A Dalliance with MMOs

It recently occurred to me that I hadn’t played any MMOs recently, and so I corrected that. This is a story of how that’s gone, and how I learned a lot about game design in five minutes.

I don’t play MMOs regularly, and I never have. My first exposure to the genre was in my undergrad years, when I did a paper on MMO communities. The details escape me, and the paper is lost to time (I had posted it to the GameFAQs forums, but that was in the days before they archived everything – alas). At the time, I tried City of Heroes and World of Warcraft based on some arcane criteria – though I’m sure popularity had something to do with it.

I liked them. I played them for a very short while. A week, maybe two, maybe longer. I preferred CoH’s more realistic color scheme, the ease by which I could join parties, and beating up people with a sword as my alt, Overblade or something equally ridiculous. WoW was fun too, and I occasionally returned to play both of them at one time or another, but they didn’t stick.

Hm, but now that I think about it, perhaps I’d played Ragnarok Online before that; and I think there was an MMO that started with a “G” which I played back in high school, but which the internet hasn’t seen fit to record in its list of notable MMOs on Wikipedia. Oh, and there’s Maple Story in there somewhere too, but I couldn’t say when. I think CoH and WoW were, in any case, the first time I’d ever played MMOs for a significant amount of time, and the first ones to which I returned at any point. But I did leave them (and my level 40 Night Elf Rogue – but who doesn’t have one of those?) behind.

For a very long time, I did not touch MMOs. You can’t complete them, you see – or completing them isn’t the point. It’s the opinion I held at the time, and one which I’m inclined to return to, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Point is, MMOs are traditionally sinkholes for time, and I’d rather focus on games which can be beaten, or at least beaten in a reasonable amount of time.

Ah, but then I looked at the games I’m playing – chronologically, you see – and thought, well, I might as well give it a shot now. I’ve played some relatively long games over the years, become more experienced at games overall, and have a good understanding of what I want out of a game – so into the fray.

I began with Nexus. I tried Ragnarok Online again. I’m technically still waiting to hear back from the tech support for Maple Story, because their system wouldn’t let me make an account, but I’m not waiting with baited breath. Then there was Lineage II. CoH is defunct now, of course, and WoW… well, by the time I got to looking at WoW, I’d played those previously mentioned games, and become disillusioned.

Here are some sins that make oh-so-many MMOs unplayable.

… well, I don’t mean that literally, of course. There are entirely valid reasons for playing MMOs; not reasons that attract me, and not reasons to which I think MMOs ought to aspire – or at least, not new MMOs, but I’ve stacked enough bricks underneath my soap box for now, so let’s dive into it.

1. All of the “quests” are either delivery, fetching, killing, or collecting – and so break immersion.

2. The user interface is god-awful. Text is tiny. Menus are obtrusive. Navigating the map is awkward. The list goes on.

3. There’s no real sense of community, at least at the start. I can’t remember the last MMO I played where I felt it was important to interact with other players, either to team up or share something. Most quests: it’s like I’m in a single-player game where I get to watch other people also complete their single-player quests.

4. Some MMOs are gimmicky. Lineage II goes the “monty haul” approach, tossing tons of stat boosts, treasure, and massive XP gains at the player, and even has a chart about the monty haul gear they’ll qualify for at certain levels. And there’s another where their website has a webpage dedicated to the best exact locations for grinding.

There’s an assortment of other problems, like the bad – sometimes misspelled – English translation in Ragnarok Online; these individual problems just accentuate the general problems I have with many MMOs.

Now, some might say that these problems aren’t so big once you’ve really gotten into the game – but that’s the problem, isn’t it? You have to really get into the game to see past its flaws. These are flaws, or design conceits, that I find distasteful, and I’d like to see newer games do something different.

Planeshift resembles a concept I’d like to see, and I’ve heard that Star Wars Galaxies was on the right track before it went defunct. Planeshift, unfortunately, has been in alpha testing for about 13 years, and development is ongoing, but all work is volunteer.

Here’s what I’d like to see: a game where it’s more about community and exploration, where the quests are often player-driven. For example, suppose I play an explorer, and I go out into a cave. I might find a gigantic crystalline structure that isn’t marked on any maps – I want to mine it, but it’s too much work for one person to do by themselves, and the area is dangerous. I could then, on my own intuition, return to town, recruit several other PCs to come along with me, get some pickaxes and weapons from local PC merchants, or even sell the location of the mine to the highest bidder. Of course, such a system raises its own questions.

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