Over the past few years, I’ve tried out more than a few MMOs. Most of them have been of the RPG ilk, a couple have been more of a shooter experience, and a few others have attempted to go for something else entirely. Across all of them, however, I’ve noticed that there are certain things that I’ve basically come to expect from an MMO. Certain things that, if the game doesn’t have them, lead to a general feeling of incompleteness, like the game isn’t quite finished. In fact, I’d say they’re the closest definition of “finish” I can come up with for this kind of game which is inherently designed to evolve in content over time.
#1. Client StabilityThis one is the biggest, and the extent to which some MMOs have lacked stability (at least upon launch) truly astounds me. Please note that this is not referring to server availability - if there’s one thing I’ve come to not expect from MMOs, it’s for the servers to be up. No, this is referring to the basic execution stability of the game client running on my PC instead of crashing to the desktop, blue-screening, or otherwise locking up.
If your game client isn’t stable, you might as well just pack up your toys and go home. While it’s possible that there could be an exception to the rule, I can’t think of an MMO I’ve played recently where the client up and crashed more than once a month, tops. While restarting a client after a few hours to help speed up sluggish performance is generally okay, it shouldn’t just up and decide that it’s had enough for now and disappear… right as I’m pulling Mr. Uber Boss Mob.
It’s quite clear cut: every successful MMO out there has a very solid game client to work off of, and players expect it to start up, run, and keep running until they tell it they’re done. This is not the kind of thing you want to put off and say “we’ll optimize the memory usage at the end” - a tightly-designed client architecture is best created from the start. It’s far, far more easier to design with efficiency in mind than it is to try and carve efficiency out of a giant mass of tangled-up mechanisms later.
#2. Strong Social ToolsYou’d think that it’d be too obvious to mention that games designed as “massively multiplayer” should have strong support for social activities. You would be wrong. Far, far too many MMOs launch (or even subsist past launch) with only the most bare-bones of social tools. If you don’t have support for at least the following in your MMO, you need to spend some more development time on your social features:
- Grouping (thankfully, I’ve never found an MMO that managed to miss this…)
- Friend list (…but sadly, I have found MMOs that managed to miss this)
- Ignore list
- Player organizations (any persistent group of players, e.g. guilds)
- Some form of player information lookup
Just because you have the bare-bones essentials doesn’t mean you should stop there, either. History has shown that gamers thrive on social foundations - just take a look at all of the various gaming networks, social media sites devoted to gaming, and even the multitudes of interface addons designed to make social management easier within games like WoW. Both in and out of game, social resources are multipliers for your player base.
#3. Clean & Consistent UINothing screams “unfinished” more than sloppy user interface design - both in terms of the actual graphics and the functionality. It is not that hard to design a basic set of UI widgets that fit together artistically and don’t look like they were created with MS Paint. It’s also not that hard from a programmatic standpoint to create a common implementation for UI widgets so that the same set of widgets functions the same way whenever you see a given widget. No, the hard part is actually convincing everyone working on the UI to actually stick with that widget set (and hopefully some sort of cohesive design guidelines for the UI as a whole) in their creations.
Your players are going to see the side panel of a table in a dungeon maybe once every hour or so, tops. They’re going to see their action bars, menus, chat window, and inventory every few seconds. Guess which one deserves the most polish in the art department? UI textures should be clean, properly tweaked so that there aren’t artifacts or weird stretching (on all resolutions you plan to run your game in), and preferably approved by someone who has a good sense of aesthetics.
Actual UI widget functionality should be as close to the standards people have come to expect from UI widgets as possible - that means if the widget looks like something you could put in a web page via HTML or find in a typical program, it should function like the version you’d get in that web page or program. People use the web and random applications a lot and are used to how the various widgets they encounter on a daily basis are supposed to work. If you make it work differently (or leave something out that they expect it to do), they’re going to be confused at best and annoyed at worst. On a similar note, don’t just randomly invent new or different UI widgets just for the heck of it - your players would far prefer to see things they’re used to and know how to use than some newfangled graphical oddity that doesn’t give a clear indication of what it does.
When it comes to keyboard shortcuts… imitation is your friend. While it’s true that people don’t just want “another WoW clone”, that has far more to do with wanting different gameplay, storyline, and world aesthetic. When it comes to UI design, people like consistency. If a player is used to hitting their “B” key to open their Backpack in WoW, unless you have a really good reason, go ahead and make the inventory key in your game “B” too. Ditto for every other commonly used key - unless you have an actual reason for why to make a given key one thing or another… stick with the keys people will naturally tend to try based on their experiences in other games. (If your game has lock-on targeting and your Tab key doesn’t cycle through nearby targets in view, may god have mercy on your soul.)