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Running in the Special Olympics

Discussion of the Evolving Nature of the MMO Industry from an Outsider's Perspective

Author: PhatWOP

The Digital Birth of the MMO or "The Metal Slime Runs Away"

Posted by PhatWOP Monday February 18 2008 at 12:22PM
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Welcome back all,

Today I would like to discuss what I truly belive is the great-grandfater of modern MMOs; Dragon Warrior.

Before I get into my controversial and most likely questionable argument I would like to stave off a few early complaints. The lore of fantasy and indeed even some of the base mechanics of modern MMO certainly draw their pedigree from D&D, which in turn comes from Lord of the Rings, which is in turn steeped in Welsh, Finnish and other European folklore dating back centuries upon centuries.

But I am not concerned with where the lore of fantasy is drawn from or even the ephemeral mechanics. What I am concerned with is the process. The first time a digital representation of an RPG was brough tot the mass market.

Let me take a minute to discuss why I feel that mass-market component is so important. Certainly there have long been BBS and MUDs and even games by mail, but they were always niche and didn't have a large impact on the culture as a whole. Nintendo however was HUGE (I mean, Super-Mario Bros 3 pretty much got its own movie staring Fred Savage) and the time it was popular was just as such that it influenced the generation of programmers and designers who, ten to fifteen years later, would all start desgning MMOs. Dragon Warrior and Nintendo as a whole, were like the Sci-Fi movies of the forties/fifties that inspired a generation of children to become scientists. Well, that and a healthy subsidy for science and math, but I digress.

Dragon Warrior was the first mass market transition of an RPG into digital form and I believe many of the basic elements of the modern MMO (and indeed most future RPGs in general) were in this game.

Dragon Warrior found our hero wandering around a landscape sword, armor and shield in hand. OK nothing unusual here. Our hero fights monsters not by going to specific dungeons or locations as is more classic for the bulk of D&D adventures, but instead simply bumps into them as he wanders around the landscape (with a few notable exceptions such as the green dragon guarding the princess and the black knight guarding Edrick's armor). This would become an MMO staple for many years as monsters just littered and wandered around the landscape, with seemingly no purpose to their existence besides being an XP farm for the occasional wandering PC.

Next consider that each monster gave you some amount of gold and XP. Again, nothing revolutionary behind that, D&D had been doing it for years. But in D&D, there were always alternate avenues to earn XP. Social encounter, role-playing, quest rewards, etc. None of those things existed in the game, only killing mattered. Until the most recent generation, that was true for MMOs as well. Quest and alternate XP was frowned upon and only farming, hours and hours of farming dominated many of the initial offerings of the MMO landscape.

The other big issue of note here was the amount of XP required to level. I remember frequently doing calculations of the number of monsters I would need to kill to level up in DW and it was often in the thousands. One monster at a time, you slowly crawled over 30 levels (the fact that D&D has just now become a 30 level system as of 4E is proof that everything comes full-circle btw). Again, the games designers could have assigned any arbitrary value to the monster death they desired. They could have had you level in 5 monsters, 10 monsters, 100 monsters or 1 million monsters. They stumbled upon the fact that making people kill thousands of things in attmepting to level is an excellent substitute for lack of content. This tenant still serves MMOs well to this day, although admittedly, leveling curves have become far more forgiving in the most recent crop of games.

Lastly and certainly not leastly, gear. DW certainly did not have a large amount of gear. Ultimately, you simply got the one suit of armor and the one sword and the one shield that was "the best" and you were done. This however sets down a very interesting dynamic. Is the hero strong because of his own skills or because of the sword he wields? Is it talent or toys? In Dragon Warrior, you had to have Edrick's Armor and sword if you ever planned to defeat the end boss. The final castle was littered with spots on the ground that would mean a very quick and nasty death from trapsing over them if you did not have this armor on. The armor healed you as you walked, eliminating the need to use your own magic for healing. The mechanic was telling you it was the toys of Edrick that made you a hero, not talent or skill. This same theory has carried across most MMOs to this day. Though skills undoubtedly play a role, I challenge a completely ungeared, naked max-level character to spar or duel a fully uber-geared (TM) character and see if he thinks he has a chance in the world of success. In most games (CoH being a delightful exception) it is most definitly the clothes that make the man.

It is for all of these reasons I believe MMOs launched looking like they did. It is only recently that as the genre has evolved have we begun to break out of the Dragon Warrior mold.

Until next time, may you get that lucky critical hit on the metal slime.

Hrothmund writes:

An interesting read. I must admit I had never heard of Dragon Warrior before.

I think MUDs were as much a niche in the then gaming world as MMOs are today. The amount of gamers has exploded, but MMOs are still a niche market when you look at video games in general. I would argue MUDs were the basis for MMOs, but then again, I never played DW. ;)

Mon Feb 18 2008 12:30PM Report
Meltdown writes:

Very interesting. I always stopped playing DW when the grind really hit (can't remember what level it was exactly) and thinking back it really does remind me of a single player 2D Everquest. Granted I played Everquest for 3 years and I don't think DW ever held me down for more than a month. Some social aspects come into play there though ;p

Mon Feb 18 2008 1:25PM Report
t0nyd writes:

Personally I would substitute "dragon warrior" with "phantasy star". Both games came out about the same time and PS was far superior in every way. Hell, the master system was a much better console. Sega failed in the advertising department.

Mon Feb 18 2008 1:50PM Report
PhatWOP writes:

Keep in mind, I am not commenting on the quality of the game. In fact, I would label Phantasy Star II (Released for the Genesis) as my favorite RPG of all time. The simple fact was the Nintendo was FAR more prolific than the Master System and thus, had a far greater soclial impact, touching more people, and influencing more minds who later became designers.

Mon Feb 18 2008 2:11PM Report
Jimmy_Scythe writes:

You went all the way to lvl 30? I think I beat the game at lvl 18 or something like that...

Anyway, Phatasy Star was a better game but it didn't exactly light the same fire as Dragon Warrior. This due in part to the fact that the Sega Master System was hard to find. It was also due to the fact that Phantasy star cost $70 when it came out in 1988.

That's about $126 in today's money.

Mon Feb 18 2008 4:28PM Report
Owyn writes:

PC MMOs right now globally have annual sales that are something in range of 1/3 to 1/2 of all console game sales combined.

Somehow, calling that a niche doesn't seem to ring true.

Mon Feb 18 2008 8:27PM Report
grimfall writes:

I'm a little bit confused here.  How are you defining "Mass-Market"?  You could have bought Wizardry ( as my mom did) in any Apple/IBM game store in 1981 or Ultima in 1980.  I didn't play Ultima until Ultima III, but my brother, my nextdoor neighbor and I certainly played the hell out of Wizardry for hundreds of hours.  I don't recall that you got expereince from anything other than killing monsters (maybe slaying Werdna).

Tue Feb 19 2008 1:31PM Report writes:
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