It happened last night. We entered a dungeon seeking adventure. And suddenly we came upon another adventurer who wanted to join us. Now we're a party! Let us walk through the flames leading into the very lairs of evil!
Then our new friend kept getting pulled back through the Gate of Flames. It seems that if you haven't finished a Certain Quest, you were not allowed into that part of the dungeon.
This is one of those mechanics I really, really don't like. It feels like being artificially channeled into the story in the way someone wants us to experience it.
I love stories, don't get me wrong. But insisting we play a certain series of events in a particular order is a mechanic that serves no purpose except to break up a party.
And playing together is kind of the point. Multiplayer. Adventuring together.
So not only is this mechanic railroading, it's breaking up the fellowship. And that is a cardinal sin in MMOs.
- Crow's Tenet #1: Your MMO mechanics shouldn't punish people for wanting to play together and play cooperatively.
Naturally it can be problematic when people are of vastly different levels. Your level 10 warrior isn't going to be able to do much when running around with level 40 Hero Guy. Which makes sense, because you're just not going to be able to fight stuff Hero Guy can fight, and you probably won't learn anything while trying not to be one-shotted. That's not what I'm talking about, although I'll come back to that.
I'm talking about people within a reasonable level range wanting to go have an ADVENTURE, and the DM suddenly saying, "You can't do that."
Player: "Why can't I do that?"
DM: (rolls dice for no reason) "Because I've already drawn the map going that way"
So artificial moments like "You keep getting bounced back through the Flame Gate because you haven't followed the Same Exact Quest Chain and you're not all at exactly the same point"... that ain't right. You've just spent three hours trying to find a dungeon that you can all do together, but you can't because you're all on a different part of the quest chains for each.
Another example of this is mechanics that punish you for drive-by buffing or healing. I love helping people out. Buffing always seems welcome, although in some games you are hurting someone if you see that they're in trouble and you try to heal them... because they get less experience.
What kind of sense does that make? I am helping someone in trouble, and the game punishes that person (through XP) and me (because they are now annoyed).
MMOs should not punish people for enjoying cooperative, emergent gameplay organically. In fact, they should encourage this.
- Crow's Tenet #2: Your MMO mechanics should encourage people to play together organically
I don't mean force people to play together. FFXIV is a solo game, pretty much... except when suddenly you have no choice but to do a dungeon pug in a perfectly-scripted battle.
Note: I have enjoyed FFXIV a lot, but it's kind of a single-player RPG in which you multiplayer now and then
Now look at GW2. Yes, this is another problematic example because there are no roles, and MMOs should definitely have roles. But there is an interesting mechanic related to rezzing.
Anyone can do it. Anyone can rez, and you get experience for it. What this has done is foster a culture of cooperative gameplay, and I haven't really seen anything like it. You see people attacking a field boss, and people rush in to help. It's fun. We're doing this thing together, and the mechanics of the game make it clear that this is not only allowed, but rewarded, so cooperative gameplay becomes part of the culture of the players.
Rift did something similar. Under certain circumstances, parties would form automatically in an area and you might find yourself in a group or raid trying to deal with a situation together. You weren't forced to. You could walk away at any time and you aren't punished for it. But the game world seemed to beckon: "Come with us," it says, "and work together to do this thing... if you like." And suddenly you're a raid healer of a field boss that came out of nowhere.
Mentoring is another mechanic that can encourage people to hang out—but again, no compulsion. It provides a way for people to play together who otherwise wouldn't be able to. And again, I would love for the game world to say "Oh, you want to run around with this paladin? Why shouldn't you fight evil together? There is a way."
MMORPGs have so much possibility when they're not on rails, when the mechanics of the game create a world in which cooperation is rewarded. It doesn't even have to be just combat. Projects that require several crafters of different professions to work together, or perhaps some sort of diplomacy mechanic that would allow for creative cooperation. MMOs should be the story about parties of adventurers roaming the ragged lands together (see my article Return of the Fellowship), or people working together to make each other stronger (guilds, crafting, etc).
In TTRPGs, railroading is a bad thing. It's a four-letter word... or okay eleven letters. So when did railroading become a good thing in MMORPGs? What is the advantage here? Developers have to spend that much more time designing every part of the railroad. They can't just stop with designing interesting classes and crafting and regions and dungeons—if they even have time for all of that—because so much time has to be spent on designing every moment of the player's experience so the player is never standing in the middle of a field shouting "OMG I AM OUT OF ASSIGNED TASKS MY LIFE HAS NO MEANING".
I have no problem with quests, as long as we distinguish between quests and chores (see my article Putting the Epic Back in Quests). Story and lore are some of my favorite things to discover in an MMO, along with beautiful landscapes and fascinating dungeons. But if your priorities put "players must follow events in this order and cannot play together unless they're at the same place in the chain" above "players can play together and have fun", I think your priorities are in the wrong place.
The game that prevented our friend from joining us on an Adventure is still great, and we've been having a lot of fun. But I feel bad that this person couldn't explore the dungeon with us.
It's an MMO, after all.