So I'm now stuck in that blank limbo between games - I'm sure we all know what it feels like, whether it came after EverQuest's strongest features died, or Star Wars Galaxies launched it's NGE, or maybe just the friends who made an older game bearable left for greener pastures, leaving you to fill that void with fancier graphics and animations.
We have all experienced that exodus when the time of one game ends, and we must seek another. Some of us have even experienced an almost nomadic trait, where we will go from one game to another in a period of mere months or even weeks, only to be dissatisfied and try something else in the hopes of getting that next "MMO fix".
Older gamers might even notice that in this new generation of games, its a much more common occurance for people to up and leave - that is what I intend to address in this first blog of mine...
The Evolution of MMOs: More Choices, or Less Depth?
What the Hell Happened?
The year was 1998 and EverQuest had just been released. Okay, scratch that.
The year was 1999, and my friend had just convinced me to pick up a copy of EverQuest, which had just unleashed it's first expansion: The Rise of Kunark. I was young and beautiful then, about twelve or thirteen or whatever age it is that eigth graders are. I wasn't really a fan of the RPG genre, but I was an artist at heart and I always enjoyed creating things and watching them come to life. I think that is what really got me interested in EverQuest, was the possibility of becoming this character in a vast fantasy world and creating all these stories and adventures to share with my friends.
Yes folks - that was the magic of EverQuest for me. It wasn't that the game was my first MMO, or that it was all new. I assure you, in the many years after EverQuest I have found similar joys in the worlds that actually provided for them, but somewhere down the line the MMORPG genre became less about what it was that we, the players could create for ourselves, and more about simply playing a game of someone else's design. These worlds of infinite possibilities slowly declined to become console-quality games with the added feature of a subscription fee and enough loot that would take you hundreds of attempts to get that they could ensure you'd actually pay that subscription fee, regardless of the game's real quality.
Let's take a brief look at the games that followed EverQuest, we'll do a three year period for each, so we have 1998-2001, 2001-2004, and 2004-2007. I think this is the appropriate way to classify gaming "Generations" between "Classic", "Old" and "Current".
In the 1998-2001 "Classic" Period, games took awhile to develop and computers werent really advanced enough to handle complex systems or graphics. This resulted in developers having to come up with other ways to capture gamers - Ultima Online is a great example of this. It had that isometric DIablo 2 style camera (with much lower quality graphics), but it was a damn well put together game with all the freedoms you could ask for. The content was there, but the players had the freedom to create their own and really live as a part of the world.
EverQuest followed suit, and introduced the concept of a three-dimensional world while at the same time, due to the lack of technology at the time, being unable to deliver features like the player-designed homes and cities that UO offered. Still, the game was very open ended - as the infamous Brad McQuaid has touted (and I'll give him this much), if you saw something in the world, you could absolutely get there. Think back to all those times you were lost in the ocean, all those times you stumbled across something mysterious and new. Sure, it was a pain in the ass finding your way around and dealing with the corpse runs, but there was that extra dimension to the world - that it wasnt just there so you could level up and raid, it was there so you could be a part of that world and experience it as any person who exists in that world would. There was also the vast array of spells and abilities that really had no use in combat, but had other purposes - such as faction altering illusions that gave you access to otherwise restricted areas and quests. No other game has even touched on this kind of depth.
Asheron's Call had some other unique features (although the game was met with less enthusiastic reviews due to poor graphical quality, unimaginative races, and very unfocused content) - but it was very fun being able to build a character how you desired, having to research new spells yourself, as well as some unique things like writing your own books and throwing them on the ground for other players to discover, or having "mock duels" by being able to cast (harmless) offensive spells on friendly players and have it look like the real thing. Small, seemingly pointless features like this that really give the game that extra freedom.
Anarchy Online is the last famous game from this era - the first Science Fiction MMORPG, and perhaps still the best designed one to date (what few there are). After Funcom ironed out the many errors post-launch, this game blossomed into what I personally believe to be one of the most skillfully crafted MMORPGs in the history of gaming. The game had an expansive outdoor environment (which made use of zoning, a popular and somewhat necessary feature back then) with zone lines that weren't pidgeonholed into random mountain passes like EQ's were, as well as giving us "content on demand" with the mission system. It introduced factional pvp as a major part of gameplay without restricting players of those factions from interacting in other capacities, and it also introduced the first social elements ever to be found in MMO gaming - social clothing and in-game bars and restaurants. This provided players with some small amount of content that actually said to them "Hey, you dont -have- to constantly be gaining exp and chasing after loot!".
While writing these paragraphs might make these games sound like the Holy Grail, the truth is that each and every one of these Titans of Old has succumbed to some great failure that dooms it from ever appearing on our hard drives ever again.
EverQuest's focus soon became the constant raid/gear mentality and the game's greatest strength(expansive, challenging world) became a thing of the past. Asheron's Call failed to ever provide the necessary focus or diversity to gain a strong following, and Anarchy Online allowed itself to launch numerous broken, unjustified expansions while also falling prey to it's own elderly engine.
So now that the horribly long stuff is out of the way, lets move on to quite possibly the worst period of MMORPGs - the lull of 2001-2004. What were some of the abysmal failures to be released in this time period, not counting the hundreds of asian grindfests? Horizons, Earth and Beyond, The Sims Online - for the most part, this period of gaming was used primarily to try and mooch off of the success of EverQuest with half-assed, buggy, unfinished games. Still, there were some gems of this time.
Star Wars Galaxies, a mid-2003 release, certainly wasn't the most well-put-together game, but it gave back something that had been lost since the release of Planes of Power a year or so earlier - it gave us freedom and choices. We were returned to long-lost concepts like player housing and cities, as well as the ability to mix and match skills from various professions to create a character to our liking. We all know what became of this one, but it had it's moment in the limelight for certain.
Final Fantasy XI came a little later in 2003 (at least to America), and is still going strong. This game too built on some of the better features of EverQuest, such as a large cohesive world and very strategically-oriented gameplay. Travel times can certainly be a bitch, and the game's greatest weakness is the lack of soloability, but at the very least the players who have made it to the top did so by not being complete douchebags to their teammates, and knew how to play their class. This game has also released numerous new innovative systems that keep players involved, because no matter how much you play there is always going to be something you simply have never experienced. This is probably one of the only MMORPGs that has not gone downhill with age, but merely exists as such a niche game that it can never truly enter the popular market that World of Warcraft holds. It also lacks some of the freedoms given to us by EverQuest, but in return offers a wonderful storyline deserving of the Final Fantasy name.
Anarchy Online also had it's golden age here with the release of the Shadowlands expansion - an incredibly well designed addition, however it became something of the game's "Jumping the Shark", which was only further reinforced by the release of Alien Invasion later on.
Thats really about it for this period of gaming, but to sum it up it was an emulation of the wonders of the early days, while slowly inching its way towards what we see now...
...the 2004-2007 period of "Massively Multiplayer Online <wtf did this mean again> Games"
Really, I don't even need to go into what games were released during this period. We had the Vanguard fiasco recently, and aside from that we have EverQuest 2 and World of Warcraft - which at their core may as well be the same games in "Difficult" and "Novice" respectively.
Both games are very focused on one thing - having a job to do, and getting it done. There is no time for extra features like travel times, socializing, or toying around with unique spells that aren't combat-related. Yes, I am aware that EverQuest 2 addresses these things a bit more heavily than World of Warcraft, but it is much more of an afterthought than an actual gameplay mechanic.
There really isn't much more to either game than play a class with specific abilities that simply get upgraded as time goes on (rather than stacking on new abilities for new strategies), level it up off a shopping list of quests, and then raid, raid, and raid some more until you get some new raid content to keep you busy.
This is where MMORPGs have hit a brick wall - they are no longer vast, free worlds to explore. They exist to be levelled in, to gear up in, and to raid in with no concern for the actions you take beyond "Well, if I get the sword, that means I dont get the dagger." And sadly the older games that offered more expansive options and depth have grown ancient and almost unplayable. As the genre sees more games being introduced, combat is becoming faster-paced, gameplay is becoming focused on said combat, and anything "extra" that might distract the player or make them feel more like an actual part of the world than a generic hero is being forgotten and left out. Player ownership is no longer defined by the homes we build and the stories we create, but by the "server first kills" and the "lifetime pvp" numbers.
Thus concludes my first rant, with a bit of insight as to how the genre has developed and why its so damned difficult to feel at home in a game anymore. I know I left out a few games (CoH/CoV/EVE/GW), but there are plenty of more blogs to come that will go much more in-depth into this phenomenon, whether you people like it or not ;)