The world has changed. You can feel it in the water. You can feel it in the earth. You can smell it in the air. The old school of MMOs are making way for a new breed, and much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.
Well, not really, but for some of us MMO old timers, this new generation of MMOs is just… well, different than what we're used to.
And this is also why you see so much nostalgia about old MMOs, and why so many players are still clinging on to their old games. I should know, because I am one of them: for the last 1.5 years, I have been playing a game that I first picked up in my twenties: Dark Age of Camelot, which is coming up on its twenty-year anniversary in October 2021. But how are MMOs of yesteryear and today different, and, more importantly, why?
Let's start with the easier question: how? The differences are pretty clear to those of us who have played both types: games such as EverQuest (1999), Dark Age of Camelot (2001), or World of Warcraft (2004) compared to Elder Scrolls Online (2014), Crowfall (2021), and New World (2021). Beyond mostly cosmetic graphics and technology updates, the fundamental differences are in control schemes, gameplay and leveling, and, arguably, the depth and complexity of the game.
Old school MMOs are generally characterized by mostly mouse and keyboard gameplay, where players click on icons to cast spells, swing their swords, or use their abilities, and communicate with others by typing on their keyboards. Newer MMOs tend to enable more direct control, either forcing the player to spam their mouse buttons in the manner of action RPGs, or to use direct control schemes more akin to console games. Both New World and Crowfall use setups that could just as well belong on consoles, whereas Elder Scrolls Online can already be played on the PS4, PS5, and Xbox One. And when you communicate with your group members and guildies, you are more likely to be using voice communication than merely typing.
In fact, these differences in control schemes also extend to combat systems, which have gone from latency-resistant auto-attack models with few player commands found in old school MMOs, to twitchy, split-second dogfights more akin to single-player action games such as Assassin's Creed or Far Cry. In a modern MMO like Elder Scrolls Online, a mage is expected to be constantly moving, dodging incoming attacks and spells, and using terrain to its full advantage. Compare that to mages in games such as EverQuest, World of Warcraft, or Dark Age of Camelot, where you almost always have to stand still to cast spells, and special interruption mechanics are used to determine whether your spell goes off or is delayed.
Older MMOs also tend to include more grinding while leveling or crafting. EverQuest (1999), in particular, was notorious for the time and effort involved in getting your character to the level cap, which was mostly achieved by endlessly killing monsters. I, myself, spent a significant amount of time leveling my first character (a Highlander Minstrel) to level 50 in Dark Age of Camelot (2001). This is all indicative of an older and less forgiving approach to game design that also saw single-player games with significant grinding (hello Gauntlet), extreme level design (hello Ghosts 'n Goblins), or downright unwinnable states (hello King's Quest).
That all changed with World of Warcraft (2004) and its quest-based leveling approach. No longer did players have to kill monsters or collect loot merely to get experience and level their characters; instead, even for the most lowly kill quests, you were killing monsters for a reason. And that makes all the difference. Ever since WoW showed the way, almost every new MMO has followed suit.
Again, there are exceptions to prove the rule. Released as recently as 2017, Albion Online is one such exception: the game is famously grind-heavy, especially when gathering resources for crafting. But this also leads to the distinction between so-called sandbox and theme park MMOs. Albion Online is a sandbox MMO where events arise organically from the virtual world and its rules, whereas WoW with its carefully designed quest lines is a theme park.
Old school MMOs also tend to be deeper and more complex than new ones---at least on the surface. Just look at a game like Eve Online (2003), the epitome of the sandbox MMO where the developers focused on building a living, breathing virtual world so that all of its systems and inhabitants interact to create emergent behavior. Sometimes jokingly referred to as a "spreadsheet simulator", breaking into Eve Online can take years for a new player. Ultima Online (1997) was based on a complete economical model that maintained a zero-sum system for all resources and items in the game world. Or witness Dark Age of Camelot (2001), whose main point of attraction is not ever-expanding PvE content, but a perpetual faction-based Realm-vs-Realm PvP combat system that requires a significant investment in mastering your class and role.
But the sandbox vs. theme park dichotomy is clearly insufficient to distinguish old and new MMOs. As discussed above, World of Warcraft (2004) is not only an old school MMO, but also one of the original theme park ones, where players are taken on carefully crafted paths through the game world. As for new games, the upcoming New World (2021), while rich in scenery, monsters, and quests, is also clearly a sandbox MMO with its procedural quests, faction-based PvP conflicts, and deep and engaging player crafting economy. The same is true for recently released Crowfall (2021), another new MMO that boasts more than a hundred disciplines for specializing your character.
However, rather than older MMOs being more complex than new ones, it is plausible that in more modern MMOs, the complexity is merely hidden from the player. For example, while detailed combat logs are a prevalent feature in older MMOs, they have become increasingly unimportant or even discarded in newer MMOs in favor of more visual indications of spells, melee, and damage. This does not mean that these newer MMOs do not maintain combat logs under the hood; it just means that they are not always necessary for the player to see.
The above discussion is all useful when trying to understand why old and new MMOs are different. Put simply, MMOs have now become mainstream. Whether old school MMO players (such as myself) want to admit it or not, MMOs used to be a fringe genre of gaming. Arising from obscure text-only MUDs played using internet connections that only a few people had, it was only when these games started to rival single-player games in graphics and gameplay that they became approachable to a wider audience. World of Warcraft was arguably the first MMO targeted at the mainstream (you could also just as easily say EverQuest or Ultima Online here), but this trend has continued ever since. Just look at how aggressively Amazon has been advertising New World's imminent launch, including even on TV.
In other words, I would argue that MMOs have become victims of their own success: to appeal to a general population, they have---for better or worse---become increasingly similar to single-player games. Improved technology has made it possible. And for some of us old timers, this can be a difficult thing to accept.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien for the bastardized quote at the start of this article.