Lamenting the Lack of Purposeful Choices in the MMORPG Genre

Long before MMORPGs became a homogenized cultural phenomenon thanks to World of Warcraft, pioneering virtual world players felt they were embarking on a journey in a genre that had no boundaries or limits. It was only natural to believe that this unique participatory virtual existence — only possible in fantasy MMORPGs — was the start of something special. Even though the first MMORPGs were very basic, we had a sense of anticipation that more exciting, immersive, living and breathing virtual worlds were ahead on the horizon.

It never happened.  Instead, it got worse.

If you had told me in 1999 that in 17 years the MMORPG genre had devolved into an anti-social, massively multiplayer solo video game experience, I would have laughed at you.

We were dead wrong.

For over 11 years, not only has progress in the MMORPG genre been halted, it has devolved. No matter what MMORPG I play, whether it’s a state-of-the-art quest driven MMORPG like Elder Scrolls Online or any other typical fantasy MMORPG, it is abundantly obvious that this once promising genre is stuck in a rut and is nowhere close to realizing its full potential.

Today’s MMORPG designers have become slaves to an unambitious and formulaic design philosophy cheered on by accountants who use metrics and stock prices as their compass. Like the “unsinkable” Titanic unknowingly lumbering toward that unsuspecting iceberg of doom, I feel the MMORPG genre is headed for a similar fate. At some point, the public may tire of it all and virtual worlds may just go down in history as a passing fad.

If I may be so bold, what I think is really missing from the genre is freedom. The freedom to do anything, go anywhere and define one’s own aspirations and existence within a virtual world. Thanks to a handful of authoritarian developers who seek to control and direct players like puppets, we have become locked into a shrinking MMORPG mindset that has just one purpose and trajectory: advancement through combat and quest narratives.

When MMORPGs Had a Brighter Future than Today

I remember playing EverQuest back in its heyday — around 1999 to 2000 — back before character progression was the sole official reason for existence in a fantasy MMORPG. People would often visit inns and drink ale just for the hell of it. Some players would sing songs and recite poems. Some folks would be happy at baking bread. You could just hang out. You could explore. There were no exclamation marks over NPCs head that demanded your attention.

In the first year of EverQuest the world of Norrath was an undiscovered country of magic and wonder. There was no pressure to level from your fellow players; you didn’t feel you had to race to the level cap and start raiding. Everything seem magical, mysterious, unstructured, uncharted and unknown. There was a feeling that anything and everything was possible.

Back then there was a sense of freedom and a diversity of motivations among the playerbase that no longer exists in today’s achievement centric MMORPGs. We didn’t ask for much and nothing was expected of us. It was simply to enough for some of us to have the privilege of escaping to a fantasy world for a few hours each night to delve into foreboding dungeons, slay dragons or simply just explore the lands with our friends.

However, it’s not enough just to exist in a fantasy virtual world, one needs something to do while you are there. Somehow the concept of advancement via adventuring became the mainstay of activity and purpose for players. Social constructs such as friendships, groups and even guilds coalesced around adventuring. Even non-combat activities such as tradeskills were created with the purpose of supplementing the adventure’s goal of increasing their power so they could defeat even stronger adversaries.

MMORPGs became like a gymnasium of workout stations that all had the effect of enhancing and complementing the player’s quest for ever increasing combat power. The world around the adventurer was ignored and became an incidental facade of races, religions, factions, wildlife and points of interest all to provide just enough immersion to keep the player playing.

There is no doubt that combat centric gameplay has been one of the mainstays of the video game industry for many years. Even ancient games like chess are combat based. Combat as an activity in MMORPGs is here to stay. But at some point, we must have the courage to ask:

Is this all there is?

Why We Play

As the first virtual worlds called MUDS grew in popularity, some people started noticing that they attracted different types of players with different motivations.

Once upon a time, a man named Richard Bartle postulated a theory that MUD players could be broken down into archetypes which explained their motivations for playing. This theory seemed to aptly characterize the community of those that inhabited graphical virtual worlds. And it rang true in that MMORPGs like EverQuest had a good balance and mix of achievers, socializers, explorers and killers.

Today most MMORPGs have turned away and starved out the socializers, explorers, and even the killers (I think disrupter would be a better work than killer) and only achievers are welcome.

EverQuest creator and Chief Creative Officer of Visionary Realms that is currently making Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, Brad McQuaid echoes this sentiment when he talks about how those players that loved the group centric gameplay and socialization possible in classic EverQuest have been orphaned by the current mass market MMO design philosophy.

MMORPG: 16 years later why do you think EQ stands so tall to so many gamers these days, despite having seen so many other games come and go?

Brad: There are likely several reasons, but I think the biggest is community. EQ was designed to be a cooperative, social game, where people needed each other in order to progress and achieve. So people got to know each other, made real friends with people, and the game became more than just a game, but an actual home, a virtual world. Unfortunately, in recent years, most MMOs have transitioned away from a cooperative experience trying to capture the ‘mass market’ and be the next ‘WoW-killer’. The result is those players who really enjoy communities, socializing, and group play have been orphaned. This is why we’re making Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen — our target audience is that same group of players who now feel left out, plus all of the younger players who have grown up enjoying cooperative gameplay but can’t find that experience in modern MMOs.

He is 100% right.

Unfortunately, after years of MMOs like WoW dominating the design zeitgeist, there are other casualties. Today’s typical MMORPG player has also changed. She is a very predictable and efficient creature. The MMO player of today is obsessed with character advancement via theorycrafting and min/maxing. Any non-advancement and non-combat element of a fantasy virtual world is deemed superfluous does not matter if it doesn’t contribute to the players personal amassing of power.

More on this later…

Few Choices and Even Fewer with Purpose

Although Richard Bartle has done a great service by describing the motivations of those that inhabit MUDs, I think they could be expanded and augmented to include those players that are:

  • looking for a meaningful purpose for their alter egos that can be expressed and developed outside of traditional character advancement via combat
  • looking to channel that purpose by making an impact on the all aspects of the virtual world around them

Recently while playing on Project 1999 EverQuest emulator, I encountered two situations that have made me really stop and pause to think about the lack of purposeful choices offered to players within a MMORPG.

Situation 1: Defending Your City in Norrath is Impossible

The first was situation was when I created a dwarf cleric in the dwarven city of Kaladim nestled in the rugged hills of the Butcherblock Mountains. Within a few levels I joined an all dwarven guild. The purpose of the guild is to defend our home city of Kaladim from all threats — a noble cause indeed.

However, I thought to myself that no matter what I do Kaladim will always be the same and nothing will change. Due to the way EverQuest is set up, Kaladim never has anyone attacking it and it can never fall. No orcs, goblins, ogres, trolls or dark elves can ever take over Kaladim. I suppose players could launch an assault but within a few minutes all of the NPCs would respawn as per the Groundhog Day design philosophy of MMORPG design.

I often wonder why most cities in MMOs even bother to have guards as there is nothing to steal and nothing to conquer. Guards are mere window dressing and part of the grand illusion that one might find in a Renaissance Faire.

While the intention of our small guild of dwarves was very inspiring and honorable, in practice it is rather pointless. I felt somewhat robbed and cheated because there was no way for me to show authentic courage, bravery or valor in defending my dwarven homeland due to the limitations of EverQuest.

Most home cities are like this in your average MMO. The player is born there and rarely comes back if ever. After a few levels they go forward into the world to pillage and plunder.

Wouldn’t it be great if a city’s existence or nonexistence actually made a difference to everyone in the virtual world? Imagine if one day London, Paris, Rome or New York was wiped off the face of the earth. The impact would be horrific and devastating to the people of the real world. Why can’t cities in virtual world have the same kind of impact if they were attacked and destroyed?

In MMOs like classic EverQuest, “evil” players are routinely attacking guards in “good” cities but not for any real purpose other than to get experience and loot. In most cases the denizens of the town and players alike don’t seem to care as they will all magically respawn in a few minutes anyways. It’s business as usual.

The fact that most players attack city guards for personal gain via experience and loot and not for any political or factional reason reveals one of the biggest limitations in MMORPG design today: players are rarely if ever given the ability to make an lasting and meaningful impact on the world around them.

Situation 2: The Not So Great Pinata Game of Raiding

The second situation that inspired me to think about this topic was reading the P1999 forums about all of the uber guilds who were violating agreements and stealing raid boss targets from each other. To these guilds, Norrath is one big piñata factory where mobs exists solely for the purpose of being killed so that the player can get better gear. They kill King Tormax not because he’s a despotic bastard that wants to destroy the Velious dragons and the Coldain dwarves; they kill him because he drops nice loot.

In the real world, when a world leader is assassinated such as U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the world is forever and irrevocably changed.

Why is it that the defeat of a king or dragon in a virtual world is no big deal and has no real implications beyond the loot they drop? It really made me think. There is no unscripted ideological, political, racial, religious or civilizational struggle going on in Norrath, Azeroth or your favorite virtual world. How can there be when the world lacks the capacity to change via the actions of the players and the NPCs themselves?

The only change that ever comes upon a virtual world is when the developers see fit to release a new expansion.

Let’s be honest shall we? There is no nobility or virtue in what goes on in most fantasy MMORPGs. It’s just a bunch of players banding together to murder and steal for personal power and profit. Struggles between the races are relegated to quests and cutscenes. The players have no real say in how their fantasy world will develop. The outcomes of major story arcs have all been decided in some meeting room in Southern California long in advance.

It’s not really a living breathing world after all. It’s all just a scripted sham.

What Players Have Become: The Soulless Mercenary

After years of devs pandering to players, today’s MMORPG player is in reality a hardened, self-absorbed, anti-social, soulless mercenary. He is an alien in the fantasy world that he visits.  By some kind of magic he mysteriously appears like Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first Terminator film, he kills for a while, then vanishes into the ether only to return at a future date. The average MMO player is a pirate, a brigand and an outlander that has no real connection with the world. He exists only to gratify himself with the acquisition of more loot and more power.

All of us who play MMOs are mercenaries now. We are not players role-playing humans, elves and dwarves that care about own adopted unique culture and civilization and are fighting for our survival; instead we are merely donning the cosmetic guises of these races with self-interest as our only concern.

We have become mercenaries because that is the only pathway available to us. There is no developer created pathway for the player who seeks to exemplify virtues such as courage, bravery, valor and honor in a non-combat activity. To be fair, yes, we can practice limited virtue and villainy with our fellow players in how we communicate and behave with them but MMORPGs have only the well-trodden path of combat as their ultimate destination as they are designed with an amusement park ride on raids structure with every part of the journey scripted out.

We got into this problem because we never bothered to aspire to the higher ground of making virtual worlds. Instead we kept following the safe, pedestrian low road of making games that appealed increasingly to wider demographics.

A game is just a game and nothing more. However a virtual world can and should be much much more.

The Art of Virtual Word Design

To understand how to create a virtual world you need to have some basic understanding of how the real world works. Those that dare to create virtual worlds need to draw from a different talent pool than the pedigree of a typical game designer. You need to be a polymath of sorts: part cultural anthropologist, part artist, part historian, part theologian, part political scientists, part biologist and part economist as well as being a game designer.

The art of virtual world design is not to simply create a real world simulator but to distill elements from the real world and create a living breathing virtual world that provides a rich dramatic backdrop for the player to act and react in.

The real world is always in flux. Civilizations rise and fall. Strong ones thrive while weak ones perish. We are seeing troubling civilizational changes happening right now before our own eyes in the chaotic world around us.

In MMORPGs none of these interesting variances and dynamics are possible because they have no capacity to change. The state of every typical MMORPG is determined by the loremasters and the quest designers. Each expansion a new scripted uber villain arrives on the scene and by the end of the expansion he is defeated. Rinse and repeat.

If you are still with me, I have some questions for everyone that currently plays a MMORPG:

Don’t you want be part of a rich fantasy virtual world where you as a human, an elf, a dwarf, etc. have a sense of PURPOSE and are fighting for your family, your city, your race, your beliefs, your culture and your civilization?

Or do you just want to kill monsters and take their loot?

Why can’t MMORPGs be more like the former instead of the latter? Why can’t we have more choices? The answer is because they are just mere hack and slash video games with no aspirations for anything beyond entertaining the player. MMORPGs have been saddled with low expectations from those that develop and those play them. Both developers and players are equally culpable for wallowing in the status quo for too long.

We’ve Been Betrayed

Not only have the fundamental tenets of MMORPG design been carelessly abandoned, the technological advantages of the MMORPG have been largely ignored, underutilized and underappreciated. In particular, I am referring to the the concepts of gameworld persistence and multiplayer capability.

When MMORPGs first arrived on the scene, much was made about the fact that thousands of players could exist simultaneously in a persistent fantasy virtual world. Both of these facets were considered revolutionary and were only made possible because of the Internet.

Persistence — when things continue on whether or you are there or not — was one of the most unique propositions about MMORPGs. Single player video games have worlds that are not persistent. They are static and linear in nature and only exist when the player decides to load up the game. Single player games also do not have the ability to allow thousands of other players to co-exist with you.

Today’s MMORPGs patterned after WoW, have squandered and failed to leverage both of these important distinctions that separate single player video games from virtual worlds. Having the capability of a persistent world is pointless if the world rarely changes. Having other players around you is also pointless if you never need to interact with them.

The Elephant in the Room

Of course the elephant in the room is World of Warcraft. Many of the articles I have posted over the past 10 years have chronicled the deleterious effects of WoW on the state of MMOs. Nobody can deny that this single MMORPG has hijacked and strangled the genre and probably influenced a generation of players and designers for the worse. When WoW came on the scene it completely and utterly dominated the heart and soul of this genre that nobody could see any other way to create a MMO other than the Blizzard way.

The WoW effect stifled experimentation and innovation because everyone was distracted chasing the dragon of profits. Veteran game developer Gordon Walton explains it perfectly in an interview with Markee Dragon about the upcoming Crowfall MMORPG. Here’s a part of the transcript from the video:

Gordon Walton: Part of the problem with the market today is that people believe that WoW has shown us that — here’s what all the rules are. That’s not true.
Markeedragon:  WoW is the anomaly. It’s the outlier.
Gordon Walton: I think of it as an algae bloom that’s choked all of the life out…
Thomas Blair: It sucks all of the oxygen out of the room as we like to say.
Gordon Walton: Yeah…
Gordon Walton: Because it’s a local maxima like that, it has stopped the experimentation that was going on 15 years ago about how to make an MMO. A lot of ideas that were started then kinda died on the vine. Not because of anything else other than….people were running where the money was. There not running to find out okay…is there a new blue ocean to play in over here that nobody’s building? That’s what’s driven somebody like me who’s been making MMOs for 20 years to come back and go okay… maybe we missed some stuff in the beginning and that we should go back to and try to revisit. Now that we know more, can we go back and do something radically different rather than something that’s just kinda different.

 

There are many daring new ideas in Crowfall and both players and investors have responded by funding this ambitious MMORPG to the tune of $6 million dollars! This just goes to show you that players will support MMO companies that dare to be different and choose the path less travelled. Fortune favors the bold.

Conclusion

Before Thomas Edison, people were content using candles and using gas lanterns for light. Before Henry Ford, people seemed happy enough riding around in horse and buggies. Both the invention of the electricity, the incandescent light bulb and the automobile forever changed the world. Truth be told, people rarely clamor for change but it takes a special kind of visionary to bring change and suddenly the world is never the same and everyone wonders how they got along without it.

There will always be a market for people that like MMORPGs the way they are now. There will always be companies like Blizzard that cater to these folks and offer them the empty calories of dumbed down, mindless, paint by numbers, mass market MMOs. However, I think MMORPGs could and should be so much more.

I believe it’s time to throw off the chains of the self-limiting MMORPG acronym and start embracing the freedom and possibilities of virtual worlds instead. We need to start focusing more on the virtual world and a bit less on the game. Since the advent of World of Warcraft the pendulum has swung too far in focusing on players and the game and the genre has atrophied because of it.

A virtual world should be its own organism that can change via interactions from both the world itself and more importantly the actions and inactions of the players. Sure, this is a pipe dream but this is the kind of virtual world that I want to be a part of; not a stale scripted world where everyone is a super hero.

Is this kind of virtual world going to be easy to create? No. Nothing worth achieving is easy.

Yet I can’t help but think of the many years and millions of dollars that Blizzard wasted on developing their now cancelled Titan MMO project. Those millions could have been better spent advancing the genre in a more worthwhile direction. Companies who have made obscene profits on mass market MMOs like Blizzard should be in the forefront of pushing the genre forward with research and development.

Blizzard could have done much to help small MMO companies grow and thrive. As industry leaders who sucked all of the oxygen out of the genre, they have a moral responsibility to do so. But instead they have given up and abdicated their responsibility and are seemingly content with banality of the status quo.

You know what? I’m tired of playing games.

I want to be part of a virtual world where I can make a difference beyond committing acts of violence just to get better gear. I love combat just as much as every red-blooded MMORPG player but I want it to mean something. I want do other things too. I want to be able to fall in love with a beautiful maiden. I want to raise a family. I want to be able to found and lead a village and run for mayor. I want to be able to be the leader of a thieves guild. I want to create a secret society and start a revolt against a corrupt king. I want worshipping a deity to mean something. I want to be able to run a shop. I want so much more than what is possible in today’s average MMORPG.

Most of all I want choices. I want to the freedom to chart my own course. I want developers to start creating worlds where liberty and self-actualization is possible but also tempered by commensurate responsibility and consequences. I want to make an impact on the world and I don’t want it scripted by the developer but chosen by me. I do not think I am alone either.

It is now 16 years after the release of the original EverQuest, is this just too much to ask?

It is my perpetual hope that someday the era of the big budget one size fits all MMO will be over.  The future belongs to niche MMORPGs and those who have the courage to challenge the status quo and advance the genre forward. I hope to be talking more about these upcoming MMORPGs in the months ahead.

-Wolfshead

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