R P G A M E R . C O M   -   E D I T O R I A L S

Better MMORPGs for a Better Tomorrow

Adam Ruth

First I would like to congratulate Philip Bloom on his thoughtful anti-mmorpg arguments because my letter is about mmorpgs as well. I think his most compelling point is the intangibility and impermanence of the genre. In case you don't plan on reading his editorial he asks the questions: What happens when the game becomes unpopular and the servers are finally shut down? How will you recommend that game to others if they can't play it? How will you play these games 5, 10, or 15 years later when the nostalgia hits you? Are these just throwaway games? Exhaust them, find a new one, and toss the old one. When you buy a single player game you can play it forever. Why do new mmorpgs cost as much as single player games when you get nothing to play forever, nothing to own? And it's not the cost of production. Anyone in marketing will tell you that cds and shiny cardboard cost a few bucks to produce. We know the purpose of the monthly fee; that's not the issue here. So basically, you're paying for the ability to pay for the game again. That is some marketing genius right there. Now on to my letter.

Despite the content of the first paragraph, it might surprise you to know that I like mmorpgs. I think they offer things that single player rpgs (sprpg) do not; things worth experiencing. The reverse is also true. It is because mmorpgs interest me that I would like to see them improve. I don't believe in the "love it or leave it" mentality. For me it's "love it and fix it."

Another reason I am concerned for the future of mmorpgs is that they might be the future. I am not saying that sprpgs will die. They will always be around. Nevertheless I have watched the steady influx of mmorpgs over the past few years and the decline of the "blockbuster" sprpgs. The mmorpgs are getting the big budgets now. If you want to play a rpg with cutting edge graphics and sound, you will find more choices in mmorpgs than in sprpgs. Let's look at a loose grouping of sprpgs from 2003-now. I have played some but not all of these. Final Fantasy X2 and Shadowhearts 2 have mostly realistic, expressive characters and detailed 3D environments. Then there are 3D games with slightly less detail like the Digital Devil Saga games, Xenosaga 2, Baten Kaitos, the 2 newest Arc the Lad games, StarOcean 3, and Suikoden 4. Next you have other 3D rpgs with less detail and streamlined styles like the "Tales of" games, new Harvest Moon games, and Ys. Finally there are the 2D graphics reminiscent of the golden age of rpgs. This section includes all 4 Atlus strategy rpgs, Atelier Iris: Eternal Mana, anything on the GBA, and Stella Deus. I apologize for any omissions. Which of these games was widely considered the "must play" game of the past two years? For me it was Shadowhearts 2 but for many it was Disgaea, the 2D strategy rpg from Atlus. Game reviewers could not stop praising it. I was finally so curious that I bought it recently and happily enjoyed it. The point is not whether you like Disgaea or not. The point is that the best our chosen genre had to offer was a strategy game with character sprites that the Super Nintendo could handle. There is something unsettling about that. On the other hand, mmorpgs are all graphical powerhouses. Part of the reason is the processing power and upgradeable nature of the pc, but the main reason is the huge amount of business interest. Sprpgs are one time money makers but mmorpgs have players that will support the game with payments for years. And now some games allow items to be bought directly with real money. This is an easy choice for publishers. So what do we do if we want more single player games? What if mmorpgs become the dominant rpg game type? Have they already? Right now I see three choices and they all involve optimism.

A. Hope that the next group of sprpgs are enjoyable and successful. I'm thinking of Dragon Quest 8, Kingdom Hearts 2, Final Fantasy 12, Shadowhearts 3, Magna Carta, Grandia 3, Radiata Stories, and others on the horizon.

B. Hope for hybrids, mmorpgs that have a single player option that is robust and complete. The upcoming Phantasy Star Universe approaches this system. I would support a subgenre that allowed me to experience the massive gameworlds alone and would only charge me a monthly fee if I wanted seasonal content, grouping, or certain high level content.

C. Improve mmorpgs. This is the big one. If mmorpgs are truly here to stay, and it seems that they are, they must be improved. Each new mmorpg tries to improve upon the faults of the last one. The process is slower than I would like. Anyone who has played a mmorpg for a good length of time can talk about the genre's problems. Why are developers still in the dark? Either they are too stubborn to listen or too greedy to care. The following are suggestions:

*Give me the option to solo, to really solo, not just bunnies, all the way to endgame.

*Make grouping optional; don't force it on people. What you have now is people grouping because they have to. You can't level or attain certain items without it. The developers think we wouldn't group unless forced. They are wrong. People like to group because it's fun. The social aspect is one of the most powerful draws to mmorpgs. The best groups are the ones that want to be together. They enjoy each other's company. It becomes secondary if the party's goals are accomplished or not. The worst groups don't work as a team because they are stuck doing some asinine quest with bitter, self-centered strangers.

*Age based servers. Do I care if I'm playing on Highwind, or ColdIron, or NewZion? Not really. What if I could chose between Slayers (13-17), Warriors (18-21), Heroes (22-30), or Masters (31-XX)? I wouldn't have to hear how your sister wants to use the computer or your dad says its time for bed and you can't finish the quest. All joking aside, you could more easily find people with similar interests, schedules, and attitudes. Grouping would be better than ever. And if you want to play with your younger cousin or father just pick a server. This isn't absolute, just an improvement to the social aspect of the game. Combine this with the existing method of separating pvp and pvm and we might have something.

*Reward skill, not time spent. The only thing stopping anyone from reaching the highest level is time. The level 99 guy is not a better player than you; he just plays 35 hours a week. In shooters or fighting games it's easy to tell if someone is better than you. The gameplay in mmorpgs needs to change. Remember a tough battle in a turn-based sprpg. You were underleveled and yet you used the right combination of skills and spells to edge out a win. How can we get that kind of strategy in a real time battle system? Most of the time, success or failure depends on the competency of your party members.

*Reward skill, not gold spent. Difficult battles can be made easy by using high priced equipment. You don't outplay the bosses, you overpower them. Someone with armor that adds 50HP and regenerates their health and mana will "outplay" someone with modest funds wearing the standard armor for that level. This is an issue of gameplay and economy (discussed later).

*Make me feel like a hero. Now I am a nobody. Thousands have come before me and thousands will come after me. If I fall, others will replace me. Let me feel accomplishment and progress. Let my actions effect the fate of the world in some small way. Lie to me and make me believe it, rank players on total game completion percentages, do whatever it takes to get that sprpg "you are the savior of our world" feeling in mmorpgs.

*More meaningful quests. The thousands of quests in mmorpgs are created as timesinks. The point is that you are always missing one. How many of them are enjoyable? How many of the hundreds do you remember? Did you return Little Timmy's slingshot? I would rather have fewer quests that are enjoyable, memorable, and key to my mission of saving the world. They should be something you want to do, not just something to do when you aren't leveling. Reward me for the time I spend on the quest; don't make me feel like I wasted my time. I want to witness conversations like, "Did you do 'The Forgotten Mansion' yet? It was so cool! You have to try it." (Or insert whatever leet speak you use). Imagine if a quest I completed at a low level reappeared at mid level and again at high level. Each time, more of the story behind the quest is revealed to me like in a mystery novel. A previously hidden area becomes accessible to my more experienced character. The dangers and rewards are greater now. That once small, forgettable quest becomes an involving story arc that no player would want to miss. Right now only "important", "story-related" quests get this treatment.

*Make classes unique and balanced, not overpowered, underpowered, or undesirable. Every class should be equally capable and useful. Convince me that I'm more than just a tank, healer, damage-dealer, or waste of space. You shouldn't reach the end of the game and feel that you've chosen the wrong class. No more, "I can't solo that because I'm a ___ instead of a ___." Playing a magic user shouldn't be harder and more expensive than a melee class. Healers should be heroes too, not servants of the other classes. Melee classes should have to work in battle, not just "set it and forget it." Big damage and big healing magic users shouldn't be crucial to every play session. I commend the development teams who are trying to fix these problems. I realize that it's a vicious circle. Balancing usually makes classes less unique and increasing uniqueness causes dependence on other classes. If balancing classes is too difficult than just get rid of them. There have been many classless pc rpgs that gave the player true freedom to develop their characters: Dungeon Siege, Arcanum, etc. You pick your own skills. You advance in the skills you use the most. The character you make is your own, not a preset template.

*Fix the economy stupid. The worst enemy mmorpgs have is their own economy. The way it is now, unscrupulous individuals realize that they can profit off of playing these games. They farm (repeatedly kill the monsters that will drop the most valuable items), sell the items for digital money, and sell the digital money for real money to lazy or frustrated gamers. This generates more money in the gameworld than the developers intended. The value of money drops (inflation). It takes more money to buy things than it used to. Casual, honest players are forced to farm to buy basic items, unwillingly adding to the problem. In the real world inflation is difficult to counteract. You can't convince me that inflation should exist in a controlled digital environment. It's unfortunate that the developers' visions were too pure. They did not predict the cutthroat practices of certain players. How do we fix this? There are many options. The most drastic would be to take the economy back to square one, meaning the economy of the sprpg. In sprpgs, every normal item you need is available for purchase in towns at reasonable prices. Rare items are found in fields and dungeons with normal, rpg gameplaying effort. I would estimate rare item drop rates in sprpgs at 25-100% not 3% as in mmorpgs. There is no auction house, no trading to other players, items can only be sold to npc vendors for modest returns. You always have enough money for your needs. Mmorpgs World of Warcraft and recently Final Fantasy XI have made certain items non-tradable and bound to your character in a small attempt to solve their economic problems. The auction house is a fun idea but it creates more problems than it's worth. People only like it because it makes hard to find items available. If these basic, necessary, low level items are less hard to find or craft; do we still need an auction house? If you want to keep the auction house you can use it for rarer items and set limits on the maximum bid prices. That Fire Armor +1 will never cost you more than 1000rupes/gil/credits/silver. It should not be allowed to reach 10,000 because of inflation. It would be on a first come, first serve basis. You could sit by the AH all day trying to get an item or you could take 30 minutes to an hour and get it yourself. My main point on economy is that the system is broken, corrupted and in need of a full renovation.

*Give players pricing plan options. Have a heart. Not everyone uses your servers for the same about of time each month. Some might play 2 hours a week while others grind for 7 hours a day. You count how many hours we play; charge us by them. Look at the cellphone industry as an example. If every cellphone user had to pay the maximum monthly bill, a lot less people would use cellphones. How many people have quit mmorpgs because their playtime doesn't justify the fee? I personally know a few. You will gain subscribers with smarter fee plans. You should also charge us by the content we want. I'm a Level 10 Bugsquisher, why should I help foot the bill for a high level dungeon that I know I will never see? People in Kansas don't buy boats and people in the Middle East don't buy snowmobiles. Make optional update packages based on player level: Low, Mid, High.

I think these suggestions are reasonable. I would like to know what other rpg gamers could add to my thoughts. I am not the first word on the subject and I know I won't be the last. I only want to express my views and keep the mmorpg improvement issue in motion. We know what needs to be fixed in these games; let us not hesitate to say it.

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