Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Post WoW Commandments of MMO Design (the perspective of a geezer on how WoW changed MMOs for the better)

This post over at Raging Monkeys really got me thinking about how I viewed MMOs pre and post World of Warcraft.  Pre-WoW I had played Everquest briefly (it didn't really suck me in), and played Dark Age of Camelot, Everquest Online Adventures, and Phantasy Star Online (if you want to call the latter a MMO) for longer.  There are those who think WoW ruined the MMO genre by being such a smash hit and appealing to the "lowest common denominator" among MMO players.  I'm not one of them.

WoW certainly had a big effect on the MMO landscape. Even existing MMOs in many cases added in features from it.  For example, DAoC, EQ, and EQ II all added easy ways to identify quest givers after WoW pioneered the "!" system (one of the few design elements in WoW I'm aware of that was not taken from a previous game).  For better or worse, WoW ushered in some new commandments of MMO design:

1. Thou shalt give me something more interesting to do than standing around grinding mobs to level.

Pre-WoW, quests were few and rarely worth doing in most MMOs.  If you did muddle through a poorly designed quest in DAoC or EQ, nine times out of ten you would have gotten better XP and loot by standing in a field killing rats for the same amount of time.  If you really wanted to level at a decent pace, the best way to do it was generally to grab four of your closest friends and stand in one spot killing the same mobs over and over again as they respawned.  I don't know why that seemed like an acceptable state of affairs to me pre-WoW, but it sure as hell doesn't now.

I'm not by any means saying that a MMO has to have a ton of quests, or any quests worth speaking of, to hold my attention these days. Other options include leveling via PvP (see WAR and modern DAOC), Diabloesce randomized dungeons and loot pinatas (see PSO and Dungeon Runners), puzzle based gameplay (see Myst Online: URU, and many of the quests in DDO and The Secret World), or advancement through pure crafting (see EQ II).  But if the only reasonably rewarding activity a game gives me is standing in one spot killing gnolls for six hours, I'm not sticking around past the tutorial.    

2. Thou shalt not hinder my solo play experience, nor shalt thou make whatever random class I pick a sucktastic soloer without giving me some kind of warning on the character generation screen. 

Apart from PSO, WoW was the first MMO I played where any class could solo well.  Sure, some classes are monsters at solo play while others are merely OK at it.  But the fact remains you can pick any class you like on the character selection screen and have a pretty fun time, whether you decide to play solo or spend a lot of time in groups.  That's generally true of most MMOs these days.

Contrast with olden MMOs like EQ or DAoC where the majority of classes could barely solo at all past very low levels.  "What the best solo class?" was a really common forum topic, since a wrong choice on the character select screen meant that on any given night you logged you would have to stand around twiddling your thumbs until you could get a group together.

I enjoy playing with other humans, but I don't like being forced to.  A game with forced grouping is one where you may was well not log in at all if you can't invest a few hours, and one where you are forced to be social whether you feel like it or not.  The latter does not suit my temperament (and really never has), while the former doesn't fit my play schedule at all any more.

3. Thou shalt give me stuff more interesting to do in combat then watch as my auto-attacks slowly whittle down my opponent's health.  Yes, even at low levels!

Even before WoW, it used to drive me buggy that at low levels on most melee classes all you did was hit auto-attack and then stand there like a drooling moron watching numbers creep across your combat log.  Even at higher levels, it was often much the same save that you'd whip out a special ability once or twice a combat.  DAoC improved things a good bit by adding melee attack chains and positional attacks to use while you slowly whittled down an opponent's health.  However, WoW was probably the first "true MMO" (I'm excluding PSO here) I played where every combat felt fast paced and dynamic.

More modern MMOs have only taken this feeling to greater extremes.  For example, there's nothing quite like flying through the air in Champions Online while raining down fireballs on the heads of your foes (cackling madly at their impotence).  Allod's Online, DDO, SWTOR, and others have even gone so far as to dispense with auto-attacks altogether.  Thankfully, the days of hitting auto-attack and then going off to make a sandwich are long behind us.

4. Thou shalt not design a MMO with graphics so poorly optimized that it's going to run and look like a turd on any PC I could reasonably be expected to own.

I was able to run many old school MMOs when they came out.   But that always involved systems that were pretty well on the edge of my budget.  At a time when I had been stringing along an older system so long that I couldn't run many current games at all, WoW looked and ran great on my aging PC.  Around the same time, EQ II had far inferior art direction and was barely playable on my rig.  That really cemented the idea in my head that there is simply no excuse for a MMO developer to release a game that demands cutting edge hardware to run well. With good art direction even relatively simple graphics can be immersive.

Since then, developers seem to have largely caught on to this.  My three year old $700 gaming rig runs SWTOR and The Secret World just fine. Not at maxed settings by any means, but good enough to look pretty.  For example, any screenshots you see of SWTOR on this blog are on my normal play settings.    The last MMO to really screw this up, Tabula Rasa, I believe would likely still be around if more than 20% of the players that tried it didn't have to run it on minimum settings (where it was foggy and fugly).  If a $300 gaming console can pump out astounding graphics in hi def, my PC that costs twice as much and has more than double the hardware specs sure as hell should be able to.  If it can't, your engine sucks.


I would count myself among those that believes WoW improved the MMO genre by making it more accessible.  I wouldn't automatically dismiss a MMO that breaks one of the new commandments.  But any two of them?  Yeah forget it, whatever game you are designing is not aimed at me.


  1. Though I'd been gaming for a long time before that, WoW was my first real MMO experience. I have no idea what it must have been like playing MMOs pre-WoW, so this was a really cool read. Of course, I've gone back to play some of those games so I understand everything here, but I imagine it'd have felt much different when you had nothing else post-WoW to compare it to.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I still go back and play some of the olden games for the sake of nostalgia once in a while. In fact a project I've been planning on for a while is a one or two post look at modern DAoC. I believe it still offers some experiences that have not yet been duplicated. On the whole though, I believe the average modern MMO tends to be a lot more fun and accessible than most of what we had available in the silver age of MMOs.

  2. I forget sometimes how much things have changed since the play-an-MMO-pick-UO-or-EQ days. Anytime I'm reminded of how it was, I'm completely thankful that those days are gone. I don't miss playing a Wizard in EQ and having to sit with my spell book up while meditating which meant I couldn't see the world or chat and I would instead read a book.

    1. I am right there with you. In fact my first ever MMO character was also an EQ wizard if I remember right. Going blind at night if you didn't have a torch (on many races), having to med up by filling your entire screen with a spellbook (a great way to get massacred by a bear or some other wandering mob in my experience), not being able to tell what direction you were going in unless you practiced your navigation skill, having to have food and drink on you at all times, and simply having to rest for a minute or more between every single freaking fight are not "features" I will ever miss.

      All of that was a bitch, but not a total game breakers to me. On the other hand, losing your corpse and everything on it along with perhaps a level on death was just enough of an extra kick in the jewels that I very quickly lost patience with launch EQ. I would guess I played it for less than two months.

    2. I lasted about 8 maybe 9 months. Ironically, I think the exact same thing killed it for me as it did for you. I lost a level getting killed by some high level MOB that wandered in one of the low level zones and trying to go back and loot my corpse. Thing got me three or fours times and I decided I was done.

  3. I think that the WoW questing model is a step backwards for MMOS, personally. At least as the primary source of experience within the game.

    Let's face it, once you've filled up on quests and taken off into the "wilderness" portion of the zone, you pretty much ignore everything not related to one of your current quests. You're killing anything, or looting anything, just wasting time getting to the next quest objective.

    Time. That's what you're PAYING them for! Time within the game, and you waste a lot of it running around killing only a certain type of MOB that is required for your quest, or even worse, just hoping that the required quest item will drop.

    Call me crazy, but if I'm going to be killing things for experience anyway, I'd much rather just take a step out and kill everything that moves approach, ah la EQ1. Takes much less time, is much less confusing for group play, and generally a lot less stressful, since there's no real way to get it wrong.

    I can get behind a clever quest mechanic, though. Having to put on a disguise and sneak somewhere can be fun, which is what I'm paying for, so I don't view that as a waste of my time. Flying over an area a carpet-bombing a bunch of MOBs? Fun. I can get behind that. But don't expect me to find running across an open filed full of creatures just to find the particular variant that is required for my current quest anything other than intellectually insulting.

    1. The thing is, in WoW or any other quest based MMO, if you want to go out and grind mobs to level that's actually perfectly viable. Quests don't take away from that, they just add directed content if you want it.

      True story that no-one believes:

      Back when I was finally playing WoW actively, I was gone for most of my first december. By the time I got back most of the guildies I had been playing lockstep with were around 15 levels ahead of me. I caught up with all of them in around a week and a half, even with them leveling the whole time. "How did you do it?" they asked. "I did it by grinding my ass off killing mobs" I replied. In launch era WoW, the fastest way to level was killing everything in sight on a good DPS class. Not sure about modern WoW, but it has to be at least close on a good AOE toon.