Kill 10 rats and repeat ad infinitum until the level cap, then grind out dungeons and raids. We’ve seen it a million times before.
Various MMOs have tried different things with their dungeons, but most of them are the same as the others, with an additional twist thrown in. Maybe they’re more challenging, or longer or shorter, or soloable, or maybe just the way you can build a character or group changes the overall dynamic. It still all boils down to roughly the same thing, just with a slightly different feel, and it’s invariably the most efficient way to get the best loot.
The thing is, I think what people would like is a better, more interesting, and more useful open-world experience in MMOs. Instead, for the most part, the open world is usually just seen as leveling content, or worse, an obstacle to get to the “fun stuff” in instances. Why do you think so many games sell level-to-max (or nearly max) items these days? They know that their leveling content is largely meaningless, but, in the case of older games, with so much space between character creation and endgame, it’s the best thing they can do to close the gap.
Here’s a crazy thought: get rid of the instances.
For over a decade, MMO players have been conditioned to believe that dungeons = endgame and best loot, even to the point that games that try to emphasize other aspects of the game will still have dedicated dungeon grinders, churning through instances with the intent of maximizing their time/loot ratio at the expense of all else because they don’t know any other way. Gamers dislike randomness, especially in their loot, so if you have the choice between:
a) A 30-minute dungeon run that gains a guaranteed five gold; or
b) An open-world activity that will average 10 gold per hour, but might be more or less, depending on exactly what kind of content is encountered most people will pick a). The only way to make b) viable is to either make it much more lucrative, much more predictable… or remove the choice of a) altogether.
A few online multiplayer – I’ll leave it to you as to whether you’d classify them as “MMOs” – games do this already, notably PvP-focused games like PlanetSide 2 and survival games like DayZ and H1Z1. But what about a traditional MMORPG, a type of game that’s based around gear grind through PvE dungeon and raid completion?
As many of you know, I play a lot of Guild Wars 2, and while that game certainly features an abundance of open-world content, I feel like ArenaNet has had to go a little loot-crazy with some of its more recent offerings so as to stay competitive with the “sure money” found in some of the most lucrative and easily repeatable dungeon runs. And its large, open-world encounters tend to be more than a little overpopulated and zerg-y, though there have been improvements on that front.
Instead, I look toward what I think Daybreak (never going to not want to call them “SOE”) and Storybricks are doing with EverQuest Next. In a way, it’s similar to what PlanetSide 2 looks like, albeit in a PvE mold. The world map will be divided into several sections, each one controlled by a faction. In theory, every border can be contested, and while players will inevitably glom together in spots, borders might be spread out enough to prevent the worst kind of zerging. Even if that’s not how it works, I’d rather at least have the occasional option to fight somewhere different every time I log in rather than my 27th time through the exact same dungeon.
I’m not sure that I’ve heard anything yet about dungeons for EQ Next, and you know what? I don’t want to. Sure, I like running a dungeon every now and then. But there are lots of games where you can do that, and they’ve been done to death, so I have a hard time believing we’ll ever see anything different or interesting in that field for the foreseeable future. Also, in a game where the open world is meant to be a major focus of the game, why not skip dungeons and let your team be totally devoted to that, instead? If you give people the option of the “sure thing” in dungeons, they’ll take it nine times out of 10.
That was my experience in Rift, one of the first games to really make an attempt to revitalize open-world content. I leveled to max, doing whatever kind of content was around, from big, zone-wide events to, yes, the occasional dungeon. Once I got to max level, I saw all the vendors offering great gear for instanced content, whether PvE or PvP, and that’s where I spent most of my time. I know there was some other stuff out there, and I even did a little of it with my guild, but… I don’t know, it didn’t seem “right.” I was still pretty convinced I could get the best look, more consistently, through dungeons. I didn’t play enough at that level to be sure or to do any intensive calculations, but I’d wager a lot of other Rift players felt the same.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting all current MMOs ditch their instances. The Lord of the Rings Online tried a measure of that a couple years back and it was met with quite a lot of hostility. Games set up to do the max-level-then-dungeons thing can’t really change to any appreciable degree. I think this is only an option for upcoming games, like EverQuest Next, and that trying to change an existing game is just asking for trouble from your current player base, not to mention being a task that would likely be almost impossible to pull off cleanly.
All that being said, I’ll admit that one thing instances do better than the open world is in presenting focused group encounters, the type that are specifically meant for five, 10, 20, or whatever players and are meant to provide a perfect challenge for groups of that size. And a game that focuses exclusively on open-world content would still have its farmers akin to dungeon farms, but diminishing returns is a concept for another time.
Would you play a dungeon-less MMO? Or do you need that kind of instanced content in your game to give you a perfectly honed strategic experience?