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Fighting Talk: New vs Old MMOs

Adam Tingle Posted:
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I first fell in love with the MMORPG genre at the tender age of eight. As I accompanied my parents to a local shopping mall, my life was changed forever. Through a crowded Electronic Boutique shop my eyes fixed upon a game; a piece of online, shapely ass. Like a star-crossed lover I had finally met the one, I knew things would never be the same again. Her box art told me her name was EverQuest. I clutched her to my chest and swore never to let go. But I was only eight years old and she was betrothed to SOE, what chance did we have in this crazy world?

If you are a long-standing veteran of the MMORPG genre, chances are you have a story like mine. For years I have pined for something to take my attention like EverQuest did in 1999; friends would tell me to move on, show me newer and more attractive MMORPGs. It didn’t work. Oh sure I have had a few flings here and there: a short-term relationship with World of Warcraft and a close call with Eve Online, but nothing has really come close to Norrath and its charms.

I wonder however, is my longing for a game such as EverQuest something born purely from nostalgia or simply that games made a decade previous were just better? Was there something truly magical captured within games such as: Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot and Anarchy Online? Or am I just a lonely almost-twenty-something that needs to open a window every so often? There’s only one way to find out…

In the ring this week is a Royal Rumble of gigantic proportions as games of past and present go head to head. Rip off your shirt in excitement, start screaming “Awooga!” in your most manly voice, and try to contain the tears of joy soon to be rolling down your cheeks. Let’s get ready to ruuuuuuuuuumble!

In the red corner

The MMORPG genre dated 1997-2003. An absolute golden age for online games whether your poison was Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call or Dark Age of Camelot. These were the games that made the jump from graphical MUD’s to fully 3D virtual worlds- Parents Basements and D&D nights were never quite the same again. Almost every genre convention was created within these years and to be quite honest, I don’t know if these Goliaths can be toppled. Break out your Voodoo 3 graphics card, have a Windows 98 disc at the ready, and set your Internet connections to dial-up. It’s about to get messy.

In the blue corner

The MMORPG genre dated 2004-Present. Who would have guessed that the words “goblin,” “elf,” and “epic” would not result in a feverish beating in the year 2010? MMORPGs are now so common place due to this generation of games that even Mr. T is getting in on the action. With progressive gameplay, new found accessibility, and numerous layers of shiny veneer, online role-play has never been so popular. Are they as good as the forefathers of the genre? Eleven million prepubescents can’t be wrong, can they?

Each category will be scored out of ten. In the name of non-biased opinions, both games will not be merited on current visuals and rose-tinted views will be kept to a minimum.

Game World

Back in the good old days, gaming worlds were, huge, massive, expansive and whoa-crap-yourself big. A trek through Norrath, Rubi-Ka or any other place would be a great undertaking. I remember personally clearing a Saturday night of activities as I attempted, with friends, to travel from Qeynos to Freeport. Developers seemed to take the term “virtual world” to heart and as such players were given the most vibrant and wonderful places to discover. Primitive by today’s standards but there was a real sense of exploration and excitement which seems lost on newer games. Players were literally given a sandbox full of wonderful creations to occupy themselves with. Game worlds were full with villages, towns and cities. These didn’t necessarily have any purpose beyond simply emulating a physical, fantasy world and this is something I miss from newer games.

Immersion was another factor that I feel really added to whole experience. Travel for instance, was undertaken without shortcuts; boat journeys could take up to forty minutes and up until Dark Age of Camelot, fast way-point travelling was just a glint in some developer’s eye. While I could grade the world design of older games perfect, I can see the negatives too. The lack of fast travel meant that a lot of game time was spent pressing “num lock” and dodging a few nasty looking bears. Also there seemed to be a general malice crafted into the game world as newbie zones would be often be littered with interestingly placed level 1,000 monsters. And nobody can forget the infamous Halloween raids of EverQuest where a thousand skeletal warriors rained down on beginner zones. The general ambition of the game worlds is admirable here, however, progressive mechanics such as fast travel is not entirely a bad thing. Almost perfect and the sheer scope should be something that has continued rather than replaced with the buzz word “refined”. 9/10

Linear is the word that comes to mind when describing the worlds of newer games. The excitement and exploration possibilities of older games seem to have been replaced by funneling and hand guided paths. While this isn’t to my personal tastes, I can see what developers have done within this. Zones are now brimming with activities and possibilities. Take for instance the world of Azeroth; almost every zone has a purpose and progression through it and while this takes away a little wonderment, it makes for a better game. While the worlds are certainly smaller, there are infinitely more things to do and achieve, for instance cities are brimming with specific merchants and trainers rather than random NPC’s. In short, they have made a game rather than a playground.

Where newer MMORPG’s fail however is immersion. And by this I mean capturing a certain fantastical element. Every game I have played since 2004, has really failed to achieve that completely involved experience. While venturing throughout Middle Earth for instance, I am disappointingly aware that I am simply playing through a linear set of zones rather than a whole world. I think that is because of a mixture of fast travel and the scale of the worlds created. With fast travel options available there is no respect of the world. One minute you can be in the furthest northern reaches of the map and in an instant back in the central city hub. There is no cause for concern or sense of wonderment that used to occur in earlier games of the genre and something is ultimately lost here. To conclude, the game worlds of newer games are infinitely busier, active, and, for the most part, entertaining, however; they simply do not feel like what they are- Worlds. 6/10

Player Character

My first ever online avatar was a weakling Paladin by the name of Riveer. During character creation I unknowingly channeled points into irrelevant stats making him the most underpowered and yet charismatic holy crusader you might ever meet. Possibly the greatest turn on and off of the MMORPG genre back in the day was the sheer depth of proceedings. Most games prompted the player to allocate skill points when rolling a character, and while this is fine for people in the know of such things, eight year olds who had dabbled with Baldur’s Gate however didn’t stand much chance. To roll a character in certain games required several trips to the WC with a hefty manual and steely determination. I certainly do not miss those days but it did necessitate fan sites such as EverLore which were filled with resources and maps, the like which simply have no purpose to exist anymore.

Depth aside, what older MMORPGs did do great is choice. Most games offered numerous classes and races to play around with and there seemed to be an infinite amount of starting areas and paths. Games such as Ultima mastered the art of customization and unique playing experiences and as such, I cannot help but feel a little underwhelmed at newer games five or so options. The whole ethos of the older generation of the genre was “bigger is better” and this is something that has unfortunately been side-stepped of present. While certain classes were pointless and there was something enchanting about rolling something completely new every time. Great for choice, but depending on whether depth is your thing or not, it could be a little daunting to the new comer. 9/10

Whatever happened to the Ogre as a playable race? That’s what I want to know. In this day and age, developers seem obsessed with Orcs and Elves and to be quite frank, I miss the weirder creations. The player character element of the newer generation of games is all a bit well, samey. Most games offer a limited amount of classes and races in the name of “refinement’ and when they don’t, like Warhammer Online, it just all feels a little wrong. While a negative for previous games was the sheer depth to character creation, newer games have seemingly gone the other way making it so easy to roll a character that a baby jabbing at a keyboard could do it.

With the negatives aside however, the best thing about the newer generation of MMORPG’s is the sheer customization to each class. Most games operate a system of umbrella roles which then can be specialized into certain paths. This leads to a great deal of depth later on in the game and goes some way to make up for the lack of choices earlier on. Most games now also come with fully fleshed out factions (DAOC pioneered this but EQ also had a very tame version too) but to be quite honest, nobody has moved this forward enough for anyone to really get excited about it anymore. In short, the lack of choice fails to inspire any excitement but the “refinement” works and every class is worthwhile and needed, however, it’s just all a little too alike. 7/10

Newbie Experience

Let’s face it, nostalgic or not, being a newbie in an older MMORPG was not so much an experience and rather an ordeal. Games would drop you into the world and simply expect you to get on with it. Ultima Online would reduce players to cutting down small woodland areas for weeks on end, EverQuest would see you slaying snakes outside city gates and Dark Age of Camelot would have players gallivanting around on a hillside. The newbie experience of these games was an exercise in tough love, only the strong would remain to brave the rest of the harrowing difficulty that lay ahead. There was an alarming lack of tutorials, no simple and easy little quests to lure the player into crafting and other such activities- just a rusty sword and a rampant rodent problem.

Are there any positives to take from the older generations approach to newbies? Well it could be argued that simply throwing a player in the deep end was more immersive and the player was challenged to learn and grapple with the game. Without hand guiding quests the only hint of a tutorial was from other players who were kindly enough to help out; even though this did once lead me into the deadly catacombs of Qeynos- my body was never recovered. While it did force more interaction and a sense of accomplishment, In short, the newbie experience of older MMORPG’s was terrible at best. Dark Age of Camelot deserves a more notable mention for trying to implement a quest system but to be frank it was horrible whichever way you try to rationalize it. 3/10

Apparently welcoming new players into your game with open arms and helpful tutorials is a good thing. Since around 2004 with games such as EverQuest 2, Ryzom and World of Warcraft, the tutorial zone has become an art form. Quests perfectly guide players into experience and go great lengths in initiating new comers into the mechanics of the game. Also players can get a greater grasp of their class in the first ten levels which means that hours don’t have to be spent trying to find out whether or not the role of Druid is really for you.

In all regards, the newer generation of MMORPG’s takes top marks for its newbie experience. It is exemplary and continues to get better. Snakes at the city gates are totally a thing of the past. 10/10

And that’s time. New MMORPG’s are winning 23-21 at the break but all is still to play for. Join me later this week for Part 2 as the battle continues to rage. Just which shall win, young or old? Y’all come back now, y’hear?


Adam Tingle