So there seems to be a large cross current of the MMORPG community that believes that the genre sucks. We generally fall into two camps: Those of us who think the genre was once good and has gone bad, and those of us that think the genre has always been crap. Regardless of what side you fall on, you can produce all kinds of reasons why you think MMORPGs should be killed with fire. Things like grind and.... well.... mostly grind, lead us in a chorus of complaint. But then again, what is it that you expect from this genre? It isn't like this sort of thing has been done before.
Yes, I realize the UO came out in '98 and that we've had MUDs since the late '70s. However, the idea of a game that goes on 24/7 and involves thousands of players that join the game at different points in the progress thereof is something that has never been possible before. Sure, many of us have played a game of Killers at conventions, or been involved in large LARP and paintball / airsoft events, but these games had definite beginnings and endings with all players starting and stopping at the same time. Likewise, I could do a bastardized version of PBEM Diplomacy that used a custom hex map and had thousands of players, but eventually the game would end with a clear winner. Also players of the Diplomacy variant would not be able to drop in and play at any time or for as long as they wanted. MMORPGs are meant to go on forever, with the players coming and going at random times, for random session lengths, without winners. WTF?!
Let's break this down a little bit. First, MMO is a technology and RPG is a type of game. The first MUD that was ever made was more of a social space meant to emulate adventure games like Zork. The first version of MUD didn't even include combat. The idea was to make a big chat room. Consider that you can only have about forty people in a Yahoo chat room. Now consider the fact that the average MMORPG server has a population of about 3k players and global chat. That's a pretty impressive step up. Now consider that RPGs began as tabletop games for 3 to 10 players. Hmm....
When you look at the concept of the MMORPG in this perspective, you see how completely grab-ass the entire design concept is. While MUDs stayed fairly true to the spirit of pen and paper RPGs by designing for small parties (8 or less) and heavily relying on GMs, MMORPGs are designed for forty man raids and are just too damn big to make providing a staff of full time GMs feasible. What's more, the idea that there are no winners or losers in an RPG is undermined by the stress on levels and tiered gear. To be completely honest, UO was just throwing a couple thousand people into Ultima 7 and seeing what came out. Is it any wonder that the genre turned out this way?
Inversely, MMO games shine when they are designed with their nature in mind. It's no accident that most popular web-based MMOs are either purely social or strategy in nature. Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin, and Second Life are big, big hits because they play up to the social possibilities of MMO technology. Games like Battle Dawn and Pardus work because they are specifically designed with hundreds or even thousands of gamers at a time in mind. There are even a few regular MMOs that “get it.” Eve Online works because it's basically a business sim at its heart. Starport works for much the same reason, and because it has regular server resets with clear winners and losers. If MMOs would take more sim-like approach to design, there's a very real possibility that the quality of the games would improve.
Right now, developers are just kind of stumbling through the dark. This worked in the beginning of video game history because games could be made in 3 to 6 months and a session could be played in fifteen minutes or less. That won't work in an industry that takes 5 years to make a game and several months for a player to complete said games content. Trial and error is entirely too slow, and building on what worked last fiscal quarter is beyond stupid when you consider that most gamers didn't even play the majority of the most popular MMORPGs content in that time period. Add the fact that few of these games are really designed as MMOGs and following in the footsteps of a more popular games is a shakier idea yet. The catch-.22 here is that even if you design for a massively multiplayer environment, it could still be several years before you can accurately point to what worked and what didn't. If you'll ever be able to do that at all.
Let's be honest for a minute, WoW doesn't have to be an MMO. You could offer everything, EVERYTHING that WoW offers as a dedicated online RPG. Auction houses, instanced dungeons, forty man raids, all of it. The difference would be that you would have to take the Guild Wars route of hub towns so that players could meet and greet. Other than that, WoW wouldn't change one little bit. In fact, you could actually disguise the hub towns by making it so that the towns were streamed seemlessly into the over-world map. You wouldn't see players that you didn't bring with you when traveling between towns, but you wouldn't notice the transition when you entered or exited towns either. With a little clever coding, you could even allow people to who leave town at roughly the same time to play in the same over-world instance, thus providing the illusion that the world was actually persistent. With this in mind, why make MMORPGs in the same mold as EQ and WoW?
The only thing that works like MMOG, in real life human experience, is real life. Unfortunately, when you design a game this way it demands too much of the player. Part of the reason why business and political sims work as web games is because everything is condensed into a few far-reaching decisions. You can put everything into order in just a few minutes per session and check in periodically throughout the day. Aside from a few emails to in-game allies and adversaries, the game doesn't monopolize your time. This is why Eve players are always talking about how the game can be played casually. Once you get some starting capital going in Eve, it plays like a business sim that you can use to fund your occasional piracy / bounty hunting habit. Question: Why can't a similar model be adopted for ground-based fantasy and sci-fi settings?
I think the best answer to that question comes from the way that we approach those settings. Eve Online takes its cues from Elite. EQ and all of it's clones are taking their cues from Wizardry and Rogue. In Fantasy CRPGs, the setting is just a prop for dungeon crawling and thats it. With games like Elite or The Sims, The interacting with the game world is an integral part of the game. Playing the markets and finding trade routes in Elite was just as important as dogfighting. In any of the AD&D “Gold Box Games,” the gameplay was confined to hitting plot points in the main story arch and crawling dungeons. In fact, I can't think of a single RPG that had a dynamic world economy or any way to make money outside of quests that usually involved killing the big baddie at the bottom of a dungeon and / or retrieving something. Once you step away from this model, you end up in sim territory with games like Europa 1400: The Guild 2. Inside the traditional CRPG model, you're working with a tree structure where the player controls the flow of narrative through branches at the plot points.
The only way you can make the Traditional CRPG tree structure into an MMORPG is if you have diametrically opposed plot trees. That is, if one faction passes point A in their tree then it shifts point B for a different faction. This can all be done, but talk about complicated and prone to bugs! It only gets worse as you add factions to the game. Don't get me wrong, you could probably generate the tree itself algorithmically and fill in the lore details by hand, but that would still be one major pain in the ass.
Now before you begin thinking that I'm advocating a “sandbox” approach, I'd like to point out the Asian factor here. The basic Korean grinder is just a large map with several control points (castles or wot not) that exists for the sole purpose of large scale battles. While this is a MMOG design, it's still kind of half ass'd. I personally love the idea of large scale warfare, but I have a problem with using the RPG format to achieve it. If you're going to make a game with large scale PvP as the focus, then make it a pure player killing game. That means no monsters and combat XP being awarded on PvP alone. I guess you could allow players to gather simple materials to craft items from, but that's about it. Personally, I would prefer that a game like this resemble an online version of Dynasty Warriors or Mount & Blade, but we don't exactly have the technology for that kind of thing yet. We do have the technology for FPS and flight sim games like Planetside, WWII Online, and Aces High 2. So bring on the MMO version of Battlefield! Several MMO players have voiced a desire for this over the last several years. Deliver it and the cash will flow...
In the end, devs shouldn't be making games with MMO technology if it isn't essential to the game design. If you're an indie developer and you're thinking of starting a small MMORPG, please take a lesson from the big boys mistakes and don't make your game into an MMORPG if it can be done in some other way. We need to let the technology fit the game rather than just stamp a game onto the technology.