What makes a fun MMORPG?

Anyone who has known me in the last few years knows I play EverQuest. I used to play EverQuest a lot, and in recent months that amount has decreased. It’s done that before, and then I get re-interested. There’s a long standing joke that you never quit EverQuest, everyone comes back. In EverQuest I’ve been a regular player, a guild member, a guild officer (a few times), a guild leader (for a short time), a raider, a casual raider, a grouper, a hard-core raider, a raid leader. I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online rolplaying game) ‘fun’, and what a game needs in order to make it as accessible as possible.

If you’ve followed the history of EverQuest or played you’ll know it had a pretty strong focus on ‘the group game’. In the early days it was tough to solo anything, impossible for some classes, challenging and slow for others. Grouping was really the only way to achieve any significant gain. This wasn’t an issue, there were many, many players also looking for groups. As the game has grown, and inevitably the player base has shrunk (and the number of low level characters shrunk and the number of places for people to go and hunt grown) that focus on the group game is causing some pain.

Competitors to EverQuest (World of Warcraft being the most famous) have taken a different slant. You can achieve significant gains without ever grouping, and even if you do need to group to complete a certain goal, you can be sure the time investment will be short, 10 minutes maybe, or 30 minutes, and you can achieve your goal and move on to other things together or alone.

In the current EverQuest many goals take hours and hours of time investment to achieve. This is both the reason it has been so successful and its biggest curse. For some people that challenge and time investment is what keeps them in the game, but for many it’s just not possible to invest four or five hours at the keyboard to achieve (and in some cases, not achieve) any significant gains. And yet there are people who claim WoW is ‘too easy’ and many who have played it and burned out quickly because there is less challenge and less content.

I’ve not played WoW to any significant level so I can’t comment on the specifics, but I have played a few MMORPG’s, and I do now, after 7 years or so, know what I want from a game. I’m not sure a single game can actually provide this, but this is what I think it would need.

  1. It should be possible to achieve something without assistance, at any level of the game, in around an hour. The question of course is what counts as ‘something’ and ‘achievement’. For me, it must progress the character, it should be possible to log on and within an hour or so have achieved something which has progressed your character in terms of power. Obviously in the early stages of the game that progress will be quite large, and in the later stages that may be quite small, but it should still feel like an achievement.

    This is necessary because people can’t and won’t commit huge amounts of time to a game, but if the game lets them achieve things in shorter time periods they will feel they are able to make progress even if they can only ‘pop in’.

  2. It should be possible to group with your friends and achieve stuff, no matter how many or few of them are on at any one time. It should be easier to achieve goal X with two people than with one, no matter what classes those players are. It should get easier with more people, regardless of class. Of course, this doesn’t preclude a good balance of classes making something which is very challenging doable against a random set of classes making it more challenging, but it should still be possible to achieve progression regardless of group make-up.

    Too many times I’ve been in a game with 2 or 3 friends, and we’re not able to achieve something or progress with just those friends because we don’t quite have the right classes, or someone has had to fall back to a less-favoured character to fill the space, or to 2-box a character to bring a required class along.

    If 12 of my friends log in, we should be able to find something that challenges 12 of us, and the tools should support that. Obviously there needs to be a limit, but fixed group sizes are restrictive. The growing concept of ‘groups’ and ‘raids (collections of groups)’ is limiting. There should be a single concept to cover a ‘collection’ of players, and if that’s 2, 6, 11, 15, then so be it. Groups should flex to cope with the number of people present, the number of people present should not be massaged to ensure they fit into the game’s group structure.

  3. People should be able to join in or drop out, within reason, regardless of where you are and what you’re doing. If someone feels they’ll be tied in to doing something for three hours, and if they leave that endeavour will fail, they may feel less inclined to help out because they may need to sort out some washing or chores in the house. However, if they know they can help out and then head out without dooming the mission, or that if they turn up late they can catch up, then the result is a more inclusive experience.
  4. I’m sure this one will be controversial. Your gaming skill should not be the biggest factor in your ability to progress. It should be a factor sure, but MMORPG’s are social games, they should be inclusive, not exclusive. They should allow people to come together, form groups, go and achieve stuff, and not have to worry about whether the person playing the Barbarian Scalp Beater is able to press keys as fast as the person playing the Gnome Invoker. Sure, players with more skill should be able to achieve things more quickly, or more efficiently, but players with less skill should not be precluded from achieving anything.
  5. There should be no exclusion to who can communicate with who. There should be no geographical barriers in-game or in the real world. I detest the current approach of restricting servers based on geographical location. The internet has destroyed the boundaries of country and continent and MMORPG developers appear to be putting them back. If I choose to play on an American server with the associated latency and in-hours-patch times, that’s my choice. If my American friends want to join us on a European server they shouldn’t have to lie about where they live and buy a different version of the game to do so. This is a high tech world, solve the technical problems if there are any, solve the billing issues, get it right. Give us back the global player base. In-game, friends lists, inter-character communication and similar features should not be restricted by in-game faction or alliances. I want to know if my friend Bob logged on, even if he’s playing the most hated of evil enemies I have in the game. And I want to be able to /tell him so.
  6. There should be content that can not be beaten alone, or even with small numbers, but that content should never be core content or required content. There should be content that can be beaten alone, or with small numbers but doing so requires many hours of time invested, not necessarily all at once, but again, it should not be core or required content. It should be luxury content, additional content, some extra for people who can find the time. The core game should be accessible to all.

Obviously, the game content should be interesting and engaging and impressive, but those are the things game developers would focus on anyway. The above 6 points are really the ones I have come to believe are critical for new non-niche MMORPGs.