By Beau Hindman
The MMORTS genre is easily one of my favorite genres. There's so much potential in a game that is essentially a giant, endless boardgame with thousands of players. An epic scale occurs in even the smallest of titles because players control not only one or two grand heroes but entire armies that swarm from sprawling cities. I believe this genre to be one of the most popular out there. Browser-based access doesn't hurt, either, and generally the MMORTS titles I find do a great job of covering their design bases.
Despite the fact that the genre is packed full of potentially wonderful gaming sessions, there is so, so much that needs to improve. The negative stereotypes exist for a reason, and I want to shine a light on a few of the more popular titles to show just how one or two bad design and business decisions might reflect poorly on the entire genre.
Bad customer service is so powerful
For example, this week I decided to return to Ministry of War. Well, after trying to remember which server my old one was merged into, and after trying to go through the recovery process again and finding some oddly named city on my account, I emailed customer service. Understand that I had emailed CS before and never received any response. If I had been hacked, was my initial city gone? Was it even possible to delete a city? If I couldn't remember my old server name, how would I know which server it had been merged with? Was there a reason why, when trying to fill in the recovery form, I didn't have enough room for my city name?
All of these questions will probably remain, and to be honest, I believe the trouble I am going through is not worth starting over in the world. I liked Ministry of War for so many of its positive design choices, but if I am unsure of the security of my account, I give up. Until I get an answer, I'll steer clear.
Complicated design is not hardcore
One of the common terms I hear thrown around in the MMORTS world is "hardcore." It often goes hand-in-hand with sandbox games. You'll also see "complex" or "deep" tossed in the mix. I've always wondered why developers seem to want to brag about how complex or hardcore a game is.
As I play Golden Age, I wonder why the game makes many processes so unbelievably complicated or bloated with weird information. Sure, one of the main culprits is poor localization, but is there no simpler way to describe a process such as taking over a farmland with my army? I have been raising an army lately and found that I raised it too fast and hurt my food production. I left the game for a week and came back to the army's rioting and pillaging because its members were starving. I wanted to just let some of the soldiers go, to send them home early with a medal. I couldn't figure that out even after talking to the chat. When that didn't work, I tried to raise my food production but couldn't produce enough food to raise a farm level. I tried to attack local farmlands but was told that I had to conquer them first, then take them. I have tried that, but the menus are either poorly translated or just gibberish. Finally I bought some food from an NPC in the open, side-scrolling town that players can meet in, and I have been trying to keep my head above water. At this point, that army is still rioting despite the fact that I have plenty of food.
I want to reiterate that I can and probably will eventually figure out these systems that are actually not that complicated. In hindsight, I will probably smack my forehead and go, "Oh, so that's how you do it!" The point is that a new player, including someone who is new to MMOs in general, would simply walk away and later turn up in my comments section talking about how poorly designed all MMORTS titles are.
Meaningful PvP actually sounds quite nice
I used to crack up every time I heard PvP players whine about the lack of "meaningful PvP" in their favorite MMOs. I wasn't laughing at them; I was laughing at the idea that there would ever be meaningful PvP brought to any popular title. In order for PvP to have meaning, a game must offer meaningful punishment for that PvP. We have only seen a few titles even attempt anything near permadeath, but I don't think it needs to go that far anyway. The process of getting hurt, or in this case having your city overthrown, can be extended or brought to a more "realistic" level before the player even faces death.
If we look at Evony, a very popular and actually quite well-made MMORTS, we see the farming culture in perfect working order. Farming in an MMORTS is basically the process of attacking another player's city over and over, resulting in mounds of goods for the attacker and an empty storehouse for the victim. However, not much real damage is done to the city. I could be wrong in the exact process with different titles, but one visit to Evony will show you just how passionate the community is about farming its own members.
I can understand why developers love farming in an MMORTS. It's the same process as a rep grind or raiding in many other standard MMOs. It's basically something for players to do, over and over and over, something that will keep them glued to the game. To me, that's boring. I would rather have a city that can be hurt, possibly even badly, and a recovery process that is realistic and immersive. It doesn't have to be punishing or annoying but could actually be enjoyable or used to grow a city's story if done right. Farming is not right.
These are just a few of the issues I have with the MMORTS genre. Still, every genre has its issues, so I would request that this article not be used as some sort of evidence of how bad things are in the MMORTS world. My point is that it only takes a few poor design or business choices in a handful of popular and otherwise-enjoyable games to taint the entire pack. If developers take the time to consider how these mistakes effect the entire genre, everything might improve.
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