Top 6 MMO Innovations in 2012

How the industry changed for the better

It’s been a pretty big year for MMOs. Not only have there been a ton of releases, but the market has finally moved from largely cloning a certain game with 10 million subscribers into actually trying new ideas. But which ideas failed, and which innovations succeeded? It’s time to give the right progress some recognition.

No subscription

This one is almost too obvious. In 2012, Guild Wars 2 proved top-notch MMORPGs can release without a subscription and do really well. The model hasn’t even slowed down the amount of content in the game. At the time this article was written, Guild Wars 2 had just received a massive patch that added a whole lot to do for the Wintersday holiday event.

Star Wars: The Old Republic also announced its big move to free-to-play. While the details of the model have gotten a lot of criticism, Bioware‘s move solidified the free-to-play trend. If even a Star Wars game can’t keep a subscription, how can any game? It is, after all, the golden franchise.

Of course, other games joined in. PlanetSide 2 proved the model can transcend MMORPGs. The Secret World officially moved from a subscription to a free-to-play as well. Aion followed the trend earlier in the year.

At this point, only World of Warcraft, RIFT, and EVE Online remain as the few bastions of subscription models. It’s becoming clearer that MMO players like free stuff and, more importantly, they’ll reward companies that give them free stuff.

Story in my MMO

Games like World of Warcraft certainly have lore. Quest text and books based on the Warcraft universe have enough story to keep the typical fan satisfied. But the past year has seen an increase in MMORPGs that make story a focus, not just something in a never-read quest log.

There’s certainly been some debate whether the idea has succeeded. Star Wars: The Old Republic has gone through a bumpy ride. The Secret World going free-to-play is a sign the game isn’t going as planned.

But then there’s Guild Wars 2. The game embraced story, and it’s done it without making any sacrifices in content. Whereas the story content is most of what players care for in Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Secret World, the personal story and story-mode dungeons in Guild Wars 2 are only one small part of a much larger game.

So maybe some developers haven’t nailed down the balance, but it’s nice to see it in a few top-notch titles. After all, story content is a great way to get players immersed in a world. Getting invested in good story is what keeps moviegoers, readers, and single-player gamers going back to their favorite franchises. It should be at least one of the reasons gamers go back to their favorite MMOs as well.

Three-faction world PvP returns

World PvP definitely had mixed results in 2012. At the start of the year, Ilum in Star Wars: The Old Republic was a complete disaster. In fact, it was so bad that Bioware gave up on its original model and is now undertaking a full re-design of the PvP section of the planet.

But other games — particularly games with three factions — showed world PvP can definitely work. Guild Wars 2‘s world vs. world feature is still one of the most active parts of the game. PlanetSide 2 is built entirely on a three-faction world PvP model. RIFT also adopted a three-faction conquest mode, and it’s still one of the game’s most prominent and popular PvP features.

The genius behind the model is how much easier it is to balance. One of the bigger problems in Ilum in Star Wars: The Old Republic was one faction — typically Empire — could easily outnumber and crush the smaller faction. Having three factions makes it possible so the two outnumbered sides can team up to overcome otherwise impossible odds, creating a more natural ebb and flow in balance.

It also creates more dynamic gameplay. Facing the same faction and, depending on server size, the same people over and over can get old. Being able to run into a fight without knowing what that red name represents at first can be very exciting.

Action combat

Before 2012, MMO combat had remained mostly the same for years. Some games tried different ideas here and there, but it all felt largely the same. This year, some games finally made big strides.

Obviously, there’s TERA, which embraced action combat in an enormous way. Not only does the game allow players to dodge and stay mobile for most of combat, but it even requires aiming.

Then there’s Guild Wars 2It didn’t go quite as far as TERA, but it added enough action elements — dodge, casting while moving, attacking without a target — to feel much more action-focused than previous MMOs. Its big success also shows gamers are ready to embrace more action in their MMOs, something that can’t be claimed by just looking at TERA.

Let’s not forget PlanetSide 2. It’s not an RPG, but it does show the MMO space can be much more varied than it has been in the past few years. Unlike the first game in the PlanetSide series, PlanetSide 2 feels like an authentic shooter. It’s too early to call the game a big success, but so far the game has shown that MMO gamers are at least interested in the shooter genre.

This is a great trend for gamers. It’s unusual for a genre to be so stagnant in terms of combat. It’s normal to expect a lot of variety from game to game. Even in shooters, the differences between QUAKE LIVE and Call of Duty are enormous. The move toward more varied combat will finally give MMO players more options and variety.

Down with the holy

The death of the holy trinity is mostly exclusive to Guild Wars 2 so far, but it shows a giant leap in a genre that used to be dominated by the tank-healer-DPS setup.

Now, some gamers are not happy with the lack of a holy trinity in Guild Wars 2. They argue that reducing the importance of roles diminishes the depth of classes, content, and boss encounters. These gamers very clearly prefer a more traditional setup.

But the fact is a lot of MMO gamers are happy with Guild Wars 2‘s lack of a holy trinity. For many, it’s one of the features that sells the game. It’s not the setup for everyone, but it is clearly keeping many fans’ attention.

Again, it’s a great trend for gamers, even if it’s not preferable for everyone. It adds more variety in a genre that has been relatively stagnant in terms of mechanics the past few years. Not only does it make the games more fun for some, but it adds more options to the genre as a whole.

Killing less rats

Traditional questing in MMORPGs does not have many ardent defenders. One of the first flaws people pointed out in World of Warcraft is that all its quests follow the same “kill X mobs” or “collect X items” model. Not exactly the prime example of diversity. Yet MMO developers have stuck to the model after seeing World of Warcraft‘s success.

Well, 2012 was the year that began to change. With investigative missions in The Secret World and dynamic events in Guild Wars 2, it’s become clear that developers are ready to try and gamers are ready to embrace new ideas.

Of course, both the games that changed the model still have some remains of the “kill X mobs” model. Most of the missions in The Secret World still follow a more traditional route, and many of Guild Wars 2‘s dynamic events can be simplified down to “kill a bunch of mobs.” That aspect of the genre doesn’t seem to be completely going away any time soon.

But the diversity enabled by investigative missions and dynamic events is a huge step in the genre. It’s no longer the typical ritual of picking up a quest, killing some mobs, and turning the quest in. The quest can now turn out to be a puzzle, or it can be an event that everyone takes part in. It can even finish in a completely different spot from where it started.

That’s really the crux of all of 2012’s innovations: They gave players more options. Whether it’s more ways to pay for the game, more kinds of content, an extra faction in PvP, different styles of combat, more setups than the holy trinity, or greater variety in questing, the MMO is quickly moving in a way from its old tropes and beginning to embrace diversity like never before.