In this week's Touchy Subject we are examining an issue that is close to my heart and internal rage-o-meter. Modern MMORPGs have a propensity to treat players like they are somehow unique; extraordinary; special. All the while ignoring the ten or twenty similar avatars all huddled around the one NPC with an exclamation mark above their head. Are MMO NPCs trying to emulate the role of "international playboy" stringing us all along by telling us that we are actually "the one"? Or have developers forgotten the key tenants of the genre somewhere in the past few years? Read on and I'll tell you.
I'm Really Not Special
Perhaps it speaks for my own ego as a person, but I'm fairly ordinary. I like to sit down, eat junk food, and partake in a spot of casual game playing. Oh sure, every so often I like the teasing compliments of being told I'm some sort of special character. I enjoy saving the world as much as the next guy, but when it comes to MMORPGs? I'd sooner be a background character rather than a main player.
Back in ye olden days of 1997, Ultima Online solved the problem of creating an online RPG by simply making each and every character essentially ordinary. Rather than having thousands of Avatars running around, each being told the exact same things, it made sense for an MMORPG to be different from a single player. The thrust of this being that each player essentially became a character in a world, rather than the focal point.
Remember when this was a thing?
And this was a trend that continued. In EverQuest, whatever role you chose to play, you essentially created stories and tales for yourself. Your motivation was the level cap, but everything else was left to you. Dungeons, crypts, whatever they may be existed in the world, and you and a gaggle of friends essentially provided your own raison d'être for plumbing the depths.
This was my favourite mode of MMORPG-ing. I liked feeling basically insignificant. That I didn't particularly matter - but at the same time I was free, and at liberty to do what I wanted: which usually meant exploring areas I had no right to be in.
But now we have games that feel the need to shout at us and tell us that we are "special" at every turn. Games start with cutscenes and quests marking you out, amongst everybody else, as the one that will REALLY make a difference this time. Then before I can turn my back and equip my new tabard, some bright eyed other is receiving the same message, gift, et all. Those NPCs don't know the meaning of monogamy.
It cheapens the whole experience. These humdrum stories that seem to fit oddly into the MMORPG shaped hole. And by that same sentiment, are the The Old Republic's of this world basically MMORPGS? Or simple Online Single player RPGs? As far as I can tell, Bioware and Ultima Online share very little in common, and their design philosophy seems to go towards the exact thing that Origin wished to stay away from.
Fundamentally, this story cramming and need to make me as a player feel unique is what is hampering modern MMOs. I am no longer playing what amounts to online D&D, but instead a rather badly written, scripted, an mechanically unambitious single player game.
That need to explore and discover seems lost because essentially I can see through the experience from the moment we start. Why set out to new cities, other land masses, when basically the only differences are varying exclamation marks? I remember the times when true excitement was delivered because a Halfling had made its way to Halas. When people would gather round their furry little feet, and demand to know exactly what perils had befallen them, and why two of their part were currently lost somewhere in Blackburrow, right down at the bottom because they lagged and fell into the waterhole.
Do we really all have to be like The Rock?
Those stories were better than any I have heard before or since by static quest givers. And yet, what is the point of an Elf now making it to Stormwind? Where is the peril? The difference? To paraphrase the Kaiser Chiefs "Everything is so average nowadays".
Perhaps all of this EverQuest themed nostalgia and expectation has left me wallowing in a mire of "wasn't it good back then?" but I feel that developers trying to make each character special is endemic of the problem facing modern MMORPGs: they've essentially forgotten what the genre is about.
And for those stragglers and stray designers, here is exactly how it should be: a virtual world, filled with content to which the player can essentially live out a virtual life; either as an adventurer, or a merchant, or a civilian, or an idiot. The choice is theirs, and never, ever try to take it away from them. Give us the sandbox to play in, and we will do the rest.
Is that really too much to ask? Apparently yes, yes it is.
Adam Tingle / Adam Tingle is a columnist and general man-about-town for MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and FPSGuru.com. He enjoys toilet humor, EverQuest-themed nostalgia, and pointing out he's British: bother him at @adamtingle
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