Reading the World Coherency document was a really interesting experience. I’m actually surprised not only at having stuck through it, but in the thought that I might have paid money to read it if it had been a book, had I known what an enjoyable read it would be.
Generally speaking I agree with a lot of the points, and can see how they would be harmful for an MMORPG. I’m mainly going to talk about ancillary points that I thought of while reading.
Some of them would be an appeal, and distinction issue.
From the appeal side, a lot of companies really want their game to be as successful as possible.
A lot of the players of the MMOs that are being made also want to play with the people they like. Their friends, family, loved ones. But more old school MMOs like Ragnarok Online, or even Vanilla WoW were really hard to break into as a casual player.
I remember a very distinct phrase I saw thrown around by casual players often, something along the lines of “I can’t wait to hit $MaxLevel so I can finally start playing”. And remembering it felt like a misguided sentiment.
If you weren’t enjoying leveling, you probably weren’t going to enjoy being Max Level that much either.
I think the main enjoyment from this class of people came from playing with people they already knew, or wanted to play with.
To them leveling wasn’t growing along with the world. It was just an existential chore they had to get through, with sparse moments of pleasure sprinkled in so they could get to their goal. And then they mostly didn’t, since leveling to max was generally incredibly time consuming even with a decent degree of dedication, let alone doing so with a half assed motivation.
This was always a crisis I saw with newer casual players, and the only real way I saw it addressed in a satisfactory way for the newer players was for the older player to roll a new character, then quest, and level up alongside the new player.
This required a lot more commitment from the veteran, so I didn’t see it happen often. However, when I did it with friends it was frequently some of the most fun I’ve had in games. And as a veteran experiencing the world you have grown ever more familiar with, with someone who is seeing it with completely new eyes proved a complete breath of fresh air, which was extremely rewarding to experience.
I’m not saying that makes the desire to skip the leveling experience valid. And I do believe the way to hell can be paved with good intentions, but I think that a lot of the decisions made in most MMOs I see today are done to cater to a more casual audience, so that they can play with their more hardcore friends.
And at the end of the day the actual hardcore players don’t generally seem to generate much of an actual backlash. They keep consuming games which are much more oriented in this direction, so I think outside of appeal there is also a heavy element of Darwinism underpinning the direction MMOs seem to have developed in. I’ll talk more about this under the “Distinction” section of this document.
Games need to be different, but they also need to be ruthlessly similar to each other.
A game needs to be different enough that there’s a point in even playing it to begin with, but it also needs to be similar enough to other games in the genre that the core audience of that genre adopts the game. Otherwise you would pin your hopes on a new category of player which would adopt the game, and thus you would be market differentiated, and earn some form of staying power. This might be how you would describe how new genres are formed.
At the same time, failing to cater to the old, and simultaneously failing to capture a new audience means you die as a company. Millions of dollars of investment are lost. So few people invest in this high risk, potentially high reward model. Specially because the reward wouldn’t necessarily be high, since other companies would see the success, and proceed to copy you. So you wouldn’t even get monopoly on the fruits of your risk.
Coming back to the dicussion of features which harm world coherency, but appeal to a certain part of the audience which might end up playing MMOs:
As games, and the features inside of them make series ever more successful, the commonalities between the successful strata of MMOs can be abstracted out. And then compared to features from MMOs which fail commercially. Even internally there can be tests about some form of abstract desirable metric, which we could test our features against (IE: User retention).
The newer generation of games, or new expansion packs thus move ever more heavily in a direction that seems undesirable to a very vocal audience, namely more “core” MMO players. But generally choices keep being done in a data driven fashion that has that audience on something loosely resembling “the losing side of history”.
That isn’t to say that the desire for something different is incorrect, because I don’t think it is. And I believe that the games can go too far in a data driven direction, and fully alienate players. At that point the market is ripe for intervention with something that caters to those players.
In this case, a good example would be WoW Classic. Which had very good test models of “Hey, the private servers for Classic seem to be wildly popular, maybe we could make some money out of this”.
Thus, balance is restored in a way. I think the point where the World Coherency document was written was a point where the world balance of MMO design was too stacked in the direction of accessibility.
Similarly, games can tend too much in the direction of ruthless coherency. For instance: If your character dies you get to respawn, but you lose all your gear.
Surely that’s more coherent than reviving without a heavy penalty, but it’s a ruthless price to pay, specially if that gear was the result of hundreds of hours of grinding.
The market forces overall seem to balance this scale. If it tips too far in the direction of ruthless coherency, a more accessible game will be rewarded. Similarly, when the world tips too far in the direction of accessibility a desire for more coherency in the world is generated in the players, which similarly results in more coherent products which are rewarded.
In defense of the 3D Chatroom with a combat minigame, and instances
One of the parts that stuck with me the most about the document was one of the last entries. Copying a part of the relevant section:
If you do not believe that transmog is counteractive to the MMORPG, then what you might be more interested in is a 3D chatroom with a universe and aesthetic as rich and detailed as WoW’s, with some combat adventures here and there.
I realized the reason I have much less of a problem with the direction MMOs have gone in, than the author of World Coherency, and some of my friends is because while I really enjoy MMOs, I also really, genuinely enjoy 3D Chatrooms, with combat minigames.
The most fun I’ve had in my life in an MMO was in Final Fantasy XIV. Which surprised me, because I didn’t think my nostalgia of WoW would ever get uncrowned. But generally speaking what did it was my Free Company, which is the equivalent of a guild in other MMORPGs.
While you can play FFXIV differently, generally the way I played would be to go to the instanced location with houses where my guild owned a corner mansion which was extremely prestigious, and hard to get.
Then I’d just sit in the place where most of my guild hanged out, and talk to the people there. Some people would ask if someone wanted to run a dungeon, and sometimes you did so you went too.
You could also join a level 30-34 dungeon with your max level character jobs, and the dungeon would make your character level 34 with decent iLvl scaling.
This is of course, horrible for world consistency. I can’t justify it from that viewpoint. But at the end of the day it was still incredibly fun. I was playing with people I genuinely liked, and the game per-se was very secondary to my objective for being there in the first place.
So we’d hang out outside of the mansion for hours. I would watch my more industrious guild members grinding their production related classes, while I just sat, chatted, and browser the internet passively a bit on another window.
In this world, consistency mattered very little to me. My guild had an underground swag area in the mansion with furniture made from loot from some of the hardest bosses in the game, and the entrance to the basement would be repleted in one-of-a-kind type items which cost a fortune just for fun. But generally speaking having these many of these one-of-a-kind items was problematic in and of itself. Having the head of Onyxia hanging outside of Orgimmar is hype. Having 20 heads of Onyxia hanging in your basement feels weird. Onyxia becomes cheaper somehow.
Similarly, end-game bossfights in FFXIV when I was playing were often structured as you entering directly to fight the boss. That is to say, your group spawns directly in front of a boss, in a small arena intended for the fight. Which is horrible for world consistency too.
When your group wiped out, you all instantly respawned in front of the boss, the boss would be back to their initial position, and hp. Again, horrible for consistency sake, you can’t even really justify it.
But at the same time this allowed the developer to really crank the difficulty level of encounters up to levels I haven’t really seen in any other MMORPG (Which isn’t to say that doesn’t exist elsewhere, I bet it does, but not in any that I have played). End game bosses were so challenging that often a single player in the group making a mistake could make the entire group wipe, but a “perfect” run could take somewhere between 5, and 10 minutes.
This allowed you to rejoice in the mastery of your group when everything was going right, while not being too resentful of your team when everything went wrong. And generally, it made competent people necessary. You couldn’t get away with doing a public run of almost any even remotely challenging boss. You would just wipe over, and over again.
So my guild became absolutely necessary for me to experience the endgame in any meaningful way, and in a way I was necessary in that position too, my competence mattered. And overcoming that much more bounded (Instanced, if you will) adversity did feel much more meaningful to me than the “people herding” job I felt I had leading raid groups in WoW. Fundamentally this offered a completely different kind of meaningfulness in the gameplay experience, completely untied to world coherence. The meaning came from the people I was playing, and the shared challenge we were surmounting.
So yes, FFXIV was truly inconsistent. But it also became my favorite MMO experience. I made some of the most interesting relationships I’ve had with people in MMOs through that game, and it was, at least in the way I played it, mainly a 3D chatroom with a combat minigame.
I can genuinely say that instances, and the world incoherency made that game more fun for me.
I initially intended to write for a few minutes, and now I’ve been at it for quite a while which is a bit surprising. So lets try to close this document out:
I genuinely enjoy World Consistency.
Having limited resources in the world? Love it. Some of my most fond memories were walking to a limited resource, suddenly turning around, and realizing someone was going for it too say TotemZ. Activating sprint, and thus blowing a multi-minute cooldown felt fully justified when I won the limited resource. That small instance of microcompetition made the world more fun, and meaningful to me.
Similarly, looking at TotemZ fighting a mob next to a harvestable item they obviously were going for, and approaching the item would make it so that you could tangibly feel their anxiety as they started blowing their cooldowns to kill the enemy faster than you getting to the resource. Getting to the resource, seeing the mild feeling of resignation, and listlessness in their actions. Then, instead of grabbing the item turning around, helping them finish off the mob, and proceeding to walk away was rewarding as hell too.
Seeing TotemZ getting ganked a few minutes later, and coming to their help was truly one of the most rewarding gameplay experiences I ever experienced too. Even if we died, and even though I had screwed them over a while ago: At the end of the day we were on the same faction. We were Horde. And that was bigger than our petty squabble over a limited quest item, or mining node.
Finally, running into TotemZ 2 weeks later in a zone many levels higher always felt like an “Oh shit what are you doing here!” moment. Those moments of small serendipity are truly characteristic of a coherent world, and some of the most rewarding feelings in games that I’ve ever felt.
Similarly, I also love instanced gameplay, and 3D world chat simulators, for reasons I covered in the previous section.
Ultimately I think the people who struggle to genuinely enjoy Incoherent Worlds are missing out on some great experiences. Similarly, I think that the people who don’t care for coherence are similarly missing a great deal.
I believe a nuanced approach to these types of games is, or can be ideal. Very coherent worlds have a lot to offer, and so do incoherent worlds. Thinking more about this theme was very interesting though. So I appreciate the initial document which made me think more about this in the first place.