MMOs are changing — but maybe some players need to go back to their roots

wrongway johnnyjet@flickr.com

Wolfshead, one of the most inspiring blog writers I know, has been kicking arse and taking names recently with a rant about the entire MMO industry and the way it is heading. (If you enjoy this article of his do read some more, they’re all good.) His complaint is that MMOs are not reaching their potential as exciting immersive interactive experiences.

I will totally buy that today’s MMOs are less immersive in many ways that their predecessors. What we do in them may feel less meaningful. But do they really lack excitement or interactive experiences? For example, raiding in WoW today offers much more exciting gameplay than it used to do. WAR got PvP very right in many ways. And you’re also much less likely to log into your game of choice and be sitting around for hours waiting for something to happen (unless you are mining in EVE <—cheap shot).

We also get many more chances to interact with the game world than in games of the past. Bear in mind that mineable nodes were considered one of WoW’s innovations.

I have issues with WoW, and with other current gen MMOs, but lack of excitement isn’t one of them. As games, they’re improving with every patch.

We don’t know where we’re going, but we know where we’ve been

But that isn’t to say that Wolfshead has it completely wrong. Just you have to be an old dino to really understand that perspective.

Imagine that your first experience with multiplayer online gaming was a text-based MUD or MUSH. It was also your first experience with real time online chat. Probably also your first experience of online roleplaying, or being able to assume a different online identity and hang out in a world full of other real players.

Those were heady days. It’s hard to convey that now, in the cold light of 2010. But it was so damned exciting to log into a gameworld and come across another actual player. In those old games, which were part sandbox and part proto-EQ, everything was part of the escapist virtual world. We cared about immersion, except when we didn’t. MUSH players like myself disdained MUDs. We didn’t see the point in killing some dumb mob that would just respawn in 5 minutes anyway, especially not when you could be roleplaying a living part of a living city with other players. Yes we had that debate 10 years ago and the MUDders won. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if MUSH and not MUD had been the base starting point for EQ. I think we’d have had our virtual worlds, and achievers would have been complaining that all MMOs were oriented towards social gaming and interactive fanfic and why can’t we have a game that actually let them kill stuff. Oh, and the female: male ratio of players would probably have been reversed.

Then came graphical MMOs and MUDs and for a period of time, games didn’t really know where they were going. There were elements of virtual worlds and also elements of games. Old time gamers could look at the trends and believe that more and more virtual world elements and social elements were being brought into the arena. MMOs were evolving – and just as Wolfshead said, a lot of gamers thought they were going to eventually become a virtual nirvana.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment. Games were evolving in different directions and, led by WoW, there was an increasingly strong movement towards solo play and more gameplay at the cost of virtual worldness.

WoW is actually not the worst offender here. GW with its instant teleports from zone to zone never truly felt like a virtual world (which is one of the main complaints directed at it, along with the dreadful social experience in cities). Other more recent offerings have trimmed down on the virtual world side of the genre to try to bring in the mainstream – most of those attempts failed longterm. And the sandbox games such as Darkfall, EVE, and many text games which still hold out are doomed to their niches. Not to even mention Second Life which fails so utterly at simulating a cohesive world that people almost have to say ‘virtual world’ in inverted commas. (Maybe virtual worlds would be more apt?)

So I have a lot of sympathy with Wolfshead’s view. He has been in the genre for a long time, and for much of that time he genuinely felt that games were evolving towards his personal perfect MMO. And it is now increasingly clear that isn’t true and possibly never was. Much of it was wishful thinking. Now, the era of the AAA MMO is drawing to a close, and the few big games in the pipeline are not even  really attempting to offer a true virtual world experience for escapists.

I just don’t agree with him.

You don’t just ‘stop evolving’

It’s clear that the current MMO gaming model simply isn’t working. WoW will do fine (for some measure of fine) but other recent entries into the field simply haven’t maintained any long term interest amongst players. Only this weekend I reported that Aion – released last Autumn – is merging servers already.  Champions Online lost players even more quickly, from other reports. SWTOR has been reported as needing a million subscribers just to break even. These things cost crazy money to make and the model still isn’t proved to hook players longterm.

Don’t blame Blizzard for that. They made the most compelling MMO that has ever been seen to date. When I first tried out the WoW beta back in 2005, I was blown away because it felt like a quantum leap more fun of a virtual world than what I was playing at the time (and I loved DaoC but I was done with it after 3 years).  Blizzard trashed some old play concepts that really needed to be smacked on the back of the head with a shovel. Like them or not, they have stayed mostly true to their internal vision and pitch perfect sense for gaming fun, and 11 million players have rewarded them for it. WoW isn’t successful because players are dim or all love McDonalds. It’s been successful because it provides the best and most polished mix of gameplay in a virtual world on the market. Now the game is starting to show its age, but don’t blame Blizzard for giving pleasure to millions of gamers, many of whom might not have considered themselves gamers at all before they joined up. It isn’t Blizzard’s fault that newer players don’t share the same dream as the older ones.

And yet … games that adhere more closely to a virtual world model do seem to retain their player base for longer than non WoW MMOs. Darkfall and EVE may be niches (a large niche for EVE) but the majority of the player base doesn’t get bored after a month.

There are other trends in the market also. F2P, lowering the barriers for players to get involved in games, is coming right back to the MUD days. Of course, our text games were (mostly) free all the time and run by volunteers, but that made it very easy for visiting players to come and test the waters and slowly get more involved.

Ultimately, virtual world games may always be a niche but I believe that more sandbox and VW elements will be brought back into multi player games. F2P is an obvious application for this – many players will happily pay to feel that they own a stake in a segment of the game world, as Second Life has proved (and I suspect this is the enduring F2P model). And whilst Facebook and Real ID alike are striving to break down the cult of anonymity on the web, many players who enjoyed their innocent escapist fantasies of being weekend wizards, spaceship pilots, hobbits, BWG (blokes with guns) or  gnomes will always flock to the games that let them define their own character name and looks.

Face it, if I wanted to look like myself online, it wouldn’t be much of an escapist fantasy. Not compared to playing a badass undead plate clad warrior wench, or a burglar sneaking around Mirkwood spiders in LOTRO. “Let’s pretend” is one of the most ancient, magical (yes, this is the basis of sympathetic magic) and honorable of all games, and it’s time that gamers stopped acting as if twitchy shooters were the be all and end all of game design. So games based on acting out a role will NEVER die. Games based on virtual worlds will NEVER die. And in fact I believe that they’ll make a comeback.

And what about Farmville? Wolfshead hates it with the passion of a zillion supernovas and I’m not fond of the game myself. But let us remember one thing. It is a massively popular massive online social game in which NO ONE KILLS ANYTHING. Perhaps our dev lords and masters could take that on board while they’re digging around in the virtual world pantry for that magic ingredient that will make their new WoW knockoff magically sticky to players. Unlike the last several versions.

So I have hope. But also, I quite enjoy playing the games the way they are now. I have a lot of sympathy for Wolfshead – games these days are not realising the dream I dreamed either. But I also remember the things that used to annoy me about the text and MMO games I have loved in the past for their immersiveness and social whirl.

Maybe it is age, but I know increasingly that my personal perfect game does not exist, and probably never will. The internet, however, has become everything I ever wanted and more.  And somewhere in there are those virtual world games (yes, even text games have evolved) which may even make an old lag like Wolfshead happy for awhile.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

— A E Housman

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25 thoughts on “MMOs are changing — but maybe some players need to go back to their roots

  1. “And what about Farmville? … It is a massively popular massive online social game in which NO ONE KILLS ANYTHING.”

    This is the best observation I have heard about the Farmville Phenomenon in a long time… or maybe ever.

  2. The problem lies that usually evolution and development do not happen in the way we want, but MMO industry (lead by Blizzard) has evolved considerably.

    Now, what is going to be the next step? Well for games in general, if the hardware permits, 3D monitors could provide more immersion (technology has to be tweaked though). And possible interactions with the game system when not logged in, web AH is a step in this direction.

    Now, regarding WoW, the only portion of the game that could be engineered and redesigned is the crafting system, make it more epic, more rewarding.

  3. Best post/response on the topic so far. I think there are some mismatched ideas about exactly what Community is (a lot of MMO bloggers call the WoW community ‘bad’, something I don’t really understand. Community when you are talking about millions of players is a very different beast to a community of 100k.)

    • For me the community is the immediate social surroundings of my character within the game. The game mechanics direct the way the players interact with each other and WoW has so far done some pretty interesting decisions in this sense. Like adding the battlegroup anonymity to dungeon finder (sure it’s fast but without consequences if you’re a jerk).

      The overall atmosphere of the game resonates the state of the community. In EQ2 the feeling is warm, even though you rarely see anyone. In EVE you are first approached with the extremely helpfull EVE University, newbie help corporation, which is soon replaced by very mature corporation. In WoW… you are called a noob, lousy, dumb, you name it if you aren’t en par with the current flavour of the month spec.

      Sure, exaggerations but the basic idea is there. In WoW the guild development has been too long overdue, and as the guilds do not have incentive to adopt, train or help newbies -or newly dinged lv80′s, even- the player ‘coming of age’ is left completely alone. No amount of ingame tutoring or hint texts on loading screen can help you to get into the elitistic community we all are part of.

      Admit it or not.

      C out

      • I have to say that EvE University really didnt aproach me ever in 2 months of playing. Maybe I missed something but I started in the NPC corp and then was out on my own.

        My wife did join Eve university but only ‘cos a staffer she knew out of game pointed her to them. To little to late by that point

      • My experience in EVE was closer to Uzi’s also. I just remember there was a newbie channel but it was scrolling up so quickly because of spam that I couldn’t really read it, EVE university was closed because of a wardec, and I didn’t see any obvious newbie friendly corps on the bboard who kept euro hours.

        I think there’s always been a lot of luck in how quickly you fit into a sandbox game though. It depends so much on who you happen to meet when you’re new.

      • EvE University never approached me in 6 months of play. They never once advertised in where us newbies looked, the recruitment channel, and neither did RvB. I only joined RvB because I constantly heard of them outside of the game in Massively comments.

  4. I’m always torn between my nostalgic self and my modern life. I love the idea of deep, immersive games like EQ back in the “good ol’ days” but equally so I rcognise that I could just never play it today because, frankly, I need the accessibility that something like WoW offers. I like to bash WoW but then I always go back to play it :)

  5. Yes yes! The NO ONE KILLS ANYTHING point is worth reiterating. In WoW, we kill (and kill and kill) thousands upon thousands of things, sentient and animal, yet (speaking personally) feel practically no remorse. It does get to be a bit of an immersion breaker: currently I’m farming Kurenai rep on my DK (silver war talbuk ftw) and that basically involves running around murdering every ogre I can find, relentlessly until I get bored, then coming back the next day to do the same (8k rep to go…)

    It’s a lot of killing, and although it’s not bloody or gory, it’s still killing, and when I actually stop to think about what I’m doing, I feel a little uncomfortable. Is this healthy, this conscience- and consequence-free slaughter?

    And don’t get me started on those “Bring back the head/hand/claw/eye of [x]” quests. Ew…

  6. Turning back does not work, the old DIKUs are bad, too. The old EQ as basis for WoW is not lush, it’s barren by now. It is time to go ahead.

    But how many more years do passionate MMO players need to realize that WoW has become a raid-a-hole game. With tons of design problems introduced through the desire to cater to everyone, the lowest common denominator.

    The same applies to LOTRO, EQ, EQ2. Not the poor DIKU derived mechanics made their virtual worlds great. MMOs today evolved new masked grind to disguise the shallowness of the levelling mechanics.

    Now people follow their ! driven path through the world, which is soon over.

    Then it becomes dailies, badges, rep grind for faction X/Y/Z, achievements, raids. Meeting other people online in a virtual world and maybe killing something together with them has become so commonplace nowadays that nobody gets excited about that anymore.

    Cataclysm is Blizzard’s friendly reminder to level up two new alts. And this is really good. New zones, even if one could cynically say they just shuffled the world around and call it new, make the explorer of virtual worlds happy.

    But then we quickly get to the same point as now: The DIKU MUD as basis for next to every contemporary MMO is still a model that is flawed to the core and does not take the genre ahead.

    A car is a car – today’s cars are much better than the old cars. But I have driven cars for dozens of years already. It is nothing that is particularly fun to me anymore.

    It is time to start flying and take the next step in the evolution of MMOs. For sure not as polished and accessible, but for sure more exciting.

  7. UO and EQ are still open, you (or Wolfshead) could be playing them within minutes.

    The reason they won’t do is because it’s not enough to play UO (or a pre-Trammel UO emulator) you have to be playing UO AND UO is the biggest game in town. Playing UO and striving hard to become some uber character is now meaningless because no one cares.

    Now that feeling, of being important special and empowered because you’re a top player in a VW, sandbox game will return once players come to view VW sandbox as a separate niche from theme park MMOs.

    Eve is halfway there. Tell people in EQ2 that you’re a top raider in WoW and they’ll get narked. Tell people in Eve that you’re a top raider in WoW and it’s like telling them you’re a top tiddlywinks player or macrame expert.

    Farmville is a massively multiplayer game that no one in WoW feels threatened by despite its vastly superior numbers. Eventually some of the niches will be as insulated from what people in the theme park genre are doing.

    Just as food for thought – the Eve niche has already got bigger numbers than the MMO mainstream when UO or EQ were at their peaks.

  8. There is actually something I find incredibly bizarre about MMO blogger discussions.

    No one ever talks about Runescape.

    For all the talk about sandboxes and hardcore and so on and so forth, no one ever talks about Runescape. And it really is the elephant in the room because it’s player numbers dwarf everything except WoW.

    Also, notably, no one ever talks about the asian mmo approach, which contains games that make farmville numbers look like your university servers diku mud.

    You’ve got these huge entities sitting there that just get ignored in favour of the hundredth discussion of why something as niche-y as EVE approach will be the new hotness.

    • There you go, there’s a gap in the market for a blogger who wants to talk about Runescape, Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel, and various asian MMOs (although there may be a language barrier there.)

  9. What an absolutely fascinating article. I read Wolfshead’s and thought it unbearably QQ, but felt you really hit the nail on the head in your responses.

    The only thing I would add is that, of course… you can play Farmville while you’re at work. That’s the key to its killer numbers, methinks, and the key to bringing non-gamers into the gaming world. Painfully prosaic, but there it is :)

  10. I’m in agreement that the immersion factor has gone down and WoW is less fun and getting worse all the time. However, I think that opinion is in the minority. Blizzard seems to be targetting newer gamers rather than trying to keep the older gamers happy. I hate it, but it seems to be working for them as their subscription base just keeps going up.

    Unfortunately, they aren’t going to change until people start leaving and that isn’t going to happen until there’s a new, better alternative. It is a vicious cycle.

    Vyll

  11. Personally I think the next generation of MMOs needs to incorporate all aspects of gaming into it, in order to be considered truly next-gen. You need to appease the people who like crafting, the people who like farmville, the people who like combat, the people who like PVP, the people who like raiding, the people who like exploring … all those people need to have something to do in one game.

    What’s that mean? That means you need to have a completely player run world. You leave the politics, economy … everything, up to the actions of the players.

    “But they’ll ruin the world!” Maybe … but there are always people will to do the right thing just as much as there are people to do the wrong thing. You’ll have people wanting to form bandit groups and whatnot, but you’ll also have people wanting to hunt those bandits down. Allow players to build cities, raise crops, hunt bounties, defeat creatures, raid large fortresses and dungeons, explore ruins and do research of days gone by, practice combat formations … all of that.

    It’ll require a complete overhaul, but that’s what next-gen is, right? We need a game to be … everything. Too big? Maybe … but someone should still try.

  12. EDIT to add:

    If you want me to be immersed in a game, make me feel like I have a stake in the future of the world. Make me believe that my actions will mold your world into something. It won’t happen overnight, but at least give me the ability to shoot for that goal.

    • I think my requirement isn’t quite the same, but I need to feel as though I am a part of the world and not some special ‘player’ who got parachuted into the theme park. I want the NPCs to feel more important – if they have to exist at all.

      I want to feel as though I am part of a virtual society, even if I’m not top of the food chain.

  13. I really don’t mean to be snarky, but I fail to see how hopping on a gryphon and then immediately going afk or oow is more immersive than an instant teleport.

    I’ve pondered/asked this question in various places as well, but no one has ever answered me. :(

    Waidat?

    • You don’t think it feels more as if you’re really travelling when you see yourself moving through the zones and areas? Especially when you’re flying over an area that you’ve just been questing in or running through.

      Just because some people can afk through flights, does that mean everyone must? Because that’s what teleports everywhere means. Maybe it’s just not important to a lot of players.

      • Oh. after my first 6 months in wow, I always, immediately, without fail, went afk upon getting on a gryphon.

        Kinda failed to see the point of watching something I totally couldn’t control or have any effect on in any way.

        I think if travel is something people want to bring up for immersiveness, something like the epic flying mounts would be a better example, maybe.

        Because I still remember the first time I got epic flight form. Now THAT was immersive. =)

      • No, we AFKed on the airships too in FFXI. We didn’t on the ferries only because you could fish there, and the Sea Horror or pirates could come and eated us.

        After awhile immersion matters much less. For that kind of travel to work you need to make it interactive enough to keep interest.

      • I think DBlade hit the nail on the head, at least when it comes to a nugget’s personal preferences.

        For that kind of travel to work, I want to be able to *do things*.

        Epic flight form was sooo great for me because, YAY I’m A BIRDIE! A SUPERFAST BIRDIE! Ahem.

        But other than that, I could swoop down and shapeshift and skin something, or mine something. I could, after certain changes were made, change into a bear in midair and feral charge at a target on the ground, hitting them, and taking no damage in the process. (This took practice, which was also really fun.) And I could plan my routes, take shortcuts, take the scenic view if I liked!

        Hence – immersion via travel? I think, for me, only if I am truly controlling the travel.

        Here, sit, and watch, and be unable to do anything… that’s just time to do something else. YMMV, of course. =)

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