Dissecting Awful MMO Mechanics – Part 1
Keen over at Keen & Graev recently wrote a series of posts called “Old MMO Mechanics I Love and You Probably Hate” in which he is right about pretty much one thing – that I find those mechanics to be terrible game design. Spawn camping, trains to zone, and being lost at sea for hours do not make for a fun gaming experience. This whole series of posts has rose tinted glasses written all over it, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and see if we can salvage anything actually good from all those terrible mechanics Keen describes. Due to the length of the whole thing it will be broken down into three parts, mirroring the posts of Keen.
For the purpose of this post I propose two factors that indicate a potentially good mechanic. The mechanic needs to either provide interesting gameplay choices or increase immersion in order to be any good. There are various minor factors that almost but not quite fit into the above categories (like a mechanic with the sole purpose of being humorous) but I will ignore those here for the sake of simplicity. Let’s have a look at Keens oh-so-great mechanics and see if there is anything to them that can improve gameplay in either of these regards.
Item weight can easily be seen as an immersion mechanic due to being a more realistic limitation of a player’s inventory than assigning items to slots. I have yet to see a game, however, in which item weight actually is realistic. That wouldn’t be much fun anyway, would it? The weight of full plate armour and a sword already is enough to tire a man within minutes so if you wanted the mechanic to be realistic, knight type characters could never pick up any loot at all. And if you are out collecting resources for crafting, you’d better carry every single load of ore or wood you find home. And beware that you are not attacked on the way or you will have to drop whatever you are carrying. And it goes without saying that you won’t be able to carry both a pickaxe and a 2-handed sword.
As you can see, item weight can never be realistic if you want to keep gameplay fun at all. Any non-realistic implementation of item weight on the other hand actually lowers immersion instead of increasing it. But Keen claims that item weight added to gameplay as well by making you plan your travels better and forcing you to go home to unload when you picked up too much. This is no different whatsoever from more modern slot-based inventories, except that those are much more convenient to use. Slots are a much simpler metric to work with than individual item weights and require less boring math to be performed when making decisions on which items to keep. Division (to figure out the per-gram value of items you find) is not an interesting game mechanic.
Verdict: Item weight is a relic of the past and no part of it should be salvaged for modern games.
Darkness is absolutely a tool that can be used to increase immersion in games. The whole genre of horror games relies on impaired visibility to be more scary and many other games use it quite well too. RPGs, however, have usually been terrible at using darkness. Darkness in an RPG means that you have to light a torch and be done with it. Lighting a torch brings you such interesting gameplay elements as being unable to wear a shield/second weapon in your off-hand or even having a dedicated torch wielder in your group that did nothing else but make sure that the other players have light. Doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun?
Darkness in other games works for two reasons: For one they usually have hand-crafted experiences with enemies hidden in the shadows at exactly the right places. MMOs can’t have that. The other reason is that they sometimes manage to make the torch-or-not decision interesting. You can navigate a dark corridor in an FPS either by hearing and muzzle flashes or by turning on the light. If you do the latter though you will have to put away your gun which might be a bad idea if you actually see enemies in the light. Even games that use real darkness correctly usually make sure not to use too much of it because it simply gets annoying after a while. Having to deal with it in every single day/night cycle gets awful real quick.
Speaking of day/night cycles: Making the time of day actually matter while playing is awful game design as well. At least in games like Oblivion you can speed up time until a certain time of day is reached, but MMOs don’t give you that luxury. Both Aion and Lord of the Rings Online have quests that can only be completed by night, forcing you to either wait for nightfall or come back later to a region that you have already cleared otherwise. I want a fluent gaming experience when playing and not to hang around waiting for some arbitrary amount of time to pass.
Verdict: Darkness can be used to further immersion if used sparingly, but should not be a major recurring element of the MMOs and should not be combated by wearing a torch or similar device.
Falling Off the Boat
Waiting 15 minutes for a boat to arrive already isn’t any fun at all. As a gameplay mechanic it’s simply awful and in order to increase immersion it would actually have to be somewhat realistic. 15 minutes isn’t more realistic a timing for a boat schedule in a medieval world than 2 minutes but it’s infinitely more annoying. Making the boat take the scenic route on the other hand does increase immersion a bit, but I have to ask myself whether showing a bit of the journey at the start at the end like World of Warcraft does isn’t interesting enough. Do I really need to see a whole lot of deep blue see and maybe an island on the way?
But on to falling off the boat. there’s absolutely no challenge in not falling of the boat, all you have to do is to sit still in one place. The people who fall off are those who are too bored by the long journey to sit still and want to do at least something while on there. These people – who already have a lower tolerance for boredom – are then forced to swim back for hours to get back to actually playing the game? This is wrong on so many levels. If you design something to be dangerous then you want it to be a challenge. Punishing players for not being able to sit still for various minutes isn’t good game design. Even assuming though that the punishment was for failing an actual challenge, making somebody be bored for hours is just terrible – and it isn’t even realistic. People who fall off a boat at high sea either get picked up by the boat again or they die. They don’t just go on swimming in a straight line for hours until they reach the shore.
Keen even acknowledges that this “sucked so much” in Everquest but then goes on to say that “Knowing that the distance I traveled was actually vast and dangerous gave meaning to the trip.” Chances are if it sucks, it sucks. Especially if the way to avoid the sucking is to play the game less.
Verdict: Awful. If you want to make travel meaningful, I’m all for it. But this is not the way.