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Would anyone be able to suggest a SAO-like MMORPG for me to try?

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Like many others (though a little late to the party) I just finished SAO (I, II, & movie) and it sparked my desire to find a new game to lose myself in. Though I've tried to think this through a little more than some other posts and list out what aspects I liked and am looking for and what aspects I don't.

For a tldr, just read the first couple sections and then the numbered headings, though I'm not sure if that will provide enough detail.

Background

My first MMORPG was WoW, which I started around 2008. I raided heavily in Wrath, Cata, then again in Legion and this past winter. However, it just isn't the same anymore; I can't lose myself in it like I once could. I think I finally 'snapped' this winter. I was busy with family and kids and had to cut myself down to just two raiding nights. Two nights a week for four hours (3 raiding) was all I was putting in…and we were raiding on mythic months before the new raid was due out and there was absolutely nothing else I could do in the whole game that provided anything of value to me. It wasn't a carry; many of my guildmates did the same and I was fighting for the number 1 spot on the charts most fights.

I also tried GW2 when it came out which I really enjoyed, but it lost me when I hit max level and there was nothing to do and no way to substantially enhance player power. TESO was interesting, but didn't really hold my interest for some reason and I went back to WoW; I can't remember why and may try it again. Rift was interesting, but felt too much like WoW.

Now that the kids are older and on their way out to college, and we're more financially settled and I don't need to work so many hours, I'd really like to find a virtual world to lose myself in again, especially moving into next year. But the ones I know just don't work for me.

My Preferences

I'll say up front that I traditionally preferred slower games. I've always preferred turn based combat. I hated when the FF series started moving towards time-limited turns. I hesitated playing WoW because it is real time, but at least it had tab targeting, and there are no turn-based MMORPGs that I know of. I've strictly avoided straight action-based games before now. I like my victory to be determined by the strength of my strategy and achievements of my character, and not how fast I can wiggle my fingers.

That said, I really am looking for something new to try, so I'd be open to a more action based game . SAO seemed almost like turn-based action to me; the attacks seemed heavily action-based, but then they always had time to have complete conversations between actions. I'm not sure how you would manage that in a real game, but I'd love to see a game that tried it.

I prefer a high fantasy setting, but will accept some steampunk additions. I don't like heavy steampunk and futuristic MMORPGs could never capture my attention. I tried one briefly (I think it was Firefall) and just couldn't get into it.

1) I want a game with an immersive environment

So a Nerve Gear would be great if anyone has one… 🙂

Short of that, I imagine there must still be ways to make an environment more immersive. Many of the most compelling parts of SAO would never have happened if the game wasn't as close as possible to 'full dive'. That SAO could convey tone of voice, facial expressions, etc, really led to a more full interaction between players. And how amazing was their home on Floor 22 because they could really be there and 'hang' with one another?

I've always been captivated by games pretty well. I can't tell you how many players I've run across that play music with their game sound off, or even watch TV or movies in the background while playing. This isn't surprising; game mechanics don't exactly support full immersion. And a player could be alt-tabbed, afk, etc, or even checking their in game map or items, and I would never know it if walking by them.

I think good graphics make a big difference in this respect; GW2 felt so much more immersive than WoW when it came out because the graphics blew WoW away (even on ultra). I wouldn't mind seeing something that works with a 3D monitor either, which I wouldn't mind trying out.

We've been playing games on flat monitors for 40 years and it feels like by now we really should have evolved more immersion than just better resolution pictures. I remember playing a demo at some convention back in the 90s, where you used a headgear to turn your player left or right by thinking it…and it actually worked, albeit with difficulty. How are we here two decades later without the slightest hint of that technology in our hundred million dollar titles?

Things like guild Discord channels help, but many players don't join except for raid, and it only support communication between people you already know. Emotes that display on in game chat, or especially on character faces, such as /sad or /cry are great, but they are limited by graphical quality and seem few in number. I wouldn't mind seeing some in-game voice chat, even cooler if it's considered proper etiquette to have a mic (so that most players use it).

I'm not really sure what else could help with immersion, but I'd love to find a game that has taken a shot at it. I want to be able to lose myself in the game, and I want a very intuitive way to interact with other players I come across in the game world. In SAO the PKers stopped to talk before attacking Silica, while in others games they'd just attack; I feel like most of the reason is that communicating still takes so much effort in games while combat is so quick, easy, and intuitive.

2) I want a decent, supportive, friendly, mature player base

Is there any more impossible goal? 🙂

I agree with the idea that you can form close friendships online just as much as in the real world. I also agree with the concept that a virtual world is as real as the experiences it produces. I've played MMOs for just over 10 years now. In that time I've made one real friend (more have come and gone, but never been very close); and while we do occasionally meet up for D&D or online, we'll also go months without seeing each other. Contrast that to the friendships in SAO where they had daily involvement and deep, meaningful interactions.

In SAO you saw all sorts of different people, but just about all of them took the experience seriously. There were no trolls and no traditional griefers. Nobody ever cast judgment on another for taking the game seriously; the closest I remember is Sinon accusing Kirito of thinking "it's just a game". Contrast that to WoW, where even on an RP server players will be endlessly made fun of for RPing.

The players (outside of GGO) also seemed to be more mature and to enjoy a more innocent sense of fun. Most players I meet in real games are talking about drugs or rape like it's cool, throwing out sexist or misogynistic comments like crazy, or otherwise showing a callous disregard for human decency. I'd almost take someone from Laughing Coffin over them. In current environments I feel like such a high percentage of players are almost inhuman, it's hard to even try to talk to others because there's such a high probability of spectacular failure. I'd love to find a game where there is a higher percentage of normal people just there to lose themselves in a game and have fun playing with others.

You also saw a lot of people who were more friendly than you often see in MMOs. Kirito taught Klein the first day with no expectation of reward. Sinon took Kirito around shopping and explained everything without knowing him at all. Leafa was just as helpful to a stranger, though Kirito arguably earned that by helping her first. And Kirito met many fellow gamers by saving them from danger. In any case, I like the idea of a world full of interesting, friendly, and helpful people. I know that's a nearly-impossible hope, but I'd like to at least avoid the worst and most toxic.

3) I want a game whose mechanics encourage a rich social environment

What I found so interesting about the SAO series was its exploration of the result of a game that you could not log out of and within which deaths affected the player's real life. That is obviously a mechanic that we cannot replicate, nor would we want to, but out of it came a result that I've always wanted to see in a game, and until now couldn't begin to put into words.

The world became very real. There was often support and appreciation from those on the lower floors for those on the front lines. There were situations were those with power could actually 'save' others in a meaningful way, which often led to social interaction and thus friendships. Some players became blacksmiths or bar owners as their primary purpose, but even they had to team up with players who focused on combat to achieve mutual goals (Kirito & Lisbeth vs the crystal dragon).

So what really struck a chord with me in watching this was the way that so many extremely close friendships were formed. I like an environment that supports that. Which leads me to…

4) I want a game that strongly supports some form of ad-hoc grouping & ad-hoc interactions

Read:  Badly craving an MMORPG with decent graphics that is not super grindy and insanely based on RNG.

The first raid in SAO formed like a traditional guild group. However, Kirito saved The Moonlit Black Cats by happening across them. Similarly, he saved Silica by helping resurrect her companion, again just by happening across her. This happened many times, with him saving others, or them saving him. His relationships with Asuna, Leafa, Sinon…all built upon one happening across the other and having the ability and impetus to intervene and help. And more importantly, the ability and impetus to easily communicate.

When I first started playing WoW and was doing most everything wrong, but was in the company of other similar newbs, I had some of the best experiences of my MMO life. Countless times in Elwynn and Westfall I would be on quests causing me constant difficulties and death (Murlocs! Oh the horror!). And I would happen across others tentatively skirting the outside of the quest area looking for an 'in', conveying through their movement patterns (body language?) that they were scared and unsure, and more than once I saved them…and more than once I was similarly saved. And a few times we even created short-term groups and parted on great terms. That's what a game SHOULD be like.

Many games, though, require both hands for combat, and so taking your hands away to type a message is not always an option. I don't know a good solution for that, other than built-in voice chat or a voice-to-text mechanism, but I would love to find a game that found a good solution.

So to drill down into mechanics that may help make all that a reality…

1) The game begins at min-level, takes a long time to max out, and has no or minimal catchup mechanisms

The first thing that jumped out at me about SAO is that these players were in the game for months (even years by the end), essentially working on their characters 16+ hours per day, and yet even by the end it was implied that they hadn't maxed out their levels. That's extremely compelling.

I like the idea of either a soft level cap (additional levels are possible, but become increasingly slower and incredibly difficult as you go) or a level cap so high that few, if any, players have achieved it even after many years (5k+ hours to hit cap would be preferable). And with new content being released it should keep anyone from ever plateauing.

I realize this sets up a situation in which it's very difficult for new players to catch up, but even if I'm 2 years behind I don't know that that will make a big difference 5 years down the road. And I like the idea of knowing that there are godlike players out there just as much as I like the idea of becoming godlike in power myself.

Inherent in this idea is minimal or no catchup mechanisms. I don't mind auto-adjusted leveling, like in GW2, so that players of different levels can play together and maintain challenge, but new players should not be able to rival an existing player's power without a similar investment of time, effort, and skill. That just leads to a meaningless gear grind like WoW's raiding, and all players shoved into the same instanced zones while 95% of the world remains deserted.

I imagine the lack of catchup mechanisms is something I'll never find, so perhaps a limited system. The way WoW handled artifact power (each weed the amount rewarded increased by a few percent) wasn't a terrible idea. Implemented correctly new players could get halfway to where the higher level players are relatively quickly while still being slowed to a normal pace before they get too close, and high level players would be forced to continue working to maintain their lead. But level boosts (every WoW xpac) and gear resets (every WoW raid) are anathema imo. I don't want a lobby-based MMORPG!

2) No continuously time-gated rewards

I hate dailies, and to a lesser degree weekly resets. If Bob takes a week vacation, and then plays 40 hours, there's no reason he should be behind Bill who played 20 hours last week and 20 hours this week.

This isn't a conceptual problem. Time-gated rewards like that make the game into a job, or chore. And when a player inevitably misses a few days or weeks, they feel like they're behind and have no way to catch up…because it's true. Once you're behind the only way for you to catch up is for those ahead to slip up; your relative power, one of the most important character attributes in the game, is something completely out of your control. And new players get shafted the worst, unless a catch-up bandaid is thrown over the problem, which just creates it's own issues.

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This is why I support a very high level cap. For 90% of the days I play WoW, my only avenue of advancement is raiding. Nothing else matters. Whereas xp is something that is often rewarded everywhere. It's nice to think that you can log in and make progress by doing a variety of things; even while helping friends. And if you can do it on your own schedule, that's just awesome. WoW made a step in the right direction with artifact power, and I'd accept similar 'band-aid' mechanics if that's all that's available, but I'd still rather just see leveling stretched out and made a universal reward from virtually all content.

3) Fairness (No P2W)

This shouldn't need to be said, but no game should confer unfair advantages because of how much a player pays in real money. Monthly fees, or aesthetic-only microtransactions are fine. As long as every paid player is on equal footing. I also don't mind a way to pull money out of the game for real world rewards (ie: paying for a monthly membership with gold).

I should add that I believe in equality of opportunity, and not equality of accomplishment. A unique item that only one player can get, for instance, is fine if everyone had the equal opportunity to find the quest chain.

4) Meaningful quests with meaningful rewards

Quests in current MMOs tend to be a todo list. Everyone has to do certain ones to continue the storyline, and all other quests usually have minimal rewards. In my experience everyone completes every quest, which makes them very unexciting. I would prefer to see quests have more meaning, and be more rare, in some way.

In SAO they often ran across quests that were previously unknown, seemingly unique to them, and that provided special items, gear, or other resources that were of great value (like the item that could resurrect a player, or the item that resurrected a dead pet).

I would propose making individual quests far longer (many 10-quest chains in WoW could really be a single quest with greater rewards, allowing for a much higher quest-time to developer-time ratio). I would also propose quests become more rare, with dynamic accessibility, with valuable rewards.

Fully dynamic quests would be great as well, like the one Cardinal designed for Excalibur at the root of the world tree, as too many 'spoilers' currently exist on websites like WowHead, and I think this would help eliminate that (though I know our technology would be more limited). And yes, I know I could avoid those websites, but that sets me at a disadvantage against the vast majority of players, and like it or not player power is an economic system unto itself, complete with positional and veblen goods (and that's very important to me).

That said, I imagine there could be other ways that quests could become meaningful and am open to other ideas. I'm okay with grinding taking over as a primary leveling method in order to give quests more value. I'd similarly be okay with different classes of quests so that common ones could be used for leveling and rare ones used for higher value stuff.

5) Multiple paths to the same overarching goal

Existing quest chains, as I mentioned above, along with dungeons and raids or progressive 'fractals', create a sort of two dimensional spectrum for players to progress upon. I would prefer to see far more optional content that has rewards of actual value, along with multiple chunks of content on any given tier allowing players to progress differently (imagine WoW with 4 raids at a time that all provided the same ilvl gear). This allows players to take different paths and accomplish different things and gain different rewards, even while rivaling each other's power level.

In SAO you often saw them recognize items or gear that others had but no one else seemed to. You also saw unique or rare skills or abilities. Things like that could make the game seem less fair, but it could also just be that they require so much effort and skill that few could manage them.

Contrast this with WoW, where my character's power level literally boils down to a single number: ilvl. This wasn't always the case, I recall Trauma in ICC being incredibly powerful, and set bonuses conferred similar benefits, but now all of that is wrapped up into ilvl so that all gear can be functionally equivalent. Bleh…

We saw the same things with talent trees in WoW (now just talent tiers), or talent trees in Rift and in GW2. There was some optional progression, but really everyone had the same options immediately spelled out to them from the start and all were relatively easy to achieve. There was never a "I never knew you could do that!" moment when playing those games.

6) Death penalties, other penalties, & challenge

So to be clear, I am not looking for a game where I die IRL when my character dies. 😛

However, it seems that modern MMOs have moved too far the other direction. In WoW, for instance, you are punished with a 60 second walk and a token amount of gold you'll never miss when killed. The result is that there is no real fear of death. I noticed similar when playing GW2 or TESO. This level of penalty has its advantages, but it also has disadvantages.

Read:  What does the future of MMOs look like? Less focus on cross server? More emergent? VR? Some AI breakthrough?

This is mixed with an environment of little-to-no challenge. Outside of raids and dungeons I die in WoW about once each week or two, and then it's usually because I did something stupid because I just didn't really care.

I think the fear of loss that came with character death, matched with a high challenge level, helped to create the social environment (and to guide player decisions) that we saw in SAO. One key aspect that I liked was that it allowed for an assumption of support desirability. In other words, when I see another player approach me in the world in WoW I either don't care (because there is little challenge or fear of death from PvE) or I feel negatively (because they may steal a mob or node). In GW2 I was happy to see them because it meant quicker completion of my goals, but that was it. I would like a game where I feel positively about seeing another player because they can help me or I can help them (or both), and preferably because it eases a fear of death. If that needs to be tempered with a fear because they could engage in PvP with me I can probably live with that, as long as it's properly implemented.

Similarly, non-death penalties also appeared to be a thing in SAO. Pina was killed while trying to protect Silica. I also feel like there was another great example that I'm forgetting right now. What these losses did was create needs that acted as 'story hooks'. They helped to get players together, send them out into the world into new and interesting places, and gave them 'side quests' to enrich their playing experience without a real quest ever even needing created.

I would not want permadeath to be a thing; too much loss of time and effort. But I would like to see a medium-severity death penalty.

7) Tempered access to convenience tools

WoW has a realm-wide auction house. GW2 has the same, but with the addition of buy orders. These things are very convenient. And because of them you'd never see a shop like Lisbeth's be created in either game.

WoW has grouping tools to literally let you form a party, enter a dungeon, clear it, and leave without ever saying a word to another player. This is very convenient. You'll also never see a friendship like Kirito & Silica's occur because he happened to help her in WoW. Almost everyone I know who played WoW said the same thing shortly after the LFG tool was implemented; their friends lists immediately started accumulating cobwebs and dust.

I do not want a lobby based game, nor a convenience based game. In games, as in life, it's the challenges and inconveniences that make it interesting, and it's those things that make achievement meaningful. It's also those things that drive player creativity and ingenuity and ultimately relationships.

8) PvP controls for a fun and fair environment

Because of literal perma-death in SAO, many normal kinds of MMO griefing were never brought up. If PvP is allowed in my target game I'd like some thought to go into how to control things like corpse camping.

It was implied in GGO that this had been accomplished, but they never went into how. All we know is that Sinon's PK group had killed that monster hunting group before, but that it was some days in the past. They also implied that the monster hunting group would likely have downed several bosses between the two PK experiences. That implies a well designed PvP system to me.

I'm okay with open world PvP existing. However, there should be safe zones. There should be no way to corpse-camp or otherwise grief players. And there should be a limit on losses/rewards to avoid all new players from getting continually attacked by higher-level players.

I'd also love a PvP system with limited or no crowd control. I know hardcore WoW players love it, but almost everyone I know avoids PvP for the same reason: we don't like spending 70% of any given combat without control over our character, and trading "I turned you into a sheep" with "I turned you into a frog" is not our idea of an epic fantasy battle.

And if I can have all those impossible wishes, I wouldn't mind some interesting PvP options as well. GGO's BoB and SJ tournaments were awesome ideas that WoW could learn from, instead of simple 2v2 team matches. GW2's WvW was a very inspired idea, and I wish I could have found a good guild to really experience it with.

9) Some meaningful specialization system

I would like to see a deep and meaningful crafting and production system, that players could choose to specialize in. Along with the soft level cap, this would force a choice. Players cannot be islands. Some could choose to be crafters, or run bars (wouldn't an economic subgame be cool!), or repair gear, while others choose to grow in combat power.

This is exactly what we saw in SAO. Lisbeth had some combat prowess, but obviously spent more of her time leveling her blacksmithing. Agil owned a bar, or general shop, it's tough to be sure, but he didn't seem as powerful as others because of it. I know Asuna's cooking skill is a bit of an outlier that doesn't quite fit in here so I'm chocking that up to a bit of a plot-required inconsistency.

However, I would like to see the combat system more open. I heard that in FFIX your character can switch between classes, and that's a very appealing idea. A game where there are no classes and you simply level whatever skills you want could also be interesting.

10) Dynamic content to allow developers to concentrate on meaningful content

As I mentioned above, in WoW we run the same raid over and over again every week for months. In addition to the aforementioned problem of linear progress, this also gets boring. I think dynamic content is the key solution to these problems.

I don't have data, but I get the impression that more work is put into dungeon/raid design and boss tuning than all the rest of the game put together. If bosses and dungeons could be generated dynamically, and tuning was not so much of an issue due to the slow and continual leveling system, all of those developer resources could be freed up to create unique items, skills, talents, and effects. It can't be that hard, as any Google search for "d&d dungeon generator" will show.

Further, if there was some dynamic variability and generation of those things, along with the terrain and even towns and NPCs, we could see an incredibly rich, large, and dynamic world. Granted, tweaking and proofing would still need done by a human, I'm sure, but I imagine it could reduce the time taken to create new content by 90% easily.

GW2 did this to a degree. Human created 'stories', or sets of checkpoints, were programmed into a system that allowed human created events to control which path the story took. This was awesome and I applaud the developers for doing this, but it was only a first step. GW2 events move on a predictable arc with no real new content, and I'd really like to see a game that's taken steps further to allow for a larger, richer, and wider world to be created.

I wish for ever deepening mysteries to investigate, wilder and wilder vistas to explore, new enemies to discover and challenge…not the same old dungeon to run over and over again, maybe with a slightly stronger versions of everything, that everyone else knows just as well as you.

11) Some universal reward

In SAO this was the players life, and helped build the social dynamic that existed within the game. Again, I'm not advocating for that. 😛

But there are other options. Alfheim Online, for instance, offered the faction who 'won' a special ability…not a universal reward so not as good from my perspective, but far more practical. SAO also included unlocked content as a universal rewards (as each floor was cleared everyone was able to move up and explore) and I really love this concept.

This is not something I think I've ever seen before so I don't expect to find a game with it, but it would be cool to see.

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