Worst of the MMO Industry

Recently, I did a post running down my opinions on the very best examples of major MMO features from across the industry. But I am not all smiles and sunshine. I’ve also encountered plenty of bad design, obvious mistakes, mediocrity, and bitter disappointment.

My rogue taking on an early dungeon in RiftToday, I’ll be looking at the worst failures of the MMO industry.

As before, this is a subjective list and should not be viewed as totally definitive. I know some of these choices are bound to be controversial.

Questing: It’s a tie!

I don’t think traditional MMO questing is as tedious or unpleasant as some do, but certainly there’s a lot of mediocrity out there. However, there are two games I’ve played where questing is even more dull than the rest.

The first is Dragon’s Prophet. Its questing isn’t really all that much worse than the average, but it is overly repetitive — often sending you to the same place to kill the same enemies multiple times — and the poorly translated quest text makes it impossible to become invested in the story.

The other is WildStar. WildStar’s questing suffers from all the sins of traditional MMO questing — repetitive tasks, long travel times, and so forth — and couples them with a shortage of mobs and items, long respawn times, and an insipid commitment to make all quest text Twitter-length, which destroys any chance for interesting story or immersion and generally makes me weep for the future of humanity.

A screenshot of a Mechari form WildStarA special mention also needs to be given to the game’s challenges, which pop up in the middle of quests without warning and require you to complete a task under a time limit. With how much wandering and searching WildStar’s questing takes in the first place, it’s very hard to beat the time limit, and even if you do, the rewards are purely random and may not be at all useful. They’re an exercise in frustration and nothing more.

Group PvE: The Secret World

It pains me to say anything negative about TSW, because it is a truly brilliant game that deserves far more recognition than it’s gotten. However, it’s not perfect, and when it comes to traditional group content, it is a failure.

It’s not even that the content itself is bad. The dungeons are excellent: light on trash with stunning visuals, good stories, and interesting mechanics. I can only assume the raids are of a similar quality, though I’ve never done them and likely never will.

But the systems around the group content are terrible. Firstly, there’s no group finder worthy of the name, so the only way to find a group is to sit in Agartha — the game’s most boring and lifeless area — and spam general chat, potentially for hours on end.

Secondly, while the dungeons technically have three difficulties, really there’s only one: nightmare. Elite mode has no real incentive for repetition, so it’s just something to run once to unlock nightmares, and normal mode is largely useless and tends to be ignored by the players. This means that if you want to run dungeons in TSW but don’t want to sweat blood in the brutally unforgiving nightmare dungeons, you pretty much can’t, unless you don’t mind getting absolutely nothing useful for your character out of it.

My Templar tanking the Varangian in the Polaris dungeon in The Secret WorldAnd of course because elites are so useless, that makes it even harder to find groups for them.

Scenarios are a bit better, not requiring the trinity and having a wide range of difficulty settings that are all at least somewhat rewarding, but their rewards are fairly specialized, and not everyone likes scenarios. They have no story, which is the main strength of TSW normally.

PvP: The Secret World

If you ask me, nearly all MMOs have very bad PvP. But TSW’s is just a little more awful than the rest, so it gets the crown.

I’ve only briefly experimented with PvP in TSW, but it was a miserable experience. Queue times are long, the population is small, and my lifespan tended to be numbered in single digits’ worth of seconds, during which I was usually stun-locked.

Now, no doubt my build and gear were not optimal for PvP. But there’s nothing in the game to give you any idea what does work for PvP, and while not being optimized for PvP is a bad idea in any game, it’s far more crippling in TSW. A PvE player shouldn’t be completely useless in PvP.

My Templar battling in El Dorado in The Secret WorldThe one good thing I can say is that the community is actually halfway decent, which is very rare in online gaming and doubly rare in a PvP environment. But I would still advise you to stay far, far away from TSW’s PvP.

Story: Guild Wars 2

I don’t think the MMO genre is a wasteland of good story as some do, but I will acknowledge there are plenty of candidates for worst story. WildStar has very interesting backstory, but it ruins all that by constantly ramming its forced and immature humour down your throat. Rift is the very definition of bland and derivative. WoW has had some major story blunders. I don’t think Neverwinter is even trying.

But Guild Wars 2 is as bad as it gets. It’s like they tried for a sort of goofy comic book feel like WoW, but fell way short. Instead of delightfully cheesy, it’s just cheesy.

And the voice acting is atrocious, and the dialogue is cringe-worthy, and the plot is rambling and incoherent, and there’s no real continuity… I could just go on and on. GW2’s storytelling is abysmal. You can find better on any random fan fiction forum.

Exploration: Star Wars: The Old Republic

Offering interesting potential for exploration is something a lot of MMOs struggle with, but SW:TOR is just a little worse than most. The maps are narrow, linear, and sterile, and there’s little or no reason to go off the beaten path, even on the rare occasions you can.

My Imperial agent in Star Wars: The Old RepublicI’m told there’s some sort of jumping puzzle stuff surrounding datacrons, and I think there’s a collection system of some sort that rewards exploration, but I never encountered any of this when I played, so either these things are only for high levels or they’re very poorly advertised. Either way, exploration isn’t a significant part of SW:TOR.

Crafting: Aion

As I stated in the “best of” post, I’m not fond of MMO crafting as a rule. Aion edges out the competition for the worst title by having all the problems of standard MMO crafting plus a huge reliance on RNG, with everything having a chance to fail. Even picking a flower can fail, forcing you to start over. And man, does it take a long time for a Daeva to pick a flower, for some reason.

Player housing: Rift

This is bound to be a controversial choice. A lot of people love Rift’s housing for its insane customization potential, and that is cool.

But once you’ve made your virtual dream home, then what? There didn’t seem to be any practical use for housing in Rift, no reason to take time out of questing to visit your home. Maybe one appears later, but the game failed to sell me on why I should care about its housing.

My rogue on a gulanite hellbug mount in RiftAt least in Aion I had a garden where I could grow reagents.

Business model: Star Wars: The Old Republic

Much has already been written by myself and others on the topic of SW:TOR’s “free to play” model, and I don’t want to repeat it too much. It’s just awful. In every way. It’s the hard sell of all hard sells.

The truth is the free mode is only intended as a trial, and you’re supposed to subscribe, but it doesn’t even work as a trial because the gameplay is so miserable you can’t get a good feel for the game. And even if you do subscribe, you’ll still be constantly nickel and dimed by the cash shop.

SW:TOR is actually a decent game, but so long as its business model remains as is, I can’t recommend it to anyone.

Character customization: WildStar

I very nearly gave this to World of Warcarft due to its extremely limited options to customize individual avatars. However, WoW’s plethora of different races does give one a lot of potential looks to choose from, and it is a very old game, so it doesn’t seem entirely fair to judge it based on the limitations of its era.

MY spellslinger in WildStarSo WildStar gets the nod here. It’s very much like WoW in that your only real choices are race and gender, and there’s no significant customization beyond that. Oh, sure, there are a lot of options for different faces and body types, but in the end, they all look pretty much the same. If you want to play a human female who isn’t a googly-eyed Barbie doll, you’re out of luck.

There’s no excuse for that in this day and age.

Combat: World of Warcraft (but really it’s a tie)

Combat is another area where there’s not a lot of games that are actually bad, but plenty that are mediocre. I don’t think I’ve ever played an MMO where the combat was actively hurting my enjoyment — except maybe Star Trek Online, but it’s been so long since I tried it that my memory is hazy.

I’m gonna give this to WoW because it set the standard, though I could just as easily have picked Rift, SW:TOR, LotRO, or any number of other mainstream MMOs.

It’s not that the WoW system of combat is bad — it’s functional and has some occasional thrills — but it’s incredibly thin and often dull. It’s usually very immobile, it’s visually bland, it requires no real thought, every fight plays out more or less the same, and there’s no challenge at all. Enemies fall dead after just one or two hits. Even on the rare occasions an enemy does present a challenge, it’s more a matter of numerical supremacy than true challenge, and you can faceroll them once you get more levels or better gear.

My hunter in the Arathi HighlandsIn my more cynical moments, I think people only criticize TSW’s combat because they’re not used to a game where enemies don’t evaporate from a dirty look.

Events: World of Warcraft

WoW epitomizes all that’s wrong with holiday events in MMOs. They’re carbon copies of real world holidays, which feel horribly out of place in a fantasy world. They never change from year to year. They require excessive grinding for incredibly mediocre rewards. What few rewards are worthwhile are usually locked behind exceedingly low drop rates and mountains of RNG.

No real effort is put into WoW’s events, so they don’t feel like events at all.

Best of the MMO Industry

I’ve been playing MMOs for quite a while now. It’s become a cornerstone of my recreation, and my work. I’ve played nearly every big name title released in the last several years, as well as some older and more obscure titles, and I think I can safely say I’m fairly knowledgeable on the topic at this point.

A Foundry quest in NeverwinterI thought it was time to consolidate what I’ve learned and my opinions on the industry, so I’m going to run down a list of some of the most common and important MMO features and tell you which game I think does it best, and why. This will be followed by a post outlining the worst blunders of the MMO industry.

Also, I would like to mention that this probably shouldn’t be considered a definitive list. Opinions of such things are of course subjective, and while I have played a lot of games, I have not played all of them, nor have I played them all extensively.

Questing: The Secret World

Much has already been written about the brilliant creativity of TSW’s investigation missions, and while those do deserve plenty of praise, it’s the other missions in TSW that earn them my pick for best questing.

Quests in most MMOs are brief, meaningless chores. TSW, by comparison, pours an enormous amount of effort into its mission. Every single one is an adventure, often featuring powerful story-telling and unique gameplay mechanics.

There are no forgettable missions in TSW. Every one is a work of art. They’re not mere filler content for leveling players.

My Dragon investigating a graveyard during the new Broadcast Halloween event in TSWGroup PvE: World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft is by now quite long in the tooth, and it’s now been surpassed in most areas — especially since they decided to can one of their few remaining memorable features by eliminating flight.

However, there’s still one thing WoW does better than anyone else, and that’s traditional group content.

The dungeons and raids themselves are usually of a very high quality, with beautiful visuals, fantastic soundtrack, and interesting fight mechanics.

But what really puts WoW over the top in this category is how accessible they’ve made their group content. Automatic grouping tools and a variety of difficulty settings mean that virtually any player of any skill level at any point in the game can experience the fullness of its content almost effortlessly.

That is a wonderful thing, and it’s downright embarrassing that so many MMOs in this day and age still haven’t followed suit.

My panda hunter doing Scarlet Monastary in World of WarcraftPvP: Neverwinter

Regular readers know by now I’m not big on PvP in MMOs. Truthfully, I don’t understand why people would seek out MMOs for PvP when there are so many other genres of game that are so much better-suited to competition.

So maybe I’m not the best person to bestow a crown for best PvP in an MMO, but for my part, Neverwinter is the only game where I’ve actually enjoyed PvP enough to make it a big part of my time in a game.

It’s a combination of subtle things that make Neverwinter’s PvP fun where all others failed. The classes seemed more balanced than in most other games, probably because of how simple they are, and the action combat means gear takes a backseat to skill. Having better gear still makes a big difference, but a lower-geared player isn’t totally powerless against someone in the best epics.

I also found the matches in Neverwinter very volatile, with a great potential for come-backs. This makes it much more exciting for both winning and losing sides, as you never really know who’s going to come out on top until the end.

Story: The Secret World

This one isn’t even a contest. Anyone who knows MMOs will say TSW has the best story.

A particularly spooky scene beneath London in The Secret WorldSure, WoW and Lord of the Rings Online have great source material, and some interesting storylines. Star Wars: The Old Republic has all the depth we’ve come to expect from Bioware. I even say Aion has some surprisingly good lore.

But TSW blows them all out of the water. It has better writing, better voice-acting, more colourful characters, deeper lore, and a better integration between plot and gameplay than all competitors.

TSW isn’t only the best MMOs for story, but it has some of the best video game storytelling of all time.

Exploration: Guild Wars 2

Exploration is one of those things that most MMOs have as a selling point but which is very rarely interesting. In Guild Wars 2, it’s interesting.

GW2 has the most vibrant world of any MMO, and every corner of every map overflows with activity. You can start walking in any direction and find something fun to do almost immediately. And once you’re done with that, you can keep walking and find something else cool shortly thereafter.

My thief in Malchor's Leap in Guild Wars 2Even putting aside the obvious attractions like hearts, vistas, and events, GW2 is full of hidden goodies — little Easter eggs, jumping puzzles, and hidden troves of gathering nodes. If you like to look into every nook and granny, GW2 is the game for you.

Crafting: The Secret World

This is bound to be one of my more controversial picks. TSW’s crafting isn’t terribly popular, and to some extent, I understand why. It’s a very small part of the game, and there isn’t a lot you can do with it.

To understand why I like TSW’s crafting, you need to understand why I don’t like the crafting in other MMOs. I like crafting in theory, but in practice it’s usually tediously grindy and overcomplicated, and in the end you can’t make much that isn’t worse than items you get through other means. It’s a pointless time and gold sink.

I like TSW’s crafting because it knows its place. It’s simple, easy to understand, and requires no grinding or training whatsoever. It’s all reward and no effort. Thanks to the modular nature of gear and the need for consumables, crafting is always useful, but it’s never something you have to stress over.

It’s not so much that TSW won this category as every other MMO I’ve played lost.

The assembly window in The Secret WorldPlayer housing: WildStar

I don’t have an enormous amount of experience with player housing as a feature, but there’s only game that actually made me care about it, and that’s WildStar.

Too often, housing is a meaningless fluff feature with little or no connection to the rest of the game. It may be fun to design the virtual home of your dreams, but once construction is finished, there’s not a lot of gameplay there.

WildStar’s housing still has great potential for creativity and customization, but it also has practical benefit and actual gameplay. Visiting your home regularly nets you buffs and free loot, and you can install activities on your housing plot.

Unfortunately, the housing was the only part of WildStar I liked, but now I find part of me hopes other, better games will replicate WildStar’s excellent take on housing.

Business model: It’s a tie!

I can’t really make a pick here. Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World both offer incredibly lenient, player-friendly buy to play business models that the entire industry should take after.

My thief taking a rest in the tropics in Guild Wars 2Time was I’d give the advantage to TSW for its lack of lockboxes, but that particular promise didn’t stand the test of time. While its lockboxes are less in your face than GW2’s, they also offer fairly powerful rewards, unlike the fairly irrelevant GW2 lockboxes, so it balances out.

I’ll also give a shout-out to Defiance’s incredibly relaxed free to play model. It’s as close to truly free as any game can ever be.

Character customization: Aion

There’s not a lot to say here other than that no other MMO gives you quite as much control over your character’s appearance as Aion. Virtually every aspect of their body can be manipulated in minute detail.

Of course, some people use this to make grotesquely disproportionate freaks just because they can, but for those of us who aren’t eight, it’s a great way to create a hero that exactly matches the image in your mind.

Combat: The Secret World (but really it’s a tie)

I’m giving this one to TSW because its combat gets a lot of totally undeserved hate, but honestly, there are a lot of MMOs with combat I love, and I can’t decide between them.

My new Dragon alt showing off her elemental powers in The Secret WorldI love TSW’s combat because it’s epic and challenging, providing the perfect balance of action combat and tab target mechanics. I love TERA’s combat because it’s visceral and engaging while still requiring a healthy degree of thought. I love Neverwinter’s combat because it’s frenetic and intense, and the rag doll physics are hilarious. I love Dragon’s Prophet’s combat because of its stunning visuals and engaging yet forgiving combos. I love DC Universe Online’s combat because it’s intuitive and gives you a real sense of power.

Events: The Secret World

TSW puts more effort into their events than anyone else. In most other MMOs, events are more or less the same every year, and they tend to be carbon copies of real world holidays awkwardly shoe-horned into the game worlds.

TSW takes the care to have all of their events tie-in with the lore of the game, creating content as high quality as we get in normal content updates, and they add new story arcs, missions, or bosses to the events every year. At the same time, they bring back all the old events, so people who missed them in the past can enjoy them.

Events in MMOs also tend to be terribly unrewarding, but in TSW, you can expect to be buried in an avalanche of loot both cosmetic and practical.