Recently I had the pleasure to talk to Raph Koster, the legendary developer behind such titles as Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. While it sounds like I'm laying out my über nerd card for everyone to take a look at and gasp in amazement, there was a thread of conversation which I found particularly interesting. The idea that Raph suggested was that MMOs can transcend games, and that the genre could be so much if it was willing to dream.
Like many gamers out there, I recently read Ready Player One. While I had been aware of the novel for quite some time, the protectionist within me was ever-vigilant whenever I approached Amazon for a sneak peak. You see, it's hard to be a nerd in Northern England; dragons and elfs, swords and sorcery, they just don't really cut it round here.
But like a man stealthily purchasing pornography with a roomy jacket and steely determination, I eventually pushed past my own hang ups and entered the OASIS. And boy was I glad. While the book is of course no literary masterpiece, it is just about every geek's dream when it comes to the written word. I swear that I actually yelped when "EverQuest" and "Norrath" appeared on the second page.
The reason why I connected so much with Ready Player One wasn't my infinite love of 80s pop culture, but because it described an MMO that I wanted to play. An upgradable framework that held endless possibilities for gameplay.
My own love of this genre comes not from the sheer love of committing orc genocide across multiple fantasy worlds, but because it is the nearest we have gotten to virtual reality. Physically, I can only ever be me: the gangly, awkward British idiot. I can never experience life from your point of view. But MMORPGs are the nearest we have gotten to "out of body experiences"... aside that is from "crack, jack, crank, meth, vicodin, blow, acid, uppers, poppers, E, nitrous, dust, hash, and this one boner medicine from Norway".
And it's a powerful draw that has kept me hooked, even in drought times such as now. Because, while I still adore the genre, I can't seem to recapture that early magic. That feeling that I was in a world rather than a game. Things now seem so formulaic, in the pursuit of consumers rather than explorers.
So when Raph Koster describes world's which could be created, and Ernest Cline writes about the OASIS, I can only sigh and rest my head on my hands, wishing. I want the nirvana of a virtual world, and one that hides its own restrictions - I want a sequel to Ultima Online, EverQuest, or Star Wars Galaxies is what I'm saying.
But there is a case to be made that one developer is doing just what Ready Player One described. CCP are perhaps one of the greatest, and more challenging, design houses out there. Their Elite-em-up Eve Online is a successful take on the principles of UO, but taken to a completely new stratosphere. And the interesting part: New Eden is becoming a lobby.
Whether or not they achieve success, the Icelandic creatives have two separate games bolted onto their Eve Online framework. Dust 514, love or loath it, is a fantastic idea, binding two separate pieces of software together, essentially making theirs the most expansive MMORPG out there.
It's design like this that perhaps keeps me coming back to the MMORPG table. When pickings are slim, and games follow single-player patterns, there is also that glimmer of hope of what genre can, and should, be.
I know that these columns can have a propensity to navel gaze and wallow in a certain brand of nostalgia, but reading Raph Koster's words awakens that sense of what it was like to play the initial MMO experiments. It felt like uncovering new worlds, exploring entirely new things. Somewhere in the past decade we've lost that, and I really want it back.
Ultimately, I think my desires go much beyond simple game design now. Returning to Raph and Ready Player One once again, I think the genre should have grown beyond static questing, and basic mechanics. It should be much more by now, rather than treadmills of grind that emulate singleplayer experiences. Imagine the possibilities.
But then again, maybe I should take the message of Ready Player One, go outside, level up myself, and engage with reality a little bit more. I’m sure that’s fun too, right? Right?
Have you read Ready Player One? Do you crave for bigger, more challenging MMOs? Do you like to moan like me? As ever, leave the comments in the section below.
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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