Maybe my MMO fandom has been a great big lie. Even looking back to the ‘good ole days’, the genre wasn’t very good, at least as far as games go.
That's the thing, isn't it, though? MMOs never were any good as games. What's more, almost no-one ever believed they were. The genre was getting on for a decade old by the time WoW came along and for most of its life Murf's statement would have been uncontroversial in the extreme.
Before Blizzard took it upon themselves to re-invent the genre everyone knew MMOs were boring. Wait, let me re-phrase that. Until then, 99.99% of the entire population of the world had no idea MMOs even existed. It was only nearly all of the 0.01% who did that knew they were boring.
MMOs - or MMORPGs as they were generally referred to back in the olden days - were a niche within a niche. RPGs themselves represented a less than well-respected sub-genre in gaming and online rpgs were an almost invisible constituency hidden inside that. In the mid-90s, when the genre began to emerge from the almost impossibly obscure acronym forest of MUDs and MUSHes most people didn't even have internet access at home so even the idea of playing such a game seemed outlandish.
Then there was the setting. Fantasy, the country of the weird. Like SF, fantasy is mainstream now but for the longest time it was the province of men with beards and ladies with cats.
There's a long-established yet largely unexplained connection between academia and fantasy (and cats but I'm not going there - this time). In the comments to Murf's post The Mystical Mesmer mentions Tolkien, whose day job for twenty-five years was Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University before he dumbed down to take the chair of Merton Professor of English Language and Literature.
"It’s been said that J.R.R. Tolkien, a philologist by practice, created the Lord of the Rings so that his invented languages would have a world to inhabit" the Mesmer says. C.S. Lewis, another Professor, this time of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and a fellow member of The Inklings with Tolkein, created Narnia to promulgate his Christian beliefs.
The notion of creating entertainment, let alone fun, must have been, at best, a by-product for these serious-minded academicians and yet there they stand, founders of a genre that became notorious for eating the lives of bright, young people and spitting out the husks, all in the name of amusement. By the time Crowther and Woods turned up in the 1970s to code Collossal Cave/Adventure on their mainframe the connection between the dry halls of academe and the dank dungeon beneath was already bonded with an adamantine grip.
The kind of person who found this kind of thing exciting was particular. It's fair to say, I think, that neither Multi-User Dungeons nor their more accessible, offline offshoot, Text Adventures made significant inroads into public consciousness. That took the addition of a graphical element. Pictures.
Somehow, being able to see even something resembling a five-year old child's crayon drawing of Bilbo's subsurface bachelor pad sent 1980s teenagers into a tizzy. Some teenagers. Mostly boys. Or so I believe. Don't look at me, I was 25, more interested in cellar clubs and substance abuse than hobbit holes and hand-axes.
However you cut it, tapping instructions onto the rubbery keypad of the ZXSpectrum in the increasingly desperate hope of having Melbourne House's idiosyncratic parser recognize a keyword does not qualify as exciting gameplay. Neither does sitting on a lumpy beanbag drinking warm, flat supermarket own brand cola, thumbing through the Player's Handbook for the umpteenth time while the brother of that friend you don't really like all that much argues with the DM over whether his character can fit the severed head of a basilisk into his halfling's backpack.
From the perspective of someone playing Quake, GoldenEye or Half Life (none of which, I should point out, have I ever played but about which I still hear people enthuse ecstatically) Ultima Online and EverQuest can barely even have looked like games at all. Instead of fast, terrifying action there was, as Murf puts it, "just auto-attacking and relying on the computer to not kill you with too many misses in a row".
It has long been my contention that MMORPGs are not "games" at all. They picked up that tag for lack of a better early on and it stuck. As development moved out of the universities and into the commercial arena the genre needed to be marketed and "game" was a term the market understood.
When I decided to try my hand at online gaming the term MMORPG was almost interchangeable with Virtual World. The lineage that leads back to Tolkien supports that clade much more convincingly than any offshoot of gaming, even now. Browsing the web for news about MMOs as I did obsessively at the beginning of the 21st century (being fortunate enough to have a job that let me do that at work and still get paid) it quickly became apparent that gaming culture held the entire subgenre in contempt, in so far as it deigned to notice it at all.
The seemingly inexorable rise of EverQuest to a peak of around half a million subscribers in 2004 eventually brought the genre out of the shadows but even then most of the commentary was along the lines of "who are all these nerds and where do they get the money to pay for those ridiculous subscriptions, living in their moms' basements, like they all do?".
WoW turned that around. MMOs became, briefly, a cultural phenomenon. The mainstream, or at least the gaming mainstream, noticed. Expectations were created; on both sides. From there we moved, slowly, often unwillingly, towards a state in which, as Murf says, "Unarguably, MMOs have gotten better as games".
Which is, of course, the problem. MMORPGs were never meant to be "games". Not really. They're pastimes, hobbies, obsessions. They're places to hide and places to go and places to live. They're the virtual equivalent of the garden shed, the attic, a quiet night in by the fire. They stand with knitting, whittling, gardening or fishing as things you can do when you don't have anything you have to do, something you can go on doing for as long as you want to go on doing something.
Missy says in the comments to Murf's post "MMO’s don’t finish, while single players do. I don’t want it to finish, I like the comfort in the familiar and not having to start completely over on something." That, I think, sums it up perfectly. For those of us who still enjoy our MMOs it's not boredom we're feeling; it's comfort. Coming home from a rough day at work to a familiar MMO is like pulling closed the cabin door against the snow and settling down in front of the fire with a whittling knife and a stout log. Or something.
Over the decades MMO developers have tried to be all things to all customers. They're fortunate in that the form supports, even encourages, sprawling undisciplined design. In that way they've had a pass on focus for a long time. It can't go on forever, which is why, increasingly, we're seeing a reversion to the core.
Murf says of EQ2 "It has so much to do too, but I just can’t get over the huge lump of dull gameplay it’ll take to get anywhere" and there he hits the nub of it: EQ2's core audience, like WoW's core audience and the core of every other MMO, doesn't want to "get anywhere". All they want is to be somewhere. And the somewhere they want to be is in their MMO of choice.
That's not enough for most gamers. Gamers crave novelty. MMO "players", by and large, aren't gamers. If they crave anything it's stasis. "More of the same" is their battlecry when they take to the forums, something they rarely do because most of them barely know there are forums.
So, yes, MMOs are boring. For a given value of boredom. Just like an evening at your maiden aunt's house is boring, as she chats about people you don't know while the knitting needles click and the t.v. glows silently in the corner with the sound turned down. The thing to remember, though it's hard to understand, is that your aunt isn't bored at all. She's just where she wants to be, doing just what she wants to do.