MMO Mechanics That Need to be Reexamined

by Tyler Edwards, March 13, 2012

There's an old saying that goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." And for the most part, it's good advice. But MMO developers seem to live by this idea a little too heavily. The genre has evolved very little since it first started to gain popularity over a decade ago. Just because a mechanic has worked in the past doesn't mean it's the best way to do things. Some MMOs have started to make changes, but many still preserve old and outdated mechanics that perhaps do more harm than good. So today, we're going to take a look at some mechanics that we feel need to be reexamined. Some mechanics just need to be tweaked, while others need to go altogether - but all need to change.


secret world factions

5: Factions and servers:

MMOs are a social medium. They're all about bringing people together, about playing with old friends or making new ones. But considering that, it's amazing how much of MMO designs works to keep players apart, intentionally or otherwise.

One major example of this is the concept of factions where players are divided into differing groups, usually with different race options and lore. The faction system has some obvious benefits: it provides a good in-universe explanation for PvP and helps create a sense of healthy competition between players even when not in direct conflict with each other.

But it also serves to separate players. If you like Faction A, and your friend likes Faction B, one of you will have to abandon their preferred faction - which, depending on the game, can be a major inconvenience or cost real world money - or else you can't play together. It seems like it would be much better if factions didn't exist, or at least were not a permanent decision and players could swap between factions at will. That could bring disadvantages of its own, but at least there would be no artificial barriers between the players.

Separate servers are also something that works to keep players apart. In this case, they exist because it would often be technically impossible to fit all players of a game into a single virtual space. So separate servers are unlikely to go anywhere any time soon, but developers could make it easier to swap between servers or group with off-server friends.


everquest death

4: Death penalties:

In the early days of MMOs, the death of your character could have serious repercussions. For example, in EverQuest, death meant the loss of experience, perhaps even demoting your character several levels, and you'd have to grind to get that experience back.

As time has gone on, new games have slowly relaxed the penalties that come with character death. The massively successful World of Warcraft asks only for a player to return to their corpse and suffer minor durability loss to their gear - unless they wish to resurrect immediately, in which case they must suffer ten minutes of crippling resurrection sickness. Some newer games, such as Guild Wars 2, are even more lenient.

But why stop there? What purpose do death penalties serve other than to frustrate? Traditionalists will argue that there must be some punishment associated with failure, or else players will never learn. But isn't failure its own punishment? Do we really need a penalty outside of being unable to achieve whatever you were attempting before you became a stain on the wall?

Of course, there are some who enjoy the sense of peril that stiff death penalties create. It's not really fair to exclude them nor does it make sense to make everyone suffer the harsh rules they enjoy. Perhaps the solution, then, would be different rules depending on player preference. Scroll down to number two on this list for more on that concept.


swtor pvp

3: PvP imbalances:

Balance is the holy grail of player versus player in any MMO. Everyone wants it, but so rarely is it found. The fact is that most MMOs are extremely complex games, and perfectly balancing all classes and races borders on the impossible.

Still, that doesn't mean PvP balance is a goal that developers should give up on. Without at least a basic level of balance, PvP will be more a source of frustration than fun.

Class and race balance aren't the only concerns, either. Any time an enemy player has a higher level or better gear than you, the odds are stacked against you. You might still be able to win if the gap in power is small, but it doesn't take much for even a skilled player to be hopelessly outgunned.

Some games, such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, are now experimenting with scaling systems to ensure fairness between opponents regardless of level. This seems like it must be the wave of the future. Otherwise, even if classes are perfectly even, balance will never be achieved.


looking for raid

2: "One size fits all" difficulty:

Most games offer various difficulty levels to accommodate players with a wide variety of skill levels. But for some reason, MMOs have never really taken to the concept. Content generally comes in only one or two difficulty settings. Dungeons and raids often have hard modes, but easy modes are less common and solo content is usually the same for everyone.

Lack of difficulty settings is probably because of the nature of a persistent world game. The world cannot be retuned to suit a single player. But there are still ways difficulty could be customized. One frequently suggested idea is "hardcore" servers with stronger enemies and stiffer punishments for failure. But this serves to further segregate players, and it's not likely that many newbies will want to play "hardcore" when they first join a game, so such servers would probably suffer population issues.

A better option might be specific changes to individual characters. Players seeking a challenge could be given the option to debuff themselves, and receive more drops and rewards in exchange. Likewise, those who want an easier path could gain buffs to character power for lesser rewards.

The persistent world issue doesn't apply to instanced content, either, so one has to wonder why more games don't offer a wide variety of difficulties in that area. World of Warcraft has begun making some progress on this front by offering three difficulty settings for its raid content: normal, heroic, and an easy version accessed via its "Looking for Raid" tool. Hopefully, this can set a standard for more difficulty options throughout WoW and in other MMOs.


guild wars 2

1: A strict divide between leveling and endgame:

"The game begins at max level." No doubt you've heard people say this. There's a good chance you've said it yourself. It's true of most MMOs. MMO developers need to provide lots of epic content for the endgame to ensure player retention, which skews the game towards the level cap. This, in turn, creates a situation where leveling seems like just an obstacle before you reach the "real" game.

This is a problem for two reasons; one is that most players have come to hate leveling, viewing it as an overlong tutorial at best and an onerous time sink at worst. The other is that those who do like leveling must suffer the fact that the attentions of developers and other players alike are focused on endgame.

This has led many to suggest that leveling shouldn't exist in MMOs at all. But that has its own problems. For all its criticism, leveling is an important part of learning to play a character, and even experienced gamers need some simple content to practice with when they try a new class. Those who argue for the end of leveling also ignore those players who do enjoy leveling.

It seems like the best solution, then, is some sort of system that preserves leveling but removes the strict divide between it and the epic content available to level-capped players. Some games have already attempted something like this. City of Heroes has its sidekick system that allows players to temporarily scale themselves to the levels of their friends to enable group play regardless of level. Guild Wars 2 will have similar options, and even more ambitiously, it is also touted to be doing away with the endgame entirely, theoretically making the whole game equally relevant.

It's too early to say whether GW2 will solve the problem of the gap between leveling and endgame. It seems promising, but we're skeptical as to whether they can end the issue entirely. And even then, it's just one game among many. A major change must be made to the MMO paradigm if leveling and endgame are to coexist successfully. How can that be achieved? We don't know. That's why we're commentators, not developers.