What’s “New” in MMOs?

Psychochild wrote an interesting article about innovation in MMOs that got me to wondering what features implemented in the last few years in mainstream MMOs really are new.  I’m going to throw out some ideas about things that are (relatively) new, and some other things that are merely evolutionary changes rather than revolutionary changes.  This list isn’t exhaustive but does cover some of the better ideas I’ve seen in games that are still on the market.

Public Quests deserve a place of honor among recent innovations in MMOs.  Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (WAR) really nailed this concept, which has since appeared in Champions Online and to a lesser extent Star Trek Online.  The basic concept is quite clever indeed: there are “events” comprised of several subsections, which are triggered by players.  Any players who show up can freely join in without having to wrangle an invitation; simply be present and you can take part.  The events are typically triggered by killing a certain type of mob; killing a preset number of that mob triggers the second subsection of the Public Quest.  Subsequent subsections often feature tasks such as protecting NPCs, defeating hordes of attackers, and killing boss mobs.  Rewards are given out automatically based on a player’s contribution to the overall effort, sometimes with a random factor added.  Players can pick up their rewards in a preset location once the PUblic Quest is at an end; typically all players involved also get a public score indicating what their contribution was.

Cross-server grouping mechanisms are very useful indeed, though there are some drawbacks.  This concept was recently introduced in WoW, and allows players to much more readily find groups to tackle group-oriented content by broadening the scope of who can join the group to include players from any server.  One possible drawback is a shift from intimate groups (e.g. friends, guilds) to more casual groups including players one is unlikely to ever see again; whether this is good or bad really depends on the player’s perspective though.  Some people are concerned about the social ramifications, while some are enthusiastic about the greater availability of casual groups.  One other possible drawback comes from the fact that servers often develop their own unique cultures, and players from one server might not understand the expectations of players from another server.  This seems like a problem that can be designed around to some extent, e.g. by giving decent tools to distribute loot in various ways.

Achievements really aren’t terribly new; they existed conceptually with City of Heroes’ badge system, and with LotRO’s traits.  WAR definitely implemented this well with the Tome of Knowledge, which consisted of an in-game compendium of everything the player had done and learned.  Performing certain tasks can yield mechanical benefits such as boosts to skills and attributes, or nonmechanical benefits such as access to titles or special costumes.  WoW’s addition of Achievements really is only notable for taking this concept into the most mainstream of games; it’s evolutionary though and not revolutionary, since the basic idea derives from stock-standard quest rewards (i.e. do this, get this reward).

Quest Helpers seem to be standard these days.  I believe the concept originated some three or four years ago with WoW’s Quest Helper add-on, though there might be older versions that I don’t recall.  This feature has since shown up in Age of Conan, LotRO, WAR, Champions Online, and many more MMOs.  The concept is simple: the player’s minimap indicates where the player needs to go to complete quests.  It’s certainly a lot more convenient than running all over the place searching for something, but it also pulls a player out of the world and reduces immersion, as well as minimizing the need for exploration.  Moreover, the basic concept of the Quest Helper is rooted in the quest log, which I feel is frankly a terrible idea and very harmful to our games.  But I’ve ranted about that before.

Phasing is an interesting concept; it allows for one player to perceive one thing while other players perceive something else.  This in turn allows for changes in the game world that are visible to some players but not to others.  E.g. a village might exist when one player views it… then during the course of a quest the village might burn down.  When that player returns to the village, it appears to be burned down, while other players who haven’t completed that quest still see the village in its pristine unburnt state.  This concept has been around for a few years and is implemented in WoW; it’s however an imperfect way to implement a dynamic world given two players can experience disparate things at the same time and place.  It’s however better than a completely static world.

Tunable content is just another way of saying “content with variable difficulties”.  There are a few ways this is implemented, from instances that can be manually selected by players (e.g. WoW), to instances that can be completed in different ways for different rewards (e.g. LotRO’s Moria 3-man instances), to instances that scale themselves based on the group size (e.g. LotRO’s skirmishes).  There’s great potential here to allow for a wide range of player skill levels and group sizes.

Pausing an MMO is a novel concept in one sense; that is to say it’s an old idea in single-player games but I’ve never heard of an MMO doing it before now.  Star Trek Online allows players to pause all the action in an instance for up to 45 seconds.  Doing so depletes a meter that slowly refills over time, meaning one player can’t interrupt action too often or for too long.  Nifty!

Open Parties were a novel idea in LotRO and WAR.  By default in WAR, all groups are open, meaning any player can join at any time without asking for or receiving an invitation.  Players can change the status of groups from open to closed (or back) at any time.  Having groups open for anyone to join greatly facilitates group forming, obviously.  In LotRO, it’s possible to create a raid and set it to open, meaning anyone can join, but this isn’t the default.

Active crafting is something I’ve only seen in EQ2, and it definitely impressed me.  The concept is simple yet novel: instead of pressing a button and waiting for crafted good to be created, the player is actively involved in the crafting process.  This is achieved by having events occur that require a response from the player; performing the appropriate response in a timely fashion will increase the chances of a very good end product, while failing to respond in time or picking the wrong response will increase the odds of failing at the crafting attempt.

What other good ideas have cropped up in MMOs during the last decade?

11 comments so far

  1. Brian 'Psychochild' Green on

    Sadly, most people wouldn’t recognize these features, except for the ones in WoW.

    And, I honestly didn’t know about open raids in LotRO. Given that is my game of choice, I feel a bit sheepish now. In my defense, it doesn’t seem to be advertised very well….

  2. foolsage on

    The only time I ever saw open raids in LotRO was in the Ettenmoors (PvP), where allowing anyone present to join makes sense. Raids created to tackle difficult content are never open in my experience, and for good reason.

  3. evizaer on

    Notice how these “innovations” are mostly changes in magnitude, not changes in kind. These games still have the stock kinds of character advancement and static content. Public quests and raids are actually a callback to the days before groups were mechanically implemented in MMOs–public quests simply give out rewards in a more meritocratic fashion.

    Even phasing, what seems to be the most significant innovation flat-out, is simply instances layered atop one another.

    • foolsage on

      You certainly have a point. I think this concept merits its own article. 😉

  4. […] under: Computer Games, Game Design, MMORPGs | During the recent discussion here about “what’s new in MMOs“, evizaer raised an interesting point that I think merits further thought: aren’t all […]

  5. […] 18, 2010 by Ysharros New? There is no new in MMOs! During the recent discussion here about “what’s new in MMOs“, evizaer raised an interesting point that I think merits further thought: aren’t all the […]

  6. Tesh on

    New is dangerous. Investors don’t like risk.

    Old mechanics given a veneer of “newness” are easier to implement and market.

    • foolsage on

      I have to admit I’m a neophile. It’s quite often a struggle for me at work to convince others of the validity and utility of change. I don’t mean change for change’s sake, which is silly, but change because old assumptions aren’t always the best fit for current situations. I continually hear, “The old ways have worked for X years, why change?” To which I reply, “We should change if and only if we can do it better.”

    • Tesh on

      I have a nasty habit of challenging assumptions. It gets me into trouble more often than not. It’s just not political to ask questions. If you can’t do that on an office level, abstract it one or two layers, and you almost certainly can’t ask it of those who just want to plug money numbers into pretty little spreadsheets.

  7. sente on

    If the quest helper is to help find people where the quest/mission area is, then you have that in City of Heores as well, and it was in Anarchy Online also.

    Procedurally generated missions could perhaps be a first with Anarchy Online – it has a fairly elaborate system there to tune your missions to your liking.
    That together with City of Heroes mission scaling would predate the other examples of tunable content.

    The sidekick feature could be considered an important and innovative feature for level-based games.

    EVEs skill training system is another one.

    I believe Brian Green mentioned heroic opportunities as new with EQ2, although I would argue that it was just a simplication of Final Fantasy XI Renkei/skill chains (http://www.gamefaqs.com/computer/doswin/file/945503/28190).

    FPS type controls in an MMO might have been first with Neocron. Perhaps not innovation though.

    Not sure if there has been other who have done it, but Saga od Ryzom’s custom created skill system is also a neat feature – perhaps inspired from some PnP RPGs though (e.g. Champions RPG)

    • foolsage on

      The sidekick / mentoring feature in CoH is simply incredible. I’ve yet to see another game do this as well. Any two people can play together to consume any content that’s level-appropriate for one of them. The lower-level person can jump up to the effective level of the higher-level person, or the higher-level person can drop down to the level of the lower-level person. Flexible and very very user-friendly. That is indeed a nice idea and merits mention as something every level-based game should consider adding. Good call.

      I’m unsure honestly how I feel about Eve’s skill training system, or FPS controls, or Ryzom’s skill system. I’ve some experience with all of the above and though they do have value, it isn’t clear to me that they’re examples of universal MMO progress, so much as interesting ideas that might work sometimes. I was intending to speak about things that were not only new, but were good additions to the MMO stable of features… I don’t think I was very clear about this goal though, in retrospect. Eve’s skill system is definitely something new as far as I know though.

      Heroic opportunities are an interesting idea but I haven’t been terribly satisfied or impressed with them to be honest. There’s something a bit like that in STO as well in ground combat and it felt awkward there too.

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