Innovative features that improved MMO gameplay.
Ultima Online (Released September 5th, 1997)
- The MMO: There were more than a few games released before Ultima Online that could potentially be called MMO's but none that drew as many players or as much attention. UO's success established that there was a large audience out there ready to play if only there were games that could reach them. Being one of the earliest games to be released UO established the reference point for what would be called an MMO as well as what game mechanics would work, what would not, and what would become standard features. Among these features are:
- Fast Travel Options (Moongates)
- Player Housing
Everquest (Released March 16th, 1999)
- Raiding: Although it can be a polarizing issue for many players, raiding greatly extends the life of the game and gives players something to do even after they achieve the maximum level. Raiding as established by Everquest involves a large number of well prepared players pitting themselves against some monumental foe such as a god or dragon in play sessions that can last for several hours. EQ did it first and it has been much expanded on and improved since then and will likely remain as a, if not the, 'end game' activity for most MMO's in the future.
- Multiple Races/Start Areas: In Ultima Online everyone was human and regardless of what town you started in the game was always the same. Everquest established radically different zones, atmosphere, and background for each of the game's races. This made trying new characters and classes far more appealing as you could anticipate having a brand new experience.
Asheron's Call (Released November 2nd, 1999)
- The Respec: Asheron's Call was the first game to give players the ability to unlearn a skill or ability, recover the points used to acquire it, and spend them on something else. This lent a flexibility to character development that allowed players to recover from bad choices and try new things.
Anarchy Online (Released June 27th, 2001)
- Hyperlinks for items: Anarchy Online was the first game to implement hyperlinks for items that players could use in chat and trade channels. No more were we assaulted by endless abbreviations for item names or have to list stats out by hand. A player could link an item directly into chat and anyone seeing the link could click it to view the item's detailed information.
- Private Instances: As far as I know Anarchy Online was the first game to create private game spaces where people could carry out tasks or complete quests without interference from other players.
- Random Content Generation: Although Anarchy Online's generated content is not the most compelling it is still better than running the same instance 500 times. More games should work at implementing improved versions of this to expand the amount of content available to the players.
Dark Age of Camelot (Released October 10th, 2001)
- RvR Combat: This unique variation on PvP divides the players into separate, distinct, realms. This gave PvP a structured element that it had been lacking before so that instead of just a mish-mash of combatants there were now clear sides to a conflict and players could easily identify allies and enemies. In addition to delineating the sides Mythic also provided a set region for the conflict to take place and captureable objectives within that region that provided small but tangible benefits to the side that held it.
- Accelerated Advancement for Alts: Once a player has a character reach maximum level they may create other characters that start at level 20. This is a great convenience for players who want to try other classes but don't want to spend the time to work new characters up from scratch.
- XP Bonus/Penalty for camp prevention: DAoC implemented a system where enemies accrued an experience bonus that could be collected by players based on how long it had been since the creature was last beaten. When players found and killed the enemy they would receive extra experience. The more times players subsequently killed that enemy over a short period of time the more the bonus would be reduced until it became a penalty. This system is great for encouraging players to move on and explore rather than sit in one place and kill the same things over and over again as was customary in Everquest.
- Web Based Game Data: The World of Warcraft Armory was not the first corporate web interface where people could look up game data. No, it was the Camelot Herald which first allowed people to use a company maintained website to view the current RvR progress, pvp standings, guild affiliations, character levels, craft skills and other details.
Shadowbane (Released March 25th, 2003)
- Player made/owned cities: Being a PvP centric game player owned cities were an important feature of shadowbane. It is possible that Lineage was actually the first game to have player owned structures that could be captured through PvP but Shadowbane was the first to let players design the layout of the city and decide what buildings were erected.
Star Wars Galaxies (pre NGE) (Released June 26th, 2003)
- Experimental Crafting: SWG created an improved version of the traditional craft system which allowed players to create items by using any of a set of materials rather than a single specific resource. The qualities of the materials chosen for construction had a direct impact on the qualities of the sub-components which in turn affected the final product. This left it to the players to discover the best combination of materials and components through experimentation.
- Appearance Customization: SWG was the first game to offer any significant customization of the character's physical appearance and they offered an impressive array of sliders and options that would allow you to tailor your character on a detail level virtually impossible to see while actually playing.
- Automated Player-Player Trade: SWG was the first game to release with an in-game mechanic that enabled players to list items for sale and make purchases without having to deal with other players directly.
Final Fantasy XI (Released August 11th 2003)
- Variation on Automated Trade: I don't remember exactly how it worked but from what I recall when buying or selling an item through the Auction House you could not see the exact price of items listed for sale. Instead you saw what the last 9 items sold for and when you bid for an item you could choose to bid more or less than that price. I believe the buyer always spent the full amount bid for the purchase and the seller always received what the buyer actually spent. Items remain for sale until someone bids more than the listed amount or until 9 weeks have passed. There is even a website that tracks AH transactions.
- In Game Mail: Final Fantasy launched with Moogle Mail which allowed players to use creatures called Moogles to send items and messages to other players and recieve items or money from the Auction House.
City of Heroes (Released April 28th, 2004)
- Mentor/Sidekick: This system lets people play together despite large disparities in their levels by either elevating the lower level person to be nearer that of the higher level person or lowering the mentor's level to be nearer that of the lower level person. Far more games should start integrating this into their designs as a way of allowing old and new players to enjoy the game together.
- Target Forwarding: Target Forwarding allows players to spend more time in the action and less time fumbling about for a target by letting them target one thing and use abilities on another. Target the enemy for instance and use a heal power and rather than heal the enemy you heal what the enemy is trying to kill. Target an allied player and launch an attack and rather than harm the player your attack is aimed at your ally's target instead. This makes tasks like assissting or switching between heals and dps much easier so that players can watch what is going on more and focus on UI elements less.
- XP Debt: Love it or Hate it the experience debt penalty for death was a brand new way of penalizing players for failure. Once a player dies rather than suffer an immediate experience loss they instead incur an experience debt of the same amount. As the character earns experience the amount earned is split between advancement and paying off the debt until the total amount has been repaid. This precludes the dreaded de-leveling that occurred in Everquest.
- Instanced Public Spaces: In order to accommodate large numbers of players in the same region the game would create multiple copies of public spaces as required based on server load. When traveling between regions you would choose which of the numbered instances to enter. This sometimes caused confusion when players tried to meet in the same zone but didn't realize they were in different copies of the same place. Overcrowding was a major problem in earlier games but seems to be less of an issue now or at least one which gets much less attention. I have not seen any anti-overcrowding measures adopted by any of the current MMOs.
- Hidden Respawns: In every MMO after you defeat something it must eventually be replaced so that players always have opponents to play against. In every other game I can think of enemies will respawn right in front of your face, appearing out of nowhere. In CoH however respawns never happen within the player's view. They may occur behind a wall or around a corner but never where the player can see it happen. This greatly enhances the level of immersion in the game and allows players to rest or step away from the keyboard in relative safety after defeating the enemies in their immediate area.
- Scalable Content: In CoH missions will scale up or down in difficulty based on the number of players in the group when it is started so that players always face appropriately challenging content that fits the group or individual's needs at the time.
- Raid Instances: Since both games came out within a couple weeks of each other I can't honestly credit one or the other with coming up with this idea first but it represents a major advancement in game play. Prior to this feature being implemented raids occurred in the public spaces of the virtual world. This meant that other players were able to interfere with a raid trying to kill a boss, that fighting a boss was likely to disrupt the performance of the zone and interfere with other players trying to play the game in the same region, and that boss kills were highly competitive on any server that supported more than a single raiding guild since only one group would be able to kill the boss per reset cycle. Once raid instances were introduced raiding became accessible to far more players as it eliminated the competition to be the first group to kill a particular boss.
- In Game E-Mail +C.O.D: These games were the first I know of to provide a mail subsystem which allows players to send items to each other COD. When a player receives a message marked COD they choose to accept it or not. If they accept the COD the game automatically deducts the specified amount of money from the recipient and mails it to the sender.
Everquest 2 (Released November 8th, 2004)
- Shared Storage Space: Everquest 2 was the first game to tacitly endorse 'twinking' by providing a set of storage spaces that were shared between characters allowing players to safely transfer money or items.
- Enhanced Craft Production Mechanics: Up till this point crafting was a matter of gathering the materials, clicking a button, and waiting for the item to be created. Production was carried out with no interaction from the player beyond choosing what to make. EQ2 introduced a system which had the character play a simplistic mini-game where random events would occur during the crafting process that players needed to react to. Failure to respond, or improper responses, would result in the item being of lower quality and less craft experience being gained. Correct choices would result in items of higher than standard quality.
- Tome/Lore/Tour quests: One of the better features of EQ2 that I think is often overlooked. Although this is essentially just a clever use of the quest system I think it deserves to be mentioned. In EQ2 you can purchase books which result in a quest that leads you through the lore of various regions of the game and acts as a sort of self-driven tour of the local dungeons and adventure areas. Unfortunately these quests are not at all solo friendly despite being perfect for the casual gamer and are often skipped or overlooked.
- Community Tools: EQ2 has by far some of the best tools available for community support including the hosting of guild web pages, in game guild halls, crafting stations, guild banking and the ability to level up your guild through the completion of city tasks which allows people to contribute to their guild and show off their achievements in ways no other game has yet matched.
World of Warcraft (Released November 24th, 2004)
- Rest Experience: WoW was the first game to offer people experience for not playing. While offline players earn what is called rest experience. Rest experience is a bonus to experience earned based on the amount of time the character has been offline. This functions as a small advantage for casual players who don't play as often but would like to keep up with others who play much more. This does not keep them from falling behind but it does mean they wont be as far behind as they would be without it. It also gives players a motive to use cities more as logging out inside a city increases the rate rest xp is gained. This creates more traffic in the towns which makes them feel more lived in and lifelike.
- Customizable Interface/Mods: No other game has given the player as much freedom and power to modify the client interface as World of Warcraft. Using the Lua programming language players can use a fairly large library of functions to create mods which change the way the player interacts with the game. These range from simple skins and cosmetic changes to player made interface elements which completely replace those provided by blizzard or even create functionality that does not exist elsewhere. This caused blizzard enough heartburn when players began automating or simplifying some game mechanics through interface mods that they later crippled some of the functionality. This caused a great uproar when it first happened but players have learned to live with it.
- Instanced PvP: This is a feature which gains much praise as well as much condemnation. On one hand it provides unique areas with specific objectives to be achieved where the sides can be numerically balanced. It also establishes clear start times and victory conditions. On the other hand it treats PvP as a sort of mini-game within the virtual world that occurs in cut-off, transient, game spaces. Detractors argue that instanced PvP trivializes the supposed struggle between factions and greatly diminishes, or undermines, the role of 'real world' PvP within the game which in turn removes the feeling of conflict and tension.