Recently I started playing Aion again, that I plan to write about later as well, but for now it made me think about PvE (Player versus Enemy) content of mmorpgs in general.
There are a lot of things that can be done well in such games, but usually they still end up requiring you to smash two or three buttons only, according to your class. The challenging content is shifted into the endgame, only players accessing them are the ones who already invested a serious amount of hours into the game.
There are, and there always were exceptions, and sometimes you find them at strange places. A semi-recent example could be Scarlet Blade, where even the first dungeon boss summons minions, and stands in a toxic water so you need to stay on leaves. Then the second one is a giant computer mainframe with several attack waves and repairing bots that heal during the boss fight. In several these phases, the mentioned boss release special attacks that can shock the players, so they need to move out of it’s way.
Let me mention the important part once again, this is low level content. You can get here in a day or so. Actually the game is full of nice mechanisms even in arenas where players fight each other, so if someone wasn’t scared away from the game because of the skimpy clothing then they could have some really fun times. What really killed the game is Aeria Games as usually, being greedy and trying to milk every cent from the game whatever it may cost. Yes, this is what you call p2w (Pay To Win). When you can’t get enhancement items in-game, only through an item shop then you can tell if a game is doomed to sink into this money devouring pit.
A friend of mine mentioned Final Fantasy XIV as a counter-example, but complicated boss mechanisms are endgame there as well. The situation is a bit different, because lighter variants of some fights occur on lower levels. For an example, I could say the Titan fight.
Players need to avoid damaging puddles, fight summons and the whole area you fight on becomes smaller and smaller with time. Of course, designing boss fights like in the famous game Shadow of the Colossus would be quite difficult for more than one players, but with such twists we are getting there. Maybe it’s not obvious, but too simple gameplay became an issue since the (in)famous Blizzard title, World of Warcraft. In most games all knowledge you need to know is your class type. Tanks try to get aggro (aggressivity, attack from enemies), healers heal, long-range and melee types are don’t even need to do anything but pushing two or three buttons for a long time, usually. On another note, if you consider that these fights are done over and over again, then an overly complex mechanism like in Shadow of the Colossus could fail badly over time, as it becomes more and more dull and boring.
In a game I played for two years until the english side got shut down, the only twist was the kind of complicated weakness system. This was Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online, and after learning some basic information about your enemies in a boss room, fights went quite the same every time. An exception was the so called Diaspora, but that is more like a raid or event than a real dungeon. You need to get keys, combine them, and know right order while defeating challenging bosses. And once again, those runs are almost end-game content, as usually. My question is, that why? It doesn’t need to be this way, lower level fights can be challenging as well, without artifical difficulty of insane hp amounts or so. (Some fun fact: the highest level content players got on the english-side were the Shiva/Vishnu runs and those were basically textbook examples of button smashing. You kind of used 1-2 skills for half a hour, keeping Shiva or Vishnu harmless with curses and hitting it with as many damage dealers as possible, even with demons if you could.)
You would say that the possibilities are not endless, and designing such fights are lots of work. And yet, another game with exciting PvE content could be Phantasy Star Online 2. There are random mini-events on maps with giants enemies, that needs to be damaged limbs by limbs. Or even after a few maps, you encounter a giant dragon that can burrow itself into the ground. Fights require all of your attention, and they are exciting. Again, I mention this game because this is low level content as well. You can get to these things in a day or two.
So the thing is, I never said that big games nowadays like Tera, Rift, or even Aion wouldn’t have such content, but the games introduce them too late. It’s just my opinion, but working for weeks or even months if you are lazy, just to enjoy a game is way too much time. Players need to learn their classes and skills, but I seriously disagree if they would need this much time. It’s most probably about keeping people playing it, as in my opinion, these games are designed usually to be played the most time possible so they can generate income for long years. People are less likely to stop playing something they already invested thousands of hours into.
In my all time favorite mmorpg (SMTI) the content was quite straightforward, but it was kind of a learning game. You had to know what do you do or you were dead in seconds. Study skills, study enemies and their weaknesses. The interesting map mechanisms were shifted towards endgame as well, what kept me playing was the Shin Megami Tensei world and the nice community only. Well, the combat system was quite different as it was more like a rock-paper-scissor system just like in Mabinogi, but in the end you ended up casting Megidoraon all the time. Either you, or your demon, if you wanted the easiest way, that is.
The case of SMTI is a bit similar to Wakfu, as it offers no interesting gameplay twists in boss fights but you are forced to know what are you doing, and it is fun to learn. Nothing but the skills of your enemies and your group, so a tiny bit similar to chess, even if equipment has an effect on it. But to be honest, what actually keeps me going is the lore, I can’t really help it, but I’m a sucker for occult, dark fantasy or cyberpunk, post-apocalyptics settings and such games can grasp my interest even with such flaws, and since Aion reminds me of the Planescape universe, I may be generous to it and keep grinding until the good part.