Monday, January 16, 2017

Bitter Turns To Sugar

Armathyx posted a recipe for a great MMORPG that started me thinking about how and to what extent my own MMO wishlist might have changed over the years. The game Armathyx proposes would have fitted me like a bespoke chainmail shirt back when I began thinking about braving the unknown waters of online gaming around the turn of the century.

Even now several of those bullet points hit the target almost dead center. Yet when I consider whether it would be a game I'd settle down and live in the way I have in GW2 these last few years I'm not so sure.

In another thoughtful post, Jeromai joined the ever-lengthening line of about-to-become ex-MMO players. He wisely nuanced his resignation notice with an essential qualification, saying "I think I’m done with MMOs for the time being". And that's the thing, really. The time. And being.

It's not just MMOs that have changed. Our involvement with them has changed too. For some of us they've long since ceased to be just something we play, if they ever were. As the hobby and I grow older together I find myself not only playing Massively Multiple Online Roleplaying Games but writing about them, thinking about them, picking over their minutiae endlessly. Here, on this blog, in the comment threads of others, on forums and in conversation at home.

And if I really think about it, I've been doing something similar almost since that day late in 1999 when I installed EverQuest and took my first, terrified steps into a virtual world. I never could just shut up and play the damn game.

You might think, then, that after more than a decade and a half, after hundreds of thousands of hours of game time and what must certainly by now amount to millions of words of argument, declaration, pondering and plain gossip, I might at least have begun to come to some kind of concerted, considered position on what, exactly, it is that I want out of it all.

Well I haven't. I have, if anything, less of an idea now than I did when I began. A lot less, if I stop and think about it.

Looking back, for the first two or three years my views on what made for a good MMO were somewhat rigid. Unbending. You might say harsh. Yesterday's post on exploits alluded to it: zero tolerance. And not just for cheats. If I'd had my hands on the controls back in 2000 people would have been kicked from game not just for exploiting but for talking out of character or dying their armor the "wrong" color.

Anything that broke the fourth wall was entirely unacceptable. I switched the /ooc channel off in EQ as soon as I discovered what it was. I was confounded that such a thing could even exist. It seemed to me to  be the antithesis of the immersion I sought. And if I wanted it, everyone should want it.

I was an extremist in other ways, too. For the best part of a year I played a Druid who was so in thrall to the teachings of Tunare, Norrath's Goddess of Nature, that not only would I not attack any animals at all but if animals attacked me I would root them then camp or zone to drop aggro rather than cause them any harm. At one point I was so gung-ho about following Tunare's mandates (none of which I had actually read, if indeed they even existed, but all of which I had, somehow, intuited and made up) that I refused to kill any living creature that did not attack me first.

You can imagine how popular that made me in groups. And how slowly I leveled.

So, eventually, I stopped doing that. Of course, I'd been having my cake and stuffing it down all along, playing other characters that allowed me much more freedom of action. My Necromancer, for example, who killed anything he pleased even if it didn't look at him funny. But after a while, as I began to get really good groups with my druid, main-healing at back door in the Sarnak Fort in Lake of Ill Omen or outside The Tower of Frozen Shadows in Iceclad Ocean,  I felt those self-imposed restrictions beginning to chafe. So I dropped them.

Slowly, piecemeal, bit by bit, all my lines blurred. Twinking, for example. There was that time I was in Riverdale and some halfling asked me to hold an item for him then he sat down and disappeared and a diferent halfling popped up a minute later and asked for the thing back. I felt like I needed a shower after that one, yet a few months later, there I was in the upper back rooms of an inn in Freeport, dropping my valuables on the floor and camping out to log in another character to pick them up. Just like the twinker I'd become.

Sometimes it hasn't been moral slippage towards self-interest that's changed the way I think or play. Armathyx  suggests that, in the perfect MMO,  "trading should be done between players and not via some server wide auction house". Been there, done that, ripped up the T-shirt and used it as a duster. When EQ introduced the Broker to Norrath with the Shadows of Luclin expansion I thought it was about the best thing that could ever happen to the game. I still do, or at least one of the best.

Daily quests, when I first heard of them (which, I think, was probably in EQ2's Desert of Flames expansion) seemed to me to be the very definition of a terrible idea. Nowadays I live for my dailies in GW2. I look forward to doing them and I feel happy when they're done. I don't want or need the rewards they give but they form a ritual in my daily routine and I have always loved ritual. And routine.

I could go on and on. Fast movement, flying mounts, in-game maps, name it, I was against it. I thought it would ruin the game, spoil the world, wreck immersion. Maybe it did. Maybe it did and it didn't matter.

Either way, all now things I want, even maybe need, in any MMO I'm thinking of giving serious time. Modern, convenient, casual : good. Traditional, challenging, hardcore : bad. Right?

If only. At the same time I relish all those new, fast, automatic contrivances I yearn for sloooow leveling, meaningful death penalties, falling damage that hurts. I want vast, open worlds that take forever to explore, distances that take hours to cross. I want crafting that requires dedication and commitment, dungeons that need nerve and forethought, quests that make you think and reflect not just click and collect.

Yet at the same time I want to auto-path to the killing fields for my ten rats and have my reward automagically delivered to my bags. I want to shop in a window for things I can't be bothered to chase down in game. I want my log-in freebies and my xp pots and my fireworks and silly hats and and and...

I want it all. There's no point asking if MMOs are better now or were better then. They were best, they are best, they will be best. There is no right way to make an MMORPG. There are many ways to make an MMORPG right.

And that, I think, is about as close as I'm going to get to understanding how I feel about the genre and what I want it to be. The possibilities are endless. MMOs can hold all the variations imagination can conjure.

Individual MMOs, alas, cannot.

If I have a wish for the future of the form, then, it's for more focus. For developers to contour their enthusiasm and direct it towards a specific audience. I want more MMOs that are more different one from another, developers who concentrate on what to leave out as well as what to include.

As a player I can decide whether I want to log into GW2 and have free-form, no hassle fun within seconds or into EQ, where, even in 2017, it will take me twenty minutes just to get set up before fun can begin. I can decide to give half an hour to the craziness and color of Digimon Hunter or three hours to the psychodrama of The Secret World. That's where my choice lies, not within each game but outside them all.

Pantheon does not need to take account of every modern trend and I very much hope it never does. The audience it's seeking to attract shouldn't balk if there are no dailies, no flying mounts, no achievement leaderboards. Crowfall doesn't need an overarching narrative that twists and turns and grows year after year.

And I don't need to beat myself up over why now I twink with glee and kill with abandon. Each MMO world needs to lay out choices, codify what is and isn't permitted, expected, required, then serve whatever audience those decisions attract. I'll fit myself in.

At least, that's how I see it today. Tomorrow I may think very differently. I have very strong opinions and I often violently disagree with them.

The perfect MMO doesn't exist but as the wise man said, nobody's perfect. We'll get by.


  1. We have both seen the two sides of the coin and in the end I suppose it comes down to personal preference. I currently play GW2 and GW2 only, yet its concepts are the complete opposite of what I considered a "great MMORPG" in that post of mine.

    There are a great number of things I appreciate about GW2 and if I had more time to spare I'd probably play SWTOR as well, being the fan of Star Wars I am. But when I feel like flipping the coin and going back to the more hardcore, you could say "survival" MMORPGs, there's nothing left on the market.

    I loved the feeling of achievement I got from levelling and obtaining rare items, not through RGN but through reaching a certain level or defeating a difficult boss. I loved the interactions between players, trading with them, having to build real trust with them in order not to get scammed, having to compete with others for resources. I truly loved the "real" quests, those where you were told there was an ancient artifact to be found in this vast explorable world, and you had to go trace rumors of rumors, decipher codes and get out of tricky situations to get it. The combat mechanics and graphics back then were terrible, but the game made my character feel alive: I would fear death, distrust others, feel proud when levelling, feel happy when making friends.

    There's a great number of things I like about GW2, but other players are pretty much ghosts you see running around not having any kind of interaction with you, unless you're PvPing, and all those feelings of fear and achievement are heavily watered down.

    The two types of MMORPGs don't cater to the same need. Taking this topic to extremes, it's like how you'd play Garry's Mod to relax and have fun, and you'd play Amnesia the Dark Descent to get immersed and bring out those emotions you usually don't get in real life.

    Tough MMOs have proved to work, yet nowadays we're being drowned in casual, easygoing MMORPGs to the point everyone's getting bored of them and leaving, and there's nothing new on the market to answer for the demand of "old school" MMOs.

    1. There's a sweet spot for everyone, I think, where the effort you put in is satisfyingly compensated for by the enjoyment you get out. I know it when it I feel it and it can happen in anything from the incremental advances in an old-school six hour EQ session to a burst of sensory pleasure in half an hour playing Dragon Nest. I think the key for me is when I get to the end of a session and feel that not only have I had fun but my character has advanced appreciably. Just ticking off nominal "achievements" never does the job - the character needs to show material improvement.

      That's the one area where GW2 really falls down and it's also why I have 17 max level characters there - about the only way to get that feeling is to start a new character. Luckily there's WvW which works on an entirely different basis, being structured around competitive matchplay. That keeps me going most days.

      I would absolutely love to see some new MMOs that are based squarely around character progression and that take everything at a slower, more demanding pace. I'd love to see them so we can see if a market does still exist for that style of play. My feeling is that it does but it's a small market and I'm not convinced that I'm really part of it any more. I'd give it a go to find out though, that's for sure.

  2. Getting bored and leaving, and getting burned out and leaving, are two entirely different things.

    Just sayin'.

    1. I didn't allude to a reason. It just seems that over the past couple of years the majority of MMO bloggers I follow have become ex-MMO bloggers and you seem to be the latest to join the exodus.

      Thinking about it, though, I can't bring to mind a single one who professed to be leaving due to burnout. Everyone seems either to have just naturally outgrown the hobby and moved on or, indeed, become so bored with the current offerings they've chosen to sit things out until something better appears.

      I think to burn out you first have to be playing too much and most of the bloggers who've left the fold were barely playing at all towards the end.

    2. That was mostly in reply to Armathyx in the comments, but my Blogger/Google comment-fu failed me.

      Just to confirm though, I'm definitely cutting back on GW2 due to the slow sneaky burnout that happens to me when I turn things into an obligation and lack novelty and fun to keep me excited. Granted, my definition of cutting back might just equal normal playtime for others, ie. 1-2 days a week, for a three hour session, then dropping it like a hot potato. (Said spud portion being the burnout aspect where it's no longer fun.)

    3. It's true that boredom and burnout aren't the same thing. My opinion has slightly evolved since that post after our discussion. I think we're getting to something here. It's not that one type of MMO has to force the other out of existence, there should just be an offer for each type of demand there is. The problem is that "convenient" MMOs saturate the market right now.

      Freedom is also an important aspect. MMOs are too linear nowadays, and particularly Korean MMOs. I made a post last November, simply titled "Why I love GW2" about this issue. I like GW2 regardless of it being extremely convenient and casual because I'm free to do what I want. I can't stand playing modern Korean MMOs because they don't allow you to explore the game by yourself, at least not in a viable manner, and instead lead you through very linear maps and questlines that you will never visit again once you're done. I can't stand that at all.

  3. I don't think my desires in an MMO have much changed since I started playing them (granted I haven't been at this as long as you). What has changed is my ability to define and quantify what appeals to me in a game, and to plan my time accordingly. I'm wasting less time reading about or playing games that aren't really my style but which seemed shiny enough to briefly grab my interest.

    I do agree that more focused games are the future. I would rather MMOs that do one or two things very well than MMOs that do a dozen things adequately but never excel at anything.

    Also I feel I should apologize -- your comment on my recent Landmark post got eaten by my spam filter, and I didn't realize my error until I had already given the empty spam command, thus forever banishing your comment to the Land of Wind and Ghosts.

    1. Yes, I am having a spam problem again - someone somewhere has flagged something I sent as Spam and now all my comments on some blogs vanish. I have had this before and I work round it by adding an extra "s" to my name and various other tricks but it is annoying. I warn anyone that is used to getting comments from me to check their spam filter - if enough people flag me as "Not Spam" I will be reinstated!

      And yes, I agree, discovering by experience, mostly through trial and error, what you do and don't enjoy in MMOs does lead to wasting a lot less time on stuff you really don't. What surprises me is how big a gap there is between what I thought I liked doing and what I actually do like to do!


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