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