Do Today’s MMOs Have Too Many Convenience Features?

One of the comments on my last blog got me thinking about how many of the features we take for granted in today’s MMO were not so common in early games in the genre.  In the same way technology has made huge changes in real life, those same kinds of convenience features have appeared in the MMO—to the point where these features are expected, and a game is considered deficient if they aren’t included.

Here are a handful of them – will talk about the pros and cons further on:

  • Automated dungeon/raid finder: Queue up in any location, be paired with a dungeon group and be teleported immediately to the dungeon.  Once the dungeon is complete, you are teleported conveniently back to the city.
  • Automated PvP arenas: Queue up in any location, be teleported to the PvP battleground, complete the fight, then be conveniently teleported back to your starting point.
  • World banks: All banks throughout the world are linked, so that an item stored in a bank halfway around the world is conveniently available in the closest city bank
  • Automated auction house: place an item in the auction house, set a price, and come back to your mailbox later to see if it sold, and collect your money
  • World postboxes: mail an item to any character, and pick up the item at any conveniently located box
  • Linked waypoints: Fly or teleport yourself across the map for a small fee.  Instant or expedited travel.
  • Hearth/home stones: Teleport yourself to the inn or common location where you have set your stone
  • Automated bank deposits: Click on an item in inventory, and have it immediately sent to the bank to clear up bag space

I’ll be the first to say I have used and appreciated all these features.  Getting into a dungeon group quickly can be great fun, especially when I have a limited amount of time to play.  Setting and forgetting an auction house item, then coming back to cash in later makes selling stuff a snap.  Getting at my stuff in the bank where I am adventuring makes it easy to guarantee I have the right supplies for the local challenges.

But have we thought at all about the costs of these conveniences?    I expect not, since we rarely think about the cost of convenience in real life either.  “Smart phones?  Of course you need one!”  It’s especially easy in a computer game, where, you have a foundation of technology overlaying a fantasy setting.  But here are some things to think about, especially in a rustic or medieval setting, where many things were not convenient:

  • Automated dungeon/raid finder: If I am automatically being teleported to the dungeon, why would I ever want to see the actual dungeon location?  Is there anything interesting about the approach to it?  Any lore or items or NPCs in local villages I might find that could help in completing it?  Why would I worry about any contextual story surrounding this dungeon if it just becomes a self-contained entity?  And since I am being paired with strangers, why would I talk to any of them?  In fact, I rarely do, since the group is there to blow through the dungeon at the fastest possible pace, and gets impatient at any slowing down to check out story or lore.  They are there to defeat the boss, get their loot and get out.
  • Automated PvP: Again, battlegrounds may have some place in the lore, but it becomes extraneous as the teams teleport into the free-floating, isolated zone, run the match and then leave.  The setting, objectives and reasons for fighting become irrelevant, really.  Now, one real exception I’ve seen to this is Warcraft’s Wintergrasp, which is a large zone actually open on the map.
  • World Banks/Post Office: Making all storage conveniently accessible makes planning for travel unnecessary.  So an area that might be considered a remote, challenging area of adventure is made immediately less so, since you can simply zip over to the bank and resupply without any forethought.  In fact, it makes the largeness and variation in the world rather irrelevant since it’s always an instant teleport to and from a supply area.  A vast world suddenly becomes small and trifling.
  • Automated Action House: The convenience of selling items at the AH makes it unnecessary to do any trading with other players, unless they are close friends, creating yet another reason for less social interaction within a supposedly social game genre.  And if you just want to quickly get rid of items, just stop at one of the many static NPCs around the world.
  • Linked Waypoints and Mounts: Easy enough to miss the entire world if all you are doing is riding the subway.

So, just to clarify, I am not a Luddite trying to abolish all forms of convenience in life.  I really do like my iPhone.  But in a fantasy/medieval/post-apocalypse/rustic setting where smart phones or FedEx are not available, and where magic, I believe, should not be a 1:1 replacement for technology, I think we are losing some of the flavor we come to these games for in the first place.  That said, I’m not even recommending a complete removal of said features, but rather thinking about them in a way that makes the game more immersive, promote more interaction, and even more importantly, fun.

So a few what-if’s:

What if, instead of throwing groups together and teleporting them directly to a dungeon, there were a bulletin board where groups could post what and when they are planning to do in-game, and who they are looking to find to help them with the task?  You could set meeting places at a village close to the dungeon, so that characters can make their way there and then actually have a chance to interact as they travel to the dungeon entrance.

What if bulletin boards had both a Groups Looking for Individuals section and an Individuals Looking for Groups section with contact information so that players could reach out prior to the meetup?  All the kinds of vetting (and bickering and fighting) that take place within a teleported PUG could be taken care of up front, to ensure the individuals and groups are suitably matched for the task at hand.

What if there was value in exploring the villages and area near the dungeon as a group, so that when actually going in, you had valuable information and items that would make it easier to succeed?  What if you could learn about the mobs and bosses and treasures and puzzles of the dungeon through interacting with the actual environment instead of looking it up on Google?

What if there were trade bulletin boards as well, where you could advertise items you wished to sell, and you could trade them face-to-face in-game instead of through automation?  Perhaps there’s a great incentive to sell things in person rather than the automated auction house – no auction house fee, better margin, items that are too rare and valuable to be sold automatically.

What if there was a true, player-run marketplace where you could find rare, custom-made items you couldn’t find any other way?  What if you could actually haggle?  What if you could be swindled?   What if there were player run auction houses?  There is much fun to be had on the marketplace as in fighting the monsters if there were a system in place to support it.

What if there were a network of post offices and banks instead of a world bank?  So once you visit (in-person) a bank in another city, you can open an account.  But you have to actively send items to that branch to have it available locally.  And with post offices, you’d send an item to a specific location, so that it’s necessary to think about where people are within the world, bringing back the idea that the world is a moving and dynamic place.  This might actually involve some interaction with other players, too, so that you’d be sure to send items to the locations where it makes sense for them.  And if you are exploring a new territory, you’d need to decide what to carry with you from your home city.

What if there were fewer and more expensive waypoints?  What if flying mounts were incredibly hard to obtain?  Would it really be that horrible to take travel back into consideration in these game worlds?  This is the one I think most players would rebel hardest against, but even WoW has removed flying mounts in their latest expansion until level 90 with the stated goal of getting players to experience the world again.  What if using a waypoint was expensive magically and using one was a rare privilege?

The idea with all of these convenience replacers is not to punish players.  Rather, it is to bring back experiencing the vastness of the world at hand.  This would of course, mean that developers (and players, if we’re talking player created content) would need to fill that world with plenty of interesting items along the way, but that’s an article for another day.  What say you?  In this modern day of technology, should we forget about bringing “difficulty” back to MMOs?  Or have we lost something along the way?

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3 thoughts on “Do Today’s MMOs Have Too Many Convenience Features?

  1. gretch05 says:

    Great article! Instant gratification is less satisfying than earning one’s way to a goal. And the byways of life are much more fun than the highways.

  2. Mark says:

    This seems to be a general trend in gaming:

    We roleplayers do more one-shots and less campaigns.

    Video games now have save points, and are generally less difficult.

    Wargames are computer simulations, as opposed to thick rulebooks that players master to undertake the simulation.

    The movement from long form games towards simpler tabletop games and bite sized mobile gaming.

    Perhaps this is simply a function of a maturing gaming population. People who in high school and college had endless time to pass, now have relationships, responsibilities at work, and kids. They’ve got more money than time, and the market rewards more focused experiences.

    It would be interesting to see if this trend reverses at all, as the first large generation of games (the one grown to mass market size by video games and Dungeons and Dragons) retires, and has a lot more time to pursue their avocations.

    • gpili says:

      Agreed that everyone has less time to play, and I can definitely see how game companies want to make it as easy as possible for the widest number of gamers to be able to get in and play given their constraints. This is good for the bottom line, and also good for players who only have a few hours a week they can devote.

      I’m wondering, though. if there is a programmatic way to serve both styles — there are enough people who miss the community interaction and the feel of a vast world that I’m hoping tools can be developed to foster that feel without completely sacrificing efficiency of play. If I know that the dungeon approach is part of the group activity, and I know that we’ve booked time to explore that together, I’ll still be able to make sure I’m in the right place at the right time to do that. If I have the marketplace as an additional option to the automated auction house, I can choose to interact on the open market more.

      It may come down to building in choices.

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