Specialized Gear: Why Subscription-Based MMOs Need You To Need Them

In both PvE and PvP, the overarching goal in many MMOs is to obtain better gear that allows you to excel in your chosen specialization. The more you PvP, the better quality of PvP gear you earn, which in turn makes you more formidable in PvP. The same principle exists for PvE. All of this seems pretty logical and basic for most anyone who has ever played World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, or any number of similar titles.

It also seems just as natural to many of us that trying to take your PvP gear into PvE, or your PvE gear into PvE, isn’t going to work out so well. The reason for this is because the gear is specialized through the use of stats that only benefit you in PvP or PvE respectively. In WoW, for example, this PvP stat is currently called Resilience and it boosts both your damage output and damage reduction when facing other players. In their next expansion, Resilience is being split into two separate stats, Defense and Power,  that will handle each of these roles respectively. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, their PvP stat is called Expertise, and it functions like Resilience with the additional function of boosting your healing in PvP. In Patch 1.2, which releases tomorrow, BioWare is increasing the amount of Expertise found on their end game PvP gear.

A great deal of thought and planning revolves around these specialized stats, and these developers will try to sell you on them as if they’re doing you a favor. You’ll be told that PvE gear just isn’t designed to take the hits that PvP gear is because most players (other than tanks) aren’t supposed to be getting hit in PvE in the first place. PvP stats are therefore a requirement so people don’t get one-shot and so fights will last longer than a few seconds. This allegedly allows time for more complex strategies and battles to evolve during play, which should result in a more rewarding experience.

To me, that is a load of crap, and all it really does is highlight the downside of the holy trinity of PvE (tank/healer/DPS) in a game with PvP. If you didn’t force your players into these archaic roles, and if everyone shared the same overlapping responsibilities, you wouldn’t need to overcompensate for their weaknesses with a PvP stat.

The real idea around specialized gear is simple: developers of subscription-based MMOs don’t want players to be effective in both PvP and PvE without having to participate fully in both gear grinds.

Grinding is time, and time is money.

In SW:TOR, it has been far too easy, up to this point, to participate in both PvE and PvP using a single gear set. You didn’t need to spend time in hard mode flashpoints (dungeons) in order to work up to run raids (operations). You could just PvP and use that gear and clear all of their normal and hard mode PvE content. There was almost no incentive or need to spend weeks gearing up in PvE when you could easily skip that content entirely. This led to people clearing the end game content much faster than anticipated, which led to bored players, and bored players don’t continue to pay subscriptions.

The other thing that specialized gear does, and all end game gear for that matter, is create a status symbol for the player that can be envied by the rest of the player community. If you have the best of something, others want it. The key thing for subscription MMOs is that the best gear MUST exist at the end of a time sink.

I found an interesting article on Psychology Today that highlights a little of what I am talking about:

It’s all about status and exclusivity…

Whether we admit it or not, we all want to feel as if we are a little bit better than the people around us. We begin to establish that – at least in our own minds – with the accouterments of wealth such as branded clothing, jewelry, luxury automobiles, and exclusive neighborhoods. Even the poorest of people find symbols with which to establish their status. The visibility of these status symbols can create the powerfully motivating emotion of envy.

Most happiness that is acquired by achieving status symbols is short lived. Overtime such trappings become meaningless to us…   But, status can continue to motivate us long after money ceases to do so. Bestowing a new title with added responsibilities yet without any added pay is a common method for rewarding employees.

This absolutely applies to end game gear in most MMOs, just at it applies to titles like “Gladiator” or “Battlemaster” or “Slayer Of That Totally Kickass Dragon”. And if that status is only temporary, no problem. It only has to last until the next arena season or raid content anyway, which is (surprise!) just long enough for most people to reach that plateau.

Without these carrots on sticks, the only incentive that players are left with to participate in PvP and PvE content is how challenging and dynamic the content is, and how much fun they’re having doing it. For the developer of a subscription-based MMO, that is a chilling thought. They need you to slow down and make sure you only progress in bite-sized increments.

  • That is why loot is randomized in those games and why everyone doesn’t get a drop from each raid boss. They need you coming back and doing the same thing week after week, despite the very real threat of boredom, just so you can get that last piece of gear.
  • That is why getting around in the game world is blocked by things like fast-travel cooldowns or flight paths or worse…. orbital stations… (and why in game flight in WoW was a big mistake on their part). They need to make you spend time getting from Point A to Point B, not so you can appreciate the scope of how large the game world is, but because time is money.
  • That is why crafting stacks of a single item takes so bloody long.
  • That is why there are PvP rankings that exist as prerequisites to purchasing high level PvP gear.

I won’t sit here and tell you that free-to-play MMOs are all innocent of this entirely, but they really don’t need to go to the same lengths to keep you playing every single day, so they don’t need to resort to all of the same tricks. You can stop playing a F2P MMO for days, weeks or even months in order to play something else or engage in other hobbies, just as easily as you can with games in other genres. You can always come back for the next expansion, or after you finish that one Sci-Fi trilogy with the horrible endings.

By contrast, in Guild Wars  2:

  • You can get “end game” gear with all the same stats on it through various combinations of PvE, PvP and crafting. The only elite status symbols come in the form of cosmetic armor sets or titles. They’re there for the people who want to earn them, but they aren’t the entire reason for playing.
  • Bosses in Guild Wars 2 drop loot for everyone. No one walks away empty handed.
  • Fast travel has a cost, but is instant to anywhere you’ve already explored.
  • Crafting multiples of the same item actually speeds up your crafting time for each progressive item.
  • You can PvP in their structured PvP (battlegrounds) on DAY ONE using a PvP-only character with max level gear.

At the end of the day, the need for separate PvP and PvE gear isn’t about the game so much as it is about the subscription revenue. That model just doesn’t work for me anymore, because it isn’t honest. It isn’t about making the best game possible. It’s about keeping the grind alive to make the most money.

That’s another reason I’m taking my business to ArenaNet. Guild Wars 2 has a PvP stat as well. It’s called ‘Skill’.

16 responses to “Specialized Gear: Why Subscription-Based MMOs Need You To Need Them

  1. The big issue here Jason though that in my opinion almost invalidates your comparison completely, is that GW2 doesn’t have a subscription, they don’t NEED to keep you playing, they need the initial 60$ and they are content if you don’t ever play again. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m just saying the meat of your article is comparing apples to oranges based on their business model. ArenaNet may want to sell you some mounts or pets down the road, maybe hit you for an expansion, but other than word of mouth and getting more people to buy the retail box, they have no incentive to keep you playing month to month.

    I keep seeing the “holy trinity” bashed, but I have to ask, without defined roles, what fun is the game? I know I’ve run easier dungeons at times without a tank and everyone dpsing, it didn’t feel strategic, fun or interesting, it was just wail on everything as quick as you can without any strategy. Everquest had a “puller” and a CC specialist so it was more like having 5 roles, and that I thought was an amazing amount of fun, I just don’t understand the hate for roles or your description above as “archaic”. Everyone being a generalist isn’t fun.

    Imagine playing Pandemic without any roles, or hey lets just play D&D where everyone has the same spells, etc, individuality, focus and roles is what makes interaction with other players fun.

    • Like I told Jason, I am pretty sad that I won’t be able to just hang back and heal my ass off while my friends go crazy. I’m willing to see how it works out though. When there isn’t a super-high expectation to top the healing meters and the healing team won’t get automatic blame for deaths both preventable or not, then it can be fun to look for other ways to aid the fight that don’t result from making health bars go up. I still wish I could do so from a predominantly-healing foundation, however.

      It will be interesting to see how lack of incentive to keep current players playing will affect the game’s maintenance and upkeep. On the one hand, it’s really nice to know I can step away for a month or whatever if need be without any hassle of unsubscribing or what have you, but on the other hand, there is that potential for the company to disregard any high turnover issues, and just keep looking to sell new copies.

    • Like I told Jason, I am pretty sad that I won’t be able to just hang back and heal my ass off while my friends go crazy. I’m willing to see how it works out though. When there isn’t a super-high expectation to top the healing meters and the healing team won’t get automatic blame for deaths both preventable or not, then it can be fun to look for other ways to aid the fight that don’t result from making health bars go up. I still wish I could do so from a predominantly-healing foundation, however.

      It will be interesting to see how lack of incentive to keep current players playing will affect the game’s maintenance and upkeep. On the one hand, it’s really nice to know I can step away for a month or whatever if need be without any hassle of unsubscribing or what have you, but on the other hand, there is that potential for the company to disregard any high turnover issues, and just keep looking to sell new copies.

      • Ya, good points Lins, and I have it preordered for the precise reason that I don’t have to pay a sub and if I get busy a week or two I won’t feel like I wasted my money.

        I think theres a greatness in specialization and it doesn’t even need to be permament. I mean look at EVE, my pilot can fly ships that fill 8 different roles, but once I get into the ship I’m locked in. Flying in a fleet with say 50 “generalists” wouldn’t be exciting to me nor would it be fun to fight against. That’s the point I was trying to make.

    • I think you made your point very well, and I completely understand where you’re coming from. I think your EVE analogy is perfect! Your pilot could fly 8 specialized ships, and you could float between them based on what you wanted to do. I love the idea of playing a character in GW2 and my weapon, trait and utility skill choices – which I can swap around fairly easily – can allow me to do much of the same thing. I think it will be fun to see in action.

  2. I don’t believe the subscription model has much of a future in a world where there are so many quality titles coming out, where some of those titles are free-to-play, and where an aging gamer population (on average) doesn’t have the time or lifestyle for grinds. This is especially true now that free-to-play won’t automatically indicate a lower quality title. WoW is an outlier, and aberration, not the rule. I doubt any subscription MMO will ever pull in the numbers it sees.

    There were long stretches of my WoW raiding time where I didn’t play anything else other than WoW. No console games, no other PC titles, no tabletop RPGs, nothing. A subscription based MMO almost needs to be your only title. A free-to-play MMO doesn’t. ArenaNet will be fine if I decide to purchase an extra character slot or two, but if I take time off to play Diablo 3, they aren’t as worried about it as BioWare would be. Time spent not playing GW2 is free. Time spent not playing SW:TOR is costing me $15 a month and subject to cancellation. Starting up GW2 again is free. Starting up SW:TOR again requires a credit card number.

    Specialized gear exists because of the need for a grind – two different ones actually. Grinds are needed to feed the business model. That is the meat of what I’m getting at.

    As far as roles go, I remember D&D from long before it devolved into 4th edition’s parroting of a WoW-based role system. You may have needed healing of some type, but there were no “tanks”. I think it was a far superior game then, and full of a lot more diversity.

    Likewise in Pandemic, people have specializations, but they all have the same basic actions and concerns too. It isn’t like only one person can research a cure, and if you don’t draw that card, then you can’t play that night.

    Moving away from the Trinity doesn’t mean everyone is a carbon copy either. You swap out Tank, Healer and DPS for Control, Support and Damage. You can still find just as much room to specialize in those roles, if not more so, than you can in the Trinity. Take a look at one of the Guild Wars 2 skill tools. You can build out the same class in vastly different ways that can all be equally effective to how YOU want to play rather than what the game makes you play.

    Dungeon content in WoW or SW:TOR can be devastatingly dull if you out muscle it to the point where no strategy is required, but I think that is more an indication of a flaw in dungeon design than anything else. Content is balanced around the need for a heavily armored punching bag who hits back like a wet noodle. If you have enough DPS or dedicated healing to overcome that hurdle, it becomes a snoozefest. The people who move the least are rewarded with the highest DPS. Gearing for survivability is looked down upon, since it will lower your placement on the meters. People stay in harmful AoEs and eat it because maximizes their DPS, and they think their health bar is the healer’s problem.

    In GW2, the people who move the most, and are the most situationally aware are rewarded. You don’t stand under a towering boss and have your whole job be to just get beat on. You dodge out or strafe away, and contribute meaningful damage while you’re at it. Everyone will have moments where they need to manage the boss in their grill, or throw out a clutch heal, or rez a downed player, or pop off a CC in time to turn the tide. Yet self-healing is always more powerful than healing you can do to others. It places more emphasis on individual excellence.

    How cool is it to just be able to run with a group of friends and do content where you don’t have to worry over what class they play, or what role they fill, or who may or may not log in tonight?

    I sat down with Lindsay and think about what class I should play in GW2 to compliment her Necromancer. It took me a couple weeks to finally realize that it doesn’t matter. I can play anything I want, and we can still participate in PvP and PvE without fear of not having the right role covered. Our effectiveness will only be limited by our ability to play the game, not by if we’re missing a tank or healer or a specific class buff. It’s Bring The Player, Not The Class, only this time it isn’t just lip service. We can still optimize, still look for ways to compliment the other, but it isn’t like SW:TOR where we went in knowing I was tanking and she was healing just so we could get things done.

    That’s why I’m excited about the next generation of games.

    • I think you are a bit jaded but I’m not going to piss on anyone’s parade :). You get into this “this game is going to revolutionize everything and everything before it sucks” mode with a lot of games that come out, and cycle through them very quick. Hell I remember it for TOR and it’s been out for not even 5 months now and it’s the leper hanging out with WoW to you now.

      You talk about the holy trinity and moving away from it, oddly enough into another “trinity”. So we trade tanking, dps and heals for damage, control and support? o.O Before we get into the argument that you don’t need each of those 3 to succeed, I counter with the fact that if you don’t need class diversity, strategy, to succeed then the content isn’t going to be challenging enough and thus snoozeville all over again. I’m fine needing one of each archtype, completely, I think it’s what makes the game interesting. o your argument about being able to just grab a few friends and run something, that was basically what WoW Dual Spec / Rift Multi Spec accomplished and in a better, more meaningful way (imo). I don’t think I’d want to (as dps) hop in with 2 other damage friends and blow up a dungeon, I think it would be boring as shit. Which is exactly why WoW’s MoP Scenario things sound blah to me.

      Also to see what I meant by my Pandemic comment, bust out a copy and don’t give anyone role cards. Or hell make everyone the “generalist” and take 5 actions. It’s boring as hell, nuances is what makes the game fun and while Pandemic’s roles doesn’t turn the game 180 degrees it can make a huge difference in your strategies and winning. Not having a researcher or archivist? Ouch, you may be containing outbreaks and keeping the board clean but you use so much more time arranging trades and travelling. Not having containment specialist, medic, etc, your strategy changes to one where containment and removing cubes becomes much more time consuming and important and meeting up with other players, less so. That makes it interesting.

      I’m not saying I disagree with all of your above points here, at all. I think subscription models will have a hard time in the future, but I also dislike elements of free to play, like the idea of pay to win, where some games have gone.

      My original point still stands though, while in the same genre and attracting the same type of players, comparing a subscription model game with a up front fee + nothing or even free to play isn’t really fair for either game.

      • I was burnt out on WoW for a long time before I stopped playing. It is stale, predictable and an increasingly watered down experience. Can you honestly say you love the direction it has taken? I am no longer in that puppet show, but I can see the strings. I find the psychology behind we we play the games we do, and what companies like Blizzard do to keep us playing is fascinating – especially how that need for subscriptions drives design decisions. I also think it is worth exploring what other developers are trying to do to break away from that model, and why.

        I thought that TOR would be a step forward, and it is, from a story telling standpoint. I applaud BioWare. It would be very difficult to go back to any sort of MMO that was purely text based. I just don’t think it innovated enough, especially since they had 5+ years to stand on the shoulders of WoW, yet failed to include many of the basic features that MMO players have come to expect. Not to mention that we’re almost 5 months in and the raid content is only challenging because of bugs. I’d still love to see it succeed, but I think it will take a lot more than the Legacy system – a system designed to encourage alts and buy BioWare time – to make it happen. I guess we’ll see starting tomorrow.

        I look ahead at Guild Wars 2, and there is a ton to be excited about. I don’t consider it hype to break down the reasons and highlight them. It looks and plays a lot differently than WoW, and it is the first one that feels like a true next gen MMO. I’m sure it won’t be perfect either, but ArenaNet certainly seems to be on the right track.

  3. I think what you say about subscription MMOs is very true. I just can’t see myself ever wanting to play one game enough to make it worth it to pursue endgame content, which is what they make you do. I’d rather be able to rotate through different games I’m enjoying and not feel like I have to sink 10 hours into a formulaic set of quests and actions to make my ticker go up. What annoys me is that many of the design elements have started to migrate into single player RPGs (see Kingdoms of Amalur), which sort of ruins the advantages of the single player experience.

  4. I know I’m a bit late to jump in on this one (or does that really matter in this type of forum/discussion – probably not), but I wanted to chime in on the so called “holy trinity” subject: Tank/Healer/DPS. I know this isn’t the main topic, but it is certainly one embedded within this discussion.

    Here is what I want to address in this reply: Why do we need such one dimensional roles as tank/healer/dps, and as you said Jason, why “can’t I just log in an play with my friends”?

    As Kiore mentioned the “trinity” has been bashed in some online discourses, and I myself have even typed a textual “sigh” at the sight of it (in SWToR). I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with it; in and of itself it will not make or break an MMO (imho). There is *plenty* of creative wiggle room to really expand the skills available to those archetypal roles, and the strategies required to play them *successfully*.

    I just don’t think that model is required to make a (highly) successful MMO.

    In my opinion the “trinity” model is used often for two reasons: because it is proven to work and because gamers are familiar with it. There is no risk of spending millions of dollars over several years to create a system that is either intrinsically broken or is so unfamiliar to the gamers that you do not succeed.

    Because of this, imo, there is a lack of creative risk involved when building new MMOs. (And with millions of dollars on the line, I certainly understand why that is.) But there is a vast field of untapped play mechanics that have yet to be implemented or dreamed…for god’s sake, this is the GAMING INDUSTRY. The heart and soul of it is dreaming up new things.

    Off the top of my head: an MMO that doesn’t have 1 defined tank but a variety of characters that can tank for a duration of time. When a character draws aggro they gain a “mark” that applies a damage vulnerability debuff (think exhaustion) after 45 seconds (at which point, you’d want another character to grab the aggro). Yes, you could still have dedicated healers. Yes, you could still have beefy “tank” characters that could grab aggro safely in an emergency, but you could easily have parties made of none of these and everyone simply grabbed aggro on rotations they felt comfortable with (and their different classes could mitigate that damage in their own unique way).

    And with that model all you’d really need are a number of friends logging in to play. Everyone would have certain dmg/cc/heal/dps abilities, they’d just have to know how to use them as a TEAM. How great would that be?

    As a final note on class diversity, and shaking up the “trinity”, I would call attention to Final Fantasy XI (the online MMO). Although there is a trinity composition, there is a robust system in place that allows all the classes to apply their own unique abilities in combos for “bonus effects” (e.g. extra shadow dmg, extra fire dmg, etc.). Just brilliant (and for the life of me don’t understand why someone hasn’t replicated this great mechanic). You can still have the holy trinity but still have diversity and engaging mechanics for ALL your classes.

    To reiterate, I think the heart of the issue is investment versus risk. I’m sure there are some fantastic ideas out there, and there are certainly *very different* ways to make successful MMOs, but there is no “five dollar ante” at the MMO table. For the most part you are either “all in” or you are folding. And given a choice the betters are going with the “hands” that have won in the past, not a brand new deal that has no comfort zone.

    Hmmm, sorry Jason for derailing this thread. I narrowly focused in on one aspect that peaked my interest. But there was no singularly appropriate thread for me on this subject. Perhaps I could be a contributor? (You like how I did that?)

  5. I think you’re overlooking a very important point, which is that all big-budget games are made to make a profit, and companies will always try to increase those profits however they can. Arenanet isn’t not charging subscriptions out of the kindness of their own heart, they’re doing so because they think they can reach a wider market (and thus make more money). They’ve still created an MMO, so you can bet they’re going to capitalize on human psychology you talked about as much as possible through their cash shop and expansions. In the first GW, you couldn’t just buy the standalone and be competitive, you had to continue to buy expansions to compete.

    You also seem to imply that the competition for status is a bad thing, that players are somehow slaves to this process they’re completely unaware of. I think you’re overestimating the uniqueness of your ability to “see through the veil” here. I would guess that most players are aware that much of their motivation for playing comes from a competitive drive to improve ones status (i.e. e-peen, see, gamers figured this out long before “psychology today”) Referring to MMO players that don’t switch over to GW2 as “puppets” is arrogant and condescending. Ultimately, a lot of the unique appeal of MMOs is that they build little mini-societies wherein ordinarily dull tasks feel compelling.

    The one thing you’re absolutely correct about is that P2P MMO developers have a continual need to supply content to keep their players interested (you say grind, I say content). Simply constructing transparent, uninteresting grinds is no longer enough to keep MMO players interested so in actuality, paying for a subscription entails a promise of continuing expansion of the game. Without more levels, more skills, new battlegrounds, new features, etc. for their mini-worlds to play with, those words would become ghost-towns. To me, that’s all upside, and is precisely the reason why I would choose a P2P game over a F2P game any day of the week.

    (well, that and the fact that it’s way too tempting for companies to use a “buy to win” model, countless games have promised they wouldn’t and eventually succumbed to the tantalizing temptation of sleeping on a bed of 100 dollar bills)

    Finally, I wanted to finish by saying that your idea of a game not bound by the “restrictions” of a P2P game sounds droll. An MMO where you always know you will get what you want, when you want it, with no actual long-term goals to pursue will never be as satisfying as it sounds. Satisfaction and frustration are co-dependent aspects of human nature. You cannot have one without the other. If you disagree, you don’t know as much about human psychology as you think you do.

    • Gaming is a business and must turn a profit like any other. WoW has had several expansions as well, and I’m sure SW:TOR will at some point. The tide is turning however, and free-to-play titles are losing the reputation of being B-level quality with games like Guild Wars 2 and Tribes:Ascend entering the market. I’m sure ArenaNet will turn a nice profit on box copies, downloads and on items from their cash shop something that WoW also does in addition to their monthly fee.

      I don’t believe I said that players who don’t switch to Guild Wars 2 are puppets. I just admire the F2P model they’re offering because they strings they’re pulling are more transparent than they are in games like WoW and SW:TOR.

      The main point of my article is that the specialized PvE and PvP gear you find in those games are an artificial construct purely devised to make you grind and invest time and subscription money. There is no real reason to make those gear sets separate other than to have two distinct carrots to dangle at the end of two distinct grinds.

      Raid content is put in place in a tiered fashion to keep you on the treadmill. To be fair, I enjoyed raiding for years just for the content and camaraderie, but I’ve gained a new perspective on it now that I’ve had a chance to step back from it for a bit. You raid to get specialized gear that is just good enough to get past the barrier of entry to the next tier of raids. The content itself is usually bland and static after the first or second time you defeat it. Yet even long after it is on farm status, you’re compelled to keep doing it to complete your gear set.

      Compare that to a dynamic environment such as the one ArenaNet is offering with their World v World PvP – which has just as much PvE in it in all honesty. The map and game may be the same during every biweekly cycle, but the servers you’ll compete against will change just as much as the number players you’ll go up against and tactics you’ll face. Every time you log in it makes for a different experience. You can have other long term goals that are skill based rather than gear based, just as you can design a MMO to be skill based rather than gear based. The satisfaction via frustration should come from learning to play better and earning rewards, not just waiting for RNG to finally have the dice land in your favor.

      Thank you for your feedback! I really appreciate it.

  6. Pingback: Raiding Sucks. Why Guild Wars 2 Doesn’t Need This “Endgame”. | The Surly Gamer

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