How MMOs Have Failed Us

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?

Story.

Progression.

Mechanics.

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.

Seeing Both Sides

There’s been talk around the blogosphere for quite some time, about the supposed death of MMOs (I have been the Harbinger at times), how gamers have grown and therefore have less time and want more accessibility, but also for innovation to take the genre into new directions. I can see the various sides of the debate, and all arguments have merit. But where do we end up? How do we collectively agree, or agree to disagree on what the “next big thing” is? Eri takes a look at how the survival genre could be a stepping stone towards what a new MMO kid on the block could be. She also made a recent post on how the MMOs of the future might be influenced by open world sandbox games. A little while before this, there was a great discussion over on Gaming Conversations where Braxwolf asks, “What do Gamers really want?” Finally, Murf made an excellent comment on Roger’s post about the future of MMOs, in which he said:

To me, MMO just means Massively, Multiplayer, and Online. Massively only loosely equates to a sense of on-going community, while multiplayer and online are largely redundant now that every game is multiplayer and online. The MMO identity hasn’t been lost because the name has been muddled, but more because the identity of these games has become far less unique. Every game is online now, and most have communities attached that effectively render these games “always-online”. Plus, even console games get regular patches, so the content stream isn’t even a unique factor anymore.

The only thing left for MMOs is their persistence in the sense of having a living, breathing world to occupy, but we’ve gotten plenty of offline sandboxes that approach similar levels of “live in” feel with Skyrim, The Witcher 3, and Dragon Age: Inquisition.

These days, a MMO is just a co-op RPG with a higher server cost. The days of making ‘virtual worlds to live in’ are pretty much gone.

I can see all of these points of view, and it’s mainly because I don’t devote my life to any one MMO. I have learned through various cycles of game play that I have gone through, that F2P and B2P models can and have found success. I know that being able to jump into a game like LoL or a Rogue-Like for a few minutes or an hour and still make some progress is fun for me, and nicer than having to devote four straight hours to raiding. Again, I’m part of that generation of gamers who have grown into 30-somethings who have other things they have to take care of. So they (we) want that accessibility of being able to jump in and jump out, but also still be a part of a world that is larger than themselves on occasion. That means the current market of MMOs will need some innovation to capture the hearts of a generation of gamers who have grown into new people throughout the years.

I look to Crowfall to bring parts of everything together. The game feels like it could be a sandbox. It has that notion of being able to jump in and jump out for an hour here and there and still be able to accomplish goals. It feels casual and hardcore and has options to increase or decrease the difficulty dependent on rulesets. For similar reasons, H1Z1 feels like a winner in the sandbox survival genre, minus the feelings of loss that Eri describes. Of course, that is found in Ark as well, with some RPG systems in place that could easily lead to that MMO feel, but has the issue of your stuff being destroyed while you’re away.

Today I was over at a friend’s house and I was playing Grand Theft Auto V on his PS4. I’ve made my point in the past that each new GTA game feels pretty much the same and have expressed frustration with the fact that other games like Saint’s Row et al, have kind of ruined the experience to a degree, much like the countless WoW clones over the years have watered down the MMO pool. However, I was actually having a lot of fun playing GTA V today, and I really think it’s due to the amount of options given in the game at this point. There are the story missions, and the ability to run around causing havoc, that’s nothing new. But the ability to also find new costumes, houses, entertain yourself with mini games, or jump online to play with friends all gives you the tools to make the experience very MMO-like. It feels like GTA is starting to meld into that type of world, and between this title and other survival games, we’re seeing a push for the sandbox that might not have the traditional MMO trappings but still feels like a turn for the better. Rather than every single title trying to copy other’s success, we’re seeing every developer make a push into newer territory. Each seemingly building upon tenants of the past, yet adapting to current crowd’s tastes. It seems like people want to play something immersive, but with options and the ability to drop it on a whim if something else comes up, or to at least make progress in short sessions.

However, it comes down to that simple fact that gamers don’t really know what they want until you put the product in front of them. Some will like it, some won’t, but either way you’ll have the options to try a multitude of things. Games like League of Legends and Destiny aren’t MMOs per se, but they are viable options to dump similar amounts of time into over the long haul, but can be played in shorter outings. I think this is the way of the future, even if MMOs don’t completely adapt they will have options for people who have game ADD.


This time I make the run with Eyes. Doing better on average but still dying too soon.

#opinion #mmos #gaming