The Move (Back) to Simplicity

LOTRO, my main MMO, went through some major changes last year. Change is always a major source of angst within a community, but this was different. I am not a longtime player, so it may just have been my frame of reference, but it certainly seemed like a community that was generally cautiously optimistic  became downright distrustful almost overnight. The change in question was altering the character progression system within the game to a tree-based system, and along with that was changing/adding/removing/re-aligning a bunch of character skills that players were used to using within a regular rotation. One of the reasons given for the change was to re-simplify the characters in order to create room for growth for the future. This was probably the most visible of the “simplification” changes to strike the game over the last several years, but in truth, the developers have been working towards removing some of the complexity from the game for as long as I’ve been playing.

Simplification, or rather, the return to simplicity, is not specific to LOTRO. It’s an industry trend. Whether it be in graphics, gameplay or concept, the evidence is everywhere. Minecraft showed us that people will still go crazy for a game with horrible blocky graphics if the underlying systems are solid and interesting. The rise of the 8-bit look is somewhat interesting to me. I’m not necessarily turned off by a game that uses this nostalgic hook, but I’m not drawn to it, either. Mobile games typically cannot be incredibly deep due to network connectivity and resource constraints on the devices on which they run.

Change Isn’t Always Bad

There are several benefits to simpler games, not the least of which is lower development costs, which can mean a higher profit margin. I also wonder if simple games (thinking of mobile, specifically) need invest as much time in community/community relations due to the nature of the games. Most mobile games aren’t cooperative, and therefore don’t nurture the types of long-term communities that more complex and “forced social” games like MMO’s tend to require. Simple games tend to work on more devices, as they do not “push the envelope” from a hardware perspective. Simplifying games is also important for porting them to multiple platforms, such as gaming consoles and mobile devices. Also, simple games are typically easier and quicker to learn, so less up-front investment is required of the player. From a perception standpoint, games with simple graphics do seem to tap into either the nostalgia of the “older” gamers or the cool vintage factor for those who aren’t old enough to remember when pixelation was actually necessary due to graphical limitations.

Sometimes, I think the return to simplicity is a good thing. Auto-bestowed quests (or quests that are automatically granted upon entering an area) are one example of removing unnecessary complexity and wasted energy within MMO’s. I never liked returning to a given quest hub more than twice just for the sake of gathering/turning in quests. Quest flow in general has greatly improved over the last couple of years, as well. Open tapping (shared credit for kills without the need for formal grouping) is another trend that just makes sense and cuts down on time spent waiting around for untapped mobs.

Simple Solution
This is an example of a simple solution to a complex problem
But Sometimes, it is

Some changes, however, make MMO’s feel like they’ve lost some of the depth and richness that once made them unique. Skill bars have been trimmed down to just a few slots and fast cooldowns, which leaves attacks in certain games feeling more spammy and less strategic. The same auto-bestowed quests that I praised earlier have also taken away from some of the “immersion” of actually being asked to do something by an NPC. The removal of class requirements (such as armor and weapon requirements) has muddied the tried and true “holy trinity” approach to group content balance and make it difficult to understand/recognize a player’s contribution.

There seems to be a fear from some longtime players that the trends being seen in the more casual market are leaking into, and will eventually overtake, the traditionally more complex and rich games that they enjoy. This theory seems to hold some truth considering that more and more MMO players identify more closely with casual players due to circumstances and stages of life. Throw in certain gameplay aspects typically seen in mobile gaming (in-game micro-transactions, roulette-like mini games) that have found their way into MMO’s and it would appear that the fears of the more hard-core among us are completely valid. If you subscribe to the notion that games will follow the money, it would seem that development studios might be tempted to invest more in simplified, casual games with a shorter development cycle and higher profit margin.

What Does the Future Hold?

Somewhat paradoxically, we have seen two major MMO launches this year (ESO and Wildstar) and building hype about several more (H1Z1, EQ Next, Archage). So the question becomes: is there enough market for the long-term persistent world everything-to-everybody MMO? Or will a majority of these major titles be abandoned within the next few years in favor of short-term profit spikes? Perhaps we’ll continue to see a merging of casual elements into long-form MMO’s in order to create several “mini-spikes” of profit while maintaining a persistent, familiar player base.

Personally, I’m happy to see that MMO’s continue to be pursued by game studios, and that studios are aware of the more casual nature of players today. However, the growing trend of simplification does worry me a bit, and I’ll continue to keep an eye on the way games adjust to the market.

#Simplification #MMO #Trends


6 thoughts on “The Move (Back) to Simplicity

  1. Mike N. August 9, 2014 / 3:08 pm

    My concerns with ‘streamlining’ rather than ‘simplifying’ in regards particularly with LOTRO, is that to me it feels less and less like LOTRO. The Virtues system, both skill, deed, and race, allowed me to build my characters personality, it was not just the stats. And while the legendary item system is clunky, it is at least an attempt to fit into the lore of the setting, where the new Essence system has nothing to do with lore at all but rather is just pure mechanics. Even the old Radiance and Gloom system, fit into the lore, shouldering the darkness to carry the light, just a more tangible aspect of the Hope and Dread system that could be used to great effect. Although I will admit Radiance gating kinda sucked as it was too strong, however if it was just lowered I feel it could have been used to greater effect.

    But I suppose then it becomes a question of should the mechanics of a game matter in regards to the feeling and character of the game? And for me the answer is yes. Yes, it matters. Homogenisation of skills might breed class balance, but it does nothing for the character and feel of game play with each class, as well as the systems found within a game.

    Still great post Brax, interesting thoughts.


    • Braxwolf August 9, 2014 / 6:37 pm

      Thanks for your thoughts! It seems to me that usually when lore is mentioned in the context of LOTRO, it mainly has to do with someone’s immersion being broken in some way. That’s a tough nut to crack, because we all know that if lore was followed 100%, we wouldn’t have a game at all. We’d have a virtual guided tour through the books with no deviation or unmentioned characters or side stories…and certainly no rings above people’s heads! So the question is, where can they deviate from the lore without breaking immersion for a majority of players? Tough question to answer since everybody seems to have a different threshold for that kind of thing.


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