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Column #2: The Present

Nathan Knaack Posted:
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The Present of MMORPGs: UO to WoW – Ascensions in technology but a plateau in creativity

Editor's Note: Each week, Nathan Knaack brings us an insiders look at the MMORPG industry in his weekly column. This article is part two of a three part look at the past, present and future of MMORPGs. You can read his thoughts on the past here, then check back in one week for his article on the future.

Enter Ultima Online, one of the oldest MMORPGs, yet still renown to this day for its innovative features. Some successful features, ironically, have seldom been duplicated. Although Ultima Online wasn’t 3D, it incorporated a great deal of player freedom along with a widely customizable world, including player housing and player vs. player combat. For these main reasons, the game saw widespread appeal and years of success, at least until EverQuest was released.

Originally created by a smaller company called Verant, EverQuest was subsequently acquired by Sony Online Entertainment. With its history already widely known, I won’t go into much detail about EverQuest or other present day MMORPGs, suffice to say that while server technology, graphical capabilities, and other programming advances have been made, virtually nothing about how an MMORPG system is arranged has been changed since EverQuest. Pick a race, pick a class, and start grinding. Cut through the graphical interface and EverQuest boils down to a graphical game of Dungeons and Dragons, but with no storyline (quests, or “chores,” as I call them, do not constitute a storyline), very few gameplay options, and even less role-playing. Hack, cast, cure, advance.

The popularity of EverQuest, simply for being the first 3D MMORPG, is itself a double-edged sword. While it attracted hundreds of thousands of people from the standard video game circuit, and even some who weren’t really into gaming, the success it saw almost permanently buried the MMORPG industry in an inescapable rut. Companies that came along after EverQuest (like those that created Dark Age of Camelot and Anarchy Online) either misinterpreted the game’s success to its substance or were too cowardly to attempt to improve upon its foundation. In fact, EverQuest’s success had absolutely nothing to do with how the game was played; the race/class/level setup had already been achieved by Dungeons and Dragons and countless MUDs, and though people were used to it, it really wasn’t terribly intuitive, malleable, or fun. If you ask someone why they enjoy Dungeons and Dragons, you’ll most likely hear explanations that mention time spent with friends, epic plot lines, and comedic events. Very few would say that they enjoy slowly gaining experience by hacking apart hundreds of the same monsters every day.

It’s been several years since the release of EverQuest and very little has changed. In the title of this section, I refer to this as the “plateau,” and there is perhaps no more accurate description. While technology has grown by leaps and bounds, the actual MMORPG system is all but unchanged. Most MMORPGs follow its exact blueprint: A high fantasy world with a pre-determined storyline, a race/class/level based character creation and advancement system, a linear equipment progression (item B is better in every possible way than item A, while item C is better than B, D is better than C, etc), recipe-based crafting (static item X requires items A, B, and C in some exact amount), poorly-balanced player vs. player combat slowly patched with awkward, often ridiculously severe adjustments (or “nerfs”), short-sighted focus on instant gratification systems (everyone can teleport, monsters always appear at the same static spawns, all quests have clear and obvious objectives, etc) and an ill-conceived resource/economic/crafting system that inevitably results in near-instantaneous hyper inflation.

There are a few notable exceptions to the above blueprint, but since EverQuest carved such a deep trench in the minds of game developers, they haven’t seen nearly as much activity and praise as they deserve. Some examples include: Eve Online, A Tale in the Desert, Second Life, World War II Online, and Puzzle Pirates. Additionally, the future holds some hopeful alterations to the status quo, like Pirates of the Burning Sea, Roma Victor, and The Chronicle. Some of these are cited for their drastic change in setting, some for their new approach to the MMORPG system, and some for both. Credit should be given to these developers simply for having the courage to challenge the tired industry standards and offer the MMORPG community some variation.

It appears that the ultimate fantasy race/class/grind MMORPG has finally emerged, though: World of Warcraft. By streamlining the already basic systems most MMORPGs use, Blizzard was able to trim off any lingering complications to the “win-win-win, now-now-now” mentality that modern day gamers seem to have. Traveling somewhere rarely takes more than two minutes, advancement is meaninglessly fast, and any sort of penalty for failure has been entirely done away with. This short-sightedness has only one conclusion: Boredom. Sure, WoW has surpassed five million subscribers worldwide (as of February, 2006), but that’s with the recent addition of the Chinese and European markets; you never see the number of North American (their first market) subscriptions that have been lost since the game’s release. Sooner or later, Blizzard is going to run out of new continents on which to release to WoW…

With no challenge and no risks, the rewards are dull. With dull rewards, people quickly tire of the game. The saddest part is that most gamers have no idea that this is why they get bored with MMORPGs. They usually think it has something to do with the world not having enough “content,” by which they mean quests, items, monsters, and geography. In reality, boredom in an MMORPG is inevitably caused by one or more of a few dead-end design decisions, including, linear design, lack of immersion, and crippled PvP (player vs. player) mechanics.

Linear design is the practice most MMORPG developers are still stuck with by how they paint themselves into corners in writing their games. By definition, a line has a beginning and an end. In using a level system of character advancement, they’re stuck with a level cap, a maximum amount of power a character can have, easily quantified numerically. What is there to do when you reach the top in a game that’s entirely based on ascension? The same occurs with items and quests; what do you do when you get the best weapon available in the game or finish the last quest? Wait for new content? Creating a linear system of advancement also requires you to design your world in a linear fashion. You have to plop down a newbie area (levels 1-5, for example), then you have to carefully place mountains, oceans, walls of trees, and other ridiculous boundaries to herd the players in a single direction: towards the level 6-10 area. If a player encounters a crossroads (more than one area available to travel to), he or she could end up in the right spot (the level 11-15 area) or the wrong spot (like a level 35-40 area). When players are forced to follow a linear map, they will eventually all end up at the end. That puts us right back at the impossible equation: How can a few dozen developers keep up with the expectations of a few million players?

The reason some people react poorly when they hear the term PvP because they think of it as either some kind of underground first person shooter deathmatch (like Quake) or horribly lopsided “ganking” or “PK” (a level 100 player kills a level 5 player in one hit, etc). The thing is PvP doesn’t just have to just be a bunch of goons bouncing around a maze with rocket launchers, killing each other over and over again; nor must it always exist in a crippled level-based game system. Is the reason some people are so opposed to PvP really because they dislike or can’t handle competition with other human players, or is it because they hate it when some top-level jerk ambushes them while they’re unprepared? Every year, games like Halo, Half Life, and Unreal Tournament top the best-seller list for console and PC games, so obviously there’s a tremendous market for gamers that enjoy competing directly against other gamers, but it’s the MMORPG industry in particular that’s failed so far at providing them with a fair and immersive field on which to participate.

What does it all add up to? All of this linear design, lack of end-game content, and lacking (often completely ignoring) PvP goals? A brief glance at www.mmogchart.com will reveal the subscription curve most MMORPGs follow. They spike in sales after release (thanks mainly to over-hyped advertising), reach a short-lived equilibrium, and then dive dramatically. The average MMORPG subscription lasts for less than four months; with the first month free and subscription fees usually around $10-$14 per month, it’s no wonder why most companies focus on a quick sale of $50 boxes rather than try to create a game that could keep a community interested for years.

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Nathan Knaack