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Tingle's Touchy Subjects: Tingle's Touchy Subjects: MMORPGs

Column By Adam Tingle on February 15, 2013

Hello and welcome to my nice, neat little corner of the MMORPG.com frat house. First and foremost I apologise to any of you that read the title and assumed that this would be a place where I would be getting "up close and personal" with a webcam. Alas, I am not a camgirl and the "touchy subjects" are not my gorgeous genitals - the editors wouldn't allow it - no, the naming of this column is just one example of the creative nous we here possess: alliteration is totes fun guys.

So why are we here? Well, in lieu of starting this piece by urinating on a World of Warcraft Battle Chest, this is a place where I will air my online gripes, groans, and grumbles; it is a veritable soapbox where I, King of the Snark, will say and do the bad thing: if said bad thing is about level caps, PvP, and swords of +112 strength.

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What I'm saying is: I'm the making the words that really count.

So with the pleasantries now picked over and chucked out of the window like a half eaten burrito, onwards we go to this week's topic: the general state of the MMORPG nation. While it might seem like a broad stroke in terms of the niche subjects we will explore in later weeks, it seems apt that for my first week we tackle the genre head on like a Mexican wrestler.

Where is my mind (in MMORPGS)?

While I still throw my money at new MMOs like a crack-addict jonesing for a fix, to borrow a phrase: I can't get no satisfaction. Try as I might, but newer games just aren't sending me into that haze of virtual oblivion that I have come to rely on.  Tellingly, the last online adventurer to give me any kind of fix was Lord of the Rings Online, and that was two years ago. Insert abrupt paragraph end to emphasise point.

While I have sampled the combat-delights of TERA, briefly enjoyed the storytelling of The Secret World, and lent my inbox to "AUTHORIZE LOG-IN ATTEMPT" emails of NCSoft and Guild Wars 2, none have managed to sequester my attention away anymore than an average singleplayer.

Because in all honesty, most MMOs nowadays are no more involved than an ordinary offline RPGs. Sure, the world may be expansive, the drops never-ending, and the time commitment infinite, but  these aren't the virtual worlds that Garriott, Long, McQuaid, and Smedley would originally set out to create all those years ago.

Games such as Guild Wars and the like are carefully processed rides which take you from one place to the next, formulating the fun for you. Your brains are rarely, if ever, engaged creatively, and the adventure, more often than not, is created through the quest narrative. The awful, poorly written quest narrative.

And this isn't to say that this is entirely a bad thing. On the contrary, there are some excellent titles out there, with some intriguing mechanics, and ambitious ideas - they just aren't MMORPGs; or at least in the sense that I wish them to be.

There seems to be a complete and utter lack of immersion within modern online epics. The traditional motto of the, now defunct, Origin Systems was "We Create Worlds" - this sentiment no more truer than in the original Ultima Online. The 1997 classic wasn't a game, but a toolset given over to players. You could fish, you could cook, and you bully people in a way that would make a Facebook troll blush: and FYI you haven't been an online abuser until you've murdered a virtual lord.

My own debutant MMORPG, EverQuest, carried on this theme in as much as handing the world over to your fingertips. The only point of Sony's product was exploration. You gained levels to uncover the next portion of map, and you tried not to die in the process.  Mostly, you failed the latter.

I miss the time when our online adventures were just that: full of discovery and wonder. Like the closet nerds we really are, we took to those virtual landscapes equipped with our 3D swords, and textured studded armour because it was our imaginations come true. To anyone who grew up with fantasy novels, and questionable flicks such as Willow - playing EverQuest was the realisation of these things, only interactive and minus Val Kilmer.

Now when I boot up an MMORPG, I'm aware of the drill. A boring text scroll will proclaim me, and 39 others, a special Jesus-like hero, give me a sword that will last for all of 35 seconds, and send me on the happy trail of Online Game Land: first stop the Spooky Graveyard.

Sure there is a little variation within titles, but exploration, imagination, and immersion is largely missing. The hand is held firmly and tightly, with a covering palm placed over your eyes if you ever dare to try and scrabble up and over a nearby hillside, trying to get a premature peak of what wonders might lay ahead.

Can we lobby developers to cast aside those worst aspects of WoW-like design that they seem to have inherited? The magic of Azeroth was in the multiple cities, the extraordinary detailing of the time, and nudges of refinement to make it a much more coherent experience - but it didn't detract from your own creativity and story.

I've been jonesing for that MMORPG fix for a good number of years now. I know exactly what I want, and yet I can only find trace of elements of it in newer games. We're lacking imagination and the confidence to be given the keys to an online world. Somewhere along the way, we, the players, lost the trust of the developers - and now we play carefully preordained paths of varying quality. So what do we do?

Making it better: In recent years there has been a tendency to jump on World of Warcraft as the benchmark for what this genre can do. While undoubtedly Blizzard popularized their own formula, games of a similar build haven't fared quite so well. Developers need to take a step back and create the types of experiences that they want to play. Imagination is sorely needed in this genre once more, and the remit of delivering virtual worlds needs looking over again. Can EverQuest Next pull it off? Or perhaps Marc Jacobs' next project? Time will tell, but I sorely and desperately want to rediscover the magic and wonderment of trekking through a fantasy land - my own ambitions and goals the only quest tracker I need. Deliver us the medieval/science fiction/steam punk setting we always wanted, and make us feel a part of it, rather than a passing tourist. Would you please?

Is the MMORPG genre too stale? Does it lack imagination and that all needed spark of immersion? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Tingle out.

@adamtingle

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