One of the questions that came up over on Massively recently was “What Do Fantasy MMOs Need?” That is, what, over and above our typical fantasy tropes, are the core set of features or qualities that would make for a better fantasy MMO? It got me thinking, not only about the specific MMO genre, but what draws me to the sci-fi/fantasy genre in general, and the answer came back pretty loud and clear: the sharing of ideas and common interest in what could be with others. With fantasy especially, there’s a nostalgia for home and hearth, somehow threatened that seems to lie at the center of The Hobbit and the early fantasy novels – Wizard of Earthsea, The Black Cauldron, The Sword of Shannara (yeah, I know…) that, if treated ham-fistedly, become cliché pretty quickly. And yet, that doesn’t negate the attraction of the feeling. It’s a wish for community combined with a love of the fantastical, and I think that’s what all MMOs are striving for, and never fully succeed in delivering.
So what are some things that could be done? Here’s a few ideas.
I was trading off playing between Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) this week with a bit of The Secret World (TSW) and recalling many of the frequent comments from players lamenting that MMORPGs had become “too easy” and “too casual.” It’s an interesting assertion since these two games in particular have a very different feel as far as difficulty is concerned. LOTRO questing is in many ways similar to the World of Warcraft in that expeditions are on the “easy” side – it’s pretty straightforward taking down the bad guys or collecting relics on the beach or whatever the game asks of you; but the feel of the game is more calm and relaxing. There’s certainly a nice aspect that; causally exploring the countryside, taking in the view of distant ruins or mountains while hunting boar hides is a mode of questing that can be a nice reprieve, especially after a stressful day, or as a nice way to get rolling in the morning with a cup of java.
It’s been fun watching the EverQuest Next news and reactions at SOE this year; after several development reboots, Sony finally showed off the latest direction of the venerable MMO title. For those who are not completely up to speed where EverQuest (EQ) fits into MMORPG history, it was the big MMO on the block after Ultima Online, but before World of Warcraft (WoW). It was known as EverCrack in its early days due to the addicting lure of a vast world with lots of stuff to do in-game. Later days brought EverQuest 2, but that wilted before the might of WOW polish and popularity. EQ and EQ2 have hung in there quietly all these years, while WoW has gone on to become the MMO standard. But Sony has been working on this new version for awhile now, and last year they announced they were going back to the drawing board with the game, with SOE president John Smedley basically saying it was too much of the “same old, same old.” Sony wanted to do something revolutionary with the next version of EverQuest, not a simply polish of old engines and ideas.
Was listening to a podcast today, and the subject came up regarding “catching up” to other players in an MMO, and questioning whether it was worth playing the game since everyone else had gone on to the higher levels. I believe the quote was something like “the game had passed them by” and so they would probably not give the game a try. I remember this same feeling as a latecomer to World of Warcraft; the game had been out for years – two expansions were already out, and I was just figuring out the game at first level. Thankfully, my brother, a longtime gamer took pity on me and rolled up a low-level character to show me the ropes. Over the following days, I realized how much patience he had to have to come to those early stages of the game; I was learning everything – how to play my toon, to the trinity, to how dungeons worked, grinding. It was fun at first, but over time, I could see he wanted to get back to his primary character, and eventually, I ended up leveling on my own.
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?
Last time, I talked quite a bit about endgame, and how games might be designed to avoid “grinding” for progressively more powerful gear once the character has reached “max level:”
Use a skill-based, horizontal progression system rather than a level-based, gear grind system. Give us a huge pool of options and gear to buy, but let players find their own right combination of skills and gear. Place an upper limit on the most powerful gear in the game, but provide lots of it—variety of abilities and gear should be the progression for players who play for epic achievement.
More players than ever are starting to demand horizontal over vertical progression in their games. Recent dust-ups around Guild Wars 2’s introduction of a new gear tier brought to light how much emotion there is on the issue – thousands of posts protesting the decision on the forums after the announcement.
But what does horizontal progression really mean, and how does vertical progression conflict with it?
One of the most criticized and praised elements in more recent “themepark” MMORPGs is the concept of “endgame.” A themepark MMO is a static world that remains largely unaffected by player actions. It can be described as a backdrop where players are “led” through quests (with many pointers and hints making it difficult to fail at the task.) Players critical of themeparks joke about games being “on rails” like a rollercoaster ride at a themepark. Eventually—the time varies depending how frequently the person plays—the character completes most of the quests and reaches “max level” or “level cap,” and endgame. This is simplified, of course; there are often additional ways to reach max-level besides questing, including player-vs-player (PVP) battlegrounds, crafting, and instanced dungeons.
Well, it’s been a few months since The Secret World (TSW) launched, and of the new games arriving – Guild Wars 2, Mists of Pandaria – this is the one I find myself returning to. A big part of the reason is the setting – there’s simply no other game quite like it.
The Secret World is set in the modern day, but with one critical difference – the stuff of dreams, nightmares and mythology have begun manifesting in the waking world. Zombies, Lovecraftian horrors, ghosts, the wendigo and sasquatch of indian legend, Slavic vampires and more have made their way into our countrysides and cities, all with the seeming intent of destroying our world. There’s a hint at some kind of power behind this invasion, and player characters begin their creation by being “selected” somehow by a mysterious force, (imparted by magical “bees”) that imbue them with extraordinary powers.
The biggest selling point for the MMORPGs is the “massively multiplayer” part of the acronym. At the time that many small Dungeons & Dragons groups were gathering 3-8 players around the dining room table, folks at Essex University in the UK were creating the first text-based “MUDs” or multi-user dungeons that could have as many users all playing in a shared virtual world.
While on the surface it would seem that there is a lot in common between these two scenarios, they are actually quite different – the former has a small group of players sitting face-to-face and working through a roleplaying scenario using the standard rules of conduct of any public social interaction. Sure, they may be playing in character, but because the person is sitting directly across the table, all the power of verbal and non-verbal communication is at the group’s disposal, making for an infinitely complex and memorable session. In an MUD, the number of players was greatly increased, but there comes with that a great deal more anonymity, and none of the non-verbal methods of communication one can have in-person. Communication was by text only. It’s the difference between a small town where you know all the neighbors and a big city where thousands of strangers walk by without ever speaking to each other. Ironically, while it became much easier to gather large groups of gamers in a MUD, it’s was still very difficult to produce the quality of interaction you’d get in a small tabletop roleplaying session.
So The Secret World(TSW) went ahead and implemented something that, upon consideration, seems a no-brainer—they added an in-game web browser. Hit the “B” button and you’re taken to Google, and from there, you have access to the entire internet from within the game. In makes complete sense for an MMO set in the modern day, especially given the need to research clues and solve things like Morse Code puzzles. Sure, we could do all that in an outside browser as well, but having the browser right there not only keeps the player in the game, but also makes for a more immersive experience. In several quests, it’s actually necessary to browse out to a website created by the TSW developers to solve the puzzle. Given the number of times I’ve popped out of other games to look up information in the browser, I’m wondering why more games haven’t attempted to present their lore in-house.