MMORPG Development: The Fine Line Between Interesting Mechanics And Tedium

MMORPG development has come a long way in the last fifteen years. One of the biggest change in design philosophies is the focus on making everything user friendly. This is shorthand for “can my grandma figure this out?” which isn’t necessarily a bad starting point, but it does limit the developer in terms of how complex their game can be. While complexity has its shortcomings, it also allows players enough room to explore and enjoy the game to its fullest. The question then becomes, at what point does simplicity become a bad thing?

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A large part of the massively multiplayer roleplaying experience is roleplaying. Whodathunkit? The problem with roleplaying is that a lot of players find it very difficult to explore their character’s story or personality beyond simply completing quests and killing monsters. Non-RP players are left with whatever the game explicitly explains about their player character, which, in some cases, is very little. Games like World of Warcraft and Rift were chalk full of interesting, but equally complex side quests and activities that helped flesh out the player character’s story. Overtime, however, those quests were phased out to create an easier experience for newer players that might get confused by the often obscure or vague quest explanations. On the other hand, many players enjoyed exploring and solving the mysteries that were presented by not having an exact GPS location for where to go or who to talk to for those quests. The epic hunter quest of Rohk’delar, for example, tasked hunters in pre-BC World of Warcraft to hunt down four demons of the Burning Legion that were hidden across Azeroth. This kind of quest is often seen from two distinct perspectives. One side argues that an epic item should be rare and a token of great accomplishment, which justifies the complexity inherent in finding the Rohk’delar. The other argument is that an epic item is often considered “best in slot”, which is to say that a hunter would need that item to be considered as good as they could be. A lot of players think that a character needs to be completely decked out in the best gear possible to be considered up to par and, therefore, that epic items shouldn’t be hard to get, so that more players can be operating at maximum potential. Developers have opted to side with the latter argument, decreasing complexity in their games at the cost of interesting gems that force players to explore and discover parts of the game on their own.

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Rift had a similar issue, as the game’s main player class mechanic required players to venture into the world and slay corrupted souls of ancient warriors to gain their powers. If a Warrior wanted to be a Beastmaster, they’d have to explore Telera until they found a specific rift to kill the Beastmaster of Teleran myth. While the quest was pretty simple, it put a barrier in front of a basic gameplay mechanic, which would have to be completed at least twice before a character reached their maximum number of souls (classes) to perform optimally. Trion Worlds eventually chose to remove these quests and instead allowed players to simply select their souls from a drop down menu, which made it much easier for players that created many new characters, but left new players without the experience of directly acting out how their character came to be.

It’s clear that MMO developers are trying their best to appeal to as many players as possible, which is not a sin in and of itself, but I do wonder whether or not quests like that of the Rohk’delar or Rift’s soul quests are past relics of a forgotten area in game development. Players may be too familiar with the kinds of ‘quality of life’ mechanics, meant to make the game easier for everyone, to adjust to quests that require thought or exploration. No one reads quest text anymore. Everyone has giant UI mods that point in the direction a player needs to go and that mark the exact NPC that needs to be interacted with the continue the quest chain. The ease of use gained from the ‘optimization’ of MMORPGs is at the cost of the mystery and wonder that drew me to the genre in the first place.

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