"Innovation in the Industry" editorial by James Pittiglio
For the majority of us MMORPG players, we use our games as an escape from the real world. Of course, there are those who play these games to make a profit (illegally) or just to ruin others fun, but that is beside the point. When playing these games, you become so involved, you no longer worry about the bills that need to be paid, the grade on your last Statistics test (or the one you’re about to take tomorrow), or what you will be doing the coming weekend. No, instead you’re immersed in a fantasy world, looking to find the next greatest sword, or advancing in skill to vanquish some amazing, new foe. It has been like this since people have started playing these games.
Many people consider MUDs to be the first true MMORPGs, while others still consider the first to be one of any number of games including Meridian 59 by Near Death Studios or The Realm by Sierra / Codemasters. Since then, we’ve seen numerous technological advancements in various areas, most notably in graphics. We have come a long way from text-based adventures and MUDs, to 2D games such as The Realm and Ultima Online, and finally the first 3D games like EverQuest. Looking at games such as SOE’s latest game, EverQuest II, really puts these things in perspective. But what else has really changed?
Let us take a look at some of the most popular MMORPGs released to date, and examine their innovative features (or lack thereof).
The Realm – Released in 1996, The Realm was one of the first graphical online role playing games. It followed very closely along the lines of a MUD, allowing players to travel the world as a series of ‘rooms’ connected to one another. It used a very unique combat system, in which a player would engage a mob, and every ‘turn’ the player could perform an action, whether it be moving around the battlefield, attacking the enemy, casting a spell, or any number of other activities. When playing with a group, against numerous enemies, battles would become fairly strategic. The Realm, however, lacked content, and after reaching the so called ‘end game,’ players became bored, either quitting or starting alternative characters as money-making mules. This led to an inflated economy in the game, and the developers were doing very little about content, and so the game seemed to die out for a while, but is still up and running for those interested.
Ultima Online – Although released in 1997, Ultima Online has retained a decent subscriber base throughout the years. Still one of the ‘first generation’ of MMORPGs, Ultima Online was extremely popular, as it contained a truly immersive environment. The combat system was simplified, although this was not to the games detriment. Nonetheless, the game had various ideas and systems implemented that really allowed players to do whatever they wanted. Additionally, role-playing was facilitated in-game, and little features, such as chess sets, card decks, dice, etc. immersed players even more, giving rise to player-run establishments, such as casino’s. Additionally, developer driven events helped add some story to the game. Again, the problem was the end game, and after a while, players were left with little to do, as it did not take too long to max out a character’s skills. Also, the developers began changing the game in ways to make the game more ‘fair,’ such as removing the option to steal from other players, and adding a separate consensual Player-versus-Player world. This really detracted from the game, although from personal experience, players really seemed to run the game with their own events, such as jousting tournaments, horse races, treasure hunts, and player-established cities.
EverQuest – Following the success of Ultima Online, the granddaddy of all MMORPGs, EverQuest, was released in 1999. In over 6 years, this MMORPG has sparked media attention through its addicting gameplay and its fanatical fan base. After 9 expansion packs, and numerous in-game updates, EverQuest is still growing and going strong, and packed with content.
EverQuest was the first, truly successful 3D MMORPG, and one of the most well-known. Media controversy has only increased curiosity and demand for the game. Featuring a diverse set of races, over 350 square miles of land to be explored, various classes, and a large player base, EverQuest set the stage for future games. Although systems implemented in Ultima Online that facilitated role-playing (such as player-created books, player housing, etc.) do not exist, or did not exist upon release, EverQuest players took initiative and started making videos based on the game, showcasing graphics and adventures, and role-playing with what they had available to them, which has become a new media for storytelling. Finally, combat still followed the same point-and-click interface, with no real involvement necessary on the players part (of course, there are exceptions, such as kiting with druids).
City Of Heroes – A newer and more refreshing MMORPG, City Of Heroes broke away from the fantasy mold and tried something new, allowing players to create their own superheroes. First released in early 2004, City Of Heroes took away a lot of the features many players expected in order to streamline and simplify the game, giving it a much more casual feeling. Without an inventory and equipment, players collected upgrades they either used to increase the effectiveness of trained skills, or sold to buy upgrades they needed.
City Of Heroes has some interesting and unique storyline elements, and allowed players to take on what felt like large challenges right from the start, rather than wasting a lot of time killing rats, waiting months to reach the ‘fun’ parts of the game. Combat also felt improved, as some forms of strategy could be used with various skills, and combat was much faster and more fluid than in previous games. Although it felt more involved, combat still followed the same point-and-click interface, but really kept the player aware and engaged.
One of the biggest detriments, however, that goes along with City Of Heroes is its lack of depth. Although the player spends more time playing the game rather than wasting time at a town and in inventory management, the game becomes repetitive after a while, as a player really just follows the same strategy to kill different looking enemies. Nonetheless, City Of Heroes is an outstanding and refreshing game, if not exceptionally innovative.
EverQuest II – One of the games from the newest generation of MMORPGs, EverQuest II has set the bar graphically, boasting impressive detail in both environments and character models. On a high-end system, EverQuest II looks and plays great, but older systems struggle, required to play with low detail settings and long load times. This has turned off many players, but those who put up with these flaws can expect to find an extremely large, detailed world packed with content, and developers who are constantly updating and improving the game. The first expansion pack will be coming out later this year to many players delight, and is supposed to introduce Player-versus-Player combat, which is a feature many have been looking forward to.
Additionally, EverQuest II has introduced a new, much more involved, complex crafting system. Besides this, they have introduced a system known as ‘Heroic Opportunities,’ which is essentially using combo’s in combat with teammates to pull off even more spectacular effects, which is on the right track to being something innovative.
This brings me to the point of all this. By giving a brief overview of each game, you can see, aside from the graphics, these games are all still very similar to their roots. These games really lack the innovative features gamers demand in games from other genres. All of these games I have personally played for an extended period of time, which is why I chose them, but other games such as World of Warcraft, Anarchy Online, and others were left out.
Now although this may sound pessimistic, I do not intend to imply that the genre is not improving, or that the quality of the games has not drastically increased over the years. There are games like Dark Age of Camelot, with its unique Player-versus-Player system, and Guild Wars, being a high quality, free game, and numerous others, which have provided players hours of enjoyment and some innovative content and systems. Additionally, the future looks bright, with games such as Mourning, which hopes to have a highly detailed combat system, and Pirates of the Burning Sea, with a fresh take on a MMORPG. There are too many to list, and they all make big promises, which we can only hope they fulfill. So to you, the players, I pose the following questions: What is it you like to see in your MMORPG, and what do you feel should be the next ‘big-thing’? Does the voice-over acting really immerse you in the game, as done in EverQuest II? Or do you find yourself reading ahead, and ignoring the spoken dialogue?
MMORPGs have been around for quite some time, and the social interaction provided is one of their big draws, and as such, they will remain for quite some time. Therefore it is our duty to let the developers know what we want, so they can make the games we want to play.
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