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Is it possible to build a better MMO?


MMORPGs are a genre I've dabbled in bunch of times over my gamer lifetime. It's a genre of video game that I think is an awesome concept, at least on paper, and it seems like something tailor made for this multiplayer-focused everyone-has-an-internet-connection era of video gaming. Yet, at least for me, it seems like my interest in MMOs has fizzled out in recent years. There seem to be issues with MMOs that, to a certain degree, I'm not sure the genre can get around and I wonder if it will eventually lead to the downfall of MMOs in general.

No, I'm not prophesying some doom-and-gloom scenario where MMORPGs are gone forever. That's obviously never going to happen, especially if you look at the recent hype regarding EverQuest. However, I have a feeling the MMO genre is going to see substantial downsizing. World of Warcraft's numbers have been on a steady decline for a while now, The Old Republic's numbers completely plummeted a few months after release, and (recent EverQuest news being the exception) when was the last time you heard really huge news or hype coming out of the MMO world? The last time I can personally remember a ton of chatter in the larger gaming world that revolved around an MMORPG was Guild Wars 2.

I'm kind of concerned that there's an issue regarding the entire process of building an MMO, or basically what developers think makes up an MMO. The easy cop-out way of saying it is "they need to stop copying WoW", but I think it's slightly more than that. There seems to be a bit of a group-think that goes into an MMO and what people apparently think needs to be in one to make it an MMORPG or some MMO variation. This is a cruel way to word it, but I can't think of any other way to - it seems like almost every MMO these days is simply just no fun to play.

I know that "fun" is a completely subjective thing and that what people enjoy differs greatly from person to person, but please just hear me out on this. I'm pretty tired of MMOs that revolve around you running up to enemies, hitting a certain sequence of buttons to activate abilities X/Y/Z, and watching two characters stand still swinging wildly until one of the two health bars reaches zero, and during the entire "battle" neither person shows any direct effects of the fight. Shit like that pulls me out of a game fast because I don't feel invested in the battle, I feel out of control, I find it boring. I'm a guy who likes games like Devil May Cry, Ace Combat, or Halo. I need to feel involved in the action, I like feeling as if there's some sort of inherent skill needed beyond basic mathematics. I need to feel like I'm actually involved in something besides a glorified war of attrition.

I guess first let me explain a little bit of my MMO background, just so you can get some more of my perspective. Firstly, I've dipped my toes into the pool that is World of Warcraft. I didn't stick around long because I didn't find it especially fun to play, and I didn't like it for the same reason I don't enjoy Coors Light - it feels too watered down and built around appealing towards as many people as possible. I've also sampled Champions Online and City of Heroes, both of which fell to the wayside for me for similar reasons of drab combat. I'll even say that I liked the Guild Wars games a lot, because they do a lot of things very well, but even those games eventually fell out of favor with me as I eventually got bored of doing the boring combat over and over.

There have been some MMOs that have slightly tickled my fancy in terms of MMOs I didn't find painfully boring. Star Trek Online appealed to me firstly because I'm a bit of a Trekkie, and secondly because it has some pretty fun starship combat. Ship combat in Star Trek Online revolves around positioning your ship in order to get maximum firepower out of your arsenal, keeping an eye on your shields to make sure you don't have any holes an enemy can exploit, trying to pound through an enemy's shields in order to torpedo the crap out of them, and also watching your ships energy levels so that you don't lose efficiency in your weapons by firing too many weapons at once. On top of those aspects of ship combat there were also your typical abilities that you could do for offensive or defensive buffs, and the need for all of this attention rises exponentially the larger the battle.

Obviously I'm going to be a little generous due to being a Trek fan, but still, that shit was fun. I was involved, it required more paying attention, more attention to detail, more instinct and reaction. STO's ship combat is close to what I'd want out of a different space-themed MMO I'm going to mention later. The only reasons I ever stopped playing STO were because the ground based combat in the game was your typical MMO bore-fest and the game as a whole was too fucking easy.

Another MMO near and dear to my heart was The Matrix Online (rest in peace, MxO). It was a game that had flaws but also had some pretty great ideas in places. Close quarters combat in that game revolved around what was effectively a super stylish version of rock-paper-scissors. There were three types of attacks, each of which could trump another, and on top of that there were character classes and stats that affected this system as well. It wasn't the most amazing thing at the world, but it was different enough from the typical MMO dirge.

The big problem with this combat system was that characters who were not CQC types could basically pot-shot you while you were kung-fu'ing someone else, which completely broke things. It wasn't perfect but I still give it points for trying. Unfortunately once Sony Online Entertainment got a hold of MxO they revamped the entire combat system into a poor mans version of Star Wars Galaxies, which started the beginning of the end for that game.

Why do MMOs have to revolve around some outdated RPG trope of "watch two people stand there and hack away at each other"? Can't any MMO attempt to be more of an action-RPG like a Dark Souls or perhaps just attempt to be something that's more of a straight up action title? Or how about this question, can MMOs even break out of this funk if they wanted to? Would things like server lag kill a more ambitious MMO?

EVE Online is my favorite game that I don't play. In fact, it pains me that I don't play EVE because it has a ton of things in it that I think are super cool. I like that you can still learn skills when you're not playing EVE, I like that space in that game is large and that it can take a long time to travel from one point to another, I like that players can actually make a huge impact on the game's universe, and since I've always been more of a sci-fi over fantasy type guy it's just the type of thing for me. In a lot of ways EVE Online is the realization of what an MMORPG is actually supposed to be.

The Achilles heel that keeps me out of EVE is that it has some of the most boring fucking gameplay I've ever seen. Most of what I liked about Star Trek Online's ship based gameplay is completely absent when it comes to combat in EVE. If EVE had combat more like STO or lets even go one step further and wish it had gameplay akin to a Rogue Squadron game, I would be in heaven and wouldn't be writing this blog.

The reason I brought up EVE is because it's the perfect example to my question of whether or not a more ambitious "action oriented" MMO can truly exist. Even with EVE's stale ship combat, there's a ton of calculations that are going on behind the scenes. If battles get bigger and bigger, those calculations can slow down the servers themselves to the point where EVE is playing at 10% of real-time in order to keep up. (Ugh, being stuck in bullet-time with EVE's combat is a nightmare idea to me). Can you imagine how much rougher it would be on servers if you introduced a more reactionary type combat system into something like that? Servers would melt, people would rage, ISK would be lost, the internet would explode, dogs and cats would live together, there would be mass hysteria.

Yes, I know Defiance exists and I know it's supposed to be a bit more action-ish than your typical MMO. I'm not talking about it because, truthfully, I haven't played it myself and I've heard mixed things about the game as a whole. If you have anything worth inputting regarding it, feel free to leave a comment.

Getting away from talking about combat, there are a couple of other things that I feel are causing MMOs to be stuck in a rut. The first revolves around the player's actual impact on the world they inhabit. With what feels like 99% of all MMOs, you're just an avatar running through quests and they only things that change during your entire game are the gear you're carrying and the little number that indicates your level. The actual world itself stays completely static unless a pre-scripted event says so. If "role playing" is supposed to make up two parts of the MMORPG acronym, shouldn't people be able to actually play a role?

Jumping back to EVE, this is one of the reasons I love the game. EVE is the source for a ton of the best player-based stories in gaming, because players actually matter in that game. I'm always a big fan of the story about a guy who started up his own investment agency within EVE and then eventually ran off with the money, built the best ship he could, and challenged anyone to chase him down. Or the recent story about the huge war-ending battle that just took place in EVE that ended with ships going down in blazes of glory that would make a Klingon proud.

The Matrix Online was going to attempt something kind of similar in terms of "player influence" by actually letting players have impact in certain events and actually have them interact with key story members and get mentioned in the overall narrative of the story. It's obviously nowhere near the scale of EVE player-involvement, but it was at least an attempt. (Note: this was again before MxO got torpedoed into another bland MMO).

If the player feels like what he or she is doing actually has an impact on the greater world around them, whether big or small, I think it would go a long ways towards keeping people around. If there's no sense of that, I imagine a ton of people would get the feeling that they're just playing a really drab RPG with bad combat.

Another issue that I think hurts MMOs these days involves the monetary investments that go into MMOs. Pay-to-play can scare off people because they feel like they "need" to play it in order to justify the $15 a month. Pay-to-play structures are going the way of the dinosaur, however two of the biggest MMO players still use the model (WoW and EVE).

The problem is, the main alternative to pay-to-play isn't exactly much better to a lot of gamers. I'm talking about the "free-to-pay" structure, or as some more appropriately call it "play-to-win", the new model of MMO pricing. Yeah, you're free of the burden of a subscription, but now you're in a world where anything you want that's actually worth a damn is stuck behind a microtransaction pay wall. Welcome to the future, the shark still looks fake.

Guild Wars is the only title I can think of at the moment that bucks the either of these payment structures. I honestly don't know why more games don't adopt the Guild Wars style of paying an up front fee for the game, and then you're free from there. Oh wait, I know the reason, it's called the other ways give out more money. I'd probably test out a bunch of other MMOs if it was a one-time fee and then I'm free to wander the playground instead of worrying about a "pay $2 for the Sword of a Thousand Truths" prompt showing up the moment I found something cool. I'm sure I'm not the only person who thinks this.

Hell, if more MMOs adopted the "up front fee" style I'd probably even be okay paying a little extra for an MMO title versus a traditional game (like paying $70 instead of $60), since these games do have additional costs on the development end.

The easy way out is just to say "maybe MMOs just aren't for you". But I don't want to accept that because there are a lot of ideas that go into the whole MMO/MMORPG world that I do find fascinating and want to be a part of. The problem is just that it seems like every MMO follows the same path as the predecessor nowadays, and there's not much in the genre as a whole that leaps out as something new and refreshing. Stuff like this is what's going to eventually cause even die-hard MMO fans to grow tired and leave the genre, and it's stuff like this that keeps a lot of other people out of the genre as a whole. I'm not sure if it's possible truly build a better MMO, but I'd like to see more people try.
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About Sephzillaone of us since 9:27 AM on 07.15.2008

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Who am I? I'm a guy who plays video games, talks way too much about comics and movies, likes Godzilla and Robocop. Why should you read my blog? Because when I write I have fun, make up bullshit lists, and when I do get a little serious with some blogs I try to be insightful and use resources and facts to try and back up my opinion as much as I can. And if you don't follow my blog, I'll send you a picture of a sad kitten who wants some love.

Also, I tend to debate a lot and get up on a soapbox a bit from time to time. I like to debate for the sake of debating and I tend to find it fun to get other peoples perspectives on things, and sometimes I like to play devil's advocate a bit just for the sake of it. Basically, don't take me so serious sometimes even if it seems like I am being serious.

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