This is a post that I submitted for the opening of a friend’s new site, Tough Love Critic. I’ve posted it here in its entirety, but I encourage you to go check out the new website, as there are many other articles to read on launch day!
A QUICK TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE
Perhaps it won’t be memory for you personally; me either, depending on how far back you go. We all know that Dungeons & Dragons is the old guard of today’s single player RPGs and MMOs; the original measuring stick by which RPGs were created in other mediums. What are some of the major factors that make a pen and paper gaming session fun?
Those are the top three factors — a “core three” if you will. Pen and paper titles are fun to play because the story is enthralling and allows the player to pretend they are someone else for a time. There is a sense of progression, and though it can be quick or can be dragged out as long as the game master sees fit, your character is always growing in strength and ability. Progression does have a cap, but at that point most players will simply start a new campaign and roll new characters. Mechanics of a pen and paper game tend to be limited to dice rolls and stat sheets, but they provide just enough interaction to make the game more enjoyable.
Let’s see how other mediums stack up.
Single player roleplaying video games are heavily reliant on story to make you feel for your character. Progression is limited in that once you have completed the main quest or defeated the last boss, the game is effectively over. You can choose to play again or move onto a new title. Mechanics are more interactive than in a pen and paper game simply because the dice rolls and stat sheets are handled by the computer and you have direct control of your character.
MMOs are a similar yet different beast. They too share roots in tabletop RPGs, and have a graphical interface just like single player video games. MMOs have a storyline but are not very reliant on them. They have a sense of progression just like the other two systems, but have an “end game” where you effectively walk a treadmill until something new is added to the game. Mechanics are similar to other video game RPGs because you control movement and combat while the computer handles all of the numbers.
Looks pretty even, right? It’s not.
THE CORE THREE HYPOTHESIS
The perfect RPG experience combines Story, Progression and Mechanics. The best RPGs of all time have in common a balance of all three categories, creating the optimum experience. If for any reason the balance among these criteria is thrown out of sync, the end result is a game that is not enjoyable.
With this hypothesis in mind, how have MMOs have failed us?
THE FAILURE OF MMOS
My first MMO was Everquest, and looking back at it, it’s the closest MMOs have come to a balance of the Core Three. It provided a world with some light storyline and allowed you to explore and do whatever you wanted. Instead of a dungeon master throwing all manner of traps and creatures at you, there was a pre-established set of rules that guided everything within the game’s world. Progression was slow but steady and there were consequences for your actions. You couldn’t consume all of the content in a short period of time. It was the dream of many RPG fans — being able to always log into the same on-going game without having to start over. Having a living, breathing world with a huge population of players going through the same trials and tribulations added to this appeal.
Over the years, Everquest changed, and you can’t really get that sort of experience anymore unless you subscribe to one of the progression servers. Other games that emerged into the budding genre started a worrying trend that steered us away from the core of what makes an RPG experience great. Games started to skimp on storyline, made progression meaningless with gear treadmills and token or reputation grinds, often times creating convoluted mechanics that were bulky and annoying to boot.
Balance doesn’t mean there’s an equal amount of each. Original Everquest was light on story, but had good progression and mechanics in its day..Star Wars: The Old Republic has story as the focal point of the game, but the progression is similar to other MMOs and in my opinion the mechanics suffer. Lord of the Rings Online’s combat is also touch and go, although it does have decent lore to back it up. Both of these MMOs don’t strike the balance, and suffer for it. These are few of many examples.
People seemingly treat MMOs like jobs, so they don’t want to partake in the same activities in their “off time” with single player RPGs. I’d argue though, that in most cases the single player RPG will give you a better experience. Not only is the storyline usually more enthralling, but the progression is balanced perfectly for the scope of the game and the mechanics are fitting. There isn’t a race to the end to keep up with your friends. There is no end-game where you’re mindlessly bashing your head against the grindwall waiting for new content to be patched in. It just ends.
Therein lies the problem with MMOs as we know them today: they don’t end. We went from self-contained gaming sessions that comprise a campaign in a pen and paper setting, to full fledged stories with endings to loot-grind treadmills that overstay their welcome. The truth is self-evident. The balance isn’t there because there’s no fixed amount of content to balance around. Consequently, big studios aren’t developing new titles as players consistently reject what MMOs have become.
THE FUTURE ISN’T ALL THAT GRIM
Niche MMOs seem to be the next evolutionary leap for the genre. Recent crowdfunded titles seem to have rabid fan bases eager to support something new. The most well known titles of the group are all going in new directions, some of which include procedural generation and a progression system that doesn’t depend on having any notion of “end game.” Rather than trying to balance around “ending,” these upcoming MMOs look to rely on players to make their own stories around the mechanics and light progression.
Today’s MMOs have failed us because they never end. You can’t balance story, progression, and mechanics around that.