While critics point their fingers at the MMO industry and proclaim it a barren wasteland of innovation, there are quite a few awesome -- if small -- ideas that bubble up in MMO and move the genre forward. Maybe they're teeny-tiny baby steps; maybe they're giant hopscotch leaps over the six-spot with the rock in the middle. But these ideas can and have had the power to change how these games are made and played.
So this week I'm saluting 10 clever ideas, both large and diminutive, as a reward for a job well done!
In my opinion, RIFT is a game chock-full of good ideas (and varying degrees of execution), but none of them was as elegant and welcomed as area-of-effect looting. It doesn't sound as flashy and exciting as a huge system, but this quality-of-gaming-life improvement was instantly noticed and praised by players the world over.
In retrospect, it makes no sense that a game would waste our time having us run around the place playing 52-loot pickup (other than, well, to waste our time). Looting should be not a chore but a reward, and getting it all at once simply made sense. It's one of those features that instantly became standard across the industry, and newer titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic had it installed in the factory.
Those who know me know I'm kind of tired of our primary interaction with MMOs being "hitting things with blunt and/or sharp objects." Not that combat is dull, just that MMOs need to be more well-rounded with extracurricular activities -- such as diplomacy. I've always been fascinated with Vanguard's attempt at creating a game out of social interaction, and while it probably didn't live up to the grand claims of its designers during development, it's certainly a worthy enough idea to take and use elsewhere.
One of the ironies of MMOs is that while the genre is supposed to be about loads of people getting together to game, level-based gameplay has thwarted the efforts of many friends to spend time together due to level disparities.
City of Heroes took a look at the status quo and pronounced it "stupid on arrival," electing instead to develop its sidekick/exemplar system so that anyone could game together, no matter what the level. The system artificially raises or lowers a player's level (including skills being used) so that an unequal pairing could suddenly tackle the same content together. Other titles have since begun to do the same, although it's a shame this isn't in every game, period.
Say what you will about Warhammer Online, but it was a game of crazy-fun ideas. Hardly a week went by in the buildup to launch when the developers weren't spouting out another interesting notion, and few things captivated the imagination like the Tome of Knowledge.
We hadn't ever really seen anything like it. The Tome is an in-game encyclopedia, achievement tracker, and reward system all balled into one interface. While achievement systems aren't rare in MMOs, WAR was the first one to my knowledge that handed out goodies if you hit certain milestones. The Tome became a repository for a player's entire journey in the game, and I loved it.
In coming back to Star Trek Online this year due to the free-to-play transition, I had to acquaint myself with a the fact that I now had the ability to send my previously invisible crew off on a variety of time-based tasks and reap the sweet rewards. Drawing upon some of the designs that made Facebook-style games so addicting, the Duty Officer system encourages and rewards repeated returns to the game (as well as a modicum of strategy).
Plus, it's pretty cool sending your crew to do your bidding, even if the occasional red shirt meets a grisly end.
Yes, there are probably many more worthy ideas from Guild Wars that should go in this spot, but you know what? This is my list. And I've always been tickled by the fact that you can draw on your minimap and have your teammates see it. It's great both for strategy and for drawing juvenile doodles!
Yup. I'm opening this can of worms. Don't worry about me; I'm worm-proof.
Although it's hated in some circles and beloved in others, the truth is that World of Warcraft's dungeon finder (and its many descendants) did a great job paving the way for casual players to get into dungeon runs. It is a cool idea because loads of people were avoiding such content because they were too timid or had little luck trolling chat channels. Using one elegant interface, players could get into content that had been more or less denied to them on a regular basis, and that makes it a worthwhile entry for this list.
Some have decried it as the beginning of the fall of MMO civilization, but from my single perspective, I've had such fun with these systems and met some pretty cool people that I don't see what the negative fuss is about. But I'm sure you'll set me straight in the comments!
As I said with #2 on this list, any time a developer gives an option to interact in a meaningful way with an MMO, my attention is riveted. I may not have been into SWG before its shutdown, but I applaud the effort to provide classes that were about not just killing but living in this virtual world.
The Entertainer was just this sort of class. It's hard to imagine a studio making an MMO today to say, "Our next class reveal dances! And buffs! But doesn't really fight. Did I mention the breakdancing? And flourishing?" Yet that's just the kind of nifty idea SWG embraced.
While we're on the subject of music: LotRO's player music system has been widely praised but scarcely imitated, to the industry's shame. By allowing players to grab an instrument and play original or famous compositions, the game provided a huge creative outlet that was fun both to do and to witness. Even five years later, players are still forming bands and putting on concerts in Middle-earth, and that's awesome.
Advancing in levels and abilities is something that's traditionally done in-game, but EVE Online decided to go a different way. By structuring the game's skill system so that it was strictly time-based -- and always ticking down, whether you're online or off -- the devs ensured that players constantly felt as if they were participating in the game and advancing in it. In any event, it's definitely interesting and has been emulated in later titles like Glitch.
Special mention: Overflow server (Guild Wars 2) and XP boost for waiting in queues (TERA)
I disqualified any not-yet-released MMO from this list (as the ideas haven't really been put to test by the general public), but I did want to mention two approaches that upcoming titles are using to take the sting out of server queues. TERA will be rewarding long-suffering waiters with an XP boost, while Guild Wars 2 will have a special server that you can play on while you wait -- and then transfer over with all your progress when your spot opens up.
Justin "Syp" Olivetti enjoys counting up to ten, a feat that he considers the apex of his career. If you'd like to learn how to count as well, check out The Perfect Ten. You can contact him via email at email@example.com or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.