After over a decade of playing games in the genre, the MMO community has become jaded and cynical. We spend our days bemoaning the lack of innovation, drawing an ever greater picture of evidence that the genre is tending toward homogenization. We accuse game Z of copying game Y, game Y copying game X, and game X copying some ideas from our friend's basement twenty-three years ago. We take up forum name and signatures that proclaim "MMOs are dead." We're a nice group of people, really; we've just become disillusioned by a gaming industry that has been infected with a nasty bandwagon parasite.
So why is it, with bitterness practically our every out-breath, we rush with excitement and joy to the launch of a new MMO? We can lay our cynicism thicker than Marmite, but on launch days, suddenly the thick distaste for the state of the genre has turned into a light, sweet tone of hope. It's a phenomenon that happens with almost every MMO launch, be the game free-to-play or subscription based; from an independent company or a gaming Goliath. The red carpet rolls out, as do the exclamation marks ("This game is so awesome!!!") and praise from people who haven't even played the game yet, or at least certainly not long enough to form a long-lasting opinion. We turn from critics to hypocrites.
This week saw the launch of two MMOs: Global Agenda and Star Trek Online. The latter has, by its own nature, seen more hype. Global Agenda has, however, been one of the most talked about independent games, and relatively anticipated among those who enjoy shooters. Early feedback from players is full of praise for the game, and it's fair to say that Global Agenda had a good "launch day rush." The FPS and TPS MMO-sub-genre have been sparse with game population, so Global Agenda is taking a spot that is relatively unchallenged in the MMO world.
Yet Global Agenda's launch day fanfare is relatively mute to the heraldry that brought in Star Trek Online the day after. The games media has been hyping STO since before Cryptic launched Champions Online, and its launch day began with virtual fireworks displays and practical advertisements telling players to buy STO. The mentality behind the hype seemed to be "It's a Star Trek licensed game - it can't be bad, right?" And even those who admit it may not be innovative, or even good, will admit that because it's Star Trek, they're going to play. In fact, I'm betting that my own father, who has sworn off MMOs dozens of times even though he keeps coming back, is probably playing right now, savoring the Trekkie goodness.
I don't have a problem with Cryptic, or Star Trek Online, but both have had a history of negative feedback tinged with the classic MMO community cynicism. Despite those woven threads, Star Trek had a happy launch day. Players I've known to be cynical about Cryptic's abilities to make a good MMO have practically worshiped it since they started playing, a shock to me given the amount of negative feedback I've seen in forums about Star Trek Online.
For the record, I did give STO a little try during open beta, but it just wasn't my style of game, so I have no personal judgment on its quality. My experience with Star Trek involves casually watching it while doing homework as a kid. That, and meeting up with an EverQuest guild in Quark's Bar in Vegas; an interesting experience to say the least as the party got itself drunk on Warp Core Breaches while a guy dressed up as a Klingon sang. It's these experiences that shy kids off of classics, I'm telling you.
I think Star Trek Online's launch this week provides a great way of looking at this phenomenon of casting aside our communal doubts for a few days of exultation. It isn't that we're optimists; it's that we will buy into something we like even if our predictions are bad. Licensed games are especially notorious for this; you can count on the initial success of games like World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online, and, yes, Star Trek Online on this tail-chasing. Not many people could envision the transition of Warcraft's multi-player RTS style to an MMO like EverQuest, but people came anyway because they thought that the Warcraft universe was awesome. It's like offering a kid candy on the condition he does his homework; the homework may suck, but at least he got sugar. This week's fuss over Star Trek Online is no different. Whether you listen to the hype or the critics, ultimately it's a Star Trek game, and Trek fans are going to buy it en masse.
There's also something in our veins that tells us that no matter how bad or dull something may be, we're willing to try it once. This is our discovery mode, that one small grain of optimistic sand that says we might just find a diamond in the rough. So some of us will chase down and try that exotic Russian import that's only half-translated, play dozens of buggy games, and become beta-junkies in search of that spark we once felt that made us fall in love with the genre in the first place. Let's face it, even when we're dying our virtual hair black and proclaiming that the MMO is dead, we love it. We write dark poetry in the form of hopeless forum posts, because we're smitten with the idea engendered in the MMO. For some reason, we cannot divorce ourselves from it.
So is it hope that turns us into virtual cheerleaders every time an MMO launches? Sometimes, it is. We hope to recapture the special feelings that MMOs once made us feel. We hope to see innovation. We hope to find something surprising and different that makes us pause and take a little more time to enjoy the game. So we'll put aside the negative feedback, the criticism, and cheer on another new contender in the ring, no matter how ugly or outclassed it is. Sometimes, though, it's blind faith that guides us into a trap of believing all the PR, all the hype, and thinking that a new game can't possibly be so bad as to deserve a silent welcome.
Of course, there are many among us who aren't cynics. Some are rookies to the MMO genre, inexperienced either in time or in games under the belt. These players ignore the predominant glum in the community and continue to enjoy new games as they come out. Others may be veterans, but are too stubborn to believe that every game is a poor clone of another, and press on. A precious few are true optimists who are happy to see the genre growing, no matter game quality or producer, and reassure the rest of us that one day, the right MMO will come along just for us.
As for me, I fall somewhere between the extreme lines of cynic and optimist. I believe every new game has something to offer the MMO community as a whole, and that every new game strives to be at least a little different in the crowd. That belief, though, is tempered with years of experience, years of seeing the same patterns repeating themselves from one game to the next. I remain open-minded, and while I may not get the cheerleader pompoms out very often myself, I'll give a little "here's hoping" every time an MMO server opens its virtual doors for the first time.
After all, one day, that special MMO is going to appear, on sparkly clouds and pulled by six unicorns, and offer to sweep me away to a land where everything is just as it should be.