Wednesday, January 11, 2012

MMO tropes that need to go part 2

Continuing the story from last week, here's part two of this article.  If you missed the last one, you can read it here.

That's not what I meant by player versus player...
Player versus Player, or PvP, has always been a staple of the MMO genre.  Just about every MMO has their own take on it, and some do it better than others.  Silk Road, for example, relied heavily on PvP for endgame content.  The faction war between merchants, hunters, and thieves made for a highly entertaining experience at the higher levels.  Of course, this wasn't always the case.  There were several occasions where a level 60 or 70 thief would go to the level 14 area (tiger mountain) and spawn tons of attacking mobs that would kill nearby players.  This usually meant a loss of experience, a significant hit to the equipment's durability, and quite a bit of gold in repairs.  For a higher level character, a loss of experience can mean having to grind an additional month or more to level up.

If PvP is going to work, you cannot have a penalty for dying due to PvP, especially in the open world.  Having an arena or specified PvP zone is helpful, especially if the No Death Penalty applies there.  Penalizing someone for being killed by someone 40 levels their senior is just not good planning at all.  Ideally, PvP needs its own arena.  If that's not feasible, enable someone to "flag" themselves as open to PvP, but keep it to players within the same level.  I remember hearing a story about a level 1 fighter in Final Fantasy XI, who was challenged by a level 60+ character to a duel.  People started stopping to watch, just to see if the underdog could do it.  Some white mages started healing the fighter, and black mages stunned/debuffed the higher level character to keep him from attacking.  By the end of the fight, the spry little dude had quite the following.  So I'm told, he actually won the duel, too.

PvP does not necessarily have to be one on one, either.  Before it was shuttered, All Points Bulletin, or APB, had an interesting take on PvP.  The duel system, or whatever they called it, would, on occasion, pair three or more level 20 characters against one level 40 character, where the weaker team would have to use smarts, teamwork, and a little luck to bring down the higher level character.  Game Informer pointed out that this system was actually surprisingly balanced, and the match would be a fair fight.  Go figure.  It would be interesting to see more MMOs approach PvP in this way, and give the underdogs an entertaining fight.

One of the main endgame features for many MMOs is the raid system.  Usually, this involves gathering a group of twenty or so friends to beat the snot out of a huge "boss" monster.  At the end of the fight, the boss will drop a rare item that can only be obtained through that raid.  This can add a sense of community to a game, especially if the raid requires a large number of people.  On the other hand, it also can be the only place where players can obtain some of the best items in game.

One pitfall that MMOs should avoid in this field is the trope of making the high value drops too rare.  If the players need this gear but can't get it in a timely manner, they will get discouraged and give up on playing.  In addition to the grind issues that Silk Road Online had, getting the "good" equipment, known as Seal of Star, was an exercise in futility.  Seriously, it seemed like the game would drop you one every 16 levels or so, if you're very, very lucky.  A mid-30s set of armor would cost 1 Million gold per piece or more, and Seal of Star weapons at the same level would go for 5 to 10 Million gold.  Seal of Moon/Seal of Sun armors and weapons would go for two or even three times their Seal of Star counterparts.  This wouldn't be an issue if it weren't so blasted difficult to earn gold in the game.  You can see why gold farming is so pervasive in Silk Road.  This video captures my sentiments.


To be fair, I'm not encouraging game developers to give away the best items in the game willy-nilly.  The current World of Warcraft patch falls to this trope a little too much.  Come to think of it, "Nerf Now!" tackled this very topic when the most recent patch went live. Eventually, those "super rare items" that everybody wants will be so commonplace that nobody cares about them anymore.  Between all the PvP and Raid gear available to the people who work for it, everybody and their mother can have a set of epic equipment.  Purple means nothing anymore.

Thankfully, there's an MMO out there that has elevated this balance to an art form.  Phantasy Star Online kept a fantastic balance of rarity and availability.  The boss fights were challenging, but the rewards were worth it.  They also weren't as ubiquitous as World of Warcraft's current shenanigans.  Sega may have shut down its Dreamcast servers back in 2003, but fans have operated private servers ever since, a testament to the staying power of Phantasy Star Online.  Even the Gamecube and Xbox versions have numerous private servers available for fans of this classic.

The MMO genre has opened up a new layer of social activity to the average gamer.  We've covered a lot of ground over the years, but there's still a lot of work to be done.  Developers should learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, or else we will never see progress.  This concludes part two of my rant.  Do you think there's another trope that should go? Sound off in the comments below!

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