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.
With World of Warcraft adding an in-game store, or cash shop, one of last bastions of pure subscription MMORPGs is yielding to market forces and testing the micro-transaction model. There’s no indication that the WoW subscription is going away completely, but it seems today that the line between using in-game money and real money to purchase virtual items (cosmetics, potions, mounts) is becoming increasingly blurred. Purists complain that adding an in-game store breaks immersion in the game world, with filthy real-world lucre polluting and destabilizing the in-game marketplace not to mention adding dollars or pounds to silver or gold piece in-game currencies. But can the in-game store be made palatable, or even “immersive?”
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.
One of the more interesting experiments in computer gaming was Bioware’s Aurora toolset for the single-player RPG, Neverwinter Nights. With the toolkit, players could create their own adventures within the game and make them available to other players in the online community. The tools proved surprisingly popular, and many modules sprung up. And even though Bioware no longer supports the toolset, the community continues to develop adventures using them, even to this day.
The experiment harks back, once again, to tabletop roleplaying, where players were always encouraged to create their own adventure scenarios. Sure, many commercial modules were available, and these were always available to groups who didn’t have time to write up their own stories. But creating your own adventure, running it for your friends, was at the heart of roleplaying—nothing was more satisfying.
I logged into Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) for the first time a year ago, knowing it was a free-to-play game, and at the same time feeling a little weary of the Warcraft level and gear grind. There had been something of a hub-bub over LOTRO going free in 2010—it was one of the first to do so—but other than that, I was a bit surprised how such a well-known title had such a quiet following. Or maybe it was just that the Warcraft crowd was bigger and louder.
Been a couple weeks since I posted last, but it’s also been a few big weeks in the gaming world, with lots of news and a flurry of games popping up like so many motivated rabbits. PAX East is conveniently located across the river in Boston, and so this year was our first in venturing down to the new convention center to check things out.