Why Nostalgia is Necessary
It’s a very common sentiment to hear from people that they want more complex, hardcore MMOs. This is something that even though the age of the hardcore, demanding MMO, where things took forever to happen, where fast travel wasn’t happening, and where lines built up around other players or in-game areas for buffs or completion, is mostly locked in player nostalgia these days. modern players, not just MMO veterans, but those who are now living in the current world where nearly everything is online somehow, commonly express annoyance at efforts at real interdependence. To paraphrase a couple of friends and acquaintances when they picked up Destiny: “I wish it didn’t make me have to find groups in order to get through some of the content”.
I read a piece by Bec over at FemHype about her journeys through Ultima Online and how most people don’t really want the super hardcore games they claim to miss. She provides good examples that yes, there were some experiences that made players believe in the power of MMORPGs to be cool entertainment and to surprise players; things like waking up in game only to find a stranger’s corpse on your floor. She questions people’s sense of nostalgia for what once was. Yet one thing I agree with is that there were also some free for all elements that made earlier games less player-friendly. Some may see player-friendly mechanics as dumbing down or creative disaster, and they do narrow the scope of player actions, but these very types of changes evolved the genre into one that many players came to love and lifted it out of a niche.
I don’t agree fully with her point that the people mainly interested in things like open world, full loot PvP are those who just want to be jerks toward others. Some people truly love the genuine challenge of taking on other players in a battle of skills and would like a rich reward system for doing so and winning. Some people thrive on competitive play and honing their skills. These days, however, smaller games, the emergence of new sandboxes, and action-based games that are more MMO-lite seem to be the ones providing those experiences. With the surge of roguelikes and retro-feeling indie games over the past couple of years, as well as the success of Dark Souls, it’s true that the audience that wants punishing gameplay is still alive and willing to part with some cash. But in the MMORPG genre, wanting a large-scale, AAA Wild West style minimal rules game is likely out of the question for the foreseeable future. It’s too much of a risk and too alienating for the majority of players. It doesn’t mean that players have all gone soft, but it means, as has happened across cultural media for centuries, things shift, change, evolve, and sometimes die off.
Nostalgia informs a lot of what we want in games sometimes, but having a more player-friendly environment helps the game be more fun to the majority of players. Having to play with overabundant caution and an empty inventory isn’t necessarily complementary to relaxing and chilling with friends. Or, indeed, solo, given how many players play their MMOs alone. There’s clearly a place for more realistic risk in gaming, as well as caution. Sure, some modern gamers don’t appreciate risk and failure in the same way as the days when we didn’t have as many digital safety nets (or any). Even those of us that have been around a while have adapted, due to development changes, personal responsibilities, lack of free time, or other factors. Quicksave is my best friend sometimes. Convenience doesn’t have to be a dirty word.
The topic comes up frequently, but we all have specific elements of games that we loved so much that we want them in every MMO we play. Or something we remember tackling with friends five or more years ago that these days would get people complaining about having to group up. Nostalgia is an inspiration, it’s good to love things that have created good memories for us all. Nostalgia can even lead to these elements or entire new games conceived to bring back something people once loved. It remains to be seen just how well it works out for the most part, but games like Camelot Unchained and The Repopulation both aim to catch segments of the MMO community who were fans of specific games that inspired both projects. It’s no coincidence that both of these games have also had crowdfunding campaigns.
Yet sometimes one of the hardest things to admit and accept is just how much things have changed. It doesn’t mean that innovation is dead, nor that games can’t be fun. The parameters have shifted and might not be putting strange corpses on the floors of our MMO houses anymore, but have new things to offer. At the same time, aiming for a hardcore audience who can devote time to huge raids and grinding up was a misfire for this year’s WildStar. WildStar’s team at Carbine, to its great credit, is trying very hard to make it work for a greater group of gamers, cutting 40-person raids and focusing on those for 20 players. Carbine is also emphasizing the arrival of more story content and other changes.
In the end, it all comes down to expectations. That of the player and that of the developers out there that try to take on a project. Whether aiming smaller, more community-based, and inspired by games of the past, like Camelot Unchained or reaching for the proverbial stars like WildStar, we might not be able to expect the lawless adventures of old, but players do want creative surprises, and new ways to interact with the game worlds (including making the game world feel like an actual world), many of which are rooted in older games. Crowdfunding has a lot to thank nostalgia for, this past weekend’s PlayStation releases included new versions of games 10-20 years old. I want a new Star Trek TV series that feels true to the legacy set up more by the previous ones than the films. Some people feel that nostalgia is just dwelling on older memories and wishful thinking, but the inspiration from nostalgia in the current market is still a powerful one, even as the foundation has shifted (as it always does in media).