Sunday, May 16, 2010

Just can't live without it ...

I had dinner on Friday with a friend who plays World of Warcraft, and at one point she mentioned that she keeps hoping that I might realize how much fun the game is and come join.  I did give WoW a try a year or so ago; they had a recruit-a-friend promotion on, so my boyfriend (who does play on and off) gave me a trial key and I got to somewhere around level 20 before cancelling.  Alas, I had to conclude that for a number of reasons it does not seem to be the game for me.

I've been playing MMOs since I picked up EverQuest in 2000, and while the EverQuest franchise has remained my favorite, I've tried quite a few others along the way.  Both EQ2 and WoW are heavily based on the original EverQuest, and in fact the reason I decided to play EQ2 instead of WoW back in 2004 when they both launched is that I looked at them both and found EQ2 was more different from EverQuest than WoW was.  I felt the EQ2 team was trying more new mechanics, more new ideas, more new things, which I found interesting and exciting; and I found WoW was far more similar to the original EverQuest (albeit with tons of polish), and far less innovative.  Of course, not all the new things EQ2 tried worked out well, but as a long-term EverQuest player I was interested in seeing fresh ideas.  However, I guess this came back to spoil my fun when I picked up the trial last year, because I suddenly felt like I was back in the "bad old days" of EverQuest.  No group quest updates in the newbie zones!  Farming spiders endlessly to get tradeskill components!  Running around the world looking for your trainers to buy your spells when you level up, instead of getting them automatically!  And, worst of all, no pass-through targeting?  It felt like 1999, not 2009.  It was really the lack of pass-through targeting that did me in, as I was playing a healer.  Click the monster, click to attack, click the tank, click to heal, click the monster, click to attack ... gah!  Never again.

But this isn't a post about why WoW sucks -- clearly it doesn't, or there wouldn't be so many people playing it.  Nonetheless, I feel my horror at the UI is justified since Rob Pardo himself said he considers WoW's UI a failure.  From a summary of Pardo's talk at GDC this year:

"Pardo talked a little bit about the UI system, and how they intended for it to be simple to use and intuitive. He said the UI system was something that he considered a failure -- not because it was bad necessarily. But from a development standpoint, if the majority of your player base is using addons to modify the existing UI, that's a clue that something wasn't quite right with the way the UI was originally designed. "

And that led me to think about what else I "can't live without" these days.  Back in the days of EverQuest there were no alternatives, and the whole concept and world were so new and marvelous that we just learned to use what we had and didn't think about it.  Nowdays though, nowdays we are spoiled.  Dozens of MMOs out there have tried all sorts of innovations, some good and some less good, and we get used to our favorites.  Pass-through targeting is definitely number one on my list that I never, ever want to play without.  But what else?

Or to put it another way, if I were in charge of planning and designing a brand new MMO, what features would I absolutely want to include as standard baseline?

  • Pass-through targeting.  And if you're still wondering what this is, it means that everyone in a group can just keep their main tank targeted all the time.  If they cast a beneficial spell, the game's smart enough to know it will land on the tank.  If they cast a detrimental spell, it will "pass through" and land on the tank's target.  No switching targets back and forth, no clicking and mis-clicking, no having to set up hotkeys for every group just to target or assist the tank, it just ... works.  Yep, can't live without it any more, or more accurately, won't live without it, so new MMOs beware if you want my money.
  • Maps for all zones.  Remember EverQuest?  Remember how everybody had big binders on their computer desks containing print-outs of player-made maps of every zone? Yeah, never again.  I don't mind having to explore the map before I can see it all, but I can't live without my in-game maps.
  • Friends lists, preferably account-based.  Fortunately, pretty much all games have friends lists these days.  Champions Online was the first I played where the friends list was based on the player's account nickname, rather than just the character name, however, and whatever CO's other failings may be this was a great step forward.  Now I can choose an account nickname, such as "Domino", and then friends I allow to add me to their lists can see whenever I'm online in any form, whether it's as Domino.Tankytank, Domino.Ihealsyou, Domino.Themadnuker, or any other alt I feel like playing today.  Of course, this also lets me avoid idiots by account name too, even better.  Chances are that if I didn't enjoy grouping with Dumbo.Besttankever, I'm also not going to want to group with his other character Besthealerever.  Why didn't more games do this earlier?  Let's never make another one that doesn't, please.  Oh, and do let me add little notes to anyone on my friends (or ignore) list.
  • Coordinates system.  Most games have this, but the ones that don't make it just impossible to talk about locations in a meaningful way.  "Where's the widget for the quest?" "It's at /loc 123, 45, 678" or however you want to translate your in-game coordinates into something the players can access.  There are many ways to do it, but even basic coordinates work.  "Where's the widget for the quest?" "It's, uh, over by the tree to the east, not the tallest one but the third tallest, near the bigger beaver pond, just after you see the second big rock north of a flag pole" ... no.  Fail.
  • Quest helpers on the map.  Not something that every game currently does, but more and more are incorporating it, and I think it's going to be standard very soon, if it isn't already.  These are just little pointers on your in-game map that hint where you need to go to get the updates for whatever quest you have active.  So handy.  No doubt many will says it's "dumbing down," but I disagree; if the quest is properly written, the quest itself or the questgiver will already have given you a general idea where to go, and the quest helper is just a visualization of this information that you already have.  Friendly UIs are a GOOD thing.
  • Parses.  You know the first thing your game's players are going to do is create programs to parse out the log files and track damage, healing, and anything else they can do.  It's been standard since the days of EverQuest.  So why aren't more games supporting this as part of the UI? It doesn't have to be enabled for newbies if it would be confusing, but having these tools there will help the designers as well as the players.  And what a great way of providing ongoing positive feedback to people learning to play!  "you did 5% more damage this time than you did last time," positive feedback enhancing learning and encouraging gameplay is win.
  • Groupfinder.  I gather the dungeon finder is a fairly new implementation in WoW but I hear nothing but praise for it, and it's something I've long wanted in other games.  Smart player-matching to form groups as easily and painlessly as possible?  Yes please.  OK, I could live without this feature now since few games have it yet, but I suspect in another 5 years we won't dream of doing without.
Well, I could go on and on into more and more finnicky detail, but I'll leave it at that for now.  What are YOUR absolute must-haves that you can't play a game without?  Post in the comments if you have others!


  1. Obviously it would be better if it was an option in the stock UI, but if the passthrough targetting is such a big deal for you, be aware that all you need is a couple of minutes writing macros to have it.

    If I recall the syntax correctly, a healing spell is:

    /cast [help] Healing Touch; [@targettarget] Healing Touch

    Basically, casts on your target if it's friendly; otherwise, on your target's target.

    Sounds like what you want is the opposite, something like:

    /cast [harm] Fireball; [@targettarget] Fireball

    But when it comes to WoW, I'm one of the majority using UI mods - I heal with a grid view of my group, casting different heals with shift-click, control-click, etc. I don't want my current target to have any effect on my healing target.

  2. Yay! I inspired a blog post! :) (BTW, come play WoW. LOL)

  3. All good points, but for me one that you didn't mention was player housing. I like having a small part of the game world that is mine to do with as I please. After every break I've taken from EQ2 or gaming in general, I always get a pleasant "I'm home" feeling when I re-enter my house in South Qeynos. There's a sense of ownership there that's important to me.

  4. I can't help thinking that the need for pass-through targeting is really more a symptom of the completely broken combat system in most MMO's.

    The whole model with "tank takes *all* damage, everyone heals tank and attacks whatever tank is attacking" just doesn't strike me as a very fun combat system.

    In general, if you have a feature that's nothing more than automation, a way to avoid having to play the game (such as pass-through targeting), it's a strong hint that the game mechanic in question sucks.

    Like you said with the UI, if everyone has to use addons, there's something wrong. And if everyone have to use pass-through targeting to avoid having to actually think about who or what to attack, there's something wrong.

    Of course, it's better than the same system *without* pass-through targeting, (just like WoW's UI with addons is better than the same UI without them) but it's still broken.

  5. Housing, as was mentioned above, along with customization.

    Tradeskilling. Even if I never do great at it, it should be there, but never as a requirement for advancement. (You must craft a Mystic Hoohaw of Bunnyness to progress beyond this point in the game)

    Progression and advancement types for almost all playstyles, without advantage being given to one or the other. Soloers have plenty of things to do without it being the same spot over and over. Raiders have plenty to do. Plenty of grouping options.

    Variety in areas for all ranges of levels and starting races/classes. (Gotta have some variety for the obligatory alts)

    Customizable UI's. I can't stand being forced to have big blocky UI elements or ones that are set here and you will have them here and like it. Not necessarily customizable in function. There's no reason for a UI to be able to be modded to be able to run things for you. You should still have to punch the key to run or harvest or attack or cast, and still have to choose the spell or ability. No "push the button and the UI will pick the player and pick the healing they need and then buff them for me".

  6. Just to reply to Carson, I'm well aware there's a wide variety of UI mods that could have improved the WoW experience for me, but that still counts as "bad old days" in my books. If I have to spend several hours downloading UI mods and setting up macros before I can even start playing a new game, that is fail right there.

    Don't get me wrong, I like the *option* to customize the UI. But if the game is unplayable without doing so? Then I probably will not be playing.

    To Alan and Matia ... I didn't include tradeskills or housing on the list, although I do enjoy them, because I don't think they are absolutely a "must have". I think it would be quite possible to plan and design a game where these aren't required. City of Heroes, for example, launched with neither of these but was lots of fun. Definitely they are factors that I look for, and would probably sway my personal decision to play a game, but I can imagine enjoyable games without them, so I don't include them in a "must have" list.

    The same applies to supporting multiple different playstyles. Personally, I enjoy games like that, but I don't think it's necessary. If I make an MMO that is oriented around soloing, I shouldn't consider it a requirement to add raiding. I think there's room for MMOs to address particular niche interests, the problem only arises when they're not clear about what niche they're trying to fit into, and then people get upset if they have been led to expect something they aren't getting. But if I make a solo-oriented game, clearly say "this is a solo-oriented game, it has no raiding", and then raiders log in and start complaining there is no raiding, well, that's just silly. :p

  7. Afterthought to the above: FreeRealms, for example, is a game that does NOT provide advancement paths for all playstyles, there is no raiding. It has successfully identified its target audience and that does not include raiders. =) And that makes total sense to me, so I certainly wouldn't try to insist that supporting all playstyles is a "must".

  8. Hmmm ... somehow my 1st post was not send. Here are two additional must haves for me:

    1st a Mentoring System or a System where a new and a long played char can successfully work together. I have many friends with different amount of time and to be able to play with all of them is really important to me.

    2nd the game must leave choices. These go from general choices like class and build to play styles (not necessarily all, but more then one) to completing content (like several methods to complete a quest). I know that the later are hard to do in an MMO, but if a game would be able to do that that would be great. The 1st options including more then one play style are must have features.

  9. Hmmm ... somehow this site does not want my comment. 3rd try. :-/

    There are two additional things I can't live without:

    Mentoring and many choices.

    It does not need to be the EQ2 mentoring concept, but a way that someone with a high online time can play with his friend who just started or has less time. It could be down oder up mentoring or even a system that doesn't have any levels and so the problem does not arise.

    With choices I mean actually everything. Starting by the look of the char over character concepts (classes / builds) to play styles (casual to hard / solo to raid)and ending by quests which you can solve through different methods and probably even to an different ending.
    The game does not need to be good in all aspects but there should be at least two categories where you have a broad selection of choices and at least some choices for the other categories.