5 Boring MMO Mechanics (That Could Be Fun)
by Tyler Edwards, August 21, 2013
There are certain aspects of MMOs that are ubiquitous, but rarely provide any entertainment value. It's hard to find a game without them, but it's harder to find a game that makes them fun. They're untapped potential at best, and tedious chores at worst. But that doesn't mean these mechanics are fundamentally flawed. Many are just victims of a lack of creativity. With a little work and a little original thinking, they could be made much more exciting.
Not everyone would agree that healing in MMOs is boring. Certainly plenty of people must enjoy it, or else we wouldn't have any healers. But that doesn't mean it couldn't be made more exciting.
The issue with healing is that it tends to be incredibly simplistic as a role. You heal people, and that's about it. It's the role that tends to have the least interaction with fight mechanics and content. You can often hear quotes like, "What boss? All I remember is a whole bunch of green bars I had to keep filled."
Various games have attempted to find ways to make healing more interesting. The Secret World and World of Warcraft have experimented with builds that can heal other players through damaging enemies. Weaving together damage and healing is a good way to make healing more exciting, but it might not appeal to healing purists, and it can create balance issues. If someone can heal effectively while also doing a lot of damage, why would you ever bring any other healer?
One problem with making healing more complex is that, with current designs, it needs to be simple. Damage tends to come in so fast that healers must be constantly attentive. Adding any sort of extra depth or complexity to the role will just make healers' lives miserable.
If developers were to make damage come in a bit slower, healers wouldn't need to spend every moment spamming spells just to keep the tank alive, and they could then add extra complications to the role to make it more interesting. Perhaps healing could be diversified into more of a general support role that also involves buffing allies. Of course, buffs aren't terribly interesting either, but more on that in a moment.
4: Ranged classes:
More specifically, ranged weapon classes.
Most MMOs feature a wide range of options for melee fighting: shadowy assassins, mighty warriors, heroic paladins, agile monks. Similarly, there are usually many different ways to smite enemies with magic. Necromancers wield the power of death, wizards hurl fireballs, shamans and druids call upon the powers of nature, and so forth.
But for those who want to fight with bows or other ranged weapons, the options tend to be fairly limited. Most games will only offer one or two classes based on ranged weaponry, and very little creativity tends to be applied to such classes. Most have a pet of some sort, and their toolkit usually revolves around a combination of traps and some fairly bland shots. At best, you might be able to shoot the occasional fire arrow.
There are a lot of ways ranged weapon classes could be spiced up. Where are the madcap demolitionist classes who strap dynamite to arrows and rain fire from the sky? Where are the arcane archers who blend magic and archery?
They could take some inspiration from the niches that melee usually fill. Why must every assassin class be purely melee? A stealthy sniper class seems like such an obvious niche that it's amazing most games ignore it.
And there are the more neglected ranged weapon types. There could be more gunslinger glasses that dual wield pistols. There could be classes based on thrown weapons. The possibilities are endless.
In theory, exploration is one of the main draws of the MMO genre. Rare indeed is the game that doesn't boast of its massive world and endless potential to explore new horizons. But in practice, exploration is something that few MMOs reward, barring a few notable exceptions like EVE Online. Going off the beaten path tends to offer nothing but wasted time that would have been better spent following established quest chains.
A few MMOs are trying to make exploration a more compelling option. The Secret World has its lore honeycombs and hidden item missions. Rift has its artifact collecting. Guild Wars 2 does better than most by including some kind of content in nearly every corner of the world and offering rewards for map completion.
But while these are noble attempts, none of them quite delivers on the fantasy of potentially finding something exciting around every bend. Admittedly, it's a difficult problem to solve, in part because of the social nature of MMOs. There will always be guides on how to track down hidden items and content, trivializing the concept of exploration.
One possible solution could be to randomize content. Create procedurally generated mini-dungeons or randomized treasure chests. The main potential downside of this idea is that completionists' lives could become miserable if they have bad luck. Plus, it could be a major technical challenge to implement in an effective manner.
Crafting is an odd thing in MMOs. Virtually every game has it. Virtually every player uses it. But rarely is it actually that helpful, and even more rarely is it at all fun. There might be a few games – mostly sandboxes – where crafting is both interesting and useful, but these tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
The idea of crafting is pretty cool. It's easy to see the appeal of venturing into the wilderness, harvesting raw materials from the local monsters, and then making like MacGyver and turning those demon fangs, haunted iron bars, and ogre leather scraps into a mighty sword.
But there are a few problems with crafting that tend to make it more a chore than a joy. One is that most games' crafted items aren't particularly powerful in the greater scheme of things, making them hardly worth the effort of making. This is easy enough to fix; just make crafted items more powerful.
The other issue is that crafting rarely requires any kind of skill. It's just a tedious grind of harvesting materials and churning out items. Crafting would be much more enjoyable if it had some element of skill, mystery, or discovery. Perhaps a game could randomize the recipes for each player, forcing them to discover the best combinations through trial and error.
Another option is to include mini-games in crafting. Imagine if jewel crafting involved playing some variant of Bejeweled. The higher your score, the better the resulting item will be.
Buffs are probably one of the least interesting aspects of playing MMOs. You hit a button to increase your group's stats by five percent and then promptly forget about them for the next hour. They're boring to use, they're boring to receive, and for the most part, they could just be rolled into base character stats, and no one would notice the difference.
But buffs could be exciting with a few design tweaks. There's certainly great appeal to the idea of enhancing the powers of your allies and allowing them to reach new heights of strength.
For an idea of how buffs can be made interesting, we can look to the rare instances where buffs do prove some excitement. A great example is the bloodlust spell used by shamans in World of Warcraft. It provides an entire raid with a powerful boost to attack and casting speed for forty seconds.
Bloodlust is one of the most powerful spells in the game, and if timed properly, it can change the course of a battle.
This is how all buffs should be. Instead of weak "fire and forget" spells, they should be brief but powerful boosts that can radically affect player performance. This would mean that there would actually be some skill in applying buffs. You wouldn't want to waste a healing buff during a period of low incoming damage.
Some better visual effects would make buffs a lot more appealing, as well. If buffs are temporary, then you can afford to give them fairly spectacular visuals. Buff your group's damage and watch their weapons catch fire, or increase a tank's armor and see their skin turn to steel.
Some MMOs, especially in the past, have experimented with support and buffs as its own group role, but it hasn't always been the most popular choice simply because providing bland stat boosts to other players isn't terribly exciting. If buffs were made more interesting, these classes could make a comeback.