MMO creators seem to be trapped in a dilemna — they know that the genre has become far too combat-centric, favoring that mode of interactivity with the game (meet interesting things and then kill them) over most all others. It’s understandable why this is so — combat is an easy system to comprehend, create and engage in repeatedly. But its extreme use in MMOs have created an almost satire-like state in these games, where one imagines worlds not populated by sane, thoughtful, heroic types, but hordes of sword-waving, gun-shooting maniacs murdering everything in eyesight just to “level up”. The only reason that the NPCs haven’t run for the hills is that they’ve found the secret to magical murder force fields, rendering them immune from the relentless hunt for XP hidden deep inside every living thing.
But really, what’s the alternative? In single-player RPGs, you can have a much more rich and varied experience, but that sort of thing doesn’t translate as well into a multiplayer environment for various reasons. It was possible, for example, to finish Planescape: Torment as a near-pacifist, with only two battles mandatory to beat. Can you imagine topping the level cap in your favorite MMO without killing a single thing?
It’s not that I have anything against combat in MMOs — it can be very fun, with a deep and rich center — it’s just that every alternative to a combat system seems shallow and pale. Why is that? Why can’t devs finagle other systems that are just as fun and potentially complex to play without falling back on the sole crutch of combat time and again?
Let’s explore some of the current alternative-to-combat systems that we find in MMOs today:
If a new MMO is announced, inevitably one of the first questions is, “Will it have crafting?” Crafting is the ol’ reliable MMO busy work that’s never — to my knowledge — been done in such an exciting way that people go, “Wowzers, I want to keep on doing that instead of anything else!”, but gets a lot of complaints if left out. It’s a side activity for those who like building and creating instead of destroying, totally commendable, but while the idea is great, the process is typically recipe-based “combine A with B with C to make D, rinse and repeat” boring.
At best, crafting is a terrific source of income, a way to support your character or guildies, or a way to provide utility in your game experience. A Tale in the Desert was HUGE on crafting, as were many of the older titles such as SWG. Yet I’m unconvinced that any game can make the crafting process enjoyable to the point where I’d want to do it above other activities.
This is becoming a new side activity in MMOs, and one I heartily applaud. Collectable card games are already established as a fun hobby in both the real world and online, and it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to throw them into a MMO. It works, too, as part of the game world — characters sitting down to while away the time by playing cards and sharing war stories, etc. Free Realms, EQ and EQ2 prove that it can be done, and not only that, but suck players away from combat without making them feel as though they’re missing out. I’m quite surprised that Blizzard hasn’t incorporated WoW’s CCG into the game (imagine the revenue sources for them), and I truly hope that The Old Republic has a CCG, as KOTOR had a primitive one.
This is kind of a newer attempt at implimenting systems that are combat alternatives, but I’m not sold on it yet. The idea is that you have to complete mini-game X successfully to achieve a good result in the game, something that MMOs such as Wizard 101, Puzzle Pirates and Free Realms are all over. The problem is that, so far, these mini-games are pretty kiddy in nature, and that lots of folks don’t subscribe to MMOs to play something that PopCap or Kongregate could give them for free. Or even their cell phone.
I’m not saying that mini-games aren’t a good idea — they offer a smaller game system within a larger one, and if really new, addicting ones are developed, they could provide a nice diversion to axe slinging. The major problem that this, and many of the other alternatives on this list, is that you never see your avatar doing any of them. They yank you OUT of the game world so that it’s you the player doing this, not you the character, and that’s disconcerting.
I mention this because of Free Realms’ kart racing/demolition derby jobs, as well as WoW’s tenative steps into vehicle combat in Wintergrasp and elsewhere. Personally? I like it. It keeps your avatar in control by hopping in a vehicle or on a mount, and doing something with it other than just utilizing it as a faster mode of transportation than running. Races, demolition derbies, mounted combat — these are things player do love and ask for, but many titles have been slow on developing them. Because they were scared off by Auto Assault, mayhaps?
While some people think we’ve been over-saturated by achievements in every form of video games out there and don’t relish more of it, I say, “Bring it on!” I adore achievements, even if they’re not tied to any specific reward, but especially if they are. Let’s face it: we’ve had achievements ever since we started video gaming — they were called “high scores”, as well as any stupid thing we would challenge each other to do in a game to make it more difficult. I like achievements because it shakes up my routine, challenges me to play the game in a new way, and offers me incentive to do so.
As much as I lauded the praises of WAR’s Tome of Knowledge (and related unlocks/achievements), I’m even more attached to LOTRO’s deed log, mostly because they’ve paired these deed achievements directly to character development. It’s nothing revolutionary or varied or crucial, but there’s a giddy thrill when you do reach a goal set by the game that not only congratulates you, but makes your character stronger independant to the leveling system.
Another one I’ll mention just because of Vanguard — this was much-talked about prior to launch as the “third sphere” or somesuch of gameplay. When people found out that it was pretty much a minigame that wasn’t so much about actual conversations than numbers on a line, it got a lot less interesting. Yet I still find the concept of NPC social interaction as a challenge to be intriguing, especially when tied to CCG elements. I hope it’ll be revisited, and perhaps vastly improved, in the future.
I suppose this might overlap the mini-games section above, but I mention it separately to specify puzzles that your character solves as an avatar in the game world, not in a separate window. Such as how DDO might have you figure out a puzzle in a room to unlock a door, or how WAR’s lairs often came with puzzles that had to be solved before accessing them. The obvious problem with such puzzles is that spoilers on the internet would render them without challenge before the game even launched — unless puzzles could be randomized for different players.