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Why Do Modern MMOs Feel So Different Than Old School Ones?

Hint - It Isn't Cash Shops, Kickstarters, Or Pay 2 Win

Mitch Gassner Posted:
Editorials 0

What I’m about to say is going to make me sound like one of those old-school MMOers who is stuck in the past, but it has to be said, so here goes. Modern-day MMORPGs just don’t feel the same as old-school MMOs. Hear me out before passing judgment, though. I’m not suggesting that old-school MMOs are better than modern MMOs. I’m not saying that tab targeting is better than action-based combat, or that the holy trinity of a tank, DPS, and healer make a better party than a group of self-sufficient characters.

No, those differences have been around almost as long as the MMO genre itself. I’m talking about the big picture here. I’m saying that there has been a shift at the core of the genre that gives the more modern titles a completely different feel than the older MMOs. There have been fundamental changes to how MMOs are designed and consumed. Changes that have turned dedicated players that would stick with an MMO for years into a transient group that hops from one MMO to the next in a matter of weeks. 

Modern MMOs Are Easier (But Not Really)

Do you remember corpse runs? I do. How about having to run across multiple zones to get to your destination instead of simply teleporting from city to city? Heck, there was a time when having a map as part of the UI was unheard of. What I’m getting at here is that old-school MMOs were so much more hardcore than the easy mode that developers incorporate in today’s MMOs. Not!

Claiming modern MMOs are easier than old-school titles is a bit of a misnomer. Let’s face it - old-school MMOs weren’t actually hard. Those corpse runs weren’t hardcore. You just ran back to where you had died, gathered up your stuff, and high-tailed it out of there before the mobs could kill you again. It was even easier in the MMOs where you stayed dead until you picked up your stuff. 

The removal of those archaic mechanics hasn’t made MMOs any easier, it’s just made them more convenient to play. The difficulty was just an illusion that played off of your fear of immediately dying again, even though the first death could have been avoided if you had been paying attention in the first place. It’s not like corpse runs made you any wiser or a better player; I should have already learned that lesson from the initial death.

Ultimately, that corpse run was just a time sink that penalized you for your careless actions. Now when you die, you resurrect with all of your gear intact and can immediately head back out and start adventuring again. You didn’t get to skip anything except the mundane and repetitive task of retrieving your body. That’s not easier, it’s just more convenient. 

The same can be said about the quality of life improvements in modern user interfaces. For example, having a map doesn’t make finding a point of interest any easier than it used to be. NPCs have always given you enough information to find whatever you were looking for. It may have taken you a little bit longer to actually find that hole in the ground where the treasure is buried, but it was never hard. And if an NPC told you to head north and kill 10 wolves, it’s not like you had to track those wolves down. You just headed north until you saw some wolves in your path and started killing them.

So, are modern MMOs actually easier? No, but they are way more convenient.

Modern MMOs Lack Individuality

Back in the day, each MMO had its own unique feel. Everquest was different from Anarchy Online. Maplestory played differently than World of Warcraft. And every game had a dedicated player base that was drawn to it due to its individuality.

Some of that individuality was lost during the WoW Clone era as capitalism took hold of the genre. Innovation slowed as developers and publishers tried to create the WoW Killer, and instead of fueling profits, it only helped to push developers further away from taking risks in the MMO genre. 

Over the last several years there has been somewhat of a resurgence in new MMOs, yet the lack of individuality has only gotten worse due to the industry-wide move from proprietary game engines to third-party tools like Unity and Unreal Engine. Art assets, character animations, and audio may not be exactly the same since each developer will add in their own assets, but there is enough generic stuff out there that you can’t help but notice the similarities from one MMO to the next.

With both the aesthetics and game mechanics being copied from game to game, it should be no surprise that players no longer feel connected to one title over the others. It’s easy to move from game to game, rushing through the content or quitting after a few hours because a new game has nothing new to offer.

Modern MMOs Have Faster Leveling

There is no doubt that leveling took longer in old-school MMOs than it does in modern offerings. The first few levels have always been thrown at you at an accelerated pace to help you unlock a few of your character’s skills, but after five or ten levels things started to stretch out.

Throughout the leveling process, you grew into your character. You gained skills at a steady pace and figured out how to weave them into your combat rotation. Your character’s power slowly increased as well, both through inherent stat increases and gear progression. These increases were realized by the ever-growing floaty numbers that flew off of your enemies as you damaged them or your allies as you cast heals upon them.

Modern MMOs have accelerated the whole process. The initial level rush is doubled, possibly even tripled, before experience gains are reeled in and leveling slows down. In last year’s Elyon, I had reached level 20 by the time the tutorial mission was over. That’s just shy of half of the end-game soft level cap of 45. And those remaining 25 levels still came at an unexpectedly fast pace.

That may not sound like a huge deal. Character levels are just some subjective numbers that help players determine their general power level in relation to other characters, right? Possibly, but it’s the increased speed at which you are gaining power that is the issue. Giving players access to abilities one after the other in quick succession never gives them the chance to learn the nuances of their character. They never learn which abilities are situational and which should be spammed as soon as they are off cooldown. Players hitting the end game content with unfamiliar characters is just like giving 16-year-old keys to a Ferrari - things are going to get messy.

Modern MMOs Backload The Grind

Players hitting the end game with characters they don’t know how to control is only half of the problem. The other issue at hand is the grind. You know about the grind, right? It’s the repetitive quests or killing of monsters that developers put into an MMO to keep you playing… and paying. In old-school games, much of the grind took place during a character’s middle levels. The early levels gave you enough of a rush to push you deep into the many hours it would take to grow your character. And as that initial rush started to wear off, you persevered through the last few levels you needed to start playing the end game content. There was just enough carrot dangling to keep you playing for months on end.

With the quicker leveling of modern MMOs, virtually all of the grind is now pushed to the end game. You might be thinking, “You’ve always had to grind at the end game.” And you’d be right. 

You’ve always had to grind dailies and dungeons and raids. It was worth it though. You had already invested a ton of time leveling up your character and, more importantly, becoming invested in their progress. You had already spent weeks or months building your power. And now you could get to the brass tacks of it all and begin the final grind of getting all of your best in slot gear.

Now, instead of slowly building up a resistance to the grindy nature of MMOs, you hit the end game grind with minimal investment. You don’t have all of your previous achievements to push you forward for that last tier of gear. And even if you do hit the end game with some sort of resolve to finish your character’s progression, you are quickly defeated by the fact that you aren’t grinding for a single tier or two of upgrades. You are really just beginning a grind that is full of marginal improvement after marginal improvement.

The Mystery Is Gone From Modern MMOs

The first time I loaded into Everquest I didn’t know what to expect. Yeah, I knew it was a fantasy world and I’d be taking on quests as I leveled up. Beyond that, though, the world and what it contained was an unknown. I ventured out and learned as I went. Every once in a while I would bump into someone who had played more than I had, and they would share some of their knowledge, but the vast majority I learned on my own.

With old-school games, most of the game was a mystery until you experienced it firsthand. If a friend or your guildmates hadn’t run a dungeon, you were all entering it with little to no knowledge of what to do. As you came to each boss, you’d have to figure it out on the fly, learning piece by piece as you wiped and restarted. Once your guild knew how to run a dungeon or a raid, they kept that knowledge close to the vest. It was almost a badge of honor if you knew the mechanics of a specific boss fight.

Today, that mystery is gone. The second someone completes a new dungeon or raid, there’s a video of it up on YouTube. It could still take a few runs before your group figures out the exact timings, but that thrill of figuring it out all on your own is gone. Even if you want to go in blind, good luck finding a full group where no one knows what is going to happen. And many groups will drop a random player if they are holding them back.

It’s even worse when an Eastern MMO migrates to the West. When an Eastern MMO is brought to the West, they are usually several patches behind the original game. Anyone excited about the upcoming game will have already viewed videos of all of the dungeons, read the ins and outs of each class ad nauseam, and otherwise already skipped the learning curve. 

Some players hit the ground running already knowing the quickest ways to gain experience and wealth. They level up faster than any developer ever expected and hit the level cap well before any new content is expected to come out. 

Modern MMOs Lack Community

Old-school gamers are always quick to let anyone who’ll listen know how old-school MMOs are better than newer titles. However, if you ask 100 self-proclaimed old-school gamers what makes them better and you’re likely going to get 100 different, and often contradictory, answers. There is one point of contention, though, that is almost universal - modern MMOs don’t share the same feeling of community that was found in older MMOs.

Here’s a hot take for you - although free to play, cash shops, microtransactions, and pay to win are often attributed as reasons that the feeling of community in MMOs has eroded, cross-server play and mega servers are the real culprits behind the decline of community in the MMORPG genre.

Bigger servers and cross-server LFG queues do make a game more massive, but few people ever consider that making game populations too large can be a detractor. A larger pool of players indeed makes it easier to find a group of people to run through a dungeon or two. Running a couple of dungeons with people you’ll never see again isn’t how you build a community, though.

To build a community, people need to have repeated contact. The first time I ever joined a guild wasn’t because of a guild leader sending me a blind invite or someone spamming their guild recruitment message in open chat. It was because I kept running into the same players night after night. Some of those players landed on my do not play with list, but a few of them quickly became players I would check for every time I logged in. After a little while, I asked a couple of those players about their guild, and next thing you know, I was invited in and was part of their community.

Had there been cross-server queues, there’s a good chance that I would have never joined that guild. And without that guild, who knows how long I would have continued to play that game. And it’s that type of anecdotal story that resonates throughout the old-school games. Stories of players that met up at a spawn point in Everquest and became friends for life. What you don’t hear in modern MMOs is how a larger player base kept someone playing longer. No matter how much or how little you play, sooner or later the content an MMO has to offer will run out and become stale. And without a community of friends to keep you coming back day after day, it’s just too easy to move onto one of the hundreds of other MMOs out there in search of something new.


Mitch Gassner

Part-time game reviewer, full-time gaming geek. Introduced to Pac-Man and Asteroids at a Shakey's Pizza in the '70s and hooked on games ever since.