Recently, I was reading an old article by ex-Firefall CEO/developer Mark Kern wherein he expressed the concern that MMOs were becoming too easy. Bemoaning World of Warcraft as the killer of authentic MMO experience, he went on to suggest that the genre was headed toward nothing but the rote fulfillment of empty, easily-achieved goals. But is the issue that MMOs are becoming too easy, or is it just that they're becoming a lot less inconvenient than they used to be?
Within our immediate-gratification-oriented society, it doesn't surprise me at all that MMOs would jump on the convenience bandwagon. Unable to tear our faces away from our tablets and phones, we expect everything in life to be as streamlined as possible so we can perform several tasks at once. Do any of us really want to go back to the days when we had to carry an atlas around in order to get where we're going? Ask any modern housewife (or house husband) – does she or he long for the days when doing laundry meant beating their clothes on a rock?
Though few of us would enjoy a return to these pre-convenience days, when it comes to MMOs many of us like to romanticize them. I mean, it's fine I guess, if masochists still exist who enjoy wasting hours retrieving corpses and searching for mission objectives but brother, I'm not one of them.
There's not even a tiny part of me that longs to work for weeks to acquire good gear and then have it stolen by some higher level douchebag. And funnily enough, I have zero inclination to exhaustively comb a vast wilderness hoping to stumble across some small point of moderate interest. I'm also in general, averse to the idea of player-generated content. While I like the idea of it, and some brilliant things have been created here and there by players, let's face it – most players just aren't interesting enough to create good content. (I spent a month searching through Second Life for something—anything that would draw me in. I came up empty.)
My anti-sandbox stance was formed years ago with my first MMO, Star Wars Galaxies. Friends of mine who were veterans of Ultima and Everquest really enjoyed it, but at first I was lost. First, the complex UI (to an MMO newbie) was extremely intimidating since I had no clue how to use all the menus and boxes and hotbars. Second, having been used to story-based single player games, I was put off by the seeming lack of game content. As time went on, I did the missions and had some memorable role-playing experiences as a cantina dancer, but I never stopped wishing the game had more to offer. Perhaps I lack imagination, or perhaps it was just my luck, but I never encountered any of the “amazing player-generated content” that could have made Galaxies truly worth my while.
Then World of Warcraft came along, and it was a revelation. What Mark Kern calls “throwaway quests” provided for me a sense of identity and purpose. Sure, I agree that your basic kill and collect missions don't do much to create a sense of adventure, but even in these WoW had something Galaxies sorely lacked—personality. Kern (and other hardcore players) might lament the notion of using narrative to guide players through the experience, but when I play a game, that's what I'm signing up for. I want the designer to surprise and delight me; I want to connect with and experience their ideas. Being dropped into an empty game world to me is like buying a movie ticket and having the director say, “OK, here's a camera. Make your own movie.”
For me, structure is a good thing and doesn't automatically mean “easy”. I've experienced plenty of challenge in World of Warcraft (and its even more structured descendant, Guild Wars 2). What I haven't had is frustration while performing various housekeeping functions. In real life, I like cell phones, Internet and finding things with my GPS so why—in MMO life—wouldn't I like waypoints, teleports and remote auction house access? Contrary to Mark Kern's assertions, modern conveniences have neither removed all meaning from my life's journey nor made my MMO experiences less authentic. Far from homogenizing those experiences, developer content has been responsible for creating many of my online friendships as well as the best memories of my MMO career. In light of that, Kern's claims that content and convenience “killed” the genre are not only laughable, they make him sound like a crusty old guy telling his grandchildren about how he used to walk to school five miles in the snow.
Like it or not, MMOs are evolving. No longer the domain of a select few, they appeal to broader and broader audiences and are changing accordingly. Though some of us enjoy remembering how MMOs used to be and are nostalgic about the experiences we had during our formative years, it's wrong to idealize outmoded practices, assume new things are bad, and ultimately defy progress. So out of the way crusty old guys; convenience is here to stay.