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Not that long ago, but actually quite a while ago, there were two players in the MMO arena: Everquest and Ultima Online. The major publishers watched with charts and graphs as a new genre of gaming was born: The MMORPG. Ultima was sandbox, and Everquest was the ubiquitous themepark. This topic has been stomped into the ground on this forum and elsewhere to the point of inducing nausea, but, bare with me because I think it is important to look at the systems developed in retrospect and come to understand why the formula worked so well, but is consistently falling short in delivering another blockbuster, a "WOW killer", or in more frank terms, a game that can make a nice profit for its company.
There are some truths or constants that we have to establish before discussing this further:
1. Publishers and developers want to make money.
2. Themepark is the king of MMO's because we voted with our dollars for it to be this way.
3. Everquest was a themepark, but it was not compartmentalized (This is important)
4. Systems will be flawed. (Battlegrounds for example is a system for pvp)
5. MMO's are the most fun when played with other people.... Right?
Number five should be a truth...
Keeping these unsupported "truths" in mind, lets examine WHAT HAPPENED?? For full disclosure, I was an EQ nerd in the late 90's, and I had relative exposure to Ultima Online when I was first playing EQ, but I chose EQ. The first thing about EQ that made me think, " I really love MMO's" was the moment I first had the feeling of avatar. The feeling that my virtual character was a thing that I possessed, and I collected items to customize him and fill my space in this universe. I had never seen "Phat Lewts" in a game before. I never really felt in possession of my character in an online game. There were SO many item slots in EQ. Bracers, vambraces, earrings, etc. I was intrigued by this notion of customization and individualism within this world.
This was the first pillar of MMO games. The character, The customization. The ability to create a character for each player that isn't just unique because of the number of item variences, but because it FEELS unique. This is key here. It felt unique for Everquest because it was new. Today, every MMO is made with character customization, but there is something missing isn't there? Characters start to look the same. Hell, the games start to look the same. The weapons and armor are compartmentalized to a point where you get these items based on unlock system. That is what any tiered system will be. An armor or weapon unlock system that allows all characters to upgrade their items based on a series of parameters, usually including level of avatar, level of item, or class-based distinctions.
Everquest did that too right? Everquest was a loot frenzy. People would do ridiculous things like raid Plane of Fear for 48 hours straight. It was sad actually. So why did that system work so well for so long? There are several reasons, but its not always about quanitfying data is it? If you played the game you would know just as well as I do, the reason it worked in games like Everquest was because you felt unique when you got your items in EQ. There were less items, there was not an auction house, and you had to play with others to farm any type of gear. This meant that if I wanted the Executioner's Axe that every warrior had to have when they went to Guk, then I had to go explore the dungeon with people, I had to find a group at the entrance of the dungeon, I had to play my role in the correct way so my party would stay alive. I had to interact with the content and the way the content was experienced by other people.
See, EQ wasn't about the systems. In fact, EQ had very few systems when compared to the modern MMO. Everyone knew what a train to zone was when playing EQ back in the day. Why did we know it? It wasn't because the game developers implemented a system. No, the players implemented a system within the boundaries of the game we were given to play. We created the systems. In fact, I would go as far as to say EQ had more sandbox-esque features than it is given credit.
Everquest did not force us to do something in one way, it allowed the players to dynamically interact with the content that was available. Public dungeons, although seemingly minute, and I know every reason why instanced dungeons make more sense, but again, this isn't a matter of quanitfying available data. Public dungeons cause players to create systems for managing content, and then it forces guilds and players to create their own method of playing in these dungeons. The Elitists and Vagrants where the top guild on my server. I remember one time where they had taken our rotation in one of the Velious dungeons, so we had a couple of monks sabatoge one of their fights in order to teach them a lesson. This was the back and forth that the players created. Yes, EQ was combat oriented,and it has all the bells and whistles of a Themepark, but it did it with a sense of freedom for the character, and the ability to participate in the world. MMO players don't just want to participate in a PVP match, a raid, or creating armor. It isn't as simple as that, and the problem with developers today is that they miss this fact. WoW "copied" EQ's formula and had great success you say? Yes it did, but when WoW was gaining steam, how many other MMO's had that level of polish, animation, and tightness that WoW did? Not many, if any for that matter.
But I digress. WoW went on to influence generations of developers and gamers alike, and I would argue that the problem isn't the themepark. It is in fact the uncanny ability of developers to forget about immersion and focus on systems. They forget that a sense of belonging within a game isn't based on just the items you get but how you get them, and what their place is in this virtual world. By placing all items on a tier system, you kill how unique that item is to the player that has it, but also to every other player of the game.
If I asked someone today if they could sell items in a game without the use of an auction house, they would spit on me as if I offended their mother, and I am not saying we should take AH's out of our games, but consider this: When I didn't have an auction house, in EQ, I would have to go where people gather together to sell their products. If I couldn't get something, someone would message me and put me in touch with a guildie or somebody "they know" that is selling that item. I would interact. I created a dynamic, interactive game for myself. It was called trading with virtual items and virtual people. I didn't have to hear their voice, but I was able to haggle. So what is the point? THIS, this system of created a sense of belonging. A sense of individualism, and a sense of immersion. I was a part of this world. Look, I am not saying that these figurative and vague statements should be how games need to be designed, but if you were lucky enought o play EQ in 1999ish, you know the sense of wonder and immersion it provided. Ask yourself, what happened to that? Well, I think its because too many systems are implemented in MMO's. I walk around a world, filled with NPC's roaming back and forth...waiting to be slaughtered by the 12 / 12 for quest X. Y
My point is this: MMO's can NOT be compartmentalized. You can't inject immersion, a sense of place in the universe, a sense of adventure among real people if you are creating a system to manage everything for the player and then create a system to manage that system. Systems are necessary, but if you place everything into a system, the game is considerably lessmultiplayer and not very massive.