You've Lost that Lovin' Feeling
This past week, I've been playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Now I'll warn you now, this is my first Zelda game and this is also my first play-through (and I'm playing blind - i.e. no walk-throughs or outside help). I lived a very console-deprived youth. I had an original NES and a Sega Genesis, after which consoles were deemed too expensive in my household; my gaming was redirected back to PCs. Until a few years ago, I actually thought the little guy in green was Zelda. Although I am in a console-loving home now, I have a lot of gaming to catch up on, but, as you all know, MMOs can suck a lot of that time away.
I ended up playing Twilight Princess on a whim; my husband has been pushing for me to play Zelda, any Zelda, for a while now. After watching a friend play through some of Ocarina of Time, I finally acted on my husband's advice, chose Twilight Princess, and began playing. Although I often only pick up RPGs for a few hours before quitting, I've been consistent in playing a few hours almost every night. A few nights ago, I went through an interesting boss sequence, one which involved mounted combat, good timing, and foresight. It lasted several minutes, and when it was over, I leaned back in my chair with a huge grin. My arms ached, but it was fun, and the excitement of that entire boss fight lasted for a long while afterward.
It then made me realize something: I have rarely felt so enthused while playing an MMO; at least, not while playing PvE. PvPing has a natural way of giving you that mystical "thrill" video games are supposed to offer; that's simply due to the adrenaline from real time combat between two players. Let's set that aside for a moment, however, and look at the PvE a game offers - its quests, its environment, its dungeons and boss encounters. Where is the same excitement that a single player RPG can offer? Why are MMOs so dull?
Many have come to blame the boredom of MMOs on what's called the "theme park," a quest-driven landscape in which players always have some predetermined goal to achieve. It's fair to argue that this questing has become simply a different flavor of grinding. The problem isn't the questing grind itself, however. Quests are what drive the story of an RPG, even more open ended games like Oblivion or Fable. The problem goes even beyond the quest design to the game design itself. Quests and battles have become short, predictable, repeatable. The steps to the dance may be different, but whether you're fighting Heigan, Sartharion, or Sindragosa, the abilities you use, and the "rules of the game," are always the same patterned responses. And, worse than that, you'll be back next week to repeat the same pattern in hopes of the elusive golden trinket of awesomeness.
Part of the problem lies in an MMO game system's predictability. When I head into a new area in an MMO, I generally know a few things about my enemies. I know the aggro radius. I can see whether the creature is aggressive or not. I can even tell how its level and difficulty compare to my character. I know a general series of abilities that my character can use to defeat any creature, and I know the rest of my abilities should it offer certain responses (for example, a root for a creature that runs away, or a silence to interrupt a caster). I know how reliable the environment is (few environments offer surprises like traps or falling debris). I know that if a quest in the area wants me to collect 10 shiny baubles, it will tell me where to find them, and I know they will either appear on the corpses of the enemies I am told to kill as a portion of loot, or as an interactive object in the local environment. Get ye quest, kill, loot, return. Rinse, repeat.
If predictability is part of the problem, the other part is repetition. Single player RPGs offer a semi-linear pathway; there is a beginning and, after meeting certain conditions, there is an ending. MMOs, however, have to offer a persistent world; they can't afford to have an ending. Worse than that, however, is the fact that MMOs seem to be incapable of offering a "one-time" experience for a character. The death of a villain in an MMO is not final; it's merely a temporary death designated to help a character complete an objective. There is no sense of permanence; I can return to defeat the dragon as many times as I want, and it's the same story, the same fight, the same pattern every time. As the sense of permanence deteriorates, so does the sense of achievement; as repetition sets in, the fun fades. Voila: a recipe for MMO burnout.
Single-player gamers generally find fault with MMOs because they find them dull and lifeless. Perhaps they're right on that account. The MMO gaming experience has devolved into a game of numbers, far more so than any other genre. While every game possesses its own methods of min-maxing and power gaming, the MMO has made number-crunching "the way." If you don't adhere closely to recommended specs, talents, rotations, or reach certain measurable performance standards, you are the outcast: the noob who needs to L2P, the player who "sucks," the underachiever, even if your methods procure a fun way to play.
What MMOs need is genuine innovation: not just a new way to kill ten rats, but a complete rethinking of character development and environment interaction. MMO developers need to reach into the great big bag of tricks the rest of the video game industry uses, at the least; more ideally, they should be inventive, creative, break away from the mold that we can carry with us from MMO to MMO. The problem with the industry needing innovation is that while the players can chant that mantra until they're hoarse, the responsibility lies in the developers' hands to provide it. Until they take that responsibility seriously, players are left waiting either empty-handed or entertaining themselves with the same-old.
Every time I find myself getting wrapped up in a single-player game, I feel that tiredness of the genre creeping in again. I wonder if MMOs will ever be fun again. Heck, sometimes I wonder if they were ever fun in the first place. I wonder if the industry is killing itself, and whether they'll ever care enough to make a change. Like most of you, I come back because MMOs have a unique pull on my gaming habits, a draw that makes them the "game of choice." There's no denying, however, that the genre needs a serious kick start, an injection of fun that's been lost in translation for a long time. Whoever brings it first will be well remembered in our history.