There are a few big titles in the MMORPG space coming soon (beta tests running or being organised as I write this). I’m looking at Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and Elder Scrolls Online as, potentially, the representatives for (good) modern game design in the genre (though a quick shout out to Dragon Quest X, on which I will also be keeping an eye). That’s a pretty hefty forecast, and needs more than a little clarification and qualification, so let’s begin at the beginning: where I’m coming from as a gamer.
A Matter of Perspective
I want to be clear about my perspective as a gamer and how this leads to what I’m looking for in these MMOs. Then, whether you agree or disagree, at least you’ll know how I arrived at the ideas below (and can similarly enlighten me in the comments).
I have always enjoyed locally shared experiences in RPGs (Tales games, or any number of Final Fantasy titles with my brother, girlfriend or friends to watch or take over come to mind). Moving up the multiplayer scale, I’ve spent many hours with multiplayer action RPGs (Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles, Phantasy Star Online and Diablo, to name a few), loved playing the few great locally multiplayer traditional JRPGs I’ve found (The 4 Heroes of Light and Dragon Quest IX) and even dabbled in a quirky strategy MMO for a couple months (Dofus and Wakfu). Moreover, I host, DM and play in weekly D&D sessions with a group of friends, which may seem out of place here, but what better comparison for massively multiplayer role-playing than an inherently social role-playing game, played hours at a time across months or even years?
Through all of these experiences, I’ve learned that camaraderie and sharing fun times with others in the same game framework is fun regardless of the game – but it can be more fun when the game stands well on its own.
Good Games are Good
Customising a character among others who are doing the same is great, but it’s better when the options are diverse and well-balanced. This applies to both cosmetic changes and functional ones, whether I have the choices at character creation or unlock them through leveling (not to mention the myriad choices of equipment found throughout the game which might be both cosmetic and functional).
Fighting a tough battle with others and taking on a strategic role in a team is fun. However, having to make meaningful in-battle decisions or actions, adapting and feeling like me being there makes a difference (instead of feeling like a robot playing out the ‘right moves’) while battling alongside friends or strangers doing the same is even more fun.
Doing quests, taking part in a story and accomplishing feats in a world are all great, but when it’s paced well from start to finish (and even beyond the ‘finish’) then I can really feel like it was worth the time I put in (instead of hundreds of hours of game time for a few hours of satisfying gameplay).
These concepts may all sound really obvious, but it’s the standard I have in mind when approaching these additions to the MMORPG universe. I’m sure it’ll be great to overcome challenges with others, gain new abilities, find and put on new equipment and uncover the inner workings and larger events of an expansive world. If these games want my money (important to them) and my time (important to me), then I expect at least a solid attempt, building on the successes and failures of games gone by, to get the things I listed above right.
Of course on top of all that the world needs to be beautiful, the story and dialogue reasonably well-written, and all the communication, network and server systems flawless (else the wrath of the internet will be upon them). I don’t envy the job that Naoki Yoshida and his team in Square Enix or the people over at ZeniMax Online Studios have before them (and the job they’ve had behind them for years), but I’m really looking forward to what they produce, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this post.
I can say how I want the games to feel – I can even be specific about these expectations – but as a game designer, I know it is the nuts and bolts of how the game manages to deliver on those feelings that are important. A bit of research on the goals of the FFXIV team or a view of a youtube video or two from ZeniMax Online will tell you they’ve got most or all of the things I’ve mentioned (character customisation, engaging combat, pacing of the game) in mind with the best of intentions. I eagerly await the results.
Elder Fantasy of the Final Scrolls
I’ve grouped these two games together because what I’ve said thus far is general enough to apply to both, but it would be negligent to leave the major differences in the franchises unacknowledged.
Differences in worlds aside (Final Fantasy with its colourful and unique magical world feel and Elder Scrolls with its grittier medieval style), the character customisation, combat and pacing are all likely to take on rather different hues between the two games. One franchise historically has a more defined ‘job’ system, with tactically focused combat and well-structured routes from one point of interest to the next. The other tends to let the player do anything and everything given enough time, has more action-oriented combat, and presents a much more open world to explore.
It could easily be an additional post to discuss both. So that’s exactly what I’ll do.
Since I certainly won’t be able to come back in two weeks to write WILA these two games, I thought I would try something a little different. As a continuation of this post, I’d like to take the elements I mentioned above and delve deeper, taking actual past games as examples and thinking about how they confronted these issues (and hopefully succeeded), as well as how those mechanics can be generalised for future games (and how FF14 and ESO are likely to treat them differently).
On a personal note, I grew up on RPGs, and have always enjoyed sharing the experience (whether with one person, a small group, or the world at large). There is plenty of history worth learning from and building upon, and games as a whole are reaching a wider audience than ever. As a game designer, I relish the thought of updating and evolving the worlds, stories and game mechanics that captivated me from childhood to now, so I hope you like this post (and the next to come in two weeks) where I take the first steps in doing so by analysing what’s already right in front of us.