Considering the name of the genre, it seems only natural that Massively Multiplayer Online games would rely on player interaction to keep their audience interested. The best examples of the genre make full use of the massive nature of these games to deliver unique experiences that can’t be found anywhere else. The types of teamwork and interactivity required from players changes from title to title, but there are some noticeable gameplay patterns within the genre that I find intriguing.
We’re going to start with—you guessed it—the themepark MMO. The divide between gameplay styles of themepark and sandbox MMOs makes for very contrasting types of content for players to interact in, and in turn this results in different reasons for player cooperation.
Your bog-standard themepark MMORPG experience can be found in games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Rift, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Final Fantasy XIV, and many more. The core gameplay loop consists of working through a steady progression of developer-made quests through unchanging zones, gaining in statistical levels, more combat abilities, and superior armor and weapons. During these early stages of the game, it is in the players’ best interests to group together to complete content and reach the “endgame”—maximum level—more quickly. Because players’ primary focus is to reach the endgame, players are encouraged to quest together, trade together, and form guilds in order to more efficiently reach that goal.
Once the character reaches maximum level, the focus switches to overcoming challenging content and acquiring better combat gear in order to overcome more challenging content, ad infinitum. This is the meat and potatoes of the modern MMO, and is where players will spend hundreds of hours playing and socializing. Players can typically progress through “dungeons” with small groups of players, and eventually work their way towards “raids” involving varying numbers of players facing off against challenging bosses and puzzles. Difficult raids can take hours of effort and failed attempts, inspiring prominent guilds to compete for the title of “world first” completion. With such a heavy focus on this style of gameplay, this means that the games with the best dungeons and raiding experiences hold the crown.
End-game raids come in many shapes and sizes. Final Fantasy XIV’s recently-released “Alexander” raid pits 8 players against a challenging gauntlet of bosses.
Video taken from the Final Fantasy Heavensward YouTube channel
In the olden days (circa 2004), players were expected to gather in populated areas and organize themselves through word-of-mouth, potentially requiring hours of preparation for difficult combat encounters. Many would consider this a positive; it certainly made player interaction a necessity, but at a major blow to convenience. As a result popular MMOs over the last decade have begun to shift more and more focus towards the endgame gameplay loop and multi-player directed combat experiences, with less focus on social interaction in the open world.
The blame for this falls primarily on the “group finder,” or “raid finder,” a pervasive feature in modern MMOs. This is essentially a matchmaking queue that allows players to dial in their group role and wait to be automatically assigned to a group of like-minded people. However, while this feature makes it easier to get into the action, it cuts out the community-building aspect that old MMOs relied on. Many players can expect to queue for a dungeon or raid, complete the content, and then silently leave without ever speaking to their group. For all intents and purposes, group finders turn once-massive games into single-player experiences.
Raid finders are a controversial feature due to their negative effects on socialization.
Taken from: http://wowwiki.wikia.com/wiki/Raid_Finder
Where the modern themepark MMO puts a priority on gameplay and content over fostering community interaction, the sandbox genre takes an opposing stance. This subgenre has suffered at the hands of the themepark in the last decade, with only a select few titles such as EVE Online retaining a consistent player base. Even so, classic sandbox titles in the vein of Ultima Online share several universal gameplay tenets that have resurfaced in future releases like Albion Online and Crowfall.
Above all, these games rely on player interaction to provide gameplay with minimal focus on pre-made quest chains or directed story content. Player vs. player combat is a common driving force, allowing for emergent gameplay driven by the players. If a group of players want to lay siege to a peaceful town, they can try to do so. If players want to dedicate their time towards protecting other players, or hiring their services out as a bodyguard, they can do that too.
Mercantile gameplay is another sandbox specialty. Perhaps a different group of players could instead put their efforts toward building a successful market empire, allocating jobs such as resource gathering, crafting, and supply delivery. These players might form a guild and build up their own town with their newfound wealth, only to have their hard work torn to shreds as those bloodthirsty players from the first example seize the town for themselves by force.
Upcoming sandbox titles like Albion Online allow players to gather resources and build their own houses (pictured), or create towns together that can then be besieged by other players.
Taken from: http://albiononline.gamepedia.com/Player_Housing
These kinds of gameplay interactions are only possible in a sandbox setting, and are why we are seeing a resurgence in upcoming sandbox MMOs using new technology. Players crave the unique interactivity that only MMOs can provide, and as themepark titles continue to shift their focus away from community and interaction, the sandbox will be there to pick up the slack.