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There is all sorts of chatter going on lately to what should be the future of online gaming. Everyday more games come out and each one is supposed to be the end all be all of games. Currently we have a few areas vying for the top spot and while there are thousands of games out there I am going to group them up into three basic categories. So let’s start with the little guys and work our way up.
First there is the “Free to Play” genre. There is something out there for everyone. You can play a lot of them without even downloading anything. They play through a browser. Sounds good right? That is until you look a little deeper and find that most of these games give either the first X amounts of levels free or they do not give full access to all the parts of the game or to compete in PVP you need to purchase the high powered gear. They normally have an online store that parts you from your money for gear, power ups and in some cases items that allow you to level. Many offer a paid subscription that give you access to those items but any way you look at it they end up charging you and therefore are not truly free to play. So really these are just offering a free trial or limited game experience to see if you want to pay to play. Now, I will say that I have found a few that are true “Free to Play” games with only power ups and consumables however they are few and far between.
Next, we have the multiplayer games. All of you, are at least most of you, have bought a single player game that comes with a multiplayer option. Normally you slog through the same game you already played with friends although in the past decade more developers have heeded the consumer call and created separate stories for multiplayer. Sadly most multiplayer games are first person shooter (FPS) and of those that are role playing games only a handful offer additional content for multiplayer games. There have been a loyal fan base, notably among D&D games that have created massive amounts of player generated content that can be either solo or multiplayer played. This does give a rather enjoyable experience however unless you are able to host your own Vent server (or equivalent) for voice chat you will be fairly limited in doing any sort of role-playing except through typing in chat. This still is more of a small niche in the gaming community. It can be a lot of fun if you enjoy that sort of thing.
Now, you may feel I have left something out here and if so feel free to let me know but I am just doing the broad strokes here. If you found one game in the ether that you love and I overlooked it I will be overjoyed if you show me the way. Now on to the larger than life world of MMORPG’s.
WOW, WAR, EVE, EQ, EQII, DAOC, SWG, COH/COV, AOC, LOTR, MATRIX Online, etc, etc, etc. (If you are into MMO’s you probably do not need any help on those abbreviations. If you don’t then look them up here on MMORPG.com and you can be educated on each of them.) Now, pardon me for a moment as I am going to wax a bit nostalgic here and tell you about my education in my first MMO- EQ.
Back in the day, my brother was playing EQ and told me how great it was to not be able to beat the game in a weekend. At the time we were both playing consoles mostly and we would rent a game and beat it in a few days. So the idea of going into the internet and playing a game that had nearly unlimited content and literally thousands of hours of playtime was intriguing. I made sure I had a computer that would run it and jumped into the game. Here I experienced a level of frustration I had never known before. I lost my body so many times I could have personally fielded a virtual cast for Land of the Dead. I lost all my gear (playing on PVP server) multiple times and had to kill rats with my fists to buy another sword. And I got ganked more in one week than I have been since.
Another new side effect of the MMO was that the game took so much time that I started having arguments in the real world with people about being absent from their lives. I had gone into hermitage before however the console games only lasted a few days and then I was back in the world of the living. In the end I dropped the game having only achieved level 20 on an enchanter. This is the first game that I never finished. I never went back.
Instead I began a nomadic sojourn through just about every game I have listed above. DAOC gave way to SWG then I jumped to COH then onto EVE then WOW then WAR with so many betas and short life MMO’s that there are too many to mention. I do have to say that some very talented people went to a lot of work to make these games enjoyable. In each game I maxed out at least one, sometimes multiple characters. I geared out my characters and had a lot of fun doing it until one day I had an epiphany.
I had spent a lot of time on WOW. Heck, at the time I was a raiding fool. I had sacrificed sleep, time with loved ones, television, sunlight and good health in the pursuit of the full set of MC gear. For the uninitiated that was the top dungeon a few expansions back in WOW. I had a hard core guild that raided twice a week and I did all I could to be there both times. It was after I had the whole set of gear and was kind of burned out on playing that I went away and played Tabula Rosa. (Good game, died too soon in my humble opinion.) WOW had the Burning Crusade expansion come out and I got sucked back in with the promise of the druid bird form that had been in the beta of the original game and was taken out of the first offering. In the first week I got pissed. I ran a few quests and replaced my hard won, EPIC, gear with green drops. That means that if you had skipped the raiding and just bought the expansion you had better gear than those that ground out hundreds of hours of play time. I was so irritated I only played through part of the expansion and left the game.
For me this began introspection on what it was that I wanted from a game.
And do you know what the first on my list was? Simple, it must be fun.
That seems like a no brainer but looking back on a lot of the games I had played only a few of them stand out in my mind as fun. Sure a lot of them were engaging however so is throwing cards into a hat when you are bored.
Second the game must have a good balance of challenge vs. reward.
I have no interest in playing a game that is so hardcore it takes 20 hours to get though the first 10 levels. Nor will I ever again grind away for gear that will only be so much trash when the next expansion comes out. This also means that unless it is a one time or once in a while thing, no raiding. There is little chance of that anyway because even if you are in a guild they have specific gear you normally have to have and in some case achievements before you can even go on raids these days.
Third is must not take over my life.
This last one seems a bit laughable. Until that is you start talking to the average MMO player. As them how many hours they play a week. 20-30 hours or more for the hardcore and at least 10-20 for the casual. That is how much time they play a game. Something designed for amusement and diversion. There have even been stories of people playing games until they died. Seems like we have gotten a bit out of hand on that one.
These rules have served me well. I even gave up MMO’s entirely for awhile in favor of a lot of really good single player games I had missed. Of course it was only a matter of time until one came out that I wanted to play.
So what am I playing now? Warhammer Online.
Why? Because it is fun, and because it has a PVP system that I enjoy.
Do I raid? No.
And as soon as the game stops being fun I will drop it and move on. Not so with many of the MMO players out there. This brings us to our first problem with MMORPG’s. .
MMO’s are designed the way they are because players pay for them to be that way.
Some call them Fanboi’s, others call them martyrs, or in some cases idiots. In any case you will always find people who will play the buggiest of games and sing its praises simply because something about the game speaks to them. Or they are hoping that the game will develop into more of what they envisioned the game to originally be. That latter is true more often than not because a lot of games are shoved out the door unfinished and have to be fixed in motion. So you end up paying to play in a late stage beta more often than not. This is allowed to happen because of the players. They pay the company for this experience. In some cases they pay a premium for a collector’s edition of the game and pay extra to get into the game early. This is odd because very rarely will you find consumers willing to pay to use defective product but in the MMO world this is a staple. Players are also at fault for our second issue.
Stagnant engines. The programs that run the MMO’s of the world have not truly changed that much since EQ. True they have gotten more streamlined and added more bells and whistles but there have been little to no innovations. The exception to the rule could be argued to be EVE Online. However that game takes such a large amount of time to skill up that you will likely never catch those that started playing before you.
Again players are to blame. They keep paying for each new MMO that is only a different flavor of the old one. Developers see this and make small changes and keep making money. Now compare that to single player console and computer games. There have been some significant innovations in those genres because players demand it. Still, as long as people will pay money out for a slight modification of an old standard, MMO developers will push new, little changed games out the door as fast as they can.
Now, there is a lot of discussion going on about where to go next in MMO’s. Some want a sandbox. Others want to have no levels, or no gear or only player made gear, some advance the idea of having no classes, or only 4 classes, just skill based characters, and the list goes on and on. Jump on about any game message board and you will find the different sides vying for the upper hand in the argument. I personally think we need to stop and take a look at what made the old school games fun, before we were awash in all the cool graphics, and see how that can be translated into the current game world.
Back when video games were first starting out, and for sometime after that, graphics sucked. Bits were occasionally different colors and you could sometimes fill in the blanks in your imagination. MUD’s were a good example of having to fill in the blanks in your mind. The storylines however were riveting. To this day some of the oldest games are being remade because the storylines were so solid that developers know they can make a killing by either redoing them or by putting out the next chapter with a better graphics engine. However, somewhere along the line we got way too caught up with shiny items and killer graphics and let the story take a far back seat. I think we can get improved games if we go back to the basics.
Take the old pen and paper games. If you ever played it was about getting together with friends and having an adventure. Well that and a few tons of pizza and gallons of beverage. The games were filled with highs and lows, fun and irritation mixed with anger and joy, all wrapped up in a 3-6 hour game session. Well, sometimes longer if you were like my group who took one day a month to play all day. The idea was the same, whether hero of villain, you were able to live the story of your character. You experienced a living story with friends and triumphed or failed together.
That is not what we have today. With a few minor exceptions called Roleplayer Servers (that normally fail to deliver) or the die hard crews that run AD&D Online together I have seen very little of this. There is some promise in some of the changes coming down the pike. A few developers out there are playing with NPC’s giving out all their info by speaking rather than text. The thought is that you would be more engrossed in the story that way. Now, how that will play out with an entire generation who has learned to auto accept quests and read them later? Who knows? Perhaps if there were bad quests mixed in with good and you had some sort of reputation being tracked that would also cause you to be more engrossed and more careful of what your character did and did not do.
Another way of enriching the experience is to give the character limitations beyond the simple ones currently in place. Yes, use encumbrance, however also use age, weather conditions, reputation, etc and find real ways to give characters motivation to get out there and adventure. Offer the option of truly high level characters being allowed to become part of the game mythos. After all who has not played a single player or PnP (pen and paper) game where you are regaled of stories of daring do of those that came before? Perhaps there is also something to be said for making the character skills more important than the items in the world. Yes, let clothing and the like be as varied as you like so everyone can dress their doll however they want. However in the grand scheme make the gear like armor, even magic armor, only slightly impact the character. A level 20 character should be deadly even when faced with a level 10 character in the best gear available.
Granted this is me giving my opinion but honestly if you have read this far I assume you are waiting for me to give it. I think if someone were to want to break way from the pack they should look for a way to take games back to what they should be. Remember it is a past time, a hobby, and as such should be playable from one hour to twenty hours a week. Do not try to get the time sink crowd. You would have a hard time wresting them away from WOW anyway. Instead design your world to more closely mirror the RPG’s of old. Make a world where player’s actions have actual consequences. Where the main focus for the player is their story and character are for more important than their gear and levels. Where fellowship and having fun is more important than repetitive raiding and item elitism. Where after a long distinguished, or infamous, career a player will have their character retired and be part of the mythos. A figure of story and song that other players will know about based on their deeds. The end product would allow you to make multiple worlds (servers) and allow you to put different genre together. Say one world is Fantasy, another is Sci-Fi, while yet another is Steampunk. By making something that is quality rather than a slight improvement over what is out there you will bring players into the game worlds in droves. Whatever genre they want a world could be built for them. The possibilities would be truly endless. And in my humble opinion it would be fun as hell.