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?

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The Endgame Dilemma

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.

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Heroic Archetypes and Character Beauty in MMOs

One of the things that had me laughing most when South Park did an episode on World of Warcraft (“Make Love, Not Warcraft” in Season 10) was just seeing their Warcraft characters onscreen. You had Stan, Kyle, Kenny and Cartman all playing these prototypical fantasy types – burly warrior, stout dwarf, and so on—but with the crew’s “real,” squeaky voices. It’s probably the thing that folks who don’t play RPG’s laugh most about – the geeky kid playing Conan the Barbarian, but in this case it was also cartoons playing cartoons.

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The Quiet MMO: Lord of the Rings Online

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.

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The Single Player vs. MMO Tradeoff

So in listening to The Instance podcast recently, the hosts touched on a bit of a discussion that’s been at the back on my mind for a while. The question was actually emailed in by an 8-year kid who’s evidently taking a class in video games (how times have changed!). The question was pretty simple—will Skyrim ever be made into a multiplayer game? For those who aren’t familiar with Skyrim, it’s the latest release in the Elder Scrolls series of single-player fantasy roleplaying video games.

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Notes from the Fringe: Sandbox Gaming

There’s a smaller subset of MMORPG players who refuse to play the more popular online games most people know about (Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic) and choose to play what are called “Sandbox Games.”  Some examples include Eve Online, Mortal Online, and Darkfall—more obscure titles, but all with dedicated followings.   Folks have different definitions for sandbox gaming, but based on some of the discussions on the MMO Smacktalk podcast there appear to be some common threads, though not all the mentioned games are true to these “pure” ideas:

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