The MMO Drought

written by Alastrom

 

Why can’t we go backwards? As fast as we can, really put the pedal to the metal. Despite all the negative things that get said about Ready Player One, I found the racing scene really spoke to me. I’ve been a long time massively multiplayer online gamer. Sometimes I sift through my library of outdated MMOs and I try to pick between the ones that are still online with some hope I can experience the joy they brought me in the early days. The truth is, none of them do and so far nothing new has managed to satisfy that feeling as well. I just can’t help but feel we’ve been designing the same games over and over again. If you’ve spent any amount of time with me or read some of my previous entries, you may have heard me speak about this before. It’s been called the “MMO Drought,” a desperate attempt to categorize the lack of anything on the market that really captures what it’s like to enjoy online games. We’ve been trying to race towards some imaginary finish line with these games but maybe the solution is to go in reverse. More specifically, maybe we need to discard everything we think makes an “MMO” earn its namesake and just do the opposite.

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What happens if you distill every major MMO on the market down to its base parts? From World of Warcraft, Elder Scrolls Online, Black Desert, Archeage… so on and so forth, we’d get a few common themes. A level system, a craft system, the ability to gear up a character, raids, guilds, PvP and a number of small collected ideas that have been ingrained in our subconscious. Nearly every MMO has these traits and yet we still convince ourselves we’re playing a new game. Is it possible we could design a world that didn’t include any of these things? Would players accept it or would it be too foreign that we’d never give it a chance? Sadly, I think the latter is more likely but then again, having “millions of players” is another seemingly common staple of the MMO market. Let’s throw that away too.

The early draw to massively multiplayer games was the ability to play with a previously unheard of number of players around you. With internet speeds dramatically increasing every year and digital distribution quickly overtaking retail sales, we’ve entered an age of gaming where most of us are playing with other people for the majority of our play time. The irony is that online gaming has become so popular, it’s killing online gaming. And yet, the most popular MMOs still market their game as if the ability to play online is unique. I’ve never played Sea of Thieves offline, but people aren’t lining up to call it an MMO. Call of Duty, PubG, DayZ, Arma 3, Squad, Fallout 76… I could make my fingers bleed if I tried to compile the entire list but all of these games feature game modes with more players than what you typically experience in an MMO with these days. It’s not enough to just “play online” anymore. It’s not even enough to have a progressive character that exists in a persistent online world. We need to change the draw of these so called games to something the player can’t get anywhere else. We need to go backwards.

Let’s design our own MMO. What’s the end game going to be like? What classes can I play? How many players will it have and how will guilds work? All of those questions belong in a box that, if given my way, I would shatter into a million pieces. Today, backwards is forwards and up is down. Everything you think belongs in the game needs to go and anything you haven’t seen before should be the horizon we aim for. No one can say they have courage who agrees to all of the rules. We didn’t make them and apparently we don’t even like them. Why should we hang on to them?

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The first rule of MMOs is that you have to make a character. This seems reasonable, everyone needs a way to experience the game. Is character creation really a rule we can throw away? I think it might be. What if our game didn’t force you to make a character and instead, you answer a series of questions about your character. At the end of those questions, you take over an NPC that’s already in the world. They might be a shop keeper, or a farmer. Perhaps they’re a pirate or a knight. Whatever they are, you can either continue their lives or write your own story. Those NPCs might already exist and they’ll continue to exist until a player comes along to fill their role. If the player decides to stop playing, perhaps the NPC will carry on with their new life. I’ve recently started playing Final Fantasy: XIV. One of my biggest hurdles to getting into that game will be the knowledge that I’m not starting with the same history that everyone else is. I’m new and I’m entering a world that’s already had plenty of time to develop. What if our world was always there, just waiting for you to discover it.

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The second rule is one that few games have tried to break and even fewer have succeeded. Character progression has been a linear experience since the first drop of ink fell onto a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Why try to build a realistic world and then throw unrealistic expectations on the player. I’ve been playing the Elder Scrolls Online. The Elder Scrolls is a series where player freedom is valued even above the main objective of the particular game and yet the Elder Scrolls Online felt that players needed to be shuffled into a number of vague classes. Sure, those classes can be built in a variety of ways and I must applaud the overall freedom given. But at the end of the day you’re still either a max leveled class or you’re not and both of those things come with their own limitations. Tell me, what do you do for a living and what level of that particular thing are you? If you wanted to do something different tomorrow could you pull it off? The class system is dated and it’s a desperate attempt to shuffle players into archetypes that may never resonate with them. I say we get rid of it entirely. Don’t tell me what class you play, tell me about your character. What are they good at? How good are they? Is that sort of thing even important? People are complicated, if we want in depth players in our game we have to try our best to accomplish more than a numerical system that determines how good we are at something. We play games to escape. For gods sake, let’s escape.

End game. Those two words have ended more games than we’d like to admit. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. If you’re worried about end game, you’re thinking about the experience all wrong. I went to a concert last year. I got dressed up, hopped in my car and when I arrived at the venue I handed the man at the door my tickets and prepared for a great night together with friends. We ate dinner, enjoyed a few drinks and at no point in the night did anyone ask “When is the end concert?” The end of anything is so final, so what’s the point in starting if you’re just looking to reach the end. If you’ve ever saved money to buy something, you may have had the experience of window shopping that item for weeks or months before you could afford it. You’d think of all the things you could do with it, the great times you’d have. Most of all, you think about how happy having that thing will make you. When you finally get your hands on it, you’ll be excited but if you’re like 99% of the human race, it won’t actually make you happy. We’re not actually satisfied when we obtain our goals. We’re satisfied by the steps we took to get there. It’s why successful people always have another goal in mind, another project. If you think I’m rambling about something that doesn’t relate back to gaming, then you haven’t been paying attention. I’m about to reach the max level in Sea of Thieves. It’ll have taken hours of work and I enjoyed every second of it. I strongly suspect the moment I turn in my final chest and see my level click over for the last time, I’ll lose the will to log in and play the next day. I never want to hear the words “end game” again for as long as I live.

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You are now entering a Sacred Cow Bar-B-Que. Hope you brought your appetite. Let’s get rid of repeatable content. Hopefully you get up every morning and follow some sort of routine. Maybe you go to work or attend school. Perhaps you take care of a pet or drive a family member to and fro. Routines are important to people but we can only do the same thing so many times in a row before we need a vacation. Don’t worry, I don’t want to throw away the comfort of repetition, but how many times are you going to run a dungeon or farm the same mob spawn before you’ve decided you’ve had enough? It’s impossible to make every experience new and exciting but maybe we don’t need to. An exciting experience should be something that doesn’t happen every day. What if you logged in one day and everyone was talking about the dragon that flew over town. The first guy that tells you, you’d think he’s crazy. There are no “dragons” around these parts. But a group of people are gathered and sure enough, they all saw it as well. A couple weeks later and bam, that same town gets attacked by a dragon and everyone scatters to defend their village. It’s been said it’s more interesting to read about Eve Online than to actually play it. That’s because the stories that come out of that game only happen once. No one actually cares about the first person to clear Ice Crown Citadel. They care about the stories that come with it. Let’s make our experience all about the story so at least when you return to your daily routine you have something to share with the rest of the office.

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I know what you’re thinking or at least, I suspect I know what a few people out there would like to say. Maybe I’m crazy or maybe I’m desperate. Gaming has been a part of me from my earliest days. It pains me to see the medium in such a stagnant state. We’re living in the twenty-first century of entertainment and yet we’re still producing games like it’s the ’90’s. We have to go backwards. Not chronologically but ideologically. You might say we can’t reinvent the wheel but if the future was supposed to give us flying cars and teleportation I’d say we don’t need the damn thing anymore. I want to stop playing by yesterdays rules and write a few of my own. Viva La Revolution.

 

 

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