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Beyond the MMORPG: What MMOs Might Learn from Resident Evil 4

Today in his Beyond the MMORPG column, Managing Editor Jon Wood discusses Resident Evil 4, and suggests some of the ways that MMOs might capture that game's feeling of suspense.

Ok, so I’ve been really impressed lately with the game, “Resident Evil 4”. I’ve played it on two systems now (Playstation 2 and the Wii), and I have to say it’s probably the most fun I’ve had with a third-person shooter… ever. The thing is though, playing this game got me thinking about how the MMO industry might learn a thing or two from the folks at Capcom. How and why would I say such a thing? Read on dear friend, read on.

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Resident Evil 4 is, according to Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resident_Evil_4), a misleading title as it is in fact the sixth game in the franchise. Frankly, I tried one of the Resident Evil games a few years back and just never really got into it, so my knowledge on the background of the series is limited.

I first picked up RE4 when my friend, who was one of the lucky few to get a Wii early on (lucky jerk), picked it up in a bargain bin. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to think. When the Wii was first announced, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a shooter game. For those who might not be aware, shooters are my first love and I will always remember playing Doom until the wee hours of the night when I’d start to get motion sick and have to go to bed. Problem was, the first “shooter” game that I tried for the Wii, Red Steel, didn’t exactly live up to my expectations. It was clumsy, and hard to control and really didn’t do anything for me. With that in mind, I was skeptical to say the very least.

Watching my friend play for a little while, I had to admit that there was something to the game. I’ve never been a fan of sitting and watching someone else play video games. For me, it’s usually the rough equivalent to watching paint dry. I like my video games under my own control. You can imagine my surprise then when I actually got engrossed in what was happening on-screen. I didn’t care that I wasn’t driving, I just wanted to know what happened next.

So, what was it that was so thrilling? Really, it’s the same old premise, re-hashed with some new elements (they’re not zombies this time… exactly). I couldn’t put my finger on it that night, but as I started playing the game myself, it became clearer. The developers over at Capcom did a fantastic job of the pacing. It’s that simple. The game, the levels, and even the cut-scenes are put together in a way that keeps you guessing as to what’s going to happen next. When I was making my way through the game, there were many points where, even with no enemies visible on the screen, my heart was pounding and my adrenaline level was up. It doesn’t hurt that ammo is always in demand and you have to be very careful about wasting it.

In the end, it didn’t feel like just another “kill the bad guys, beat the levels” kind of game. Instead, I found myself worried about when the next mob would appear and would I be able to fit everything I needed into my inventory. I was constantly forced to make decisions about which gun would be most effective given my amount of ammo, whether or not I really needed that healing plant enough to ditch my pistol. Every single fight in that game gave me the feeling that I could die at any moment…

That’s the thought that brings me back to MMORPGs. After playing Resident Evil 4, I realized that I have never had that kind of experience in an MMO.

I know, of course, that the mediums are very different. A third-person shooter isn’t an MMO (let’s leave Tabula Rasa out of this for the moment). Still, I can’t help but think that a lot of the conventions that Resident Evil 4 used to make me feel that way could work in an MMO setting:

The feeling that death is imminent: While there is little more penalty for death in RE4 than there is in any MMO, it somehow felt more real, or at least more engaging. I constantly felt that there was always a danger that I might be swarmed, or that the guy shambling toward me might look like a man now, but when I shoot him, tentacles are going to come flying out of the stump where his head used to be (I swear, this is in the game), or that something else unexpected was going to happen.

In most MMOs, I fear death only when I know that I’m being out-matched. It’s usually pretty easy to know too, because when you target an enemy it’s usually a simple thing to look at the mob’s level, clearly displayed in front of you. Genuine surprises are rare (but certainly not unheard of) because MMOs have a habit of giving it all up right away. Can my level 5 Minstrel take on that level 7 Bandit? Yup, time to fight…

Empty space is scarier than a room full of monsters: In RE4, an empty field made me nervous. I knew that something was bound to lash out at me if I wasn’t expecting it. Now, this wasn’t always the case, but since it happened now and then, I was always on-edge for it. The more on-edge I was, the more I enjoyed the game.

In most MMOs, empty fields are almost always just empty fields. Sure, the odd wandering monster might come along, but unless you’re in a zone that’s well over your head, you’re not going to feel any sense of danger.

Ammo is scarce: As I mentioned earlier, many was the time that I’d have felt a lot better if I had one or two shotgun shells, but I’d already spent them. Trust me, trying to take down one of those tentacle-guys is hard to do with a pistol, especially when you wasted that last shotgun shell on a guy whose head was not replaced by a wriggling string of death.

In an MMO, I don’t think I ever really feel like I’m wanting for anything. I don’t have to be judicious about what I use when, because it’ll always be there, and if it isn’t, it’ll be available in the next town.

Okay, these are just a few examples of the ways that the developers of Resident Evil 4 were able to create an enjoyably suspenseful experience, and the comparison to the standard MMO. Now, I’m not saying that this is universal in all MMOs, I’m just saying that most MMOs lack that real feeling of suspense. Just something that I was thinking about, and I thought I’d share so I didn’t have to think about it alone.

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