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My five favourite MMOs

In the spirit of yesterday’s post, here are my five favourite games that are MMOs.

It’s hard to analyse MMOs in the same way as non-MMOs, because there are so many other factors that affect one’s fun – the quality of dev support, the quality and frequency of new content, the friendliness of the community, the critical mass of players that makes a world feel lived-in, and so on.

Still, here are the five MMOs I’ve enjoyed the most – and, in some cases, miss the most.

  • World of Warcraft

Yeah, yeah, WoW is the opiate of the MMO masses; it’s old and tired and whatever. I don’t care.

Don’t get me wrong: I fell out of love with Blizzard a couple of years ago, and I haven’t been inclined to cut them much slack since them. But despite my dissatisfaction with what WoW has become, it’s impossible to forget the years of happiness and fun it’s provided, or the way it’s shaped an entire industry and brought it into the mainstream.

When WoW was shaping up for release, our SWG guild put its money on EQ2 instead. Most of us weren’t Warcraft enthusiasts, didn’t much care about WoW, and many had a history with EQ that made EQ2 look amazing. When WoW came out, we were snobbish about how ‘ezymode’ it was and how it just gave you stuff on a plate – while we went back to retrieve our corpses again (and corpse runs in EQ/EQ2 were not the simple thing they are in WoW!) and earn some XP to pay back what we’d lost by dying.

And then slowly we all trickled across to WoW, and we realised just how damn good it was. Most importantly, more than any other game at the time, WoW cut away the bits of the MMO gaming paradigm that weren’t fun.1 “I’m a game,” said WoW. “I’m supposed to be fun. Stop doing those stupid grindy chores in other games, and come and play me.” And we listened, and we did, and most of us never looked back.

World of Warcraft

  • Lord of the Rings Online

LotRO is very much a game in the WoW-ish themepark model, but it’s far from just “WoW with a Tolkien theme painted on”. Its crafting system is more interesting (and more relevant), the game’s ambience and atmosphere are absolutely perfect, the narrative does an excellent job of keeping you involved in the story and making you feel integral without overriding the canon, the seasonal festivals are fun and setting-appropriate (instead of just feeling like our holidays pasted onto a fantasy world), its geography is excellent, and the community is generally peaceful, friendly and mature. And it’s got a) what’s probably the single best F2P implementation I’ve seen in any subscription game, and b) the best wardrobe/cosmetic gear system ever. The game design is great: each class feels special, with unique mechanics and clear differentiation – playing a WoW warrior, DK or paladin all feels much the same; playing a LotRO loremaster, minstrel or runekeeper does not.

It’s not perfect, of course; in particular, the animations and movement engine feel unresponsive, which drove away pretty much everyone I was playing with. The housing system is clunky and lonely, and reportedly unlikely to be improved. And there’s been some unhappiness with the direction of the Turbine Store, like the immersion-breaking $50 hobby-horse mount. Those aren’t dealbreakers for me, but sadly I don’t rule the world (yet).

But If I could wave a magic wand and make all my friends and guildmates want to play one MMO; if I could make everyone I know and want to play with congregate in one game — LotRO would, without doubt, be that game. I’m only not playing it now because nobody else is.

(It also has my single favourite MMO class of all time, the Loremaster. That class was made for me, and I really wish more MMOs had classes like that.)

Lord of the Rings Online

  • Star Wars Galaxies

Oh, SWG. I am so conflicted about you.

SWG was really my first MMO love. I’d played UO years before, but not in a particularly involved way, and I’d missed the whole EQ craze.

SWG was so very flawed. It was massively buggy – for instance, you’d quite often lose half your inventory when you crossed an invisible zone line and it wouldn’t come back for a couple of hours, which was irksome to say the least. And being very sandboxy, it didn’t take long to run out of things to do for those of us who hadn’t quite got the hang of making our own fun yet. All up, I only played for eight months or so before being lured away into EQ2 and then WoW.

And yet SWG had so much going for it that no other game has matched. Its Star Wars atmosphere was perfect – much more Star-Wars-y than SWTOR, to be honest. The game mechanics were interesting, the Galactic Civil War actually made open world PvP relevant (and thus people actually did it for reasons other than ganking lowbies!). The game encouraged roleplaying and storytelling with non-combat classes like dancers and musicians. The housing system was excellent. And the crafting – oh, the crafting. The crafting was basically perfect, and hit pretty much every single one of my buttons as far as crafting goes – and unfortunately it’s set an incredibly high bar that no game has since been able to match. I regret leaving SWG behind, more so now than ever – the classic case of “you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”, really.

I’m very happy to discover, though, that there’s a team of volunteer devs developing a Star Wars Galaxies emulator/private server project, at SWG Emu. I haven’t checked it out yet, as I’ll need to find my original game install discs, but this might be my only chance to get my SWG fix again.

Star Wars Galaxies

  • Glitch

Glitch was a magnificent experiment from a startup studio called Tiny Speck. It launched as a browser-based MMO in 2009 and ran until December 9 this year; they simply couldn’t find a way to make it a viable concern. It also didn’t help that they were tied to Flash, and thus their future in mobile gaming – which would otherwise have been a perfect fit for Glitch – was limited.

Glitch had a sense of fun and whimsy like no other game I’ve ever encountered. Almost entirely combat-free, it revolved around exploration, social and emergent gameplay, and crafting. You gathered cooking materials by nibbling piggies, milking butterflies, and squeezing chickens. The fact that there’s no longer a game where you can milk a butterfly makes the world a sadder place, in my opinion.

Glitch

  • DC Universe Online

I can’t believe I’m putting this on the list, but I actually think DCUO belongs here. (This is the spot where I had about five contenders, all with pros and cons, and eventually I decided DCUO came out on top.) I played it constantly for a couple of months in early 2011 and then dropped it like a hot rock, focusing at the time on all the things it did wrong, and not giving enough love to the things it did right.

So let’s get that out of the way up front: it was a great game, ahead of its time, that was hampered by a horrible console-compliant port, utterly inadequate multiplayer features and a user-hostile interface. (The month-long downtime due to the PSN hack didn’t help, either.)

At the same time, though: it pioneered AoE keybound looting and the limited-toolbar MMO style, its movement engine was the most fun I’d had just running around in any game since WoW’s flying mounts (and it hadn’t been topped until I discovered Firefall’s jump jets), the combat system was unique and even healers got to beat stuff up, instance play supported duos, the instances were fun and interesting, the setting was true to canon, and it had Mark Hamill voicing the Joker. Flying over and around Metropolis was just amazing, and the game deserved a lot more credit for its good points than it got.

DC Universe Online

  • Honorable Mentions
  • All of these games were in competition for the fifth slot which eventually went to DCUO:

    • Star Wars: the Old Republic – would have been on the list, were it not for the limited replayability contributing to a player exodus and stale endgame. As a levelling game, it’s superb and would have been at the top of my list, but the fun stops suddenly when you hit 50. Well, it did for me, anyway.
    • Firefall – without a doubt my favourite surprise of the year, this MMOFPS will almost certainly be on my 2013 favourites list. But right now it’s still in beta, and they’re adding content and changing things quite radically and frequently. It’s unreasonable to assess the game right now, because it’s definitely not a finished product.
    • RIFT – I had a lot of fun in RIFT this year, but it’s just not compelling enough to draw me in when I’ve already got other themepark MMOs on the go. It lost the competition for my time against SWTOR, then TSW, then GW2 and now WoW. I like it well enough, but apparently I just don’t love it.
    • EVE Online – spaceships and lasers; what’s not to love? Well, the community full of toxic asshats, for a start. But more importantly, the existence of easy RMT takes something away from the game. I could spend twelve or fifteen hours mining like crazy to make myself half a billion ISK, or I could spend fifteen dollars in the EVE store and net myself half a billion ISK with about three mouse clicks. Don’t get me wrong, EVE’s still fun, but the existence of RMT (and my introduction to it very early in my EVE-playing career) takes away any incentive to do pretty much any PvE in the game. Add to that the fact that the only way you can improve your character is just to wait for RL time to pass and there’s little incentive to play EVE as anything other than “oooh look at the pretty spaceships”; it’s lost the risk-vs-reward factor necessary to make it a game.
    • The Secret World – another game about which I’m conflicted! TSW’s writing is the best I’ve ever seen in an MMO, the setting is refreshing and novel, the character progression system is very flexible, the missions are compelling and the investigation missions in particular are just amazing. Unfortunately, it’s plagued with a lot of challenging, grindy combat that dilutes the awesomeness down to merely ‘okay’, and it lost the competition for my time and attention. I’m not done with it, but I’m also not feeling the itch to go back any time soon.

So, I imagine some of my choices are pretty unusual — but it’s also true that many MMO players get fixed on just a game or two, and fleshing out a whole list of five can be a bit hard. What would your five favourite MMOs be?

  1. Like XP loss or XP debts for every death. Like corpse runs where you respawn alive but your gear’s still on your corpse waiting to be retrieved, in the middle of all the mobs that killed you the first time when you had all your gear. Like needing a full group of players, including a tank and a healer, just to be able to kill same-level non-elite mobs. Like having to run almost everywhere in a world full of monsters you can’t solo because taxi points are few and far between. And so on.

What’s nifty about Firefall

I’ve been playing the Firefall closed beta with Kris lately, and enjoying it a surprising amount. It’s a F2P MMOFPS with an open world for PvE and battleground-style instanced PvP, set in a future Earth after a spaceship crash that’s rendered the vast majority of the Earth uninhabitable. At the moment the PvE content is noticeably lacking1, but it’s still heaps of fun tooling around blowing the heads off mutant bug monsters. And the game has the single best implementation of jumpjet-style movement I’ve ever played; just running around is gleeful fun.

Me, demonstrating jumpjets

When you start the game you choose a battleframe, which is basically lightweight power armor originally designed for a combat game in the setting’s backstory, now adapted for the war for survival in which humanity finds itself. Your five options are Assault (AoE DPS and mobility), Biotech (DPS limited healing ability), Engineer (DPS and support devices like turrets), Recon (sniper-range precision DPS) and Dreadnaught (survivability and massive single-target DPS). You’re not limited by your starting choice, though — you can buy different frames with in-game currency (although garage slots are limited and opening extra slots costs RL money).

And I’ll digress here for a moment to highlight my single biggest gripe about the game: yet again, there’s a ludicrous and sexist gender disparity in character gear. As an example: male characters in Assault armor get a tank top and cargo pants; female characters in Assault armor get a sports bra and hotpants. Sigh.

The Assault frame, male and female

(And don’t even get me started on the female dance animations. “Pole dancer” is not a good look for a combat veteran.)

Anyway, that non-minor quibble aside: one of the most interesting things about the game is character progression. Once you’ve got your battleframe, you can improve it by spending Experience to unlock new and upgraded equipment via the tech trees. The Tier 1 starting frame is relatively basic and gives a general taste of the frame’s abilities, but if you spend enough XP you can unlock Tier 2 frames – and Tier 3 and beyond are in development now. Generally the two Tier 2 frames focus on different aspects of the frame’s core playstyle – for instance, for Assault frames, the Tigerclaw frame provides superior mobility while the Firecat frame is focused on DPS.

The Assault battleframe progression

Within the tech tree for each frame, you can unlock specific ability modules and upgrades to your existing gear, which you can then fit to your battleframe in whatever configuration you prefer — subject to weight, power and CPU limitations. Most upgrades come in four flavours – the basic “Accord” variant, which is usually unlocked first, and then variants produced by three corporations: Astrek Association, Omnidyne-M and Kisuton. Each corp’s gear has certain specialties – for instance, compared with the standard Accord gear, Omnidyne-M armor plating gives extra health, Astrek armor plating gives health regeneration and Kisuton armor plating reduces incoming damage.

Tier 1 of the Assault battleframe's tech tree

Tier 2 of the Assault battleframe's tech tree

What really piqued my interest, though, was the sudden expansion of the crafting system as soon as I unlocked my Tier 2 frame. Any Tier II upgrades you unlock (except the basic Accord versions) give you the piece of gear to equip on your frame, and they also give you a crafting recipe.

Everyone gets access to crafting, via stations called Molecular Printers, and there are no skill levels involved. They’re introduced early in the PvE game via an introductory mission, and everyone starts with a selection of crafting recipes (or “nanoprints”) for basic items, consumables, and industrial processes like ore refining.

Tier 2 nanoprints allow you to make a crafted version of the basic upgrade you unlocked with XP, with superior stats (but commensurately higher mass, CPU and power requirements). They also introduce interesting complexity to the crafting system, because they introduce the concept of resource quality affecting the finished product.

Resources are in the form of minerals and are acquired by looting them from mobs, blowing up mineral nodes with sonic detonators, or using a temporary mining device called a Thumper. Thumping is a popular PvE activity because it causes waves and waves of mobs to spawn, providing handy home-delivered sources of XP and loot, so it’s fairly easy to rack up thousands of minerals without even trying. Acquiring good-quality materials takes a little more savvy, however.

Resource attributes

As you can see on the left, each resource possesses a number of attributes with numerical ratings: Conductivity, Density, Malleability, Reactivity and Resistance. These attributes are measured on a scale of 1-1000, and if you want to improve a particular attribute you can actually blend two resources — as you can see on the right — to change their attributes.

A Tier 2 nanoprintSo you take a look at a Tier 2 nanoprint, and you can see that the attributes of the resource used to craft it will affect the product’s attributes. This example is the nanoprint for the Kisuton variant of the Assault’s Tier 2 Crater ability (which lifts you up in the air and then blasts you back to the ground at high speed, conveniently AoEing all the mobs you land on). You can see that Reactivity is the most important attribute to improve the Crater module’s damage and radius, whereas Conductivity is the key attribute to reduce the ability’s cooldown. So to make this, I’d look for a resource high in Conductivity and Reactivity.

This will feel very familiar to former Star Wars Galaxies players, where these mechanics were the linchpin of the crafting system. But wait, it’s about to feel even more familiar: resources in Firefall change quality over time.

The overall quality of a resource is referred to by an isotope number next to the resource’s name – the higher the number, the better the resource. These resources shift over time; although each resource has upper and lower limits on each attribute — Bismuth is always going to have high Conductivity and Malleability — the Bismuth you find this week may well have very different stats from the Bismuth you found last week.

This introduces an interesting and complex crafting minigame, where you can spend hours working out the best materials to blend for the attributes you want. And again, former SWG players will remember the buzz of realising this week’s spawn of a given resource has fabulous stats and promptly spending the next week hoovering up as much as you possibly can.

In fact, the only fly in the ointment is that there’s currently no trading system or player economy in Firefall. Devs have said that trading is on the way, but not the highest priority; no word at this stage on any kind of player vendor/auction house system. So for now, anything you make is for you and you alone; you can’t trade or sell your wares (or even your raw resources) to anybody else. Once the trading system comes in however, if crafted items aren’t automatically bound to the crafter, there’s significant potential for Firefall to be almost as appealing to crafting lovers as SWG was.

  1. But the devs have said that they’re focusing on PvE content next.

What makes a good MMO setting?

The recent Shadowrun Online kickstarter prompted a bit of thought on my part, as — unlike to most Shadowrun fans — I’d always felt that Shadowrun would lose a lot in translation to MMO-land. 1

So what does make for a good MMO setting, when you’re talking about existing IPs from books, movies, television and existing non-MMO game franchises? I’m not sure I know, but I do think there are some important factors to consider. (Note that all these apply to themepark MMOs, rather than sandbox games, as they’re a rather different beast.)

Books! Image CC-licensed by A30_Tsitika on Flickr

1. What makes the original IP engaging?

This is something my tabletop gaming GM 2 and I have often thrown around as a criterion when thinking about what makes for a good roleplaying campaign, 3 and I think it applies equally to MMORPGs. Think for a moment about the original IP (especially for books/movies/TV) — is it interesting because of the adventures (or personalities) of the protagonists? Or because the setting itself is interesting? Could you imagine another group of characters having an equally interesting time in that world?

Most original tabletop RPG settings succeed against this criterion (because it’s their job to provide interesting adventure and challenges for any group of characters); TVs and books and movies are more of a mixed bag. As an example: Star Wars and Star Trek both succeed, because the world is full of interesting adventure for anybody. Doctor Who, on the other hand, fails; there aren’t that many Time Lords out there, and for everyone else, life’s going to be pretty mundane. There are some cases where the story is about the protagonists yet there’s a rich backdrop behind them (such as Farscape, Firefly, or Babylon 5), but in general most character-driven stories aren’t likely to be very interesting for the people in the background.

2. Is there a power scale?

Unless you’re talking about entirely sandboxy games where players make their own fun, you need a sliding scale of antagonists. You need mooks for the characters to wade their way through, and you need Big Bads who pose a serious threat to civilisation/the world/your way of life, requiring cooperation to take them down.

This is where horror and fantasy settings shine, of course; whether classic high fantasy like the Lord of the Rings or modern fantasy horror like Buffy, the monsters can always be bigger and badder. By comparison, other genre staples like espionage thrillers or procedural crime stories fall down here — who would characters in an NCIS MMO actually fight? Other ordinary humans? That doesn’t sound compelling.

3. Does the setting suit MMO story needs?

Because of the way quest-driven MMOs are constructed, you need to be able to assume that most characters (not players) are willing to let questgivers tell them what to do, whether because they’re all motivated to be heroes (as in typical quest fantasy) or because they’re the kind of people who will accept orders from their superiors (for instance, military types).

Again, this works in most fantasy settings, because the archetype of the fantasy hero saving the world is fairly strong; even if there are plenty of characters who break the mold, it’s reasonable to assume that protagonists are heroes or champions, and to write quest and story dialogue with those assumptions front and centre. If your setting is full of characters who look askance at disinterested altruism or blindly trusting in The Man, though, that puts a lot of constraints on how characters are motivated to do your quests. This is a criterion that dystopian settings like cyberpunk and espionage tend to fail; in a grim and gritty near-future where people will do whatever they have to to survive (such as Shadowrun or Dark Angel), hoo-rah heroism tends to look somewhat out of place.

4. Does the setting constrain normal MMO mechanics?

“Death” is the obvious problem here. In high-magic fantasy settings a plethora of revival spells make sense; in science-fiction futures, cloning and personality transfers are a reasonable explanation. But in low-magic low-tech settings, you need a plausible way to explain how Joe isn’t dead any more.

LotRO got around this problem cleverly. Healing magic in the canonical setting is slow and subtle, and has no provisions for returning from death (unless you’re Gandalf, and even then he had to get help from Eru himself). So Turbine re-cast traditional health pools as Morale; when you run out of Morale you’re not dead, you’re just too demoralised to continue, and this of course allows for healing and buffing effects from those who improve your morale (such as Minstrels and Captains).

But this dodge won’t work for every setting — it’d be jarring in a pseudo-realistic urban fantasy setting like Buffy, for instance. And there are plenty of much-loved science fiction properties that don’t have handwavium-levels of technology to allow for functional interchangeable clones, such as Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica.

Similarly, if the setting comes from an existing tabletop game or video game, does it come attached to game mechanics that don’t translate well to MMO gameplay? WotC’s D20 system is a good example here — it’s the mechanical system behind tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, and fidelity to it served singleplayer computer games like Neverwinter Nights and Knights of the Old Republic very well. But it didn’t translate very well to an MMORPG, where players have different expectations of the gameplay. Dungeons & Dragons Online — a sloggy clickfest — is living proof that mechanics permanently attached to a setting can be a millstone around the neck of an MMO based in that setting.

5. Does the setting still make sense when there are ten thousand protagonists?

This is where Star Wars Galaxies ran into problems when people started unlocking the ability to create Jedi characters — set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, it was hard to explain away the existence of half a dozen Jedi, let alone a server full of them. SWTOR avoided this issue; in the Old Republic era, there are canonically thousands of Jedi, and seeing a party of Jedi working together (or even a space station full of them) isn’t jarring in the same way it was in SWG.

A setting passes this criterion when you can imagine that any character could do what the protagonist does — Star Trek, for instance, succeeds handily because we know that there are tens of thousands of Starfleet officers out there; there are thousands of witches and wizards in the world of Harry Potter. There aren’t that many Time Lords, though, or Vampire Slayers, or D’ni, or Tarzans. When a setting features a single protagonist whose uniqueness is the linchpin of the story, it’s almost inevitably going to fail as an MMO – what works for the Chosen One becomes nonsensical for the Chosen Ten Thousand.

…Obviously I’m not an MMO dev,4 and MMOs are based on fresh IPs as often as not, but at least these rules help to remind me that “no, that might be a great book but it’d make a terrible setting for an MMO” when I’m having pangs of wishing I could adventure in my favourite fictional worlds.

  1. I do have reasons for this opinion, but they’d be something of a digression. That’s a post for another day.
  2. Who may very well be the best GM in the entire world. Seriously, you other gamers only wish you had a GM this great.
  3. Because we are obsessive nutbags about gaming and RPGs.
  4. More’s the pity.