Monday, December 7, 2015

You Know The Scene - Very Humdrum

Murf has an interesting post up right now. It's provocatively titled "MMOs are Boring"  and it opens with a great line:

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.


  1. Maybe what we really need is a new distinction between online gaming vs. dwelling; the explorers, travellers, potterers, builders, crafters and screenshot takers among us are looking to dwell in worlds that persist, cannot be beaten or conquered. But we've been there countless times now and we've written countless posts about gamification and achieverdom and how these mindsets and playstyles don't agree with ours - or then, we've yet to make that experience and identify the peril of small beginnings. These changes happen gradually over time which makes them harder to spot, they trickle down until we've all but forgotten ourselves and stare in wonder at how the rock has become hollow.

    I'm glad I've found a way to deal with it and pick the few titles that are the least disruptive to me personally. That's all you can do and it's what you CAN do; Rilke, one of my favourite German poets of all time, once said this (I shall translate): "...if the world bores you, do not accuse the world. accuse yourself for not being poet enough to call upon its wealth and beauty."

    And this is true of all the weary. Things change for sure as time progresses but it is in our hands too to make the most of now. Realizing that your past MMO adventures were altered by early gaming enthusiasm creates the opportunity to walk familiar paths with new eyes and maybe more genuine attention.

    1. When I was trying to think of a title for the post I googled quotes on boredom. There are plenty but large number of them turn out to be variations on a phrase I've used before, which I whimsically attribute to my grandmother, who never said anything of the kind: "only boring people get bored".

      It isn't really about boredom in the end, though. It's about not getting what you want. And when it comes to things you do of an evening to entertain yourself you really are entitled to that much. I think you're exactly right: we need a new distinction, a new naming convention. We need to stop encouraging people to spend time and money on products and services that are largely useless to them but to which they have been drawn by inaccurate marketing and incorrect labeling.

      Or, in short, stop calling the darn things "games".

    2. I agree with that but also, early MMO nostalgia is an impossible thing to cater to. Take anyone's first MMO ever, the one they no doubt worship to this day because feels, re-release it exactly how it was but with better graphics - I claim people would still hate it. It's like attempting to chase your first love...hence also my "it's not the games, it's you"-argument from last week. I think the fairest assumption would really be that it's everything, the players and the "games".

  2. I may be barking completely up the wrong tree here, but it strikes me that the earlier cohort who were lulled by the promise of virtual worlds are more willing to roleplay, or at least respect that sense of immersion into a strange land and become someone else, in general.

    Once we hit WoW and the mainstream, the bulk of gamers are playing themselves, with a "toon" as a tool.

    Correspondingly, we see the switch from text communication being the standard to voice communication, bringing even more of the "real world" into the MMO as (meta) game, leaving more of that immersion and world-dwelling desire in the dust...

    1. Man I couldn't possibly agree with you more. I remember I use to RAIL against the phrase "toon"; these are our CHARACTERS dammit. But eventually I gave up that fight, though my characters are still MY character, not 'toons'.

      Ditto too voice chat. I don't want to hear that swarthy dwarf tank talking in the players 13 year old boy voice. I used to really appreciate that you could be anyone in an MMO, but that's not really true once you factor in voice chat.

    2. Completely agree with both of you. EQ before WoW had its fair share of fourth-wall breaking, ooc communication for sure but it was completely normative to group with total strangers and find them talking in some approximation of character. Dark elves were frequently sardonic, snarky or plain arrogant. Dwarves frequently chatted in very bad phonetic Scottish dialect, Ogres talked like superbaby in a 1950s Action Comic and halflings went on endlessly about pie. Everyone made in-character jokes and witticisms and acted vaguely as though they lived there. That's just how it was.

      You still see it occasionally. The odd Asura and Charr in GW2 attempt it. It stands out now as peculiar. Then it was just normal.

  3. Just today somebody left a comment on one of my post to say that null sec in EVE Online was boring. I had to counter that, taken as a game, EVE Online is boring. Based on its mechanics, EVE is a horrible game. And all the more so if you want to solo. You can be solo, but I live out in null where that is problematic, and I spend most of my time in MMOs doing things solo.

    It is more like some sort of social experiment. New Eden is a place full of other people, and the frictions and the interactions (both direct and indirect) and the sense of place (travel is hard, there is no magic postal service or bank to deliver your stuff, you have to drag it all with you and, of course, inventory space is limited) and the overall majesty of a "world" many light years across is the draw.

    A few years back an indie dev made their own version of EVE Online. (I forget who, but Brian Green mentioned it.) It had all the basic mechanics of the game, done in a 2D top down view, with quite a few of the annoying bits of EVE removed. It failed and sank like a stone, causing the dev to rage against players for not accepting his substitute which was, to his mind, just as good but so much cheaper. I tried it out myself. It was all of the boredom and none of the compelling bits, and I don't think the dev got that at all.

    There is a fine balance. Removing the bits that more traditional gamers don't like doesn't help.

    1. EVE is famously boring. Even as someone who's never played it I know that. I've heard SynCaine explain how a few moments of shock and awe make up for hours of tedium; I've read your own laconic accounts of roams that never found anything to kill and battles that ended before the fleet arrived; currently I'm enjoying J3w3l's increasingly frustrated tales of learning to play the game of internet spaceships where mining is "the gameplay that is talked about as killing the newbie spirit... A mind numbingly boring wait."

      And yet there it is, with its hundreds of thousands of pilots still generating stories that fascinate even those of us who will never fly alongside them. Just like UO and EQ did in their day with their tales of murder, theft, loss and heartbreak. And never forget Second Life, that great unmentionable, virtual world without portfolio, generator of more mainstream news stories than all other MMOs put together. It's the people that make the stories in the end.

      I don't believe SynCaine's right when he says no-one has any stories to tell worth hearing about how they did their dailies and cleared their dungeons because a good storyteller can spellbind an audience with weaker material than that, but I do think there are more opportunities for campfire tales and even legends in a wild universe like EVE's or EQ's than the manicured gardens of latter years. If the flipside of that is a little boredom, or a lot, then it's a price I'm willing to pay.

      Of course that's easy for me to say - I'm not the one getting bored.

    2. Having written posts about instance runs that went perfectly, I know you can do it. But disasters and mistakes are more fun to write about and make for better memories. Part of becoming attuned to EVE is accepting that you're going to make mistakes and your ship is going to get blown up and that is often the fun bit.

      There was a time when I felt that Second Life was getting way too much coverage. (At one point it felt like every third story at Massively was about SL.) But now there is nothing and I kind of miss those goofy stories.

  4. There's so much in this post that resonates with me. I'm one of those who've more or less moved away from MMOs, and I've been playing them since the early 1980s (Megawars III on Compuserve). For me the magic seems to be gone and by magic I ~think~ I mean that sense of place.

    Actually I'm a big fat liar because I've been playing Elder Scrolls Online on the console recently. How weird is it that I forgot that? And I'm enjoying it because I'm playing it like an old-school MMO. I turn off voice chat, there's NO text chat, I ignore the instanced dungeons that require a Group and instead just roam the land, helping out in open-world difficult content, crafting, puttering around, reading lore books I find and, like you said, not even really treating it as a game but more like a park to take a scroll through to wind down.

    So maybe that's kind of what Syl is referring to. I have friends that will spend time researching the most powerful "build" for ESO before they start to play so they can be optimally efficient. I just potter along, figuring out things as I go, ignoring the difficult content and instead finding what I'm looking for, which is a place to escape.

    At the same time, my significant other has been restless for months. She's an MMO-only type (well, she plays Animal Crossing quite a bit but that's its own kind of virtual world). We just bought her the new EQ2 expansion and suddenly she's calmed down. For her EQ2 is all about the guild hall. Decorating it, mostly. She does writs to earn status to keep the GH open. OK honestly I don't know exactly WHAT she does, but she's happy, she has notebooks full of checklists, and I never see her doing dungeons or anything. She's just enjoying the game as a place.

    I'm rambling. I guess I should've just said "Great post!" and left it at that. :)

    1. I absolutely agree. I don't bang on about it as much as I used to but it has always been my contention that players need to grab these "games" by the scruff of the neck and make them into what they want them to be, not what the designers tell them they are.

      Every MMO is a sandbox if you choose to see it that way. When I started with EQ in 1999 I knew next to nothing about how the game was "meant" to be played. I did do some research but pretty much every comment I found contradicted all the others. There was no consensus back then on what to do with your time in game, no "meta" to which to conform, no one guide to follow (just a whole slew of them that said wildly different things).

      In the event I just set out of the gates of Freeport (and Qeynos and Steamfont and Kaladim...) and took my adventures as they came. It's the path I still follow and it still works for me in pretty much every MMO I try.

      Oh and EQ2 is the absolute zenith of calm for anyone who likes to decorate. Mrs Bhagpuss spent literally years doing it although since GW2 she seems to find shelling keeps with a trebuchet more relaxing! Demolition instead of decoration.

  5. I'm curious how I'd fit into the theory you're outlining here. I'm very much a gamer -- have been since I was a little kid. I played single-player titles long before I even knew MMOs existed. I'd generally agree that the early MMOs and their design conventions tend to be pretty boring, and I do embrace most of the ways in which MMOs have become better games.

    Yet still, I fell in love with MMOs. I love inhabiting a setting, not merely visiting. I'm hooked on the comfort and familiarity afforded by an MMO, by the ability to delve more deeply than I ever could in a single-player game. I embrace role-play, and I am very much in favour of the idea that it is the journey that matters more so than the destination.

    I'm not sure I have any particular point to make with this comment, but if there is one, I guess it's that I'm not sure why this is being presented as an either/or. Why are "a good game" and "a good virtual world" being viewed as mutually exclusive?

    1. It's very clearly a spectrum not a bi-polar choice. Lots of people will have mixed preferences. There seems to be an increasingly assertive and vocal constituency for the "more game, less world" end of that spectrum though. It's certainly possible to make a convincing virtual world and use it as a setting for excellent gameplay. So possible, indeed, that you have to wonder why it's so rarely achieved.

      Probably the answer to that is the same as the answer to most things that aren't the responsibility of a single creator: different agendas among the people responsible. Aka lack of focus.

  6. Beautiful post, you nailed perfectly how I feel, and a very apt description of the table-top RPG scene in the eighties ;)

    As one of Mongoose Publishing joke entries of their Slayers' Handbook pointed out, about the only time there was a wiff of excitement/danger to the scene was with Jack D. Chick's Dark Dungeons branding D&D players as closet Satanists, and the similar claims by B.A.D.D. and such. Also quite an over-representation of metal-heads, with all the associations that brought.

    The nitpicker in me has to point out that the roots of the RPG genre started out more in the vein of the grotty 'Pulp Fiction'/'Low Fantasy' writers like Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft and Lieber, than 'High Fantasy' writers like stuffy-but-loveable Tolkien and Lewis (Appendix N of the old DMG to the rescue ;)) but that doesn't really change the central message (the Pulps were intended as pure escapism, after all).

    Note that one of the main reasons people tend to give for liking the pre-Cataclysm/Vanilla WoW setting best is that it felt more like a world than a game, as after that watershed expansion the world became basically nothing more than a rollercoaster to the level cap and any and all immersive game aspects were scratched (like endless ammo for hunters, and pets you never have to feed). 'End Game Is King', as Blizzard then started to put it themselves.

    Midnight Rambler out :)


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