The MMO genre has steadily suffered from less and less freedom since the forefathers and pioneers of popular mainstream online RPGs like Ultima Online and Everquest. While there were others before UO and EQ, nothing brought MMOs to popular mainstream attention like Richard Garriot's masterpiece Ultima Online and the myriad of controversial news stories about addiction in Everquest. This was the golden age of online gaming, where developers were unafraid to try new things and built mature worlds where anything was possible.
Ultima Online, even more than 10 years after its release, still stands as one of the most limitless online experiences available; the world truly feels like a living place where every corner of the world can be interacted with. Players can mine at any mountain side, chop down any tree, build a house anywhere in the world. We could make careers out of crafting, interior decorating, storytelling... the world supported every playstyle and made it viable and exciting. To this day, my fondest gaming memories involve venturing out into the wilderness in Ultima Online, exploring the world and encountering monsters - which were much rarer than in any current MMO. Coming across a troll in the forest came with a sense of exhilaration and turned each fight into something exciting - not a continuous grind as today's MMOs revolve around and depend on to artificially lengthen the content and play time. Every adventure then filled us with a sense of purpose, a fresh twist of events, and a feeling of danger that kept every day full of unique content and meaningful interactions between players.
Along the same lines, Ultima Online's death penalty (and Everquest's for that matter) was harsh but truly the best way to go. Sure, it was frustrating to lose your armor and everything you were carrying, but the fact that armor and weapons were not something you had to spend 90 hours in a raid to even have a chance to get allowed for a truly player-driven economy to be established. Crafters actually had a purpose, supplying armor and weapons to players with endless demand. This again allowed all types of players to play the game however they wanted, and helped to build a sense of community that is seldom seen today. Not since Star Wars Galaxies has such a player-driven economy really existed.
The PVP system in UO was also always exhilarating mainly driven by the full-loot system. Player Killers, or PKs, would have free reign along the countrysides, making every encounter and journey fill you with a legitimate adrenaline rush. Because you could be killed or stolen from anywhere and by anyone, this forced players to be accountable for their actions and not act like a brat as many new, younger players in current MMO communities are notorious for. The community as a result policed themselves and forced maturity across the board. It also made for great guild vs. guild clashes, where there were true grudges between players and the battles held a great weight and impact on the world itself unlike current Battlegrounds and casual, meaningless PVP.
So what does this have to do with World of Warcraft and the death of MMOs? And why should you listen to a nostalgic UO player? Because World of Warcraft has been the leading culprit in dumbing down the genre to make it easy enough, linear enough, and casual enough for the new player to enjoy and for the mainstream audience who has never heard of an MMO before to hop in and enjoy. Now, this isn't necessarily bad. This is definitely elitism in its finest, and there is no reason why everybody shouldn't be able to enjoy MMOs be it a newb or a veteran. But the soaring popularity of World of Warcraft has pigeonholed the entire industry into creating clones in order to be successful. To most of its players, World of Warcraft is their first experience with an MMO; they know nothing else before it and don't understand the glitchiness and lack of expansive content that come standard with MMO launches. Truly, most of them weren't even around to witness World of Warcraft's incredibly rocky launch full of server failures and class imbalances. Thus, if a new MMO doesn't captivate these players and incredibly impress them within the first 20 minutes, comparisons are instantly drawn to World of Warcraft, and any new game is written off as either "not as good as WoW" or trying to copy something about WoW. World of Warcraft is nothing groundbreaking in itself however; it simply took what was popular about prior MMOs like Everquest and made it easier, dangling more carrots in front of its players face to hasten the addiction for leveling and getting gear. World of Warcraft came along at just the right time, when online gaming, broadband internet, and cheaper computers were becoming more available, creating the perfect storm of sorts. Now, any competing MMO without millions of dollars and years of development simply has no chance. WoW's players immediately compare their game that has been out and accumulating content for over 4 years against games that have not even been out for a month. There is simply no chance for comparison, and WoW crushes competition not because it is the better game, but because it has had the most time and money for polish and fan following.
The point of this giant rant is a sad reflection on how games like Ultima Online, even 10 years ago, provided infinite amounts more freedom and chance for unique gameplay whereas games like World of Warcraft have compressed the possibilities of varying playstyles and made only raiding for hours on end or grinding the same Battleground over and over the only avenue for progression. Crafting for example is no longer a dedicated profession full of meaning, but an empty side quest without much meaning in the community or economy that everyone is capable of-assuming they are willing to click the "create" button enough thousands of times.
PVP and PVE has lost the rush of excitement and danger; now every encounter becomes the same, predictable down to a science. There is no meaning or true connections between players aside from progressing in a raid dungeon, and the only way to better your character eventually becomes reliant on grinding for hours in a raid every night. Gone is the freedom to play the game however you want, perhaps without ever fighting a monster and succeeding as a carpenter or thief. Gone is the accountability to be a good person, the choice to be a murderer, and the consequences that come with every action. The current state of the MMO industry is making everything easy, "carebear," and a meaningless grind with an infinite treadmill of gear-upgrading every few months where your hundreds of hours become null and void the second a weapon with 2 more Strength than your current one is patched in.
The sad part is nothing can compete and overtake World of Warcraft without adhering to these new standards of the industry that Blizzard has set with its popularity. Everything that made MMOs great has been diluted, and I fear for the future of the genre that continues to shift towards resorting to clones of an already watered down game. Ultima Online died as it began to cater to its "casual," "carebear" audience, and now, struggling to keep up with games like World of Warcraft, is virtually unrecognizable from its original form. World of Warcraft has created a monopoly and an industry that is now impossible to compete in, and unfortunately will eventually collapse in on itself whenever people are able to lure themselves away from the game, as in the end, World of Warcraft is the only thing that will be able to kill itself.
-Scott "Riot" Underwood