I think it’s safe to say that there are more people who would rather go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios, than people who actively participate in LARP every weekend. That doesn’t invalidate either pastime; it just shows the difference between a widely known form of entertainment and a subculture that has its own loyal devotees. This is the way things are in the MMO industry as well. More people will flock to a theme park games than will pick up a sandbox experience. You may not like this, but it is currently the established trend in online gaming.
Theme park MMOs like Rift, World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, LotRO (and so many more but I think you get the point) are plenty of fun for the people who love them. I’ll freely admit that I gladly plop down money and play all of the above and more from time to time. I like that my $15 (after initial purchase of course) can gain me access to “the parks” for thirty days at a time and that I can run around and ride the rides until I’m bored. I can also continue to visit that park should I find enough reason to do so, I can find fellow attendees to spend my time with, and I can linger there for months on end if the game grabs me. It’s like a season pass at Cedar Point. It’s the gift that keeps on giving… if you like the theme park.
In the real world not every amusement park is right for everyone. In some it takes too long to get to the fun rides. In others the rides may feel too much like bumper cars for those looking for bigger thrills, and then of course there are the kids who puke blue Icee on your shoes when you’re waiting in line for the tallest coaster. The same can be said of MMOs. Sometimes you won’t enjoy the theme, you might not enjoy the “rides”, and in many cases you simply won’t like the other attendees. But I fail to see how there’s anything wrong with the Theme Park formula. There isn’t. What’s unfortunate is that these big parks keep getting built with millions of dollars and the folks who would prefer something more free-form are being left behind.
I’m not saying there aren’t things about the current MMORPG model that I wouldn’t change. For instance, why can’t we break past the tired elder game mechanic of gear treadmills and repetitive instanced content? It worked in Rogue-likes of old and was carried over into the earliest theme park hits, but how on earth hasn’t something better than a carrot on a stick been designed by now? It reeks of lack of imagination and perhaps a tinge of laziness. And while maybe I’m in the minority I always find myself ditching a character at the level cap and starting anew or worse: leaving the game entirely. The gear grind mechanic does not work for retention as well as studios think and I sincerely hope someone out there is brave enough to try something different and soon. But then maybe the real solution is to ditch the subscription entirely.
I think that those who are harshly opposed to seeing the Theme Park formula propagate as much as it has are merely angered by the simple truth that it’s not the sandbox games that stole the limelight. I get that. I would be ticked too if I wasn’t a fan of both styles. I still visit Ultima Online, I love Fallen Earth. I’m anxious to try Xsyon when I have the time and I’ll revisit Earthrise when it’s had a bit of time to mature. But really this is how things are in the industry whether we like it or not: there just isn’t yet a clear enough audience to put the money behind a studio and give them enough time to make a truly polished and complete sandbox experience. Instead we’ve made sure with our spending habits that the games who do see the support and funding necessary to succeed are the games that offer a more guided theme park style of experience. Like Jon said earlier in the week, we’re the ones who guided this ship.
I’m waiting, like the rest of you, for a truly polished and fun sandbox title to hit the shelves. You can hearken back to the days of yore and say UO or SWG were, but be honest: they were not. In the meantime, I’m perfectly capable of enjoying the many theme parks on offer. Sure a lot of the rides are similar, and there’s always that problem of getting bored on my 100th time riding even the tallest coaster in the park… but I take them each at face value as entertainment. I have a feeling that the disgruntlement over “theme park” MMOs is more about how we approach them and what we expect from them, than their true value. What they offer is Six Flags, when what many want is a Civil War Reenactment Group on a massive scale.