Massively Modified Online Roleplaying Games
Neil Kewn (Murxidon) - OnRPG journalist
Are you one of those people who want a career in video game development? Do you long to work behind the scenes at your favourite MMORPG? Now, you almost certainly can! There are a number of high profile MMORPGs that encourage the development and implementation of add-ons, interface modifications and other tools into their games. Whether it is visual trackers that show you exactly where to go to finish a quest, or a complete overhaul of a game's UI to provide a slew of information, you can at least get a taste for what it is like to contribute to a huge virtual world. But are these game-changing pieces of code a good idea, and what effects are they having on our favourite MMOs?
The most notable title that allows players to develop custom content is World of Warcraft. Blizzard has opened the floodgates giving budding modders permission to manipulate the MMO behemoth in any number of ways. Five years down the line, thousands of modifications and add-ons are available to download and install. There are certainly mods that die-hard MMORPG fans couldn't live without. With over 38 million downloads since its inception, QuestHelper was indispensable for many gamers. This relatively simple tool would point Azeroth adventurers to exactly where their next quest could be completed. Long gone were the days of reading the quest logs for the slightest indication of where to go next, or looking it up on Google, as QuestHelper pointed a huge arrow above the player's screen showing the direction.
Crazy Taxi, anyone?
QuestHelper was so successful that Blizzard eventually implemented a quest tracking system of its own into World of Warcraft, effectively rendering QH obsolete. In its heyday, QuestHelper dramatically reduced the difficulty and time it took to level that Night Elf Priest to 70.
Interface modification - Not just for aesthetics
One of the most common modifications to any customisable MMO is the actual interface you see on screen. The default UI found in a lot of games doesn't provide everything a gamer could want, and this could be for a number of reasons. The default WoW interface doesn't go out of its way to provide the player with information, nor can adventurers alter the layout or size of what they use to play and enjoy the game. Today, interfaces range from impressive displays of useful data positioned logically to aid player's in game, to shocking exhibitions on how to fill up 75% of your game screen with utilities you probably never use. Nevertheless, it's difficult to say whether or not interface modifications give players a tactical advantage in game. Increasing the size of your action bars and player portraits probably won't go a long way in increasing your position in the DPS Meter, but it can present game data more clearly.
A popular mod that replaces the game's plethora of frames is xPerl, a highly customisable set of tools that can be used to drastically redesign the way player and enemy information is displayed. After using it for several months, I can't imagine switching back to the default portraits of 2005. The change is so substantial (as a healer, percentages representing player health is imperative) that X-Perl itself has had almost eight million downloads.
It's the small changes that you really notice in X-Perl. You'll soon find the highlighted curable debuffs option indispensable, or the range finder tool factoring into your game play strategy significantly. X-Perl certainly gives you an abundance of in game advantages over the vanilla Warcraft UI. This also means that players who opt out of the X-Perl transition (purposefully or otherwise) are at a disadvantage in terms of how clear data like buffs, spells and health bars are portrayed.
Useful - Almost too useful?
The Game Changer
There are some modifications that undoubtedly give an advantage to players. DBM (Deadly Boss Mods) is a favourite amongst raiders for providing detailed information regarding their next encounter. In short, it details what the boss can - and ultimately will - do to the group, with the help of visual timers and warnings. The most glaring issue with this level of modification is the fact that not all players will have mods bursting out of their \Interface\AddOns folder. More worryingly, new players to the MMORPG probably won't have a huge understanding of what these add-ons actually do, and why they need them. This can be a serious issue when it comes to player versus player combat. One player may have a modification installed that displays what spell the enemy is currently casting, and can adjust their actions accordingly, others can visually inform the player as to the current status of enemy cooldowns. Some may consider this an unfair advantage, and it almost certainly requires the other player to submit to the mod phenomenon in order to be competitive.
A Complication with Modification
Not all games allow this level of customisation, though. Final Fantasy XI, Star Wars Galaxies and EVE Online have restrictions on what players can do to modify the game. The closed development of these persistent worlds does have its advantages. For the most part, everyone is on a level playing field. No longer will players be at a disadvantage by not having game changing enhancements at their disposal, player versus player combat will boil down to pure skill (or should that be gear?).
It also removes the possibility of the game itself suffering from poor performance. There is zero quality control with third party enhancements, you won't get the rigorous testing that you can expect from these otherwise heavily polished games. It's possible that the underlying code is sloppy or bloated, and in extreme cases can cause your game to hang or crash. Shutting out the modders is unlikely to drive people away from the game, and ensures that the game is played exactly how the developers intend it to be played.
Stuck with it, I'm afraid
By the Book? Tough Luck!
It's safe to say that the companies behind flagship MMORPGs would never let anything that could have an adverse effect on the game be present inside their world. For the most part, modifications do not have a significant impact on the game play experience. Instead, they tend to inform the player of what exactly is happening in game allowing the user to act upon that data. Whilst tasks may be simplified greatly for the player, it is still a much different game play experience for the new subscriber who is likely to go it alone with the toolset the developer has provided.
Perhaps it's just "tough luck" for those who don't adapt. Whatever the case, it's extremely unlikely that the proliferation of in game enhancements in World of Warcraft will slow anytime soon. It may be the case that future MMOs opt to lock down their user interface (Lord of the Rings Online and AION only have limited customisation), but does this really make for a more balanced game?