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Ultima Online Column: Why Did the MMORPG Become a Grind?

By Andrew Hallam on July 11, 2012

What does the phrase MMORPG mean to you nowadays? Travelling through the World of Warcraft showing off your epic loots? Defeating dark Jedi with your guild mates or perhaps for some, myself included, it represents a problem within gaming as a whole.

The concept started in the late 80's with the rise of the MUD's or Multi-User Dungeon, essentially a text based dungeon crawl with multiple users. However, it wasn't until the rise of Ultima Online that the term MMORPG was coined by developer Richard Garriott. These new fangled games with their 3D interfaces gave rise to a whole new genre of games. What started out as a social and economic experiment turned into a booming business overnight with over 100,000 subscribers in just a few months.

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What Garriott envisioned is summed up in UO's Associate Producer Starr Long's explanation of their then to be implemented Artificial Life Engine back in 1996:

Nearly everything in the world, from grass to goblins, has a purpose, and not just as cannon fodder either. If the rabbit population suddenly drops then wolves may have to find different food sources. When the deer population drops as a result, the local dragon, unable to find the food he’s accustomed to, may head into a local village and attack. Since all of this happens automatically, it generates numerous adventure possibilities.”

It was a fantastical concept even by today's standards, but one that ultimately failed. What UO had however, was that sense of what a true MMORPG should be: a real roleplaying game, harking back to the days when our characters were nothing more than ink on paper, in which players are free to choose their own path in a believable world. However, publishers eventually began to cotton on to this new found success as games like Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot stepped in to take a cut of the bounty.

And so the MMORPG age as we know it was born. At the turn of the century games companies were foaming at the mouths at the concept that consumers would pay monthly to play games they originally only paid for once. This rush of games brought changes to the original concept laid down in the 90's that would change Garriott's vision forever. This is where the MMOGFG or MMO-Grind-Fest Game began to rear its ugly head.

What started off as an idea for a freeform persistent world filled with character and believable environments, offset by an economy fuelled by players quickly spiralled into something unrecognisable. Soon the modern MMORPG mechanics we know today soon rose up as developers vied for an effective way to keep subscribers hooked.

This addiction, caused by the ever present promise from not only developers but players alike that end game content was the most amazing thing ever created ever, is a thing that has become accepted within the genre. Throughout the early 00's countless MMO's were pushed out the door, each one attempting to be more addicting than the last. Surely a game that requires you to work through boring monotonous tasks to get to 'the good stuff' isn't worth the time? Hell we have jobs for that don't we? This is where World of Warcraft and many of the games it worked so hard to outdo come into play.

If you've ever played WoW, you'll know that it supposedly revolves around two factions, locked in an epic battle against not only each other but the evil undead scourge army. Why then is it that most of your time is spent killing massive amounts of 'enemies' without making a single dent in the storyline, of which I'm guessing only a handful of the 10 million subscribers have even taken an interest in.

Granted, things did get slightly better in the Wrath of the Lich King and subsequent expansion with the semi-persistent storyline in the land of Northrend but the point still stands. This to me though, defeats the object of calling it a role-playing game. Where is the sense of adventure, heroism or the fact that you might actually be making an impact in this world you've devoted so much of your time to? Instead you've got to work to appease '8iG P33n 69' who will laugh and call you a noob for not having an epic gear score. In WoW, nothing changes.

In my time playing MMORPGs there are few that have come close to what a true MMORPG should be.  EVE Online is one of them. To me, EVE has something special. The entire game is essentially player-run which replicates something no AI has come close to and that is to create a living breathing world. In EVE, you are free of the restrictions that the trinity system brings, able to follow your own path whatever that may be. While EVE certainly isn't without its flaws however, the main of which being its amazingly steep learning curve, it's certainly a step in the right direction.

On the story side of things, Star Wars: The Old Republic is one of the few MMO's to take storylines seriously. In true Bioware fashion the story comes first, with players having at least believable interactions with their quest givers before going off to slaughter 15 rebels of the 'Herp-a-derp' tribe. It's a step in the right direction for storytelling in MMO's but slips back into the good old trinity and grinding system we all know too well.

Star Wars Galaxies however, in its first instance before the widely condemned New Game Enhancement, is one of the closest I've seen a game come to a true MMORPG. In the beginning Galaxies set itself apart from the big boys of the MMO world by going back to Ulitma Online's concepts. Being one of the first big budget MMORPGs to come from a multimedia setting helped in its initial success but it was leaps and bounds above the others in terms of gameplay.

A full player-run economy, a massive set of role-playing character animations, non-combat classes, dynamic resources, a full PvP war system as well as player bounties and player made cities were just some of the features that set it high above the rest. It wasn't perfect by all means but it was as close as anyone had come since UO to Garriott's initial meaning of the acronym.

Unfortunately, when subscriber numbers were not looking up to scratch at Sony HQ, the NGE update was enacted, changing the game to a more 'traditional' style of gameplay much like that seen in Warcraft. Greed had destroyed a game that was quite possibly the closest that fans have come to a true MMORPG since the days of UO.

And so it comes to this. An industry filled with clones of past games, turning the genre into something more akin to the cigarette industry than entertainment, hooking in gamers and quite literally ruining lives ever since. With even a brief look back at the genre's history it's not hard to see that the focus has greatly shifted away from providing actual role-playing experiences and instead into becoming nothing more than a cash cow to be milked dry.

Of course some games will rise, as they do, to challenge this mindset, but ultimately it seems that profits have taken precedent over offering a truly great experience for the consumer. Think about this before you dive into your next 'great' MMORPG. Are you playing it for the same 'amazing and innovative' gameplay as I'm sure we've all played before, the great grind-fest of killing a bazillion faceless enemies just to get to the 'good stuff' or is there something better than this? Let's have the real games take back the genre that has become smeared by the likes of Warcraft and Everquest and have them admit what they really are: a force that is sapping the industry's creative strength with addictive, repetitive, cash cows and endless MMOGFGs.

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