MMObility: A few bad design apples ruin the whole bunch

Ministry of War artwork
The MMORTS genre is easily one of my favorite genres. There's so much potential in a game that is essentially a giant, endless boardgame with thousands of players. An epic scale occurs in even the smallest of titles because players control not only one or two grand heroes but entire armies that swarm from sprawling cities. Though many of Massively's readers might not hear a lot from the genre, I believe this genre to be one of the most popular out there. Browser-based access doesn't hurt, either, and generally the MMORTS titles I find do a great job of covering their design bases.

You know I have to play Devil's Advocate, however. Despite the fact that the genre is packed full of potentially wonderful gaming sessions, there is so, so much that needs to improve. The negative stereotypes exist for a reason, and I want to shine a light on a few of the more popular titles to show just how one or two bad design and business decisions might reflect poorly on the entire genre.

Ministry of War screenshot
Bad customer service is so powerful

Let me give you an example from what used to be one of my favorite MMORTS titles, Ministry of War. This week, my wife and I were discussing the game when I decided to return to it. Although I've bad luck recovering my city in the past, the recovery process eventually did work and my city was returned to me in the condition it was before I went AFK for an extended period. I thought that I could return again and at least get it back once more.

Well, after trying to remember which server my old one was merged into, and after trying to go through the recovery process again and finding some oddly named city on my account (had I been hacked?), I emailed customer service. Understand that I had emailed CS before and never received any response. If I had been hacked, was my initial city gone? Was it even possible to delete a city? If I couldn't remember my old server name, how would I know which server it had been merged with? Was there a reason why, when trying to fill in the recovery form, I didn't have enough room for my city name?

All of these questions will probably remain, and to be honest, I believe the trouble I am going through is not worth starting over in the world. I liked Ministry of War for so many of its positive design choices, but if I am unsure of the security of my account, I give up. Until I get an answer, I'll steer clear.

Golden Age screenshot
Complicated design is not hardcore

One of the common terms I hear thrown around in the MMORTS world is "hardcore." It often goes hand-in-hand with sandbox games. You'll also see "complex" or "deep" tossed in the mix. I've always wondered why developers seem to want to brag about how complex or hardcore a game is. While calling a game something like hardcore or complex might attract a certain style of player, I can guarantee that the same player would not be scared off by a game that offered depth along with simple, elegant design. Even the most complicated MMO is not rocket science but a collection of facts, figures and tables that need memorizing, or better yet, referencing. How is that a good thing?


"Sure, one of the main culprits is poor localization, but is there no simpler way to describe a process such as taking over a farmland with my army?"

As I play Golden Age, one of the most potentially neat MMORTS games I have come across, I wonder why the game makes many processes so unbelievably complicated or bloated with weird information. Sure, one of the main culprits is poor localization, but is there no simpler way to describe a process such as taking over a farmland with my army? I have been raising an army lately and found that I raised it too fast and hurt my food production. I left the game for a week and came back to the army's rioting and pillaging because its members were starving. I wanted to just let some of the soldiers go, to send them home early with a medal. I couldn't figure that out even after talking to the chat. When that didn't work, I tried to raise my food production but couldn't produce enough food to raise a farm level. I tried to attack local farmlands but was told that I had to conquer them first, then take them. I have tried that, but the menus are either poorly translated or just gibberish. Finally I bought some food from an NPC in the open, side-scrolling town that players can meet in, and I have been trying to keep my head above water. At this point, that army is still rioting despite the fact that I have plenty of food.

Let me state this simply: The process of attacking something should not be this complicated or poorly designed. Yes, I know more now about how to do certain things, but only because I stumbled across the answers. I still have two heroes who are so damaged they cannot lead an army, and I need to figure out how to heal them without spending all of my gold. Do they heal automatically over time? While the help files in game talk about plundering something, why is plunder not available to my armies while conquer is? A simple pop-up would do wonders in these situations. Great, it looks as though there is a "simple version" in the system settings. The problem? I have no idea what "simple" mode means, and there is no "simple" selection in the settings section as the help file suggested!

I want to reiterate that I can and probably will eventually figure out these systems that are actually not that complicated. In hindsight, I will probably smack my forehead and go, "Oh, so that's how you do it!" The point is that a new player, including someone who is new to MMOs in general, would simply walk away and later turn up in my comments section talking about how poorly designed all MMORTS titles are.

Ministry of War screenshot
Meaningful PvP actually sounds quite nice

I used to crack up every time I heard PvP players whine about the lack of "meaningful PvP" in their favorite MMOs. I wasn't laughing at them; I was laughing at the idea that there would ever be meaningful PvP brought to any popular title. In order for PvP to have meaning, a game must offer meaningful punishment for that PvP. We have only seen a few titles even attempt anything near permadeath, but I don't think it needs to go that far anyway. The process of getting hurt, or in this case having your city overthrown, can be extended or brought to a more "realistic" level before the player even faces death.

If we look at Evony, a very popular and actually quite well-made MMORTS, we see the farming culture in perfect working order. Farming in an MMORTS is basically the process of attacking another player's city over and over, resulting in mounds of goods for the attacker and an empty storehouse for the victim. However, not much real damage is done to the city. I could be wrong in the exact process with different titles, but one visit to Evony will show you just how passionate the community is about farming its own members. I have actually been farmed in several titles and was even apparently completely occupied in Golden Age, and there was no permanent damage. I even emailed the farmer at one point and asked how the process worked. He eventually just disappeared, so I continued on my way.

I can understand why developers love farming in an MMORTS. It's the same process as a rep grind or raiding in many other standard MMOs. It's basically something for players to do, over and over and over, something that will keep them glued to the game. To me, that's boring. I would rather have a city that can be hurt, possibly even badly, and a recovery process that is realistic and immersive. It doesn't have to be punishing or annoying but could actually be enjoyable or used to grow a city's story if done right. Farming is not right.

These are just a few of the issues I have with the MMORTS genre. Still, every genre has its issues, so I would request that this article not be used as some sort of evidence of how bad things are in the MMORTS world. My point is that it only takes a few poor design or business choices in a handful of popular and otherwise-enjoyable games to taint the entire pack. I will guarantee that the player who leaves the most passionate complaints about the genre has played maybe a handful of titles. I will guarantee it.

If developers take the time to consider how these mistakes effect the entire genre, everything might improve.

Each week in MMObility, Beau Hindman dives into the murky waters of the most accessible and travel-friendly games around, including browser-based and smartphone MMOs. Join him as he investigates the best, worst, and most daring games to hit the smallest devices! Email him suggestions, or follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
This article was originally published on Massively.