Lessons in game design is a series of articles that I will be writing from time to time. I will point out some unique features that exist in few MMOs as part of something that I considered to make the game great. I will also point out the things that might have screwed the game over. These will mostly be based on games that I have played for an extended amount of time and cover things I may have overlooked in reviews. The first of this is Phantasy Star Universe, one of my favorite MMOs. I will probably look into Atlantica Online next.
1) Experience Scaling
One of the things unique to Phantasy Star Universe is that experience required to next level is scaled according to what the cap is. As the max level increases, it becomes easier to level up overall. It will take someone who is at level 1 to get to 100 about just as long as it does someone who starts later to get from level 1 to 150 assuming that 150 is the current level cap. If it takes 400 hours to get from 1 to 150, then expect it to take maybe 420 hours to get from 1 to 160 once the level cap is increased. It is not a significant jump like most games out there.
This feature prevents the game from gettting too grindy. However, it also means that some content will probably be overlooked as people look for the fastest way to level up and ignore things inbetween. The best stuff always drops on the highest levels and difficulties. There are few reasons to run the lower difficulty missions other than the ones that give good exp. People might feel that the community is just mostly a bunch of high level noobs running around.
2) Elemental Attributes
Unlike other games, Phantasy Star Universe is one of the few games where armor has elements and it actually makes a difference. Having an elemental attribute on equipment makes it more effective against some types of enemies and less effective against others. For example, a weapon with 50% light attribute will deal a lot more damage against a darkness type enemy than one with 10% light attribute. However, it also means that the 50% light attribute weapon will deal significantly less damage against a light attribute monster than a 10% light attribute weapon. If you use light element armor, a dark element monster can hit you real hard if you use a 50% light element armor compared to if you used a 10% armor. There is actually a boss that takes advantage of this and it switches between light and dark elements randomly.
3) One Character, All Jobs
Phantasy Star Universe is one of the few games where one character has access to all the jobs in the game once you unlock them. The only other game that I can think of at the moment is Final Fantasy XI. In a similar fashion, each race has different stats resulting in them being better at specific classes, but you can switch between each of the classes once you unlock them. In Phantasy Star Universe, you just need enough money that is scaled to your level. The fee is extremely small.
Classes are unlocked by leveling the previous tier of classes. The basic classes are Hunter (Warrior), Ranger (Gunner), and Force (Mage). Most of the unlockable classes are simply a hybrid of one of the three. The Master classes are considered the purest form of each of the three classes, but at the same time are overspecialized.
4) Server Wide Events
The Phantasy Star series is one of the few MMOs that I know of where they hold events where the players attempt to achieve goals together to unlock server wide bonuses. At the same time, they also make players compete against each other for the most kills or fastest clear time of the event mission. Event items are rewarded to everyone who ran the event mission once and people who achieve milestones such as the 100,000th kill are rewarded a bonus item. When the server reaches a global milestone, a reward is given to the players. The low end ones tend to be higher crafting success rates, but as people get more kills, the prizes get better as well including free character appearance changes and increased refine success rates. The top prize tends to be a special weapon.
The other type is similar to what other MMOs have. On holidays, some monsters (usually Rappies and Jaggos) are replaced with a different seasonal monster version of itself. They drop different items during this time resulting in seasonal rares. The items are sometimes silly, but many of them are actually useful. The difference with Phantasy Star Universe is the server wide events listed above.
5) Avoid Using Instant Death & Skill Grinding
I hate this feature. Players might sometimes be strong, but leaving things up to random chance is just a big no. Instant death is just a cheap shot to make the game seem harder than it really is. Some of the high level darkness type monsters will sometimes cast Megid, which is an instant death spell. It will not always kill you, but it might depending on how unlucky you are. You have use of it as well, but the PP cost is so high that it is not actually practical. There are ways to build resistance to it, but there is a chance that it can kill you. You can also carry Scape Dolls that ressurect you should you die in battle as a way around it.
Compared to other games, Phantasy Star Universe actually has a fairly acceptable level of skill grinding after they doubled melee and magic skill exp rates and tripled gun exp rates. Skills increase in damage with each level and the appearance changes every 10 levels (so at 1, 11, 21, 31, and 41). Many melee skills gain an additional attack at 11 and 21 at the cost of extra PP. Magic skills change their appearance every 10 levels and some skills being able to hit additional targets or increasing the area of effect at higher levels (usually 31+).
The only problem was getting skills to level 11. Many skills suck until level 11. Some examples include Dus Robado (spear AoE around user and only hits targets once), Dus Majarra (jumping on spear on first part), and the Gi- tier spells (small AoE around user). However, once you started leveling them, their AoE got larger and it became more practical. By the time it hits 31 it is already extremely powerful and could probably allow you to solo numerous parts of the game.
6) Class Customization
Many other games have something similar in the form of a talent tree where you can invest points into passive buffs to your character. However, Phantasy Star Universe takes it one step further by allowing for far more customizations to your character. The only thing you have to do is work for it. There are a huge amount of customizations you can make to your class. The basic one increases your stats, but you can have a mage that regens HP every time they cast a spell or make it so that you have a chance to freeze every enemy you attack with your weapon. There is even an option to increase the effects of all healing items used. There are just numerous options available to you if you take the time to do it carefully.