I once again felt the need to put thoughts to paper, last time I shared my feelings regarding RTS games and what it means for a game to truly be an RTS. This time I'll tackle another game genre, this one being probably one of the more controversial as of yet.
MMO's are a relatively new game genre, in the sense that, unlike FPS, RTS, RPG and Driver genres, MMO's are little over a decade old. However in this time MMO's have grown and evolved tremendously, looking back at the some of the 2D, browser based descendents its incredible to think how far they have gotten now, bolstering fantastic graphics, full 3D, rich environments full of mystery and wonder, all for you to explore.
However ever since MMOs really took off in 2004 with the release of World of Warcraft, we've started to see a more and more worrisome trend in game developers, that of switching to making MMOs. And we aren't talking about small time devs here, big names such as Bioware, Bethesda, Mythic have tried to make or are in the process of developing MMO's of their own.
In this article I shall do my best to explain why I believe this is a trend we should not only be worried about, but should oppose and resist to some extent, I shall outline what I feel are the flaws of current MMOs and the problem that this push towards more online play is having on the gaming scene at large.
Rise of MMOs
In a way, looking at the trends of how the modern world is evolving, it isn't very hard to see why MMOs have become so popular. An increasing emphasis is being put on instant connectivity, socialization and accessibility.
And MMOs just sort of fit the bill, they have relatively low system requirements, they are generally user friendly, allowing many people to be able to try them out, they are also usually designed to be rated to capture as much of the young demographic as possible.
Networking optimizations and the increasing growth of the internet, largely due to the increase in its accessibility, has made it possible to design games where you can have many, many players play at the same time in one virtual world.
And lastly on the back of all the above MMO's have allowed gamers to do something they couldn't do before, to allow players to feel like they are part of a living breathing world, to partake in adventures of size and scale never before dreamed of.
MMOs do deserve praise for this, a well executed multiplayer game can be a lot of fun, and the more people involved the crazier and more exciting it can get, so MMOs naturally push that even further while also pushing the technical boundaries.
However despite all the fun they can potentially provide in spite of how much they have evolved, MMOs still are left with some really big design flaws that have not aged well. And now I shall go in depth talking about these.
Lack of good stories
This is the one flaw that I, as an older generation gamer, find the most troubling. Storytelling in general, has become a hot subject as of late in gaming, it is getting harder and harder to craft deep, engaging and passionate stories that can capture our minds and our hearts and that can leave a lasting impression on us, still many game developers try.
However, despite all their technical advancements MMOs still suffer from this same one flaw, and I believe, the real root of the problem is, MMOs by design aren't able to have good stories.
Because of the open shared world nature of them, stories in MMOs aren't able to have the depth of real stories or carry with them the same feeling of consequence and they also fail to properly connect the players to the story. In a sense, the very thing that makes MMOs extremely successful for socialization and player versus player makes them extremely bad at storytelling.
So let's take a look at them.
You've just spent several hours doing quests in an area in an attempt to help the local town rid themselves of their trouble, you've cleared out their mines of troublemaking monsters, routed bandits from their fields and even saved some innocent people along the way.
So what's the problem? Well, if you where to return to this town several hours later, you'd discover that nothing has actually changed, monsters are still running rampant in the mines, bandits are still pillaging the locals and the people you brought to safety are still in the cages from where you originally saved them. Only difference is now there are other people running around doing the same menial and petty task you had to undertake.
This is also reflected in the most core aspect of most MMOs, the dungeons and raids. In most MMO's, a dungeon is and instanced zone (meaning it is a zone separate from the outside world with very little to no interactions between it and the real world, meant to accommodate a certain sized group), where a small group of people between usually 4 or 5, are trying to advance a story, it usually wading your way through a group of enemies of all shapes and sizes, using a variety of tactics, until you reach one of several bosses, once you slay said boss you advance trough he same process until you finish the dungeon.
A raid is like a dungeon in essence, only on a larger scale, it can accommodate, 8, 10, 16, 25 or up to 40 players. The length of raids is usually much more substantial as well, dungeons usually house between 3 and 5 bosses at most, raids have gone up to 15.
So what's the problem with these? Again, a distinct lack of consequence. Several hours later you can queue up and do the same dungeon again, and the exact same monsters will be there, in the exact same spots, same with the exact same bosses.
Worst still, dungeon and raid bosses are often times powerful and influential figure heads of the MMO world, they are supposed to drive on and advance the story. However apart from one or two small quests related to these dungeons or raids, the story doesn't feel like it has actually advanced, the same old monsters will continue to inhabit the dungeon afterwards and the world will go on in its own version of groundhog day outside of it, oblivious to whatever you have done.
Now MMO creators have tried to spice up the above formulas in some ways in an attempt to add consequence to their stories or break up the monotony and tedium of questing. Ideas and concepts like several questing areas per level range, optional bosses, small cut scenes and cinematic, multi path dungeons and more instanced story zones and dynamic quests, phasing, have all been tried.
However in the end you ultimately realize that, it's all still an illusion, it can be a cleverly crafted illusion, but in the end it is still an illusion, all the MMOs out there are guilty of this, all of their stories just lack consequence. This lack of consequence ties up into the next problem.
Disconnection from the story
The above issues I've raised are not only a problem in their own right, but they also have another adverse consequence, and that is, making you feel alienated from the story. In other games going around and ridding a kingdom of monsters can have a huge impact, the roads become safer, people will recognize you and cheer your name, new towns could rise up, castles could be destroyed, other quests could open up in those areas.
However some go even farther than that, in a lot of newer and more modern games you also have the option to kill certain very important NPCs, often times this can completely change a story, either closing out certain arcs while opening up others. In an MMO you can't do that, because it goes off the premise that everybody needs to be able to experience the content, thus if you kill an important character to live your own story, you close it up for everybody else.
Make no mistake even in other more heavily story driven games, there aren't really an infinity of choices, but there are enough of them, and with enough consequences and tie ins to make you feel truly connected to the world and your character.
Thus because in an MMO your freedom is limited, at least as far as story goes, your character development is also limited. And this is the part that really sucks you out of the game, because your character development is limited, you never properly bond to your character and thus you feel even more disconnected from the story.
And if somehow, you did manage to develop a bond with your character, even if the game provided enough of an illusion for you to feel special, powerful and awesome, that illusion is quickly shattered the very instant you run into another character, that looks nearly identical to you, because he is dressed the same, rides the same mount and brandishes the same title as you.
All the hard work you put into defeating the "Order of the Council of Deep Shadows", all the effort it took to take scraps of their armor and forge it into your own mighty set, all the glory you basked in when the king of the land bestowed you with the title of "Bane of the Council of Deep Shadows", all that is suddenly rendered null and void, because you realize you are just another clone, and then you are left with an empty hollow where once was happiness, satisfaction and maybe pride.
Thus, because you never really connect to the story and your character, or even your companions (if the game allows you to have them) , you do not, and cannot feel like you are playing your own story, and you are right, because you aren't playing your own story at all, you are playing the people's story, the masses story.
The true freedom and consequence of what this open ended world is supposed to offer, is just out of reach. You can't kill the King of the Land of Eternal Light, and become its tyrannical new ruler, except if it's part of everybody's story, thus everybody is king. You can't bust in on another player's dungeon, backstab him and escape with all his hard earned treasure, likewise this player you've just wronged can't go on an epic journey of his own to become even more powerful and exact revenge upon your cowardly hide.
And since all of these issues are inner connected it more then makes sense that it ties up with the last issue of stories in MMO's.
Crafting enough quests in an MMO to keep people busy until the next expansion is quite a tall order. Thus in this crafting process a lot of characters are made forgettable with no deep story, it's just another one of dozens of farmers in trouble with the local pillagers, another miner troubled by dark monsters, another traveler wronged by bandits.
Because MMO's just have to be able to keep people enthralled for long enough for it to become profitable, then the process of quest making and storytelling is often times streamlined, simplified and, as a consequence loses depth. It's a problem of quantity over quality.
You can't have quality if you need to have this much quantity and you absolutely need to have quantity because the rate at which people go through content is very fast, and at the moment is several orders of magnitude faster than the speed and ease at which devs can create content.
This issue, coupled with the lack of real consequence in stories, the lack of connection to the story world, to the NPCs and ultimately to your own character, just makes stories in MMOs by design, unworkable.
This wouldn't be a huge problem in its own right, it could just mean that MMO developers need to move away from static story driven quests and need to explore other options, either just pure action and player versus player options, truly open world or a brand new, absolutely never done before method of storytelling and content generation.
However, the real issue is that, a lot of the game developers that are trying to move into the MMO business have a very long history of creating great, deep, and involving stories, some of which have such a deep and long lasting impact that people will remember them fondly for years to come, just like good movies, some of us will even occasionally replay an old game, regardless of how dated the game starts to look, that magic that made it great has a timeless quality.
This all leads into the final topic I want to discuss, the last great flaw of MMOs, and of course, in a genre as specialized as this, the consequences of this flaw do spill into why we don't have a good story, but it is also its own separate problem.
MMO's thrive on boring gameplay
This will probably sound counter intuitive to a lot of you. You may ask, how can a game thrive on gameplay elements that are not fun? Well, they do it by bombarding you with design elements that are addictive, some can be fun, some may not be, but all serve the same purpose, to keep you pinned to the game for as long as possible, either by providing an illusion of amusement to keep you from feeling the really boring parts of the game, or by providing work arounds so you can temporarily escape the otherwise boring/tedious gameplay elements.
To understand this I'll need to go off topic a little bit and talk about an experiment that is very relevant to most of today's gaming issues.
Scientists decided to run a small test on lab rats. The rats were separated into two control groups. In one of the cages they installed a device that would dispense small pellets of food whenever the rats would press on a lever. The other group of rats had a similar device put into their cage, but this one was designed to drop food pellets at random intervals of being pressed.
What happened was quite interesting, the rats that had food being dispensed each time they pressed the lever just relaxed and only pressed it when they were hungry. The other group however was pressing the lever to the point it almost became an addiction.
You can probably see where this is going, and even though you may hate to have your thought patterns associated with that of a lowly rodent, truth of the matter is, our brains work the same way.
If you put in even a little bit of time and effort into a game, you become slightly invested and attached to it. A magical sword, while worth nothing in real life, just a set of binary code, is worth a lot to a gamer who put in just the right time or effort to get it, and game devs abuse this fact.
This is why the first few levels of an MMO are always the fastest to go trough and often times the most rewarding. You gain loot quickly, become visibly stronger and gain access to lots of shiny new abilities. Then the experience gradually slows down to the point where the true purpose of the game becomes apparent, it is to keep you trapped in this isolated little universe for long enough that you develop a desire to spend additional money on the game. Either trough a subscription based system, where you must pay monthly installments just to gain access to the game or micro-transaction based systems where you may be tempted to buy booster packs, cool looking armor sets or flashy means of transportation.
The real purpose of MMOs is to make you addicted and keep you hooked for as long as possible for the purpose of milking as much money out of you as possible. A lot of times fun and enjoyment aren't included into this. Often they are just a means to an end.
This issue in particular I absolutely loathe, it sickens me to my core, because it goes against the very thing a game is, or should be.
If you google definition of a game you'll get " an activity that one engages in for amusement." and it is also synonymous with entertainment, divertissement, amusement. Since when has it been ok for an activity, that is supposed to be fun, entertaining, amusing etc, to contain elements that are, repetitive, tedious and boring?
My answer is, it was never ok and it never should be ok. And this is at the core of the design flaw of MMOs, they aren't real games, or, to put it another way, their design willingly contradicts the design of what makes a true game. This flaw is what seeps into the storytelling side of the game as well.
MMOs at their very core are flawed, they aren't designed to entertain, they are designed to enthrall, and this flaw corrupts and perverts the very foundation of what a game is supposed to be, it makes for boring, repetitive, and tedious stories, with limited choices, no consequences and nearly no depth.
MMO's are a blight upon modern gaming, and it is unfortunately growing rapidly.
To a certain extent, I guess it was inevitable, game development isn't getting any easier, and developers feel more and more like they need to guarantee profits. That is understandable, however what isn't is that developers have become increasingly more concerned with making money than with making good games.
Game development is supposed to be about making games that are as fun, as entertaining and as engaging as possible, that could leave as long a lasting impression for as long as possible. But then gaming became corporate, and corporations care about one thing and one thing only, money, the bottom line is money, and only money. make money whatever means, regardless of who or what you need to step on, morals and ethics be damned.
When did we allow the definition of games to go from " an activity that one engages in for amusement." to " manipulate (a situation), typically in a way that is unfair or unscrupulous."?
Each time a new, big game dev, with a history of making story driven games, announces his plans to make a MMO, I grow more and more sad. I think with horror at the days when there will be young people running around, wasting their time harvesting thousands of dragon scales, chopping up hundreds of dragon bones just to make their latest dragon armor in The Elder Scrolls online.
Or the what ifs had World of Warcraft or The Old Republic never been made, how we could have potentially enjoyed a mature, rich, deep and engaging story, unbound by restrictions of keeping parity and order within certain groups of players that inhabit the game worlds.
At The Old Republic I look at in particular because they have had the most drive and focus placed on story. However at the end of the day, if you where to, say remove all the MMO aspects would it be a better game? I can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, absolutely, it could have been Bioware's crowning achievement, one to be celebrated and enjoyed for years to come.
Instead we got an ok story and another generic, run of the mill MMO, still lacking in true consequence and depth, still leaving you feeling disconnected from the story and still bombarding you with dozens of boring and tedious activities, designed to keep you hooked.
Oh how ironic that would be, for me who has loved games all his life and has tried to make others accept them, to find that he no longer enjoys them and thus move on to other activities.
I was born a gamer at heart, I know that, but at the rate the gaming world is going, I'm not sure what I will die as, because it certainly won't be a gamer.
TLDR: MMO's are flawed at their core, because, by design, they are made to enthrall people in boring and monotone activities. They go against the principle of a game, to provide fun, satisfaction and enjoyment.
Because of this and other reasons MMO's lack good stories, their mutiplayer design disallows the freedom to make good consequential choices, to form bonds with your character or the game world.
Thus MMOs are poor storytelling mediums.
The future of games is in our hands and it is our duty, if we want to continue to have good, story driven games, to make our voices heard. Trough the forums, or even at the game shop, refusing to buy all the repetitive MMO's.