Note: I will be making some generalizations in this article. This is not going to talk about every MMO ever made, and I will try my best to indicate such. I may fail at points, but I hope you do not hold that against me.
When I talk about “popularity”, I’m talking about the popularity from a developer’s perspective not the popularity from a player’s perspective.
The biggest issue that will need to be tackled by MMOs in the upcoming years isn’t the focus on endgame. It isn’t the themepark vs sandbox debate. It isn’t PVE vs PVP. It isn’t soloable vs group-only. It isn’t even instancing or open world.
The biggest issue that MMOs will need to solve is how to get past an inconsistent design philosophy.
MMOs since the dawn of the genre have been plagued with this problem. This problem has grown to the point where it is difficult to fend off, though.
When I say inconsistent design philosophy, I mean that the hypothetical game contains multiple subgames that do not seem to be based in the same philosophical groundings as other subgames.
For a consistent design philosophy, I would like to look at vanilla Aion. In the case of vanilla Aion, the game was considered a very time consuming, grind heavy MMORPG. With that said, it also taught you from the very beginning that this was to be expected.
While this did drive some people away (and one can easily argue the merits of a system that chases people away), the game was very clear in its messaging. Accomplishments would be very heavily weighted based on time put in. This meant that players who reached level 50 would not suddenly be greeted by a very jarring, alternate experience to what the game had presented to them up to that point.
On the other hand, there is the inconsistent design that is present in many other MMOs. While I will not name specific names in regards to which MMOs violate this policy, I am sure you will be able to think of some that match this description. These are games that start by giving you an experience that is very narrative-driven and soloable. Once you achieve max level, you are only given the option to participate in raids or another activity that either demands high levels of skill or vast quantities of time. This isn’t a bash on soloable or narrative-driven MMO experiences, but the opposite (raid/party centric leveling experiences that result in soloable/narrative-driven endgame) is much, much rarer. In fact, I’ve never seen it in action.
The problem within this inconsistent design is created by violating the core principles of the heuristic ladder(s).
In the MMO genre, though, there are two ways that PVE difficulty is generally measured:
- Time spent
- Amount of attempts to kill
Time spent is an unusual metric in the context of a traditional heuristic ladder because the amount of time that a player spends playing the game doesn’t necessarily correlate to any other aspect of the game. With that said, the principles one should adhere to regarding heuristic ladders are generally applicable to time-sink mechanics as well.
A few other factors can be argued, but these two measurements compose what I consider the two heuristic ladders of MMO progression. One of the core aspects of a heuristic ladder is that it is much easier for a player to move down the ladder than up it.
In simpler terms, an individual who is able to find 16 hours per day to play the game can easily accomplish something that is aimed at an individual that plays 1 hours per day. A guild that is competing for world firsts is going to easily accomplish something that is aimed at a guild that is competing for world 2000th. The opposite is not true, though.
A Consistent Experience
When players are leveling, they are learning, whether consciously or subconsciously. They are learning not only the mechanics of their character, but they are also getting a feel for reward mechanisms, reward timings, game-specific gating mechanics, and how the game presents content to them in general.
An inconsistent experience is one that teaches the player all of these things, reinforces these things many, many times, and then suddenly changes them once the player reaches an arbitrary point in their character’s life cycle, which is quite frequently the max level of the game. This sudden change will disrupt any form of flow the player was experience. It will be a very jarring, noticeable shift relative to previous experiences within the game. This tends to create one of two negative responses from players within the game:
The Top Going Down
A skilled player or a player that spends (or wishes to spend) a lot of time in the game suddenly being asked to climb downwards on a heuristic ladder can experience varying degrees of boredom, but it is feasible for them to do so.
Popular mechanics that ask players to move downwards on the heuristic ladder include mechanics that are time-gated (such as dailies, weeklies, or NPC missions that require X hours to complete) and mechanics where there is minimal chance for failure for the majority of players.
A common use for these two mechanics is found in the form of the daily quest (which is a form of currency faucet).
The Bottom Going Up
A player that is not as skilled or does not have a lot of time suddenly being asked to perform a task that requires world class skills or 16 hours per day of dedication will likely experience varying degrees of frustration. Unlike the top going down, these players aren’t likely going to handle the transition well, if at all.
One of the most popular mechanics that ask players to move upwards on the heuristic ladder is raiding. Raiding is generally a time consuming activity that will kill the player many, many times before the player is able to advance.
The Need For A Unified Experience
All of these points boil down to the need for a unified experience. The leveling experience should exist to teach the player what to expect. It should be teaching the player the reward mechanisms. It should be teaching the player the ins-and-outs of the game. Properly utilized, the player should know what to expect in the endgame by the time they get there. The player should not be suddenly asked to throw away all of their acquired knowledge to that point because the core experience within the game changes at an arbitrary level. The game’s focus should be on teaching players and remaining true to those teachings.
This unified experience shouldn’t simply be a mission statement that the team pays lip service to during conventions or during press conferences.
This unified experience should be the driving factor behind every decision. Every decision, every system, and every act should be done to establish and empower this unified experience.