Whatever Happened to Mysteries in MMOs?

Many early computer adventure games intermingled plot and mystery, action and puzzle – Myst, Silent Hill, Indiana Jones  and the Fate of Atlantis, Zork, Ultima, The Longest Journey.  Playing these games growing up, friends and I spent long hours taking notes, making maps, figuring out plot connections – all this alongside the combat that could crop up at any time.  Figuring out how to open the mysterious locked chest or opening the secret door, or discovering that the king is possessed was half the battle, and when you did figure it out, it was often as exciting as the most challenging combat in the game.

Even better were the games where nothing was truly spelled out for you – you found clues as you explored, and serendipitously the story or mystery emerged as you put the pieces together.  Myst was the best at this; you were simply dropped into the situation and left to stumble across strange notes, books, sounds and images, and left to put 2 and 2 together.  It was amazing.

So why is the investigation mission completely missing from the modern MMO?

I think there’s few reasons:

The rise of the console: console games, which inherited from the stand-up, coin-operated arcade game, had action combat as the primary focus.  At the same time the early computer games were making their way into the home, arcade style games such as PacMan or Galaga or Asteroids were making their way to the console.  These games did not have the up-close feel of the PC, and were meant to be played on the TV from the couch.  In contrast, the PC was an in-close, more intimate experience more conducive to “thinking games.”  The console game was all about impressive action, movement and shooting.  Later, when console style games such as Castle Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake came to the PC, you started to see a mixture of the console and PC play styles on the PC as well.  Many gamers who had previously played consoles now flocked to PC games as well, making games like Doom and Half-Life blockbuster hits.

The primacy of combat: Combat games are popular, no doubt about it.  The Call of Duty series remains one of the highest selling video games ever, and it’s been proven that game companies can reach huge player populations by making combat the primary focus of the game.  Even in games where other gameplay options are provided, combat is often the highest, if not the only, priority for the game developers to “get right.”  Many players will simply skip games that do not possess combat as the primary or sole feature.  Sure, atmosphere and story and puzzles and crafting systems are all nice to haves, but without combat, the game is a non-starter.

The push for mass audiences: Game developers, seeing the influx of the casual/console gamer to the PC game market saw an opportunity to reach vast audiences by simplifying and streamlining systems to make it friendly to the layperson.  These folks previously might not play such games due to their complex systems.  Both EverQuest and World of Warcraft saw huge increases in subscribers by targeting these new players and making the barrier to entry for an MMO extremely low.  Warcraft polished its systems so finely (and advertised the game so well, using celebrities like Mr. T and William Shatner) that it made it incredibly easy to get in and get going.  The trend has continued with content targeted clearly at a younger audience (Pokemon-style pet battles and martial arts pandas).

The MMO as a casual endeavor: MMOs reached the mass audiences when many of the more difficult elements were removed.  Players wanted to just get in and out with their accomplishments, and really didn’t want to be challenged too greatly.  Playing an MMO was taking a break, sort of like knitting or playing cards, something to be done on the side.  While the MMOs certainly reserved content for “hardcore” players, they increasingly became less of a focus, as it became known that the casual gamer made up the vast majority of players.

The MMO as a multiplayer rather than a solo game: I put this last because it the most controversial and also the one most players will point to.  It is also probably the subject of a whole different article.  The idea is that “solo elements” such as puzzles and investigations do not belong in MMO games.  This I think comes from a great many perceptions about what an MMO is supposed to be, but I think the thought here is that solving mysteries is something you can only do as a solo player, perhaps because these types of games were traditionally solo adventure games for the PC.

With these clear changes in target audience, wise from a business perspective, but perhaps distressing to the players who grew up with the games that were more immersive and challenging, it’s no surprise that “thinking elements” were pushed deep down on the development priority list.  But was the baby thrown out with the bathwater?  I think so.

Given some time – Warcraft now stands at 8 years – some of the audience wants something different.  Certainly, WoW still stands as king of the hill with over 10 million subscribers, and will continue to dominate the MMO landscape – its audience is very loyal.  The MMOs that have tried to duplicate WoW’s success with similar gameplay, have found the strategy backfiring.  Star Wars: The Old Republic started out strong but lost millions of players very quickly when it became apparent that the gameplay was too similar to WoW’s.

But so far, games that have tried something different (or even something “old-school”), have almost invariably reached a smaller audience, and are quickly “punished” if they overestimate sales or their target audience.  The games that have done well are the ones who have targeted their audience well, and planned for these smaller numbers.  EVE Online, though it boasts only 200,000 subscribers has steadily grown in numbers since it was released, and continues to be a stable company, in part because it has made no effort to duplicate WoW’s sales numbers (it’s also a critically acclaimed game).  Guild Wars 2 has reached a wider audience (2 million), I think, because it made efforts to target those players who wanted an alternative to WoW, and made sure to deliver specific features those players were expecting.

But back to those once-loved features such as puzzle solving and investigations, all the “complex” content – are they moot for today’s mass audiences, no longer loved or needed?  Is simpler, combat-strategy-only the way of the future?  Or is there an audience for those thinking features that is smaller but equally relevant and profitable given audience research, targeted development and a well-planned budget?  Are investigations too “solo”-friendly in a game that is a massively multiplayer game?

My final argument: there are many teams who work together to solve mysteries every day – just watch any episode of Law & Order.  The recent ARG (alternate reality game) for The Secret World had people all over the globe on the forums working to solve pieces of a larger puzzle, and investigations have made their way back into that game, a first for MMOs.  These kinds of scenarios, not only belong in an MMO, but are a long-neglected element that drive a more immersive and fascinating world.

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6 thoughts on “Whatever Happened to Mysteries in MMOs?

  1. Mark says:

    To a certain extent, we live in a mini-renaissance of mystery in MMOs–Secret World has a clear investigatory focus, and you’ll find also sorts of mystery scenarios on any active WoW RP server; they’re possibly the most common type of RP, well, unless you count ERP. Even, URU, the puzzle based MMO sequel to Myst, is up an running as a free MMO again, after having failed initially.

    That being said, I’d speculate that reason that puzzles and mystery is a niche taste in gaming isn’t simply that other play styles such as combat are more popular. Instead I’d point to the increasingly important part that narrative plays in games of all types. Puzzles, if they are puzzling, can stop the plot dead–either one hangs around trying to figure them out, or your break immersion with the game to find the answer on the internet. Supporting this thesis is the frequently made observation that even a popular, primary mechanic like combat is said to have been “dumbed down” so because players don’t want their stories stuck at a badly calibrated impasse.

    Then too, there’s now a global market for games, which means that you’d want to exclude any puzzles and mysteries which rely on culturally specific knowledge.

    • gpili says:

      It’s an interesting conundrum because in the multiplayer genre, you are looking for things that groups can do together. However, so many solo elements have made their way into MMOs, that investigations don’t feel so out of place in a game like The Secret World.

      That said, you definitely don’t want to have a group waiting, though, while one person works on a puzzle or on their build.

      But finding ways for groups to solve puzzles together is interesting, and you mention Myst Online as one where they do this. ARGs (Alternate Reality Games) which are crossovers between gaming and the real world, use internet vehicles such as forums. email and Facebook to encourage groups to work together to solve pieces of the puzzle before the puzzle as a whole can be solved.

      The Secret World is talking about “puzzle raids” where the group must work together to advance — perhaps combat will only be a piece of these rather than the sole focus.

      Perhaps the lesson is not so much working in the solo puzzle solving (as much as this can be), but also to ensure there are multiple ways (of which combat is only one) for people to group and work together.

  2. gretch05 says:

    This may come across to some as elitist, but puzzles solved with collaboration can certainly add to the fun.

  3. Robaz Mokutz says:

    Combat is massive because button mashing and allocating powers is a common gamer skill,.. besides, fighting is fun for all.

    Puzzles require all that thinky stuff.

    Additionally, there’s a problem with character-based mysteries. Since the common PC-NPC dialog tree is usually limited to a few (often leading) selections, player-derived means of investigating mysteries is severely limited.

    • gpili says:

      I’m all for combat — love it myself! 🙂 I guess I am vying for more variety in these games as well, and anything that mixes it up a bit, or requires us to be more diverse as gamers I think is a good thing. Some combat missions in TSW require even a bit of thought.

      I think the dialogue tree is possibly part of the problem — we get into this tree thinking where we have to solve the problem in one of three choices, or whatever. A better choice is to simply state the problem (or mystery) and then leave the clues and tools to solve that mystery out in the world for the players to find as they adventure. The world needs to be imbued with things needed to progress, freeing us from the decision trees altogether.

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