Sometimes... when you have nothing left - it's all about the gameplay.
What am I talking about? MMORPG gameplay, of course. I've been playing "online" games since the days of BBS Door games. After that, it was Neverwinter Nights on AOL for me. Ultima Online (UO) replaced Neverwinter. Then came Everquest (EQ) and its fancy 3D graphics. The beta-tests and subscriptions roll through my memories like thick nostalgic bytes - Dark Age of Camelot, City of Heroes, Asheron's Call, Earth & Beyond, Guild Wars, Shadowbane, World of Warcraft, Starwars Galaxies, Hellgate London, Tabula Rasa, Warhammer Online... and many more. Why do these games come and go for me? Why do I continue to play "the next greatest MMORPG," only to dump it a few months later? Is there any constant in my vagabond list of retired games?
Well - sure there is! You see, I've constantly returned to one online game: TomeNET. Why? The core gameplay is better - period.
For the uninitiated, let me explain. You see, back in the early 1980s these two guys (Michael Toy and Glenn Wichman) created Rogue: Exploring the Dungeons of Doom on UNIX. Indeed, your character delved into deep and dangerous dungeons in search of loot and experience (what else?), but graphics were achieved through ASCII characters. Monsters were represented by letters ('o' for orc, for example) and loot on the ground could be a slash ("/") for an axe or a bracket ("]") for a piece of armor. Since there were no mice on these UNIX systems, commands were done through keystrokes ("f" to fire a bow, "m" to cast a spell, etc), and this control scheme remains true to this day (with the addition of helpful macro systems in some cases). Unfortunately for Rogue, graphical games (Ultima) began to hit the shelves around the same time. Add to this the fact that many free derivations of Rogue were also available at that time, and you have commercial disaster.
Wait a minute - keyboard commands, no graphics... of course it failed! What's the draw? Well - part of the the genius is in the level design - it is always random! Though copied in spirit (Diablo, Disgaea), no game has been able to match the depth and variety of the random dungeon-mapping power of a Rogue-like game (there exist hundreds of Rogue variants in the world today). The second piece of the equation is gameplay. Some games just "got it right," and Rogue was one of the first.
Fast-forward several decades and we have TomeNET - a persistent, multi-player derivation of Rogue (or, more specifically - a derivation of Angband). TomeNET (Troubles of Middle Earth) boasts the core elements we love as MMORPG players: character development (via race, class, and skill point systems), loot, combat, cooperation, and online chat. Battles play out in real time, with swarms of enemies lurking in dark dungeons. Sure, the "graphics" are depicted with multi-colored ACSII characters - but, that is a small concern when you consider the gameplay. Keep in mind, for many of us "old-timers," gameplay is not at all related to graphics, sound or interface.
Though overly-simplified, the gameplay in TomeNET can be described in one line as: "hack & slash" through random, multi-levelled dungeons. To dive deeper in describing what makes an online Rogue-like game so special, I will draw upon comparisons to modern graphical MMORPGs.
Besides the graphics, what makes today's MMORPGs so popular? Why not curl up with a good single-player CRPG (Computer Role-Playing Game) to burn away the nighttime hours? In my opinion, it's the permanence of an MMORPG that keeps people coming back for more - the permanence of their friends, guildmates, character, in-game items, game world, achievements, etc, etc. Once the permanence is established, the gameplay keeps us logging-in. Perhaps we want to tackle that dungeon for the first or fortieth time. Maybe we need a new piece of loot. Of course, some of us are addicted to Player vs Player combat. Maybe the game has a deep crafting/market system. Whatever the case, the game presents some systems which we find enjoyable. Add these systems together, and you have another source for the word "massive" in the acronym - massive amounts of features, choices, and variety.
How do today's MMORPGs entice us to buy and keep our subscriptions? In my opinion, this is accomplished with grinds, community, and realized expectations. Grinds keep us on a "treadmill" for a certain period of time for a specific reward. Some games cloak the grind in clever ways, but make no mistake - without time-sinking grinds, most MMORPGs would fail. The worst grinds are the ones that make you a slave to the game - daily quests and continued maintenance fall into this category. Daily or timed quests/bosses can only be accomplished once every 24 hours or other structured time frame. These types of grinds expand your time-to-complete over the course of weeks and months (sometimes: years). Maintenance is best described with an example - Star Wars Galaxies. To be successful in the "harvesting" part of that game, you were required to periodically deploy, check, maintain, and empty your harvesters spread across a planet's surface. Some people enjoy the maintenance/timed aspects of these games, and some of us do not. In my opinion, I don't like when my games start to own me.
Community can also be a powerful force. If your friends and/or guildmates are playing - that's almost incentive enough to keep logging-in. Newer MMORPGs have even developed complex guilding/corporation systems to facilitate the socialization process (ie - guild advancement, territory control, guild bases/keeps). Here is where the graphical MMORPG's shine brighter than TomeNET. Logging-in to a graphical MMORPG can be a purely social endeavor. Perhaps you want to catch-up with guildmates, rearrange some furniture in your house, or chill in the town square - these things, and more, are more satisfying in a graphical MMORPG. Some games (like Star Wars Galaxies) even go so far as to offer deep social systems such as playing music and redesigning another player's appearance. If you enjoy the massive communities in your MMORPGs, then the graphical games certainly have more to offer.
Now comes the reason I believe a modern MMORPG cannot hold my interest: Realized Expectations. Since MMORPGs are mass-market games, they must appeal to a wide audience. Part of that trick is to make the game forgiving, predictable, and somewhat linear. Most MMORPGs don't have a death penalty anymore, and I'm not advocating for one. For how much time you must dedicate to gather loot and experience, the addition of a death penalty is usually a case of adding insult to injury. However, most successful games are quite forgiving if you make mistakes or happen to "die." This leads in to the predictability of today's MMORPGs - you usually know when you are going to die, fail or succeed.
Let's take a look at World of Warcraft: When you engage an enemy, you usually know how many of that enemy you will "pull", and you know what button combination of abilities you must press to be successful. Take it a step further, and all the dungeons are just as predictable - once you learn the "tricks," defeating the boss is a mere formula. Quests fall into the same formulaic pattern. Let's be honest - very few people play MMORPGs for the "story." Quests are merely Experience and Loot fuel - we don't even read the text anymore. Heck, if the interface doesn't light the path to our quest target on our maps, then we use a third party utility to do it for us. The quest will usually tell you how difficult it is, and you can expect to "win" every time out. How do you win? More predictability. This is all by design, as everyone likes to succeed - right?
Of course we like to succeed. However, how sweet are the rewards when they are either luck-based or predicted (or worse - grinded-for)? Sure, you "won," but did you really do anything special? Did you sweat through a tough encounter, or did you just listen to your raid leader tell you where to go and what to do? Was your raid leader sweating, or was he/she merely following the formula? What could you really lose if you failed - a few minutes of your time? Sure, dedicating fifty hours to gain something can be categorized as an "accomplishment," but was it fun? Were you playing the game or were you simply going through the motions?
Now, let me tell you about the type of gameplay that will put hair on your chest (this applies to both sexes). Take a trip down memory lane to games your ancestors played (okay, by "ancestors" I mean - "your older cousins"). In the end, if you are like me - you may realize that something has been missing from your MMORPG tours.