We gamers sure like to complain. I’ve always wondered if we’re somehow especially cranky, more prone than other groups to air our every negative view, however trivial. Maybe the comparative anonymity of the internet just makes it easier to whine whenever and at whomever we want. It might be because most MMOs – like most games, in fact – are competitive to some degree at least, and because their design these days encourages us to constantly measure ourselves against ourselves and others: our gear, our achievements, the dungeons we’ve done or even the pets we’ve accumulated.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, in moderation, but I wonder if the endless carrot-and-stick routine makes us feel constantly not quite fulfilled, not quite good enough, which in turn fuels our complainy crankiness.
Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t critique our games, of course; most of us are smarter than average, if the research can be believed, and smarter than average people tend to ask more questions and be less satisfied with the status quo. Player feedback can be an extremely valuable tool when games companies know how to use it. Some do, some don’t, but this is a fairly new industry and we’re all still learning as we go, games companies included. I doubt we’ll be seeing another NGE anytime soon, for instance. (Famous last words…)
But while we’re always quick on the gripe draw, we rarely give props where they’re deserved. A quick tangent here: props given by a columnist aren’t always a symbol of the games company machine paying off its lackeys to say nice things. Trust me. What I make here just about keeps me in games; it certainly doesn’t make me a drooling automaton or let me bathe in gold dust twice a week. Nobody tells me what to write except the MMO monkey on my back. Anyway, back to the point. Critical feedback is useful, but so is positive feedback, and lots of people work better when a little praise is thrown their way; the way I see it, it probably isn’t that different for developers.
So, in the spirit of propsitude and possibly fuelled by extra serotonin from way too many Valentine’s Day chocolates, I figured it was time to say a few nice things in no particular order about the games I’ve played over the last dozen years, and a few anticipatory things about the games coming down the pipe.
First and foremost, Asheron’s Call and its skill system. It wasn’t just a deck-based system and yes, you could really do some weird things with it, but man it was fun and it really felt like you were developing a unique character, cookie-cutter builds notwithstanding. I wonder how a system like that would work in a more modern game, with all the things we and the developers have learned over the years – for all I know it would be a huge pain in the backside to implement, and maybe I remember it fondly because I really didn’t know jack in those days and because one’s first main MMO will always stand out from the crowd… but still. Skill and talent trees really aren’t the same. I’d love to play a game again where I can build myself an outrageous run skill even if I can’t hit a sleeping rabbit.
As part of that tiny minority who describe themselves as crafters first and adventurers second, I’ve got to mention SWG’s early crafting system. Yes, it was anally retentive beyond belief, but anyone could make relatively decent gear and a few could make really good stuff. Player skill and attention played a part in that aside from button-mashing speed and knowing when not to stand in the fire, and that’s something I’d like to see more of again. It had item decay too, which I’m totally in favor of (let me just don my flame-retardant suit here) when it’s well implemented. Most standard stuff in games should wear out and require replacement. Sadly, I don’t think I’ll see real item decay again anytime soon.
On a less controversial note, I want to give the LOTRO world-builders props for their amazing landscapes. I remember logging into the beta, looking at the sun on the water, the clouds above my head and the mountains in the distance and being awed. LOTRO still remains the best-looking MMO I’ve played when it comes to the environment, even though there are games out there that do some elements better.
SWTOR’s companion system deserves a mention here, too. It has its quirks and limitations, but the basic idea of henchmen remains sound and I’m anticipating some interesting developments in that direction in the coming years. I’ve discovered that I like having a sidekick, partly for its role-playing value (you should have heard my Commando during the Tanno Vik quest-line: she really can’t stand that guy, maybe because he’s an even bigger wiseass than she is…), and partly because it opens up more play options. I’d like to see finer gradations of content, maybe, so I don’t always have to use a companion, but for the time being I’m glad they were introduced and I think the system will influence games to come.
Honorable mention needs to be given to the housing systems in some games, particularly in SWG and EQ2, even though the latter tended a little too much toward grungy brown or boudoir frilly for my liking, and I was never happy with the instanced nature of housing in EQ2. Wandering around planets and visiting random players’ houses in SWG was a ton of fun and it allowed the truly creative to showcase their talents in a unique way, which is something I would like to see more of in games generally. It feels like we’re being herded more and more toward uniformity in games (in skills, in gear, in everything) and while I’m sure that’s easier for developers in the short term, it’s also kind of soul- and fun-crushing for players.
Finally, and most importantly, I’d like to give props to the indie games companies and developers out there. Their individual influence may be small, but I do believe they have a collective effect on the industry and I really hope that’s not just wishful thinking. I’m mentioning this mainly because I recently picked up A Tale In the Desert again – I was in the very first beta years and years ago and dabbled in a couple of tellings since. It’s a small, quirky, definitely off the beaten path type of game, but it’s a game I return to when I get tired of smacking things in the head.
Interestingly, thinking of what I like about games instead of all the things that make me want to gripe has raised my optimism level for this year’s coming crop. Guild Wars 2 put out a beta call yesterday, and you can bet I was on that like a duck on a june-bug. I’m still waiting for my beta invite for The Secret World – and if anyone knows what Funcom considers an appropriate sacrificial offering, feel free to let me know, in private. Can’t have the hoi polloi stealing my beta spot. But even if I don’t get into either of them I’ll be picking up both games the second they come out. It’s been almost 8 years since I stayed up stupid late to get WoW the second it came on the shelves, and I can’t wait to get that level of excitement going again.
Don’t call me on this if the world ends and everything goes horribly wrong, but I have a feeling 2012 might be a good year for MMOs. In the meantime, you’ll have to excuse me – I have some rakghoul to smash and some brick racks to build.