order, is my wish list for the third generation of MMOGs.

Randomized Loot Tables

One of the most constant criticisms of massively multiplayer online role playing games is that of the grind factor. From repetitive mob killing to the seemingly endless cycle of upgrades and dungeon crawls, too much of our time in game is spent mindlessly spinning away on a never ending hamster wheel. Many games attempt to disguise the grind, dressing it up more than Wesley Snipes in “To Wong Fu,” and while several games have done an admirable job of making the grind more bearable, more needs to be done. One of the major carrot-on-a-string techniques employed to keep players subscribing to and grinding away in their game of choice has been that of gear; whether acquiring, upgrading or enhancing it, gear has been a cornerstone of the genre.

While many games offer players various paths to accruing items, the most common approach has been via looting the items off mobs in game. The best goodies usually drop from the hardest to kill monsters, and players go after these formidable foes in hopes of scoring “phat loot.” This creates a cycle in which players continuously farm the same mobs or encounters over and over again until they grab that coveted object. While this can create some measure of anticipation as the loot is revealed it mainly creates a sense of drudgery, especially after the piece you want is obtained or, even worse, no item exists on this boss that may be of personal interest.

Through a token system or trade in system game developers have tried to broaden the appeal of killing a mob to as many players as possible, but another approach may make loot more meaningful and interesting. Instead of a static loot table for each boss, developers could set up a tier system of loot that could spread items among multiple bosses of a similar difficultly level. For example if your game of choice has three relatively similar dungeons, in terms of difficulty and reward levels, then instead of having each boss with its own loot table, all bosses could have a shared loot table.  In terms of total loot distribution it would be wise to group certain bosses together on their available loot in order to minimize the chances of the same item dropping all the time.

This would allow wider distribution points for the items as well as a reduction in the treadmill effect of doing the same bosses week after week in hopes of only a single upgrade. While this system would require some additional work to implement; it would help in many ways with zone obsolescence, especially in games that use instancing to deliver their end game content. Instances could easily be set to scale with player level and developers could add new wrinkles as the level cap is increased in game to keep the encounters fresh and exciting.

Random Quest Generator

Another idea in a similar vein as randomizing loot tables is that of a randomized quest database. The current systems of second generation games were a vast improvement over their first gen predecessors, and while questing has become more accessible via clearly marked NPCs and detailed quest logs, and preferable to kill grinding, it still leaves many players wanting more as the quests themselves become repetitious. One possible way to alleviate this, especially for players who like to play multiple characters, is with a random quest generator or alternate quest lines based on previously completed quests.

Imagine being able to speak to a quest NPC and have no idea what task they may require of you with your only knowledge being that it will be something level appropriate. Questing would not only become more dynamic but would require you to read each quest more carefully, which would hopefully reinforce the lore of the game and increase player immersion.

This system could also be used to dynamically influence the paths player characters take through the game by giving quests alternate ending scenarios which would affect the next set of quests they could receive, turning the gaming experience into a virtual “choose your own adventure” book…minus the ability to skip ahead and sneak a peak at the other pages. Questing has become the cornerstone of many popular second generation MMOGs and its continued evolution could be one of the most exciting facets of the next generation.

Greater Aesthetic Customization  

While several second generation games allow you fairly robust ways to make your armor look slightly different, or allow you to wear a set of visual armor and a set of “stat” armor, none have put it all together in completely customizable scenario. Let’s face facts; MMOG avatars are Barbie dolls for gamers and we like to make them look pretty, sexy, tough, evil, or oddly absurd depending on our personalities or psychoses. Giving players tool to achieve this can go a long way toward strengthening our personal connections to our toons and, in turn, to the game itself.

While many developers have made improvements on their systems from the early days of armor dyes and custom red hair, the vast majority of AAA titles still offer far too little in terms of really allowing their players to customize their character’s looks. One of the biggest draws to the two current superhero games are the character creation and customization aspects. Adding this mechanic into more traditional games, especially post-creation, should be a no brainer in an era where developers are looking for any edge they can find, and having players feel a sense of attachment with their avatars could be just the trick.

With several highly anticipated titles on the horizon for 2010, we could witness the launch of the third generation of MMOGs in a few short months. Will these games deliver the innovations and breakthroughs that we saw in 2004 with titles like World of Warcraft and EverQuest II? Or will we be back here this time next year penning more wish lists and holding our collective breaths in anticipation of the next big thing? Hopefully it will be the former. What new features would you like to see added to the next iteration of our beloved genre? More customization? More loot options? More robust crafting? The possibilities are as endless as our imaginations, so head over to our forums to let us know what you dream of seeing in the next round of MMOGs.

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