While the idea of massively multiplayer gaming is on the rise, the question has to be asked: Just how different are all of these games? When we take a step back and look at the choices available to us, the majority of the choices come back to one very familiar play style, World of Warcraft, with it's own bit of character mixed in for good measure.
We could break down these games, looking at lots of little mechanics rather than simply the obvious, however thanks to the complex and tiered nature of MMOs, that would take a significant amount of time. Or would it?
The need to invest some serious time into an MMO to sufficiently understand it's intricacies is undeniably the Achilles Heel of finding the one for you. When I first played World of Warcraft many years ago, the amount of time it took me to accumulate that understanding of the game was a year long endeavour. But then, World of Warcraft is no longer alone in it's success and is arguably on the decline. In the present state of the industry, if we want to get a feel for a game, we expect to know whether or not we wish to continue within a mere couple of days of playing. Sometimes less. Personally, Tera consumed a week of my time, while Neverwinter managed to consume only one evening, before I came to the conclusion that I wasn't excited about them. Certainly not enough time to get to grips with the intricacies of a massively multiplayer game and get comfortable within a community.
In the case of our reference, World of Warcraft, any experienced player can tell you that with every major patch, the game gets dumbed down just a little more. Levelling becomes easier, progressing becomes less of a challenge, and integrating yourself into the community becomes less important. That's the problem, right? In the end, it comes down to the idea that we play massively multiplayer games for one of two reasons: Either we want to engage with a community, or we want competitive gameplay.
Once upon a time, when playing an MMO, there was no choice but to integrate yourself into the community in some way, I'm sure most of you remember. I'm not talking about just joining a random guild here either. Rather, the need to become a part of numerous social groups, and this means one cannot solely be a part of a guild. While guilds are great for making friends or spending time with current friends, this isn't always enough; in fact, with how the more complex and challenging MMOs work, having friends and a reputation outside of a guild could even be considered necessary.
Think back to the days of Final Fantasy XI, when the game was innately difficult without even a basic party. The idea that the world was so dangerous that people would help complete strangers in passing, and so punishing that people would often refuse to face the death penalty for as long as possible after dying, is a prime example of an idea that MMOs seem to be abandoning regardless of being called massively multiplayer. That idea, is dependence.
How often have you played an MMO in recent years and asked yourself why you aren't interacting with many people? In the world of MMOs, I believe that dependence is the social catalyst that gets people talking. When it's painstakingly difficult to best a task alone, you ask other people in the area, or perhaps get helped by somebody who already did it.
Consider for a moment, if a player has experienced this need to depend upon others extensively while playing, then plays a present day MMO, where generally speaking almost everything can be done without a party, do you think that person will be more likely to offer help if they see a struggling player; and would they be more sociable in situations where cooperation is forced upon them? Certainly we've all participated in groups where the strangers aren't being particularly social, being independent - dare I say antisocial. Behaving like this to an extent that the moment they finish, regardless as to whether or not others have finished, or whether the party is in a relatively safe area?
Okay, the idea of how a person behaves depending on how they were introduced to MMOs is a bit extreme. Naturally it's going to depend on the individuals and their present mindsets, but if community is supposed to be a driving factor in massively multiplayer games, would a player leaving early when others are in a more social and helpful mindset leave a negative impression of that player? After all, if that player has demonstrated that their willingness to co-operate only extends as far as their personal needs, would others not be naturally mistrusting of this person in a situation requiring cooperation on a larger scale? What if some of the group wants to accomplish the optional goals, while the player in question might only want the core goals, who's to say this individual won't leave the moment the core goals have been completed?
Perhaps I'm over thinking and being overly critical about people, or perhaps it's simply a bias I experience from being introduced to MMOs through very friendly communities.
Jumping back to the idea of reputations and dependency of players, from the early days of Final Fantasy XI and World of Warcraft to what those games are like now, as well as many of the present alternatives such as Tera, Neverwinter and Guild Wars 2, I see a pattern of gradual anonymity creeping into out online games. Whereas a player may have once needed to worry about etiquette and leaving a good impression, features such as the cross-server dungeon finder in World of Warcraft, and the dynamic events in games like Guild Wars 2 where everybody is essentially anonymous and likely will never be recognised nor encountered again, one could argue that players lack consequences to behaving in an uncouth manner. Lets face it, without having to face social consequences, people can be total c***s on the internet.
My point is, this opportunity to behave in an unsociable manner, combined with the seemingly diminished need to interact with others and build relationships for streamlining gameplay, is there any other reason for people to integrate themselves into a community, except perhaps to provide a conversational hub for themselves and friends?
While MMOs are pulling away from the style of action bars and menu's, in favour of more action-oriented gameplay, we are still playing what is essentially the same game. So I click and I slash, and the camera is locked to my mouse, but I'm still grinding monsters and I'm still spending my time doing repetitive fetch and carry quests.
It's understandable that (unless you're Skyrim) any action or RPG game is deep enough for your actions to affect the world with lasting effect. Such is the way stories work. By contrast, having this level of control over the world in a massively multiplayer game is extremely difficult to do without drastically instancing the world or littering it with dynamic events. Unfortunately, once the world becomes heavily instanced, it stops being a massively multiplayer game, as everybody is in their own instance.
Not all MMOs are built upon this tried and true style familiar in games like World of Warcraft, Tera and Final Fantasy IX. EVE Online, while pre-dating These games, is still a thriving game of industry, player aspiration, subterfuge and relative classlessness. Plus, the upcoming Greed Monger is an MMO revolving around the development of society and communities within a vast, persistent, open world. these two games, are a lot more focused around virtual economies and communities with their own needs, reputations and goals; but also require a significant investment of time to accomplish anything of note. This is not particularly ideal when one expects to get a feel for the game in less than a week, or when the player simply doesn't have said time to invest.
More conveniently for the lover of the the RPG archetype, and those with varying amounts of time to invest, is the gradual introduction of skill-based MMO's. While we don't see many of them at present - most MMOs relying on a rigid ladder of levelling - games like Firefall are examples of an emerging interest in skill-based massively multiplayer play and eliminates a great deal of the surplus content that - in the more traditional model - serves little propose beyond progressing one's level for a brief time. These zones may provide a nice variety while levelling, but typically can leave a stagnant selection of areas, often coming with disengaging daily quests, for players to spend their time on at endgame. The removal of this rigid levelling chain improves not only the player's freedom to explore and quest where they want, when they want, but also help alleviate the bane of many a player's existence: Waiting for their friends to level up.
Mark Kern, founder of Red 5 Studios, the guys behind Firefall, elaborates on the subject better than I ever could.
Initially, the idea of using content in MMO's might leave you imagining some rather uncreative events and quests; I know it does in me. Unlike with a static - linear - quest line, the story being told depends greatly on what's going on around you. It seems obvious I know, but when the first thing that comes to mind with dynamic questing and events - in my case at least - are happenings along the lines of rifts in Rift, the initial conclusion is that these are a lot of fun to mix up an experience, but really don't contribute anything to the story.
However, what if we step back and think about what makes the world around us "dynamic" in the same way. What happens when a high-demand resource gets captured by the enemy? Simple, supply drops and demand either remains constant, or increases. Suddenly we have an incentive to send players on advance-and-defend style quests that can be accomplished my many people at once, much like in the world of Guild Wars 2. We may even see a style of game such as that of Star Citizen where this setback has an active effect on the player economy. Would you look at that, the economy's being effected. Suddenly everybody has a reason to care.
But let's not stop there. What if you were to retake a mine, what does the invading population do then? Kobolds have moved in - as big of a trope as that may be - and are then forced out, where do they go? Suddenly farmers, or a local town or village are being harassed by these vagrant creatures. Perhaps there's a food shortage, or any travel routes that go via this town are disrupted. Heck, what if these Kobolds have control of the town, and it's residents - players and NPC - have lost their ability to sell their wares, or even access their homes and item banking?
The point is, when creatively applied, dynamic content can create a massive impact on the world through knock-on effects, and can be kept engaging simply by the virtue that one group of people wants what's in the mines, while another group of people wants the town to be a safe place for them to trade and partake in the communities of the game. Now imagine if these conflicting interests existed everywhere in the world.
Pretty cool right?
Of course, what is an MMO without a grand story arc? There is always going to be a degree of scripting in grand world events, yet if a few bad characters were to try to steal some great artefact, or perhaps open a portal to another dimension, there effect it could potentially have on the world, while immensely complicated to build, would mean players would be forced to act, or face greater consequences further down the line. What if demons are unleashed upon a zone? Suddenly those Kobolds seem pretty insignificant, perhaps they might have the ability to become neutral for a while, fighting beside and trading with players until one group of players decides it's cheaper to drive them out again.
What if the town could be destroyed? While these idea are increasingly large in scope, the point remains constant: The potential knock-on effect of dynamic worlds is almost endless, and can keep players in a war of attrition, without any direct player versus player action. Would you look at that, suddenly we have both competitive play and communities of players.
Depth & Complexity
Admittedly, I have no way to quantify the complexity of an MMO, I doubt any of us do, however there are certain elements such as crafting, as well as class and skill systems. The level of flexibility, and inherent complexity, compared to the simplicity of a less varying approach of crafting, classes and skills can have a daunting effect on the size of it's audience, or so we're lead to believe. The height of World of Warcraft's success is often believed to be the Wrath of the Litch King expansion. While there are many reasonings behind this idea, including the sudden surge in competitors as Blizzard's next expansion was released, the common feeling portrayed to me by past players of the game are focused around the idea of oversimplification and the removal of the aforementioned need to rely upon a community.
As a point of case, while seeking help with extensive quest chains that no other friends are following, or borrowing money from friends that have been on a server longer than you, were once common practice, the need for them diminished. The expensive resources and skills that took time to earn have become cheaply available in an ever unbalanced player economy.
Then there's the question of what if we had a more creative approach to crafting? If players could put any combination of items together in an assembly table, or a furnace, or one of any number of increasingly difficult to make crafting utilities that would all slowly stem from an assembly table, and get an item out of it, what kind of culture would that build in the game? If there's no traditional crafting recipes that a player selects from a list, and no way of knowing how good an item a recipe will make, how would players behave? Would players simply share them on vast wikis as is presently common, or would they horde their knowledge like corporate secrets and share then only with their guilds and close friends?
That's not even mentioning the possibility that if there was no ladder of levelling, but rather the game followed the aforementioned idea of skill-based gameplay, every item in the game would have demand behind it; assuming, of course, a lack of trash items that literally serve no purpose. If then, only certain people know how to make certain things, we might end up with an impressively diverse and therefore stable virtual economy, that all players are contributing to, compared to the erratic, unpredictable and segmented economies we see in games that have traditional levelling and simplistic crafting.
Okay, okay, enough about virtual economies. What about the gameplay itself?
Generally, class-based gameplay revolves around the idea of an optimal spell rotation, an optimum sequence of spells for the player to cast that maximises their damage per second. This will change a bit for people in healing and tanking roles, whose spell rotations are else wise designed to optimise healing and threat generation, but the idea that all the player needs to do to play their class optimally is use spells in the correct order and not get hit, is somewhat simplistic don't you think?
Granted, once upon a time, big fights required players to remember what bosses did what and when to improve their survival chances, but a common argument I hear about these types of MMOs nowadays is that the only challenge these so-called casual players face now is not standing in the fire, which apparently is extremely difficult to do. That one death will always have a knock-on effect and before you know it the rest of the group or raid are dead.
If it's accurate that people generally forget they shouldn't stand in fire - which I'd say is quite accurate considering a rather entertaining experience I had in Path of Exile once - then I have to wonder just how many people are just being forgetful and how many are ignorant. Those who die in fire because they don't realise the fire is there (probably meaning the game isn't giving them enough feedback when they take damage) are probably less likely to object to more challenging, or skill based, gameplay than those who are simply ignorant of the fact that the fire will kill them faster than they can be healed.
It makes me wonder if these seemingly casual players would care if a game was skill based or not. Clearly they've not taken the liberty of determining what they have to do during certain encounters, implying a happy-go-lucky attitude that wouldn't get them very far in a skill-based game. On the other hand, do casual players genuinely complain that something is too difficult, or that they don't have enough time to complete everything, or is that merely an exaggerated minority of casual players portrayed as the majority opinion?
What could they become?
Why do we not have many - if any - skill-based MMOs that function like Dark Souls? Games that are harsh but fair, where player knowledge and skill is vital to successful gameplay, with combat, exploration and crafting abilities supplementing the experience and adding to it's depth, instead of forcing a grind to climb a ladder of power. Perhaps people might not be impressed with the learning curve, or perhaps the constant dumbing down we see from MMO's would mean that those who are not used to complicated and skill-based mechanics would feel like the game was unfairly difficult.
Unfortunately, MMOs are expensive to make, and if the game doesn't take off it could be disastrous. From the business standpoint of the large developers and publishers that have the money to invest into such things, deviating from the tried and true formula of an MMO is a massive risk, and a big risk at a time where the industry is over-inflated to a point where these same large companies are apparently loosing money is not something that stakeholders take too kindly to.
On a more cheerful note, the idea of a skill-based MMO isn't entirely unheard of. A recent example of this is the aforementioned third-person shooter: Firefall. The general aspiration of the developers being that the game should be skill based, with as little emphasis on gear as possible.
MMO's are undeniably iterative by nature, don't you agree? Ultimately, with the sheer scale that comes with the game type, this iterative development is going to progress slowly over time as various games find their popularity, and others fade out. There may be the occasional large change from other MMO's in a new one, but in the end a large portion of the content can feel like any other MMO. Guild Wars 2, Rift, Tera, and that initial generation of "better than WoW" alternatives is a prime example of this. Each game has it's own unique difference that made it appealing, but when stripped of that difference, it felt pretty much the same as World of Warcraft.
Curiously, we can see American MMO's trying to pull away from the grindy level-based design with games like FireFall, and upcoming titles such as Greed Monger trying to bring some older and forgotten styles back into fashion. At first glance, FireFall seems more like a third-person shooter with some RPG elements than an MMO. While this means it certainly seems as if it's trying to tackle many of the problems people have with current MMO's, such as removing the focus on levelling and making it surprisingly dynamic, other areas of the game have suffered as a result.
Similarly, Greed Monger appears to be equally as different a game to what is presently available, but with it's promised player-driven world, begs the question as to whether it will have any way of engaging players beyond economics and the generic grindy gameplay that would result from players making quests for resources. Even the upcoming Star Citizen appears to have shied away form the idea of putting the weight of the galaxy squarely on the shoulders of players.
This next generation of MMO's looks impressive, but so did the previous generation when the look back on it. We're likely just going to take another few steps forward with each generation, eventually leading us to a handful of engaging games with a lot of character, born from this lessons learned approach to developing MMOs. What do you think?