In case anyone doesn't know it already, my MMORPG background began back in the days when you could count all of them your hands and still have a few fingers left over. After playing them as well as observing how the genre has evolved for nearly two decades now, it strikes me that I don't find them to be as much fun as they once were – or perhaps more importantly, as I feel they should be.
This is, of course, a completely subjective judgment based on my personal experience and values as a gamer. So, I don't have any issue with people who disagree. If you think MMORPGs are now more enjoyable than they've ever been, cool. Frankly, I wish I could tell you I feel the same way. But I don't. And here are my thoughts as to five key reasons why the current state of the industry means we see numerous releases that, even when they're fun, still leave me feeling they should deliver more.
1. Too much design focus on the “holy trinity”
Don't get me wrong here. I'm not against combining the tank, healer and DPS roles within groups. What I dislike is the usual dearth or even absence of viable alternatives. As a personal example, in single-player RPGs, I quite often choose to play paladin-type characters. But when I do this in an MMORPG - if such an option is available in the first place - I find myself almost inevitably relegated to secondary status within groups. Indeed, it's not all that unusual to regarded as something of a pariah, acceptable only when there are no other possibilities.
Yes, I'm aware there are games in which I can make choices that enable me to fill one or more of these three roles to varying degrees. But if I want to play as a tank, for example, I'm always better off to roll a fighter in the first place. What's more, other familiar class “families” also face this issue to varying degrees. For instance, in which titles are you able to play a stealth or bard-like character that's welcome in groups unless you make it into a quasi-tank, healer or damage dealer? And even then, are you the preferred choice?
There's no denying that using a trinity-based design has some significant advantages. It's faster to create a version of something that's more familiar. It's far easier to craft encounters when you know groups will be composed in limited ways and employ certain types of strategies that the members are used to. This also makes it simpler for the players, who can swiftly assume roles they already know and thus don't have to learn.
That said, when a title's combat system is designed in this manner, it eliminates or at least significantly lessens - for me, anyway - the fun of learning and of playing something substantially different. Let me be clear that I'm not looking for every MMORPG to be unique in this respect. The trinity is fun. But so is having other choices available, whether in the same game or other ones.
Notable trend setter: While I could point the finger at a number of titles, EverQuest was a major factor in leading the industry in this direction, which so many others have subsequently followed.
2. Not enough true challenge
I can state unequivocally that for some years now, I seldom if ever feel the same peak sense of accomplishment I did back in the day. The reason is straightforward; when something is difficult to achieve, doing so is more emotionally rewarding. When it's relatively easy, there's little or no reason to pat myself on the back.
I understand that designing a game to be more challenging tends to limit its market potential. Accordingly, I can see why publishers would be reluctant to put out anything that genuinely pushes the envelope in this way. Indeed, since I no longer have the values and preferences as 10 or 15 years ago, I'm not sure I'd be part of the core target audience any more. But I want to believe the niche has grown large enough to support at least a few such titles - more than I know of.
Furthermore, I don't get is why this seems to mean nothing can be truly demanding. Why can't certain areas, quests, raids, etc. be genuinely hard to complete? To illustrate what I'm getting at, bosses are typically tougher because they have more hit points and/or can do more damage/or have more and/or stronger minions. But how often do you run into one that's even harder and thus more rewarding to defeat because in addition to these things, it also fights more intelligently?
Extending this example, when you go to fight a boss, do you expect to win? It doesn't sit right with me that barring unusual circumstances, I basically always do. If this weren't so, there would be complaints, but since I'm not talking about making every such encounter a lot more difficult, would players who enjoy the rest of the content actually leave in meaningful numbers?
Notable trend setter: World of Warcraft is the clear choice in this regard due to the rapid and pronounced shift in this area of design thinking that its success prompted.
3. Too much solo content
I can't think of even a single MMORPG developer who would say player interaction isn't absolutely critical. So, why do so many releases contain so much that I can easily do alone? Why does it seem so common that grouping, when it's not obligatory, offers little if any benefit aside from someone to chat with? And honestly, how often does it feel like working with someone who isn't a friend or guild mate simply isn't worth the bother?
For the record, I have nothing against solo play. I like to have a reasonable amount of it available because there are times when it's what I'm in the mood for. My issue is when there's so much that it's the default option and/or when a game's group play isn't fun enough to make it usually preferable. When I want a single-player RPG experience, I can just go play one.
Notable trend setter: Again, the most prominent exemplar is World of Warcraft.
4. Too much gear grinding
This is another thing I'm not dead set against. It's always cool to obtain a better weapon, a more protective piece of armor, etc. Doing so adds to the inherent fun. However, there's a subjective inflection point where these items begin to shift roles. They're no longer seen purely as bonuses. Eventually, they become goals in and of themselves.
Some people, perhaps quite a lot, apparently don't mind when this happens. I happen to disagree. For me, it's likely to mean either of two things. One is that the game's overall level of fun isn't as high as it should be. The other is that I'm no longer enjoying it as much as I once did. Obviously, neither of these is good.
Designing in gear grinding is a simple and not always easily noticed way to extend gameplay. What's more, it's not something that will instantly or even gradually cause mass defections. As a result, I have no expectation whatsoever that it will become less prevalent any time soon. However, this doesn't mean I have to like the long-standing status quo or that it hasn't negatively impacted my enjoyment of most MMORPGs I've ever played for any decent length of time.
Notable trend setters: too many to single out just one
5. Not enough story
When I play an RPG, I expect its story to be a core element, one that's central to my enjoyment. It would be pretty naïve to demand the same kind of experience from an MMORPG, where the narrative can't revolve around me and my actions. That said, I only partly buy into the assertion that the genre is about each player creating his or her own tale.
I fully understand that neither I nor any other individual can be the central protagonist. However, I too often get the feeling that the actions and decisions of my guild, alliance, faction, even my entire race or nation, matter little if at all. With territorial control as the obvious exception, the world pretty much remains the same.
I want more. At the very least, I'd like to see more worlds with stories that are interesting and important enough for me to care and to make me want to take part in them. It has been a major disappointment to me for quite a few years that the industry hasn't progressed very far in this direction.
Notable non-trend setter: Among the unfortunately small number of games I could cite here, I'll go with Asheron's Call because of its early efforts to create an evolving world.