Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Old Becomes New Becomes Old Again

I thought I might expand a little on a comment I left over at The Ancient Gaming Noob, where I was replying to some thoughts by Wilhelm and Potshot on the opening of Cataclysm Classic. As the rollout of expansions continues, the successive iterations and refinements Blizzard imposed on the genre are being brought to light all over again

I think it's very easy to forget how strange and different some of the simplest innovations seemed at the time. Potshot, who always seems to remember better than most the way MMORPGs used to be, reminded me of the impact Blizzard's basic addition of quest markers over the heads of NPCs had at the time.

Whether all that pendant punctuation was an original idea developed by the World of Warcraft team I'm not sure. It would be unusual if so, since their normal modus operandi has always been to let others take the risks before moving in to reap the benefits, once the value of a new idea has been proved. 

Honestly, I can't even remember where first saw what Potshot calls the ""Christmas Tree” effect". It wouldn't have been in WoW.  I didn't play that game until mid-way through Wrath of the Lich King. I would guess that EverQuest II, which launched a couple of weeks before WoW, also used something of the kind but I have no actual memory of whether it did or not. The screenshots I took at the time prove nothing since I always turned the UI off for aesthetic reasons.

It doesn't really matter who had the idea first. It was undoubtedly WoW that popularized it and turned it into a genre standard, just as the game did with so many other features and mechanics. Even now, two decades later, the huge majority of MMORPGs employ many of the blueprints laid down by Blizzard devs and designers over the last twenty years. 

As long as I've been playing, there's been much discussion over whether the MMORPG genre or even the broader classification of MMOs is mass-market or niche. WoW had a huge footprint in its prime and games like Runescape and Lineage may well claim an even bigger impact in terms of sheer numbers but they still can't compete on the true mass-market scale with something like Call of Duty or Fortnite or Minecraft or League of Legends...

Add all the MMORPGs together, though, and it's a pretty big niche. It'd be tempting to assume it's a profitable business to be in, too, because people will insist on making the damn things. Then again, as we all must know by now, the best way to make a living out of developing games isn't always to end up with a finished product to sell.

Still, there are a lot of MMORPGs, old and new, and while there are considerable differences between them, they're mostly recognizable as part of the same family. Siblings, maybe. Certainly cousins. If they don't all have forests of punctuation points or even formal quest-givers, they certainly have some method for players to identify and access structured content with facility.

The MMORPGs that came before WoW tended not to bother with much - or any - of that. They preferred to let players work things out for themselves. Most didn't even have basic tutorials beyond "Press WASD to move". If you wanted to find out if an NPC had anything for you to do, you had to ask them. They certainly weren't holding up any "Help Wanted" cards.

By today's standards, the first wave of MMORPGs were astonishingly user-unfriendly. Developers expected players to have an enthusiast's knowledge and determination. What was then, pejoratively, often described as "hand-holding" was actively discouraged.

WoW's biggest innovation and the probable reason for its runaway success was the demystification of the process. While Classic seemed relatively challenging when Blizzard brought it back a few years ago, even that perceived level of difficulty was minor compared to what came before. 

In short, WoW from Vanilla through Wrath of the Lich King was, by comparison to contemporary expectations, easy and getting easier. But easier for whom?

As Potshot accurately describes it, Cataclysm represents the "the start of the era where we all play the single player game of WoW together." Almost all subsequent MMORPGs, other than the branch of retro-games trying to bring back the failed past, build on that beginning. Innovations like Warhammer's public quests and Rift's auto-grouping lead to the eventual, perpetual zerg of Guild Wars 2 and the flat, levelless world of Elder Scrolls Online

Over time, all barriers to entry are systematically torn down, with even the supposedly most challenging content being re-framed as available to all. Looking for Group becomes Looking for Raid or Instant Adventure. Storylines that once moved from solo to group to raid before the narrative concluded now reshape themselves into a series of Solo instances. 

Meanwhile, at endgame, developers double down on difficulty for the committed hardcore, creating a series of silos from which no-one escapes. Players either solo and accept that they're playing a somewhat inferior RPG purely for the benefit of having a little company while they do it or else they commit to a seeming endless round of self-improvement, trying to eke out incremental improvements to performance so as to be able to repeat the same content indefinitely at ever-increasing difficulty to no objectively discernible purpose.

Unsurprisingly, these choices do not appear to have even the same, minorly mass-market popularity as before. If you want a good, strong, narrative-driven, single-player experience with a coherent, meaningful story, there are better places to find it than in MMORPGs. And if you want to pootle around in your off-time with a few like minded friends, co-op gaming looks like a much better bet.

As Massively OP reported yesterday, a recent survey of 5,000 gamers revealed "over half of gamers play to unwind and destress". Perhaps more surprisingly, "46% also said they play for creativity and self-expression". 

Back when World of Warcraft began, the options for players to satisfy these desires were fewer. Gaming was more focused on challenge and competition than it later became. Players tended to be younger, have more time, better reflexes and be a good deal more willing to put in the necessary effort to "beat the game".

I think it's probably quite hard to credit now but when World of Warcraft blew up in the mid-2000s, a great part of its attraction was as a kind of video game you didn't need to be a gamer to play. So many grandmas played WoW to spend time with their grandkids it became a meme. And you didn't even have to have grandchildren in the game. I remember an interview on a radio show with a retired couple in their sixties who played WoW purely for the gathering and crafting and the point of the interview was that what those pensioners were doing wasn't as unusual as all that.

Most, if not all of that ground has been lost to the genre now. It's been ceded to a tidal wave of oddly disparate yet strangely similar genres: cosies, survivals, sims, sandboxes.

What they all have in common is permissiveness. They provide just enough structure for players to feel safe, while allowing them to set their own pace and choose their own path. You can burn through whatever narrative there is and climb whatever tech trees you're given and be done in a month or you can putter around, planting your garden and tending your crops, for a year. No-one cares. No-one judges. No-one tells you you're not playing the game the right way.

MMORPGs in 2024 are cursed with the expectations of endgame. Many have vast, explorable worlds filled with mystery and magic but there's no ostensible reason beyond natural curiosity to investigate any of it. Everything from the boosts in the cash shop to the exhortations of your guildmates tells you to climb the ladder to the top and be damn quick about it.

And when you get there, what's the reason to stay? Much less than there would have been had you been given a free hand to get there in your own time because there's no context to any of it any more. It's just there; a job waiting to be done. A job no-one is going to pay or even thank you for doing.

Potshot suggests this slide began as early as WoW's first expansion, The Burning Crusade, and reached terminal velocity with Cataclysm. If so, the genre's still in free-fall now. Nothing much has changed since then. Every new development in the genre seems set on closing down the possibilities, refining the process. 

And why not? It's a profitable-enough niche, isn't it? Why try to open it out, let alone carve a new one? Leave that to someone else. After all, there's no shortage of other developers, willing to try.

Unfortunately, recent developments, like Iron Gate's obsession with making Valheim harder and harder or Nightingale's imminent conversion from online multiplayer to offline solo, suggest this new, easy-going Golden Age may be short-lived. Enjoy it while you can. Lessons, it seems, have very much not been learned.

I just hope it's not another decade before the next ideological wave rolls in...


  1. As a side journey, over on YouTube Dan Olsen of Folding Ideas did a video about how WoW had changed over the years, suggesting that the early and somewhat less guided version of the game felt more free because you could go off script and just grind mobs or whatever to level up, then pick up quests later in another zone. It was built in a way that seemed to expect you would bounce around zones and do different things.

    When we hit Cataclysm, the quests are all very much chained and you cannot go off and grind mobs and expect to pop back in and pick up quests a few stops down the road, because if you didn't do the lead-ins for that location, which in Cata begin with the first quest of the zone, then you're not on the rails and you need to go do a bunch of remedial questing before you can get back on course.

    1. I'm not sure why so many developers seem to have discovered an aversion to mob grinding but I suspect it has something to do with bots. No-one seems happy to just let players sort themselves out and do what they want any more. It all has to be structured, usually around quests.

      The worst example of the new breed has to be EQII. Up to level 100 you can largely play the way you like but from then on, which is all of the game that matters these days, it's quest or go home. And not just any quests, either. Just the right sequence of quests for the right level range in the right order. It plays merry hell with any interest I had in leveling more than one or two characters per expansion era, which can't be good for the bottom line. If I'm not playing I can't be paying.


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