What makes MMO combat enjoyable?

When asked about their preference regarding combat in MMORPGs many players reply by naming one of the generally agreed upon main categories: A) Hotbar/Tab Targeting, B) Action Combat or C) a mix of both.

I can’t really do that because I’ve played games of all categories where I liked the combat very much, and also some where I didn’t.

My current main game is Black Desert Online. I enjoy its combat a lot, but it’s hard to compare it to most others I’ve played because it’s not really designed to be challenging at all other than excecuting your skills and combos properly. It plays more like a beat ’em up, really. Also, there are no roles to speak of, basically everyone’s a damage dealer. Hence I’ll leave it out of this discussion.

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Playing the Striker is a bit like being the Hulk, always SMASHING stuff

One combat system I had a lot of fun with is The Secret World’s. Interestingly (and unfortunately) though that system was almost universally reviled by the broader MMO playerbase and the most stated reason by folks for why they couldn’t bring themselves to give the game another shot at any point. On the other side of the spectrum many players seem to be pretty happy with Final Fantasy XIV’s combat, which I don’t like at all.

This made me try to understand what exactly I need from an MMO’s combat for it to be enjoyable. If it’s not the fundamental design, and not if it’s smooth and well animated either (which FFXIV is and TSW, admittedly, is not), then what is it?

I narrowed it down by thinking about which role I like to play the most, which is tanking. During the last 10+ years I’ve tanked in every MMO I played (if it had such roles), and usually it’s been my main character. As a tank nothing is more important to me than being able to react swiftly and effectively to anything the game might throw at me and my group. I want to be in control. And I like to have at least some measure of freedom in how I go at it.

These, I realized, are the two key aspects for me: control and freedom.

I’ll stay with TSW and FFXIV to elaborate on this.

In FFXIV I mostly played the Warrior. It’s a hard hitting tank class wielding a huge axe.

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I work out a lot, yes. Why?

Looks and sounds right up my alley, but while leveling him up to 63 and doing every kind of content it never was as fun or felt as good as I’d have liked.

My biggest gripe is the awfully long global cooldown (GCD). It makes the fights feel so. slow. you. guys. Or rather, I feel slow. What’s worse, I feel neither free nor in control because I have to wait too goddamn long after I’ve used an ability before I can do anything else.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the Warrior relies heavily on ability chains, like a lot of classes in the game do. So I’ve just used a combo of three’s second attack when a group member pulls some adds? Too bad, because now I need to decide between finishing my chain (which, again, feels like an eternity due to the long GCD) and interrupting it to react to the new threat, losing a lot of extra damage and refreshing of buffs.

This kind of design is just not fun to me. I think of myself as a pretty good tank player, but the game actively prevents me from utilizing my strengths by forcing its – in my opinion – too tight design corset on me.

In contrast, The Secret World’s much maligned combat system enabled me to be exactly the tank I wanted to be, reliable and very fast reacting if things went south.

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And stylish to boot, with an elegant weapon for a more civilized age complementing the look

I took pride in the fact that I tanked most of the game’s harder dungeon bosses like Machine Tyrant or both encounters with Doctor Klein pretty well on nightmare difficulty. When tanking those a single error would cause you to die most of the time, which almost always resulted in a wipe. That this rarely happened to me made me feel good about myself, and also made those fights all the more fun for me.

So what exactly did TSW’s combat system give me that FFXIV’s didn’t (enough)?

One: freedom of movement while fighting. When tanking in TSW I often felt more like performing a choreographed dance than battling an enemy, and with all the stuff modern MMO’s bosses throw at you to dodge, evade or interrupt I really want to be able to do it like that. To me the most helpful tools in that regard were 360 degree AoE attacks so I could run sideways or even away from a boss and still hit it (not very realistic, but I don’t care), and generally being always able to move. No requirement to stand still while casting or channeling stuff, no animation locks.

Two: rotations with some leeway. As in every MMO ever TSW players of course developed perfect rotations to squeeze every possible bit of damage out of their characters. Because of how the system was designed though, revolving around resource building abilities, consumers to spend those resources and resource-independent special abilities, there was always room for improvisation without fucking up the rotation completely.

Three: a huge toolkit to choose from. A boss has lots of nasty attacks that should be interrupted? No problem, I’ll slot three stuns and rotate through them. Need to constantly dodge huge AoEs? I’ll bring a couple more movement abilities like dashes then. Our healer can’t heal at times due to boss mechanics? Let me prepare some defensive cooldowns or self-heals to stay alive.

I do realize that I’m comparing a class-based game with a pretty flexible skill-based one here, but I don’t think that the former has to be inherently inferior to the latter in this regard. I feel more flexible in how I play my characters in Everquest II than I felt in ArcheAge, for example. While on first glance you seem to have enormously more freedom in AA you actually don’t because 90% of those 120 possible sub-class combinations are crap, and you pretty much have to skill and play the viable 10% just the right way to have any chance at success.

All of the above doesn’t only apply to playing the tank role of course. Especially the ability to move while casting or channeling is a godsend for healers and DPS players. Having to stand still all the time admittedly doesn’t bother me that much when playing my Warlock in Everquest II – despite cast times of up to five seconds – since that game doesn’t harass players as much with bad stuff to move out of as more recent titles.

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Any moment now…no, NO, don’t move!!

As a healer in FFXIV though you’re forced to choose between two ills all the fricking time: either finish casting your healing spell and get hit by an AoE because of it or move out of the ground target in time and maybe let someone die because of it. To me that isn’t fun, it’s just stressful.

To summarize, combat is a main feature of most MMOs, and I’m fine with that because it can be tremendously fun. Action combat or tab targeting, I don’t care. What the game shouldn’t do is force me into a too tight design corset dictating the exact ‘right’ way to play. Give me some freedom in how I play my chosen class or build and enable me to feel that I’m in control of the situation rather than the game controlling me. Then I’m a happy camper.

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Let it snow, MMO!

Sorry about the title, I just couldn’t resist. I’m not even sure if that’s a proper rhyme. Ahem, moving on.

It hardly ever snows where I live, so when I crave some proper winter weather I need to either travel a good bit in real life, or get my fix in one of the virtual worlds I also inhabit.

While the latter obviously isn’t as good as the real deal it has the benefit of not actually being, you know, cold. MMO developers are well aware of that appeal, and most titles have at least one zone where there’s always winter. Those that have weather systems also tend to let it snow regularly during winter months.

Here are some places to savour virtual winter should you ever feel like it.

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Black Desert Online is one of the best looking MMOs out there, and it’s especially spectacular during winter. A screenshot doesn’t do it justice really, in motion it’s downright stunning. When it starts to snow the world doesn’t just turn white from one moment to the next, instead the snow blanket gets more dense over time. Later it starts to melt and turns to mud or water, depending on the surface, before it finally dissipates.

It’s not just a feast for the eyes either. Walking over snow sounds very realistic, and I could swear all ambient sounds are a bit muffled. I might be imagining that last bit, but it shows that the whole experience just feels right and is probably as close to the real thing as it can be.

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ArcheAge has a similar approach, but falls short in comparison. Still, it too looks pretty great. During sunshine you can see Marianople, the city in the background, clearly and with many details from this distance, so the snow’s effect on long range visibility seems to be even a bit more realistic here.

Now we move on to ‘eternal winter’ territory.

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The Coerthas Highland zones are among my favourites in Final Fantasy XIV. The architecture and mood fit perfectly to a region where it’s always cold. I wouldn’t have been surprised at all to discover Winterfell just around the corner. Winter isn’t coming, it’s already here!

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This Everquest II zone is fittingly called Everfrost. It dates all the way back to the game’s release, and it shows. From a distance it still looks quite good though, and I can’t help but feel a little bit chilly when I see it.

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Another one from EQII. These are the docks and the entrance to Thurgadin, city of the Coldain dwarves. It’s an impressive and majestic place, and it’s huge. A player character would fit a couple of times into the head of one of those statues. The winter theme fits very well here I think.

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If you want to freeze your butt off in The Secret World the Carpathians have got you covered. I hope you don’t mind that vampires are all over the place though. Definitely bring your collection of stakes along. Or Buffy Summers.

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I can’t remember the name of this zone in TERA, nor why my horse is hovering a foot above the ground. Maybe it didn’t want its hooves to get cold…

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I didn’t mind the stylized look of Star Wars: The Old Republic in general. Some places, like Tatooine for example, actually looked really great. Somehow the ice planet Hoth didn’t feel right though. The above mentioned effect of feeling cold just by looking at it just wasn’t there for me. Still, this list wouldn’t be complete without Hoth, would it?

I wish you all a merry and hopefully white Christmas.

IntPiPoMo – Marvelous mounts

Mounts are a staple feature of the MMO genre, almost on par with levels or quests. Most of the time their main purpose is to carry you around, letting you reach your destination faster. Some have additional abilities like gliding, flying, having their own inventory or being able to carry two players at once. Then there are those really hard to get ones, which above all else serve as a status symbol once you have them.

Whatever the case, they are our pride and joy, are they not?

Many have accompanied me over the years, and here are some of my favourites.

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Sunset over Antonica

This is my first Everquest II mount. You didn’t get one for free or as a quest reward back then (as far as I know), and it had taken me quite a while to accumulate the status points needed. As a result I was very happy with it and rode it for a pretty long time, all the way until leapers and flyers were introduced.

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Weeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Speaking of leapers, I’ve never had so much fun with another mount in any game than I had and still have with these. At the time they let me see all those old zones with new eyes because they jump really fricking high (and I couldn’t use flyers yet), but it’s also pure joy mechanically. Barely making the jump over a wide ravine or landing at the exact spot I aim at feels great and obviously isn’t half as fun with a flying mount.

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Doesn’t look like it, but I swear I’m moving fast

Star Wars Galaxies had no mounts at release, but pretty large planets. My characters must’ve worn out quite a lot of boots during the first months. I didn’t mind too much because the large distances added to the game’s adventurous, sandboxy feel, but it’s safe to say that pretty much everybody cheered a lot when mounts were finally added. Or…not. The first mounts were rideable beasts and just barely faster than running, so most of us were quite underwhelmed. A while later the mounts everyone was waiting for finally came: gliders and speeder bikes. The perceived size of the game world shrank a good bit due to that, but I don’t think anyone would’ve seriously wanted to go back.

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These are the suns you’re looking for

While we’re in the Star Wars universe, here I’m zipping around Tatooine on my collector’s edition mount in SWTOR. I liked this game’s version of the planet very much, I think it has just the right feel to it. Plus, the side quests for the Jawas are hilarious. But I digress. The mount wasn’t anything special, but at least I had one to use right away.

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Light cycle ready, where’s the arena?

This is my all time favourite SWTOR mount. I didn’t like doing dailies in that game much, but I ground the Gree event diligently until I had reached the needed reputation rank for this because it just looks awesome and fits my Jedi Guardian’s look perfectly.

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Why yes, it’s very comfy

Final Fantasy XIV has a great many cool mounts, this being one of my most used flyers. It always reminds me of the Goblin beast tribe quests that reward this, which I liked doing because they are just hilarious.

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I can’t think of anything to say that would make this any more ridiculous

Lakisa and I had just finished the Moogle beast tribe quests, so naturally we took off on our brand new dandelion mounts and spread the love…err…pollen.

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Trick or treat

This last one from FFXIV could be earned while doing the Halloween quests a couple years back. I didn’t use it very long though; an over seven feet tall Au Ra looks a bit weird on it after all…

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I don’t need no helmet, officer, I’m immortal. No, really!

The Secret World didn’t have mounts for a long time, and technically it didn’t need any because you could unlock several substantial boosts to your running speed. With those you made Usain Bolt look very old.

But, again, players like mounts, so they were finally added. This motorbike was the first, unlockable by doing a quest. It wasn’t any faster than the normal speed boosts and had pretty clunky animations for turning and such, but it was a nice touch nonetheless.

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Yet another TRON reference. I’m not complaining though.

Zipping around Tokyo on my…shoes?

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Yes, there actually is more than one horse in this post

This is my trusty steed in Black Desert Online. It’s fast and reliable, but man, it eats me out of house and home. So. Many. Carrots.

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Is there a horse under all this…stuff?

No. No there’s not. It’s dead, Jim. Well, at least it doesn’t need any carrots. Which is a good thing because I haven’t seen a single carrot anywhere in TERA.

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Death from above

Not only are the gliders in ArcheAge very fun to ride, they’re also instruments to be used to your tactical advantage in PvP. Here we’re coming down hard on the enemy faction’s Grimghast raid.

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Who says this isn’t a mount? I’m riding on it, am I not?

Another one from ArcheAge. Our guild did a huge cooperative trade run across the sea for a hefty profit. Until we reached the shore we used farm carts to speed up the journey. Now, I could’ve stored my tradepack into the cart and rode on my horse, but why? Sitting in the front seat (actually that’s the hose for watering your fields, but bear with me here) was much more relaxing and less bumpy than riding on horseback.

What’s your favourite mount?

IntPiPoMo picture count: 14 (this post); 50 (total)

IntPiPoMo – Horror edition

I like it when games are a little scary. Or more than a little. Hence I’ve played quite a lot of horror games during the years, among others most Resident Evil issues, Dead Space, The Evil Within, F.E.A.R., and of course my all time favourite, Silent Hill.

Most of those games ran on various older consoles though, so I don’t have any screenshots.

Fortunately there are many PC games that also have some ‘scary’ in them, and naturally I’ve always been drawn to those too.

As a die-hard MMO player I have to start off with The Secret World of course. In terms of conspiracies, fairytales and horror it’s the mother of all MMOs.

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One of the coolest, spookiest places in the game – which is saying something – is the haunted amusement park in The Savage Coast. Here I’m taking a ride on its roller coaster. Of course I expected something to happen, but it gave me the chills nonetheless, and I jumped in my seat when that apparition lunged at me just as I was about to pass her.

The next one is from a quest in Tokyo. Imagine you’re sent into a parking garage to investigate something. It’s dark, it’s gloomy, and something’s clearly not right. You walk down the ramp to the next level when suddenly what little light’s there goes out. It’s pitch black, but not for long. Before you can decide what to do next a blood red light turns on and you’re greeted by this:

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I didn’t watch any videos, I swear! I don’t even own a VCS player anymore…

Then there’s the James Bond-esque mini expansion A Dream to Kill, which towards the end has you investigate a nursery. Evidently something’s gone horribly wrong here.

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Yeah, I think I’d rather leave now…

One of my favourite games of all time is Vampire Bloodlines. Despite being a buggy mess and looking anything but fresh even when it came out in 2004 it’s so great that I still play through it every couple of years. I guess I have to talk about it in more detail some time. Until then you might enjoy Rakuno’s walkthrough series of the game, if you don’t mind spoilers that is.

Anyway, Bloodlines also has some seriously eerie sequences.

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That’s gotta be a haunted house if there ever was one

Actually the quest giver flat out tells you that a ghost is making trouble in that old hotel, and your mission is to put an end to that.

What you don’t know is who the ghost is and why it can’t find rest. During your investigation you find more and more clues about what happened. Apparently a family of four stayed at the hotel for it’s grand opening, and due to jealousy – and maybe also some otherworldly reason – the father’s mental state got worse and worse. He – spoiler – eventually killed his family and set the hotel on fire. I found this image drawn by one of the kids to be the most disturbing clue:

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In the end you can put a stop to the father’s haunting, and his wife’s ghost can finally rest in peace. At least there’s that.

Next up is Batman: Arkham Asylum. We have seen so many versions of Batman’s origin story by now that it’s gotten pretty stale. In this game though it’s done quite nifty (and short). During the course of the story Batman gets drugged by Scarecrow a couple of times. Sometimes it makes his worst fears become (perceived) reality, at one time it forces him to relive his parents’ death. Visually this is done exceptionally well, and the most emotional realization of the scene I’ve seen to date.

IntPiPoMo_BAA

Path of Exile makes you fight lots of big bads during the course of its storyline. Among the most sinister is Piety of Theopolis, the right hand of the game’s former end boss Dominus.

When you first enter her lair in Act III, The Lunaris Temple, the set pieces make it abundantly clear that she’s really, really evil.

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Yep, definitely evil.

I played a bit of Left 4 Dead 2 with a couple of friends after it came out. It wasn’t really all that scary, but it sported pretty much the highest gore factor I’d seen up to that point to compensate.

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Rochelle and the guys having yet another bad day at the office

To end the post on a lighter note, here’s a shot of some rather unthreatening ghosts you’re probably familiar with:

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Yo ho ho and a bottle of…grog?

IntPiPoMo picture count: 9 (this post); 26 (total)

IntPiPoMo – putting the ‘Massive’ into MMOs

It’s been a highly debated question amongst gamers since the dawn of MMOs – when exactly has a multiplayer game earned the right to actually call itself ‘Massively Multiplayer’?

Personally I don’t care much, as long as the game is fun to play. Yet there’s no denying that there are games wearing the MMO moniker where in reality you hardly ever meet another player.

Today I’m going to share some gaming moments that truly put the Massive into the experience, for better or worse. As always, click to enlarge.

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The Secret World is (or rather was) one of those MMOs where encountering large amounts of players was common pretty much only in it’s hub areas, like Agartha seen above. As long as you were out in the world you’d only rarely meet another soul. In my mind this was actually beneficial to it’s great, gloomy atmosphere, and I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way while questing.

Thankfully though, that loneliness went out the window whenever there were world bosses to fight.

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What do you mean, ‘unfair’?

What looks like total mayhem…was exactly that. Shouts would go out in event chat when a boss had spawned (or was about to get summoned by players) and people would pile into the instance until it couldn’t hold any more. The fights itself were mostly a dance of doing as much damage as possible while continuously dodging the boss’s AoE attacks, many of which would one-shot you. I had to dial down my graphics to potato mode and still had a hard time to dodge or execute my rotations properly, but it was so much fun nonetheless. These were world bosses done right as far as I’m concerned.

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Here a couple of clans had arranged a big racing event in APB Reloaded. I had participated in some races organized by my own clan before, which already were a lot of fun. In terms of player numbers this one beat everything else though, and the ensuing chaos was just terrific. My own car is somewhere in there, but I have no idea where exactly.

The rules and race course weren’t as clear and well thought out as they had been for our own races, and most of the time I just tried to tail other drivers who seemed to know where they were going.

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And this is how you dispose of your car when all is said and done

I had an absolute blast and wish such events would occur more often.

As it also doesn’t happen often that we have this many clan members online at the same time we also did a posing session of course.

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Say cheese…no, wait, you gotta look badass! No smiling!

Whenever EVE Online gets big headlines in gaming press it’s either because someone pulled a giant scam or theft, or a massive battle took place.

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Here you see the biggest fight Lakisa and I found ourselves in the middle of so far. It wasn’t nearly as big as those headline battles, which had the upside of the server being more than capable of handling it without time-dilation or hiccups. Still, if I remember correctly there were well over 500 players in system and on grid, so compared to other games it was more than massive.

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Aion is one of the few MMOs I played on release day, and this is the first screenshot I took, right after logging in. All those players shared the experience with me, which unfortunately wasn’t all that pleasant. Somewhere in there an NPC is waiting to give players their first tasks, only that it took him minutes (!) to actually respond when you hailed him due to server strain. When I finally got the quest I couldn’t find even a single specimen of the creatures I ought to kill. It wasn’t a bug or somesuch, there were just too many players for far too few mobs, and it took ages to tag enough for getting the first quests done, even if you grouped up for it. Not fun.

So here we have three instances of many players being in the same place at the same time which, to me, were really great, and one where the high player density actually was to everyone’s detriment. What were your experiences with massive player numbers?

IntPiPoMo picture count: 7 (this post); 14 (total)

On randomness in MMOs

A great deal of gameplay elements in many video games are chance based, especially so in MMORPGs. Since those have their roots in Pen & Paper RPGs and board games more than skill based arcade games this isn’t actually a big surprise. Instead of dice being rolled the game’s random number generator (RNG) decides if you succeed or fail to, for example, hit your target or get your hands on a piece of desired loot.

Is this good or bad though? After thinking about it a lot and weighing my experiences over the years against each other I have to decidedly conclude: it depends. 🙂

Many forms of randomness aren’t really noticable as such. That my attacks sometimes miss is a fact that I just acklowledge and that I work against by raising stats like accuracy. But the important bit is that missing an attack every now and then is almost never a big deal. It doesn’t hurt much, is what I’m saying.

My first experience with randomness that could actually hurt was in Star Wars Galaxies. When crafting I sometimes failed, losing all materials in the process. I didn’t know how my chances for success were, nor if I could have minimized the chance to fail somehow (it wasn’t even known for sure if using crafting stations and tools of higher quality had any effect back then). After a while I was convinced that I failed more often on critical combines consuming the most resources, resulting in me thinking “RNG hates me!” for the first time. It wouldn’t be the last.

I don’t know how many times during my first years playing Everquest II I hoped in vain for a specific drop that I really wanted, or worse, saw it drop only to have someone else win the roll. For a while I really hated the randomness of it all.

As time passed and the genre evolved to more accessibility and less overall difficulty, token systems came into play. Instead of specific items (often only usable by a specific class) mobs would drop a token that could then be exchanged for an item of choice. This circumvented the frustration of ‘again a whole dungeon run and not a single drop for my class’, but made competition even more fierce since most players had ‘Need’ on most drops regardless of class all of a sudden.

Even further went The Secret World’s approach. Instead of tokens dungeon bosses would drop a fixed amount of currency. Every endgame weapon, armor, enhancement and upgrade would be bought with that currency. The good thing about that was that every player always got the full amount of currency, so there was no competition and no envy between group members at all. At first I really liked this solution.

After a while I felt that something was missing though. There was no pleasure, no adrenaline rush and no associated story when getting a new item.

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This was my pride and joy in TSW. Nevertheless I have no idea when exactly I got it, which dungeon run gave me the needed currency or how I got the token to upgrade the Glyph. Nothing.

In contrast, I still remember under which exact circumstances I got most items for my Warlock in EQII’s Rise of Kunark expansion. The Tormented Bracelet of Doom, for example. This could only drop from a contested named mob in Kunzar Jungle, Doom. I would swing by his turf every time I started playing and look if he was there. He was pretty sturdy and hit very hard, fighting him solo was a tough challenge. On the day he finally dropped his bracelet the fight was particularly close, I beat him with just a sliver of health left myself. I was overjoyed to finally get it, so much so that I still remember now, about ten years later, that it gave +4% to crit chance and +17 spell damage at the time without looking it up.

Being a Dark Elf Warlock I probably should have been friends with this Ancient Evil. Unfortunately for him I wanted his bracelet really bad…

This made me realize that when it comes to item acquisition I actually prefer the much more random approach of yore. For me token and currency systems took pretty much everything that’s fun about getting better gear away.

Then there’s gear upgrading as seen in ArcheAge and Black Desert Online, among others. This seems to be an Asian thing, basically not being able to use an item right after getting it because it has to be heavily upgraded first to become effective. Chance plays a huge role here too.

I passionately hated ArcheAges’s system, which involved so much RNG and so severe consequences when failing that it made the whole thing downright hostile.

The RNG ‘fun’ began well before the upgrading part. When crafting armor or weapons the outcome in terms of stats was completely random, and most versions couldn’t even be crafted further to higher tiers at all, forcing you to start over.

The real pain started once you had managed to get your desired base item though: the regrading system. This boosted the stats of an item while keeping basic properties intact. From the second tier onward (of which there were twelve!) there was a good chance to fail an attempt. From fifth tier there was an added chance to downgrade by one tier if you failed. From seventh tier you could downgrade two tiers with one fail. From eighth tier onward you could lose the whole item. With every tier upgrade an item gained exponentially more power than with the previous one, making top tier items godly powerful, so just not doing it wasn’t really an option. I quit the game mainly because of this crap.

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Ironically not long after getting this. Should have quit much sooner though.

Black Desert has a system that works similar in outline, but is much, much more forgiving. I’m actually having quite some fun with it, though one important reason for that is the fact that the game keeps handing out upgrade materials, silver and lots of other stuff for free on a daily basis. This lessens the feeling of loss immensely when failing a couple of times.

In conclusion, RNG elements in MMOs can be extremely frustrating to the point of ruining a game as a whole for me. When done right though they are not only ok, they can actually enrich the experience by giving achieved goals much more gravitas.

Your mileage may vary of course.