The Future of MMOs

We’re coming up on the new year, so this seems as good a time as any to ask:  what do you think the future holds for MMOs? More to the point, what do you hope it does? I’m not talking about The Future where we’re jacking into the cyberspace and hacking the Gibson, I’m talking in the next few years. What are you hoping we’ll see in the near term future for MMOs?

Personally, I’m hoping to see the death of the Tank/Healer/DPS trinity, or at least a significant shift in the way it works. There are lots of problems with the THD trinity, but one of the biggest ones is that it doesn’t scale well. It works fine, if really unrealistically, in 5-8 man groups, where the concept of having a main and maybe off tank, a healer for one or both, and then fill the rest in with more healers or damage dealers leads to fairly heterogenous groups. However, when you start talking about raids, you end up with the Rock Star Tank problem: ultimately, it all comes down to the tank, and you only need one of them, two if you need an off tank for something. The rest is, ultimately, support for the tank, when the tank started out as a simple abstraction of mechanics, i.e., “Who’s going to keep the healers and nukers from getting killed?”

I think D&D 3e had a really good idea in the concept of attacks of opportunities and threatened areas, but DDO didn’t really seem to do much that was useful with it, from what I remember. Essentially, instead of having tanks that tank because they’ve got the taunt powers to generate threat quickly, boil it back down to the basics: it’s dangerous to move past the guy in the heavy armor with the sword because he’ll stab you to death if you try. In addition, if you try to do something stupid like use a bow or cast a spell, he’ll stab you while you’re distracted and foul your aim/cast. Of course, if it’s just one guy, and the stuff behind him is dangerous enough, it might be worth trying to get past him to kill them. But what about if you have two guys in armor with swords between you and the squishies? If you’re just some schlub with an axe, it’s probably not worth it, and you can keep trying to kill one of the guys in armor before making your way to the jerk in robes plinking you with firebolts. But if you’re a dragon? There’d better be 5 or 6 guys trying to keep you in place.

And this mechanic allows for even more interesting ideas: what’s your threatened area with a spear? The first guess is “more than a sword,” but the more accurate answer is “a different area than with a sword.” Larger, yes, but weaker as the person closes on you. That allows for “tanks” that are actually standing behind other tanks, and that need to be there to do their job the best.

What about the rogue? Well, I’ve argued for a while that a rogue’s job is not “damage dealer,” it’s primarily “debuffer.” LotRO implemented them this way, and it works pretty good; however, if people want the classic damage dealer rogue, a few tweaks of this system make it work well, too. Make rogues leave areas of opportunity more easily, and areas behind an enemy/PC not threaten as strongly, so rogues leap in, stab the dragon in the back, then back out before it can retaliate. Make it dangerous for an enemy to turn their back on anything, to the point where it’s not worth it for the dragon to turn its back on the fighters to deal with the rogue, unless he stands there and tries to get another backstab in.

The ranged DPS and healers can be made more interesting with this mechanic, too. A small enemy getting in close becomes dangerous not because it’s likely to kill them, but because it prevents them from doing their job correctly. That removes the necessity of making them uber-squishy, replacing it with a more organic, “Watch out for your friends so they can watch out for you” mechanic.

So, there’s a starter for “where I hope we’re going, and a possible way.” What do you want, and what have you got?

10 thoughts on “The Future of MMOs”

  1. In order for combat to become less formulaic, the game companies involved will have to take risks. Expect to see innovative approaches to combat come from small players, not from Blizzard, NCSoft, or Sony.

    A few point-form notes, in no particular order:
    – I want to see the opening of MMO communities. Facebook is successful because of both its adequate user interface (contrast myspace) and because it’s possible for people other than Facebook to add features to it.
    – Combat improvements will probably mean bringing back blocking, which means bringing back griefing. When everyone can stand literally on top of each other and whack away at the dragon, the only way to encourage formation tactics from players is via AOE attacks (fireballs, cleave, et cetera). It’s very one dimensional.
    – The ever-unpopular time = advancement curve has to change somehow. Unfortunately, time = advancement seems to be the fairest possible curve; whether fairness is a desirable attribute or not is up to the business wonks.

  2. This is a really great post, and I think you’re talking about some incredibly important stuff here. I ABSOLUTELY would like to see the “death of the Tank/Healer/DPS trinity, or at least a significant shift in the way it works.” and hope that can be accomplished soon.

    The method you’re suggesting is basically adding fine grain detail to the combat mechanics. This IS a very promising avenue for changing the gameplay dynamics of basic questing, but the problem is that it adds complexity to the game and thus many more opportunities for exploits and bugs to work their way in. Network latency can also be a major problem if you try to synchronize extremely detailed combat activities.

    However, I think the risk needs to be taken in order to evolve gameplay beyond “tank-and-spank” fundamentals. I would love to see different weapons having different gameplay effects, with a spear or naginata having significantly different utility as opposed to a sword or dagger.

    The key issue is that HEALING SHOULD HAVE NO ACTIVE ROLE IN COMBAT. By adding more detail to the combat itself and allowing a mechanism for people to fight effectively without being disabled, healing can be relegated to the aftermath of battle where it makes sense. How many good fantasy novels have you ever read where the hero continually fights off enemies with a priest at his back continually and instantly healing his sword wounds as he receives them? It’s stupid, and shouldn’t be a part of the game at all.

    Adding more fine-grained detail to the combat mechanics themselves would allow sufficient complexity for players to involve themselves with actual fighting rather than impressing them into artificial and arbitrary roles depending on whether they take a “healing class”, “tanking class”, “dps class” or “useless class”. Instead, everybody fights, and the resolution of the combat is decided by actual battle awareness and tactical skill instead of monotonously jabbing the same two buttons over and over again.

  3. My hopes for MMORPG’s in the future do not necesarilly lie with the combat. I agree that some improvements should be made especially to make it fun to play all classes. However in the MMO’s i’ve played up until now i have not been bothered by the classic trinity of Tank/Healer/DPS&CC. What does bother me however is the lack of evolving stories. In my ideal MMO there are cities that are built, hamlets raised and razed, kings killed, governments elected and overthrown. I want the story on my server to progress in a different direction than the story on the other servers.
    Also i’d like to see the proffesion system changed. The main maincharacter you make is a hero, but is it realistic to expect him/her to also be a proficient jewelcrafter or a miner? A solution to this would be to introduce a family/dynasty strucure to MMO’s. You have some heroes and next to those you create proffesion characters. For instance a miner, tailor, blacksmith… All these different characters pool the resources they gather. Your skills in these proffesions will not progress by timeinvestment only; rather, you complete minigames in instances which also takes out some of the time = progess principle. In my ideal MMO some of the resources gathered or products made are taxed, this tax pays a part of the growth of you faction’s cities.
    Finally i have some thoughts on character creation and evolution. In the more traditional MMO’s out there, all characters of a certain race and class will be the same at the various intervals of the game, with only gear to seperate them. This should definitively change. I think there should be more variation in how your skills progress. For instance a warrior that has spent most of his levels/years in the Mountains should look and play different from the warrior of a same race that has spent his time on plains (just an example). Let them gain points in different skills as they spend more time in different types of zones. Furthermore, i think the game needs certain barriers as the game progresses. It’s not realistic that all max capped mages know all the availible spells. Make exams for those capped mages that wish to advance, make it possible to achieve an archmage status for instance, that can only be achieved by succesfully completing an ingame iqtest… OK so not all players will be able to achieve that uberclass, but that’s virtual life.
    One last thought occurs to me while writing: make factions breakable and opposing factions communicate. Based on the combined actions of all players of one race factions may be formed, which can change the dynamics of the game hugely.

  4. The most certain thing I see :

    – Better, reactive, animations. It’s been long overdue, but hasn’t really hit yet. Modern MMO fights look foolish and boring simply because few people are willing to spend the time to actually produce more than one or two per weapon or even weapon type. Decreasing cost of skeletal animation or mocap, combined with the increasing cost of other types of art, should make this a very attractive thing to change.

    Beyond that, my major wagers are that new MMOs will play down raiding, that the tank/DPS/healing series will continue to thrive outside the few places that replace it with tankdamage/buffer/damagedebuffer, far too many games will try to focus on pure PvP without grind and fail completely, and DikuMud and DikuMud IN SPACE! will remain the overwhelmingly popular developer options.

    DikuMud and DikuMud IN SPACE! will also make a majority of the stuff to market, but not by nearly the same degree as game developers try to release.

  5. I’ve been wanting the “Armed, Armored, and In Your Way” tank style for quite some time. I know Warhammer Online has put collision detection in, but I haven’t seen the beta yet, so it’s all hopes at this point.

  6. Make combat more interactive, that means, don’t just push buttons that launch certain actions. Make it more like a 3rd-person-hack’n’slay; something along the lines of Heretic 2, Enclave or many, many console rpgs – or Mortal Kombat, Dead or Alive etc. – different attacks, blocks, counters, combos etc. In short: Make a game where skill is not a number.

  7. I think anyone who has spent years playing MMO’s has their “Dream Game” built in their head. So many thoughts here but will just pull a few major ones out.

    1) Collision detection. Is a must have, especially any game that has PVP. Watching people jump through other people and glitch 360 during battles in current non CD MMO’s a la some sort of seizure is annoying and ruins gameplay. Carefully done, as any MMO mechanic of course, do avoid abuse. (CD in contested areas only, not safe towns, etc.)

    2) Slow combat down. I know that sounds silly, but I want to see more strategy in combat and not just twitch button mashing. Things can still happen fast so its not boring, just not so fast that basically you just hammer buttons and hope you did the right things. I should be able to get a hint of what my advesary(ies) are doing and try to react the right way.

    3) Change how damage is dealt and “healed”. I hate it right now, crap animations, get hit 50+ times, get healed through 40x of it, then finally die. Combat needs to be epic, and getting hit needs to have penalties. I’m thinking Lord of The Rings (the movies, not the games). Tons of parries, blocks, and dodges. When you do land a hit, its a kill, or at bare minimum a reduction of ability depending on how good of a hit it was. Keep in mind, this won’t change much from how games work currently, instead of getting hit 15x in 20 swings and your hitpoints slowly deplete, you now get hit 4x in 20 swings and your hp drops fast on those hits. Make battles feel more epic and skillful like you see in the movies. I agree, healing and recovery should be done after the fight, so you are still forced to manage your resources during.

    4) Make leveling simple. VERY simple. Focus all content on the end game. Instead of leveling 70-80 levels before really experiencing the game and the content, make those 70-80 levels go by in 1/5th the time and instead of 20% of the game world being used at the end levels, make it 80% at the end levels, (and 20% of the world used for leveling). Leveling faster isn’t bad. New people can hop in and join more easily, and developers can focus their time and ideas towards a truely dynamic and incredible life at max level, instead of 90% of the quests pre max level, etc.

    5) Use math to balance classes. Class balance has always been horribly broken in every MMO. I haven’t ever played a balanced game. I am no math wizard, but the entire game is based on a math model, so hire some MIT folks to break down algorithms to show that if class A has x dps capability, y damage mitigation capability, z CC ability, and w special abilities, that there has to be some sort of formula to balance every class against each other.

  8. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned yet that I would like to see:

    Friendly fire for ranged attacks. The collision detection allows the use of formations of melee troops, but I think allowing people to fire ranged attacks at this confused melee *without* the possibility of hitting your own side will lead to boring battles with an overabundance of ranged attackers. It will mean the melee classes will be relegated to tanking each other while the real DPS always gets done by the ranged troops.

    I also agree with getting rid of mid-combat healing. Healers, being magic-users, can be doing more interesting things, and then heal when everyone regroups between skirmishes.

  9. I’m hoping to see the slow and steady death of the level grind. I’ve written entire white papers on how much the level grind is a waste of time and energy for everyone involved. While we are at it, lets kill skills, subscription fees, and move everything to virtual currency and micro-transactions.

    I think 2008 is going to be the year of the small scale MMO eating away at the margins of the massive blockbuster MMO. That’s what I hope anyhow…

  10. We all know that MMOs are not running at their full potential, and we know the many reasons why companies choose not to give us 100%.

    I’ll play any MMO that has a radically different combat/skill/level mechanism.

    Level grinding must go. Let me get to the endgame content already!
    (this would also make powerleveling services kind of useless)

    And most of all, Consumable Content: A Persistent world that constantly changes. I want those ten rats to stay dead!

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