This is a stream-of-consciousness post, and does not necessarily reflect a philosophy or well formed opinion. It certainly isn’t designed to represent any kind of actual theory or practice as it exists in the real world.
I want to start with this thought from Pete at Dragonchasers:
“Are MMOs the kiss of death? Blizzard was a beloved game developer before World of Warcraft came around. Now there’s definitely a loud Blizzard-hating group of gamers out there. Is Bioware going through that same transition?”
I’d like to see this in survey form, because I think that Pete’s on to something, at least in part. I’d be willing to agree that since BioWare was acquired by EA, and Blizzard by Activision, both titans have experienced a serious down-hill slide, not in quality, but in customer satisfaction brought about by design decisions. World of Warcraft got progressively easier over time, which many people feel ruins the experience, and StarCraft failed to ignite hearts here in the West (and the one-SKU-per-race decision is still a head-scratcher). Similarly, BioWare has hit some rough patches with Dragon Age II and it’s shift from their bread-and-butter tactical mechanics to a console-born action game, controversies over not including same-sex relationships in Star Wars: The Old Republic, and of course the whole Mass Effect 3 ending thing. So I’d probably be more apt to “blame” EA and Activision for handing down edicts, but Pete’s comment about a company “going MMO” got me wondering about the relationship costs for a company when they move from making single or lesser multiplayer games to making an MMO.
The very first thing that I thought about was “what does an MMO mean for the players”? MMOs are time sucks, more so then any other genre out there, I’d say. Call of Duty or Battlefield 3 or Skyrim or Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning may inadvertently keep you playing until 2 AM, but at some point, you’ll finish their campaigns and be done. Maybe you can jump in and play some multiplayer, but those are one-off experiences and are not linked together by anything more than stats and upgrades. Contrast those examples to an MMO, which is multiplayer all the time, where people are around 24/7, and where you can be logged in at any hour and find things both as you left them, and possibly changing around you (in minor degrees, like mob spawns and world events). Because of this, and because an MMO technically has no end, players generally approach these games much differently then they do single or multiplayer games. They hopefully understand that an MMO is a long haul, and therefor the expectations must be adjusted. There will be weekly maintenance windows. There will be patches. Things that you have gotten used to will change. Content will be added. Content will be removed. Friends will come and friends will go. Although most modern MMOs aren’t “virtual worlds”, they do have a persistence of landscape and, to some degree, are dynamic in that the game you have at launch will never be the same game you have in 6 months. Many players count on this, and is the reason why they prefer MMOs to single or multiplayer games.
With the understanding that an MMO is a long-haul experience, players have a tendency to become emotionally attached to the game. IPs or developer involvement aside, players create and play a single avatar (alts notwithstanding). They take them through a “growth process” towards a level cap. They make friends and enemies, and they share experiences with other people that they recall years later and which will be the only light left once their memories of the specifics of the game have faded away. These games can change people, and so MMOs are “serious business” to their players.
So the second thing I wondered was “what does making an MMO mean for the developers”? The story as I understand it is that Richard Garriott had a hell of a time pitching an online version of Ultima to EA, and that they gave him the OK not because they believed in the idea, but because they wanted him to get out of their hair. Hooray for avoidance tactics, because we got Ultima Online, and then EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, Dark Age of Camelot, and eventually World of Warcraft. Blizzard was a beloved developer who got that way by making games for people. Parse that sentence for a second, because it’s more of a powerful idea then it seems. Blizzard’s design process was to keep things simple: Diablo is a CRPG without having to worry about conversations and number crunching. WoW was EverQuest without the hardcore-ness. It was pretty, and approachable, and combined with their reputation as a developer, it blew the doors off of what anyone believed was possible in this young genre.
And the race was on. Everyone wants to get in on the ongoing revenue stream, so it seems that every major developer has an MMO on the market these days. The more people who jump into the arena, the easier it becomes for others to jump in as well, right? It’s a cornerstone philosophy of manufacturing that once something is done often enough, or by enough people, then the processes involved in production, testing, marketing, and distribution get ironed out to the point where they can be achieved without much thought. We get templates for production, and when a product can be churned out on a template, the barrier to entry falls and the market is flooded. In the case of the MMO market, the template is WoW. There are painfully few MMOs which deviate from the WoW look and feel, preferring to differentiate themselves on their art style, their IP, or on incremental changes or additions to the formula.
So I don’t think we should be surprised when other beloved companies like BioWare throw their hat into the MMO ring. BioWare is one of the few companies that I think people believe to be able to “break the mold”. After all, it’s inarguable that BioWare pretty much single handedly kept the CRPG genre afloat while the industry was moving towards more and more FPS and RTS titles. They churned out top-shelf products like Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic before they got into modern day CRPGs like Mass Effect and Dragon Age. What else could they do but take their bread-and-butter – the CRPG – and translate their “expertise” into the “final frontier” of the MMORPG?
Making an MMO is a business decision because they’re unique beasts. Whether it’s a monthly subscription or cash-shop supported, MMOs generate ongoing revenue that’s difficult for investors to ignore, especially with the games industry in a kind of “cold war” with used game sales of single and multiplayer games. While I’m sure that the developers of MMOs are gamers, it’s the dollar signs that cause the publishers to stark kicking around the idea of getting a slice of the perpetual revenue pie. This is where everything comes to a head, because we’re now at the confluence of publishers, developers, and fans.
Both Blizzard and BioWare had rabid fans before they got into the MMO space. It was both right and wrong to assume that this loyalty would translate into anything that either company did, and because an MMO needs massive amounts of people, and massive amounts of emotionally invested, loyal people, I’m sure that some bean-counters figured that it would be a direct translation from the fans of the developer to continue to be fans of the developer once they moved into the MMO territory.
MMOs require and give totally different vibes than single player games. MMOs are massive undertakings from the developer’s perspective as well, taking millions of dollars, years of development, gigabytes if not terabytes of assets, and warehouses of hardware to maintain just so players can log in, check their auctions, and log out. We talk about the “hype train” that delivers hints of a new MMO, then confirmation, then asset leaking and developer interviews, and which culminates in a massive Internet pep-rally designed to get people on-board for the release of the game. This starts at least a year in advance, and in the case of companies like BioWare, Blizzard, or NCSoft, it becomes hard to avoid official marketing materials or interviews, and harder to avoid community buzz.
This is where we start to see the real cost of making an MMO: the psychology. Gamers are dedicated. We’re all hardcore. We’re like the girls in the pictures of The Beatles concerts. We laugh at how intense Twilight fans are, but we’re just as rabid about wanting our hobby to take us to some undefined Nirvana that we’re actually willing – at some point in our gaming lives – to put our eggs in someone’s basket because the song they sing to us is so tonally sweet that we can’t imagine life without it. Promises are made, and enthusiasm spreads. We’re caught up in the hype, and we totally forget that this company has no clue what the hell they’re doing!
Sure, they’re technically proficient, and we can be assured that the product won’t be an absolute cluster-fuck, but in the case of BioWare and Blizzard, people totally hung their expectations on WoW and Star Wars: The Old Republic based on those company’s single player products. People believed that neither company could do them wrong, and neither company did do anything wrong from a technical standpoint. Where things invariably went south was in the management of expectations. Hype is what hurts MMOs early, because hype is words and concept art; players are left – and expected – to fill in the blanks with their own desires. If players don’t project their own desires into the marketing material, then marketers have failed in their mission. Once the game is released and the hype gives way to something concrete, it’s the longer term emotional attachment to characters and community that needs to be managed. MMOs aren’t really about raids and dungeons and PvP and mechanics; they’re about managing the expectations and emotional states of the customers through the life-cycle of a long-tail product.
This is where BioWare and Blizzard are losing their footing. SWTOR is BioWare’s first big-release multiplayer game. Previously, their community support was asynchronous, through bug reports and the community management of the forums. Now they have to provide 24/7 support, have employees in the game to deal with transient customer service issues that could never occur, or which could blow up and involve thousands of entrenched players. Blizzard has a different problem, in that they seem to have faltered several times over the years to achieve the balance between what the shareholders want and what the players want. WoW has become more accessible to more players in an effort to ensnare those who have (astoundingly) never played WoW, a move which has often alienated long-term, established players who are emotionally distressed at seeing their hard-won achievements now being handed out like candy at Halloween. Blizzard has teeter-tottered between putting more hardcore back into the game, while also trying to maintain a level of accessibility that they believe is needed to appeal to an untapped demographic.
Talking about and tweaking the mechanics and adding new zones and features is usually what receives the attention in a patch or an expansion announcement, but the fallout of every single bullet point in those lists is the emotional punch that accompanies them. This is where MMOs rise and fall, and the management of emotion is the true job of both developer and publisher. No user base the size of an MMO crowd can be pleased 100%, 100% of the time; the task is to please as many people as possible with each round of releases so that everyone feels that their needs are being addressed at some point, while also managing the disappointment of those who were excluded in the latest round. I think this becomes naturally more difficult the longer the game is in operation because people have had that much more time to become attached to the game, their characters, and the community, to the point where even small changes have huge ramifications. BioWare doesn’t have this level of expertise; they’re good at making games, but when it comes to “living” amongst the community, they’re just as lost as you or I would be if asked to corral players in a certain direction. Blizzard has had longer to work on this, and while just as technically adept as BioWare, their customer relations record has been spotty.
So getting back to Pete’s original question, “Are MMOs the kiss of death?” I think that the product is, as always, neutral. I think that the baggage that accompanies the development, marketing, release, and maintenance of an MMO is a high-wire act that is, at best, a zero-sum game for operators. They have to always being their A-game, have to always be on the move, and can never be off the clock because their real job is to maneuver their players through an emotional experience that’s running every hour of every day for an until number of days. The emotional investment means that players will be overly sensitive to any perceived slight, and will internalize any changes in terms of how it affects them, not how it affects the overall game. This is, of course, an impossible task since giving everyone everything that will make them happy is impossible, but both BioWare and Blizzard are experiencing backlash from failing to appropriately calculate the emotional response of their decisions.
Jazz of Girl Vs MMO brought up the topic of “dissatisfaction with the MMO genre” this weekend at PAX, and wrote about it yesterday. In the post she stated that: “I’m not quite sure what this [boredom] says about me or better yet the future of MMOs in general.” That line stuck out for me, because although I have no evidence to back it up, I’m pretty certain that the statement is a distilled essence shared by many MMO gamers.
Don’t hate the player, hate the game
Games are entertainment, and part of what makes “entertainment” entertaining is that it’s fresh. We like the discovery and the excitement and the terror of not knowing where our entertainment is going. We don’t get excited over commuting to work every single day, but if one day we suddenly had to dodge explosions, dinosaurs, and zombies, it’d be a different story because those things are new and out of the norm (although not necessarily entertaining). The more we get of the same old, same old, however, the less exciting they are to us, although there’s certainly the possibility that sequels in a movie series, or a set of novels, can offer excitement. Familiarity with the characters or settings can lead to a greater chance of diminishing returns on excitement. We’ll never get the same high from The Matrix or Star Wars as we did the first time we saw them, for example. Chances are we didn’t get the same excitement from the sequels, either (especially in the case of the the sequels to The Matrix).
So like the Highlander, there can really be only one, that first time we encounter something that really blows our socks off. That doesn’t stop others from trying to bottle that lightning, though, so as soon as some movie or book series, or MMO excites us, we see an endless parade of other, eerily similar offerings looking to get a piece of the zeitgeist. Mostly we see products that ape the popular original. After all, if people like vampires, zombies, kid-wizards, or a game with hot-bars, mini-maps, trash mobs, dungeons, raids, wall-o-text quests, and push-button crafting, then giving them more of the same is going to appeal to them just the same, right?
Problem is, we’ve already played that game. We want to be entertained and excited by the new experience…not just catered to.
There comes a time in every MMO gamer’s life…
It’s “understood” (by me, at least) that the MMO genre is basically represented by two games: World of Warcraft and EVE Online. WoW’s success was due to a “perfect storm”.. Blizzard had a powerful following in the fans of Diablo, WarCraft, and StarCraft. They launched at a time where there really wasn’t a lot of choice in the MMO market: Ultima Online, EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars: Galaxies, Asheron’s Call…certainly others, but when it comes down to honest-to-goodness alternatives, many people wouldn’t consider anything else. It’s rampant success was only partly due to it’s execution, but in my opinion it had a hell of a lot more to do with when it released, and the MMO environment at the time.
Of course over time, publishers felt that replicating WoW’s mechanics, with their own veneer on top to make it seem “different”, would be all that’s needed to get their name on the board. History has proven otherwise, as no one has ever been able to reach WoW’s numbers, and with all of the games we have now, it seems more and more unlikely that not only will no other game topple WoW’s record, but with the current design trends still chasing the same design tropes as a way to attempt success, each and every game released going forward is going to have a tougher time convincing MMO gamers to chose it as their “home game”. Anyone who thinks that churning out similar products allows them to find their own slice of success within a trend, is ignoring the fact that at some point the consumers will get tired of being provided with products that exist only to feed the trend.
That’s where many of us MMO gamers are now: We’ve reached the saturation point of the trend in MMOs. For those of us who feel tired with the MMO genre, where we question every new release with an ever-increasing skepticism, it’s really not that the genre has failed us; we’ve just out-leveled this zone.
The immediate counter-argument would probably be that yes, the industry has failed us by not innovating enough to keep us interested, as if “innovation” is hiding under the couch cushions waiting to be discovered. I will admit that it’s rapidly approaching the point where the lack of innovation leads to malaise. The question is, when will the developers and publishers realize it? It’s difficult for them, though, since at the point of concept their ideas might sound very unique and exciting. Two or three years down the road, when a lot has changed industry-wide, and when competitors have maybe launched their own products, the end result doesn’t look as hot as it did on the back of the napkin, all things considered. It’s a moving target, combined with the fickleness of the gamer population fueled by cheap Steam sales, consoles, handhelds and, yes, mobile. Everyone is leveling up their ADHD these days.
So MMO gamers who feel distanced from the genre: I think we need to accept that the genre just isn’t offering us enough excitement – which I think we have realized. It’s not that the genre is trying to move in a different direction that we don’t agree with, and it’s not that our tastes are changing. We’re bored with the familiar systems that will always have a special place in our hearts, and we’re just saddened that we don’t get the same level of excitement with each new release that we used to get, and it’s very likely the case that we won’t see anything on the horizon that will renew our love for the genre. In the end, we may just need to come to grips that our only options are to adjust, and to try and find enjoyment where we can in this sea of sameness, or to adjust, and elevate another genre to our primary interest. The optimal resolution would be for the MMO developers to really take the bull by the horns and do “something different”, but I think we’ve heard enough about games that propose to “be different” to disbelieve anyone who claims that to be the case about their game.
Although cliché, it’s appropriate: I am boldly going where everyone (except me, it seems) has gone before. The Undiscovered Country. There And Back Again…uh…
Despite having enjoyed the MMO genre for almost two decades now, I’ve never actually stuck with one long enough to reach “the end”. I’ve made it close in World of Warcraft – at least to 65, which is Vanilla’s cap – but the drive to the end game has never had any power over me. I’m more of a sightseer than an achiever, which is why it’s fitting that my very first ever level-capped character is courtesy of Star Trek Online.
In all honesty, the only reason I got to the cap is because of the duty officer system, which allows you to send your ship’s rank-and-file crew members off to do tasks, which nets you personal and duty officer XP. Basically, it’s an offline power leveling service which is more a matter of matching the crew members who are best suited for the job with a job that needs their skills then it is an actual challenging part of the game. A friend asked me, then, what’s the point? If the game is essentially leveling for you, then you’re not really playing, right?
One of the gripes I have with the MMOsphere is that the stories aren’t engaging, and that the “wall-o-text” is a poor vehicle for narrative. When we combine the potentially dozens of simultaneous quests that populate the quest log at any given time, keeping the threads of any one story straight – if we bother to read the text at all – is really an exercise in futility. Star Wars: The Old Republic tries to tackle this by forcing us (pun intended) to hear about the story through cut-scenes and voice overs, but in the end we still have a quest log full of overlapping and sometimes disjointed stories. Try going away for a few weeks and then coming back to try and make sense of a full quest log… It ain’t easy.
So in STO, I let the duty officers handle the “heavy lifting” of my advancement, while I focused on the seasonal episode arcs. STO has an excellent story-telling opportunity in these story arcs, and there have been enough of them installed since launch that I can keep busy just tackling each episode. I usually jump into the game, collect duty officer reports (XP) and then send them out again, and do one seasonal episode. With the occasional housekeeping duty (banking, Exchange, skill-point assignments) or daily mission tossed into the mix, I’m able to play the game totally at my own pace and enjoy the stories without having to worry about my need to see myself advancing in order to maintain my interest. The answer that I gave my friend, then, was that I’m playing to play, not playing to advance.
I’m only into the second seasonal arc, the Romulan episodes. There’s several more, and I expect that in the course of plowing through them (and don’t forget the community authored missions, many of which are as good or even better then the official content) there will be additional seasons released to extend the back-log. At the Admiral level, there’s the STF missions, but I tried one and I didn’t feel that I wanted to spend my time collecting an alternate currency for gear. That’s never been a driver of interest for me in theory, and now that I’ve gotten to the point where I can experience it, I’m positive it’s not a driver of interest for me.
My big question is where do I go from here – my real Undiscovered Country? I’m woefully behind on my crafting, and have basically ignored all missions except the seasonal story arcs. Most of the other missions are busy-work hold-overs from before the duty officer system, and aren’t really needed anymore for anything beyond giving the game that “Star Trek feel”. There’s other leveling to be done, in diplomacy, and to keep leveling my duty officers. At some point, I’ll need to head into the Foundry and see what I can create. Thankfully, there’s been no pressure to get to this point before, and there’s no pressure to get things done according to any community agenda or “roadmap”. Oh yeah…there’s also the Klingon side. I totally forgot about them!
Although it’s free to play, I enjoy STO enough to pay for it because I think that aside from EVE Online, STO is one of the few unique MMOs out there. It allows you to play hardcore – missions only – or as casual – allow the crew to make you look good – as you like. There aren’t too many MMOs out there that let you do that. True, the ground missions are half-assed FPS with little actual meat, and the space missions get get pretty laborious when chained end-to-end, but that’s where the “casual” works for me. STO has been one MMO that I’ve actually come to enjoy as a game, which doesn’t feel like a laundry list of tasks I need to accomplish in a hit-or-miss attempt to maintain my interest.
I like MMOs, but I’m starting to think that MMOs don’t like me. Not actively despising me, or even caring if I’m around or not, but…maybe it’s time I admit that MMOs are not my genre any more.
I know that many people will say that MMOs are at odds with themselves. They’re constantly “dumbing down” to make soloing easier and removing the need to group from the genre who’s name implies that interacting with others is central to the experience. I admit that this is how I’ve played most of my MMO career, and I have fought for the right to do so whenever challenged. I don’t like having to work by other people’s schedules, and I don’t like forcing other people to work by mine (more the later then the former, mind you). My only recourse, then, is to go it alone, to tackle objectives on my own time so I can play for as long or as little as I like and not have to worry about overstaying my welcome, or having to deal with ass-hats, or even the awkwardness of parting from a stranger when you’re done playing, but they want to forge ahead. Yes, I am sensitive about those kinds of things.
But there’s entire segments of these games that, even if I were to stick them out to the level cap, I’d never get to see. I won’t ever raid. I won’t even get to do most dungeons. PvP is generally right out because if I don’t like to rely or be relied upon, I think that revelation is self-explanatory. But I’m really not group averse. I like groups, when they’re timely, organized, have a clear goal, and aren’t taking the game more seriously then they would, say, an outbreak of Ebola in their neighborhood. I actually find that playing in groups is now more preferred then playing solo. I have found that I spend more time playing a specific title if I have other people to play with. Madness, I know!
My problem is that my friends and I all suffer from GADHD (pronounced ‘gahahhdhaedhed’). We tire easily of a particular title, and since we really only play together on Monday evenings, and then for only about two hours, forming a static group isn’t really in the cards. Normally I’d then think that for all the connections I’ve made via Twitter or G+ that there would be a wealth of worthy candidates for getting a sizable pool of companions assembled, but oddly enough, everyone seems to be playing different games, at different times, and at different speeds. That leaves me to apply to random guilds in the hopes of finding a decent group of players that I could throw in with. But I bet you can see where this is going.
My track record with random guilding is something like 0 – 10. In almost every game I’ve played, I’ve tried to sign up with a guild by trawling the recruitment forums. I gravitate towards the “family friendly” guilds because while most of their posts are cookie-cutter, they’re more or less genuine as advertised. They’ve all ben nice groups of people (for the most part), but the problem I face is that I am perennially an outsider. I am jealous of the people who have been in the same guild for years, and who actually accept and are accepted. I’ve never had that privilege, mainly because of my grouping issues enabled above, but also because of being an outsider. Sure, I volunteer for dungeon runs, boss battles, or general frivolity when I’m able and it’s offered, but I’m not the kind to insert myself into the rapport that these folks have established, and which come to the fore when two or more are gathered in a group (or chat channel). I usually then end up leaving the guild at some point without saying a word, when the fewest members are online, because I really hate the fact that I have no explanation as to why I’m leaving aside from that I don’t feel properly integrated. I have yet to receive a follow-up /tell asking me why I /gquit. I guess in that respect, it’s an amicable parting of the ways.
So when it comes to all the new raids and dungeons and high-level content that’s added with expansions or updates or patches, I think it’s really cool, except that it’s cool content that I’ll never see because I don’t have a support group, or possibly even the capacity to be part of a support group. In light of that understanding, I could only ever play a certain amount of a game (assuming I could get to the level cap), and would then have to quit anyway because while there’s a lot of content out there, none of it would be accessible to me.
So what’s my point, aside from taking the waaaaambulance out to do a few donuts in the snowy parking lot? I guess I’m realizing now that I may have always been doomed to part ways with the genre simply because my station in life has put me on the periphery of the bread and butter of the MMO. I’ve tried to blame the way people thought about them, that being solo-friendly isn’t a bad thing, and that grouping isn’t why everyone plays them. I’m sad to report that yeah, other people are the reason why people play them, or at least they’re the reason people keep playing them. I’ve been doing it all wrong all along, and have been belligerently trying to justify my inability to form connections on the fact that people weren’t seeing the forest for the trees. I guess I never understood it properly from the start, so what the hell have been doing?
First, both thanks and apologies to Scott for both inspiring this post, and for my blatant pickpocketing of his analogy. It was a good one, which brought to mind the way we bandy about phrases and memes without really dissecting them to understand them, or to realize how or even if they really equate. After Scott’s comment in the above-linked thread, I thought about the term “themepark”, and how it’s applied to MMOs, which lead me to quote to myself the words of a wise Spaniard who once said, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
MMOdom is commonly divided by the players into two types: themeparks, and sandboxes. On the surface, these all-encompassing terms are meant to convey the experience that one can expect to have based on the design considerations of the game. Neither label is technically accurate, and after reading Scott’s sidebar comment, it got me thinking about how a real themepark and an MMO themepark mesh.
Fun For The Whole Family
If you travel to Disney, or Six Flags, or whatever regional “mom and pop” amusement park you have near you, you go in with some expectations, such as the following:
- There’ll be a lot of walking, and since they’re outdoor affairs, it’ll probably be really hot (since most parks are open only during the summer, or in single-season climates).
- You’ll be hitting the gift shop at some point to buy souvenirs.
- You’ll need to locate the bathrooms as soon as you enter a new section.
- You’ll pay through the nose if you opt to dine in the park, and the food will be one step above whatever they feed cattle.
- Most importantly, though, you’re there for the rides, and you’re going to be standing in a lot of lines for a long time.
Themeparks offer a lot of things, but their main draw is the rides. Rides in an amusement park are heavily engineered and encapsulated experiences which are mathematically constructed to provide the riders with specific emotions at specific places during the ride. These emotions are usually of the type or the level that we don’t normally experience in day-to-day life: terror, exhilaration, and wonder. Although unbridled terror, exhilaration, or wonder may seem like a good and desirable thing on an animalistic level, the thing to keep in mind is that they’re all controlled here through the design of the ride itself. Assuming you don’t have a heart condition, no ride should be expected to produce fatalities, or to put you in such a state of rapture that you’ll ride the attraction over and over until you die. They give us just the right amount of emotional kick to make them stand out amongst our normal emotional triggers, which is why we seek them out as an occasional diversion from the otherwise baseline emotional state of everyday life.
But we only want these experiences now and then, because like Ben Franklin noted, all things in moderation. Amusement parks are entertainment products, and it might be assumed that constant, repetitive exposure to anything will erode the intended effect with each subsequent exposure. Watching a movie for the first time, for example, can be intense. The second time we know what’s coming, so we’re a little less invested and a little more critical. The third time and we’re actively noticing the flaws in the writing, the situations, and the effects. The same might be said for our experience at an amusement park if we were to attend the same park day in, day out. We’d tire of it, and the rides wouldn’t be as exciting as they were the first time, or if we only experienced them once in a blue moon.
Are Themepark MMOs Actually Themepark MMOs?
The “themepark” designation is applied to an MMO where the majority of the content is highly scripted to the point where the player cannot affect his or her gameplay in a personal manner.
The meat and potatoes of the themepark MMO is the quest, which is the ultimate scripted experience – the “ride” of the park. Quests are designed for a purpose, and the player is strapped into the cart and is taken along the arc of the quest until that purpose is fulfilled. During the arc, the player cannot impose his or her will on the quest to affect a different outcome, nor can he or she tackle the quest from a different angle. Like a themepark ride, the player is more or less “along for the ride”, and shouldn’t expect to have any control over the progression of the quest.
“But Chris,” you think. “I do have control, with my choice of what to attack and where to stand that isn’t the fire, and so on.” To a degree, yes, but to a greater degree, no. We’re now talking about responses to the design of the ride. It’s no coincidence that “standing in the fire” is a no-no, which is exactly the way the designers of the ride intended it to be. We pat ourselves on the back when we realize this, and chastise those who don’t, but it’s not a huge secret, and it’s the expected and engineered response to the design of the quest-ride. If we want to get the most from the quest-ride, and in many cases complete it, we must exhibit the exact responses that the design was intended to elicit.
MMOs as Themeparks
In my opinion, calling an MMO a “themepark” isn’t damning. Themeparks are places that people like to go. We plan our vacations around them, and when we give ourselves over to them, they’re a hell of a lot of fun.
What people really mean when they use themepark as a derogatory reference is really different based on the person saying it, but some examples might be as follows:
Same Rides, Different Parks
Every themepark has a rollercoaster, but no two rollercoasters are the same. In fact, rollercoasters are the arms race of the themepark world, with each new addition striving to be the tallest, the fastest, or the craziest. In the higher end parks, rollercoasters are pimped out by being inside and festooned with all manner of special effects that take the excitement of a normal rollercoaster and amp it up to 11. But at the end of the day, they’re all just rollercoasters with a different coat of paint. They rise slowly, and fall quickly, and take sharp corners and maybe they loop you upside down. They don’t shoot you into space, or underwater, or through actual lava. They just follow a track and move really fast.
When a developer trumpets a feature as new, exciting, evolutionary or – gawd help us – revolutionary, we’re skeptical because we’ve seen many, many themepark MMOs promise something new and different, but which turn out to deliver what is just another rollercoaster. Maybe it’s got a nice new tweak to the old formula, but after repeated rides, we see it for what it really is. It doesn’t mean we don’t like it any less, but we also don’t think that the PR hype was doing it – or us – any favors.
I Hate Rollercoasters; You Hate Merry-Go-Rounds
Every themepark has standard rides like the rollercoaster or the merry-go-round, but chances are if you’re a rollercoaster junkie, the merry-go-round isn’t going to light your fire. If you dislike rollercoasters, then no amount of corkscrew turns or special effects is going to get you on board. If you’re a picky rider, then there’s a good chance that almost any park you attend is going to have a certain percentage of real-estate that is going to just turn you off.
The problem here is two-fold. First, you may look longingly at an aspect of the themepark that you really don’t care for, and you may think that the space would be better used by implementing a feature that you do care for. You might even resent the fact that the unwanted feature is present at all. Second, you know that no matter which themepark you attend, there will always be an example of this feature that you don’t like.
MMOs have an ongoing battle between PvEers and PvPers, with each side complaining about the concessions and sacrifices each side has to make to support the other. In the end, this balancing act fails to satisfy anyone, and everyone ends up believing that the product is only “half useful” to them.
It’s Not About The Experience; It’s About The Gift Shop
Who hasn’t exited an intense ride only to be met with the cold shower that is being dumped directly into the crass consumerism of a ride-themed gift shop? It’s a given that you have to buy a souvenir when you’re at the park (I collect shot glasses, for example), but the constant funneling of riders through the merchandise at damn near every ride kind of takes away from the endorphin high you’re nursing after that intense trip, right? The parks designers must think that you’ll be too hyped up on adrenaline to think straight, and that the $50 snow-globe the size of a baskeball will be a totally appropriate purchase so long as they can catch you before the buzz wears off. The ride has become the anesthetic to what is an otherwise painful process of parting with your money for shoddy crap merchandise.
Much in the same way, themepark MMOs are guilty of putting the merchandise before the experience. Many people use the quest-rides as vending machines that they need to plow through in order to get the loot. They don’t care about any contrived stories that the NPC is relating, or about the arc they’re involved with. They only need to know what to kill, and how many, in order to get their merchandise. It’s like if people only rode the rollercoaster because they knew there was a chance they’d be handed the keys to a new car at the end. Would they care about being on the rollercoaster, or would they painfully endure it while praying for it to be over so they could roar out of the parking lot with their phat lewt?
All Things To All People
Amusement parks are sprawling affairs, with mammoth rides, shops, restaurants, games, and shows. Each park tries to offer an embarrassing amount of activities to keep you there as long as possible. The diversification means you really don’t need to go anywhere else, because there’s always something you could be doing, and you’ll pretty much be guaranteed that you’ll never have enough time to do it all. It’s also pretty much a given that there’ll be something for everyone, no matter whether you like rollercoasters, or prefer the merry-go-round.
The themepark MMOs try to cover all their bases as well by ensuring that no content is off-limits to anyone. All classes have access to the same quests, the same zones, the same rewards (or at least analogues of the kind). If there’s some mechanic that does prevent a player from experiencing the same content as his or her neighbor, he or she can roll and alt and do it all over again! Themepark MMOs are egalitarian, where so long as you meet the height requirements, you can have exactly the same experience as everyone else around you. No one is left feeling like they got the short end of the stick.
Of course, this means that someone gets the short end of the stick, because with both complimentary and competing decisions to be made, MMO design is a constant balancing act where one class will always be considered overpowered and another underpowered. In an effort to be all things to all people, developers perform a never-ending dance of nerfing and buffing, tweaking and repairing, that inevitably leaves a percentage of players feeling that they’ve been screwed over.
Technically, a “themepark MMO” isn’t like a traditional themepark in many ways, but in other ways it is exactly like a traditional themepark.
In the “like” category, we have the discreet and controlled environments which are designed to drive the player in a specific direction, or to have a certain emotional response. They also offer a wide range of optional activities that are neutered just enough to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. They also share an almost embarrassing array of similarities between titles, despite PR exhortations that “their system is improved” over what their competition offers.
But the “unlike” category comes down to what we get out of them. Really, themepark MMOs don’t try to convince you that they’re not themepark MMOs. Six Flags doesn’t market itself as a Chuck E. Cheese’s or a Dunkin Donuts or a GameStop. It’s not embarrassed by what it offers because like any market where a product or service is popular, that market is going to get filled by many competing products that want a piece of that particular action. If we only needed one themepark, we’d have one, not Disney, Sea World, Six Flags, Universal Studios, or any number of the one-off local parks that exist worldwide.
What’s wrong with the themepark MMO is that people expect more from them then they actually offer. It’s not damning the people, because the people are right to want more. We want the next Six Flags park to have a better, more innovative roller coaster that’s going to knock our socks off, but we still expect to have a rollercoaster. We don’t want a clone of the coaster from another park, because if we did, we’d just go to that other park. If we’re promised something exciting, it had better be as exciting as promised, from soup to nuts, and not just a paint-job on the same-old, same-old.
But players do need to realize that the point of a themepark is not to leave with the most amount of emblazoned merchandise as our arms can carry. We could stay home and order shit from Amazon if that were a measure of the fun we had over the summer. We go to the parks for the experience and the emotion. We want to feel absolute terror and to scream at the top of our lungs as we crest the rise right before the hundred-meter free-fall, or when we’re shocked and surprised by the ferocious dinosaur only inches from face when the lights come back on. That takes one giving oneself over the experience, regardless of whether or not it’s “just another rollercoaster” or just a swing through the merry-go-round.
I’m not a psychologist. I’d like to be, because if there’s anything I enjoy more than playing these games, it’s the psychology behind making them, or the psychology of the people who play them. It really doesn’t fit into the overall motif of video gaming per se, but as a blog which focuses mostly on the multiplayer genre, taking an interest in the ebbs and flows of the underlying community does present itself as a never-ending source of material, both good and bad.
One trend that’s not uncommon is this idea of self loathing, or seeing a come to Jesus moment on Twiiter, or hearing someone had an epiphany, that once they’ve come to that sudden realization that they have wasted a good portion of his or her life playing video games – or generally, a single game in particular – he or she feels compelled to tell everyone that he or she is clean and sober, and have taken it upon themselves to save everyone else from the grip of [Insert Game Title Here].
Holy shit, this annoys me.
I don’t have any quotes on hand, but let’s paraphrase, because I’m sure you’ve seen the same ones I have, or ones very much like these:
“Just canceled my [Game Name Here] account. Best. Decision. Ever.”
“I can’t believe I wasted X years of my life playing [Game Name Here].”
“I spent so much time playing [Game Name Here] that I forgot what the sun looked like.”
…and other variations on the theme. Some people even go so far as to feel that they are so born again that they sink all their money (presumably saved now that they don’t have a monthly fee to send to [Insert Company Here]) into an actual film about how piss-poor their lives were while they were in the grip of such an unholy vice.
Before we go any further, I want to put the breaks on the sarcasm and admit that addiction is a Real Thing. Some addictions are easier to understand than others (like cocaine compared to serial reality TV viewing), but any interest or compulsion need not be chemically introduced in order to trigger an addiction. Addiction in any form can ruin lives, and kudos of the highest order to those who realize that they are addicted, and who manage to break the cycle and reset their lives.
Most of the quotes I’ve seen, and the ones I want to take to task, where people are making statements as if they just left their last support group session are from people who are not addicted. These people are being sarcastic and even insulting. I used the term “born again” above because it’s extremely apt: the generally accepted thrust of the term “born again” is that a person is overzealous about their new-found “religion” (whether it’s actual religion or not) to the point where they overcompensate in the opposite direction. What they loved is now hated with equal passion. If they were a cheerleader for it, they now revile it with no minced words.
To be honest, I don’t know who these people are trying to convince: the people around them, or themselves. I’d prefer it if people make their decisions without fanfare. If you are happy that you’re no longer spending 40 hours a week raiding, then write a book, knit a sweater, volunteer at a soup kitchen, or rescue kittens, but please, spare us your self-congratulatory victory lap. Our memories aren’t so short that we have forgotten how you vehemently defended [Game Name Here] against all comers just last week/month/year. We’ve all quit games, so your accomplishment is not as Herculean to us as it is to your S.O. who’s been nagging you to spend some offline time with them, or to your GPA which has been languishing in the low decimals because it was so important that “SexehKiteh” and “Be4stMastah26” not be let down when they pinged you to take that role in the raid Monday through Sunday.
Although I’m not a psychologist, I get that people like validation, and these people will certainly get some attaboys from the peanut gallery, from others who have gone through the traumatic experience of clicking that “Cancel Account” button themselves. But we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that we didn’t enjoy it. We like playing these games, because we belly up to the bar again and again for the same potential for punishment that we’re so proud of kicking this time around. Leaving the game isn’t the real moment of pride; realizing that maybe we let things get out of hand should be the real take home message, but that would require that we admit to people that we are weak, and that we decided it was easier to shirk our real life responsibilities in favor of a virtual world and the approval of people we only know by alias. No one, especially those seeped in geek culture, ever want to appear weak, so the game becomes the demon that we’ve overcome, not our own wills.
So if you want to really get respect for breaking free, admit that you fucked up. Say “I have a problem; I see it; And now I intend to fix it”. You may not get the snarky high-fives, but it’s amazing how sometimes articulating the problem can be a more powerful force towards solving it than pushing the blame onto an inanimate object in a public forum for some short-lived slaps on the back.
Next time someone starts with some kind of e-peen swagger about their raiding abilities, I’m going to grab the back of their head and shove their face into Wurm Online until they cry. Considering it only took me about 3 minutes to reach that point, I should be able to get through a sizable chunk of the most “hardcore” MMO players out there in about…a month?
In all seriousness, Wurm is possibly one of the top hardest of the hardcore games out there, and by that I mean it’s a game that refuses to hold your hand in any way. It’s a sandbox of the highest caliber that starts you off with a lengthy tutorial which teaches you how to move, how to use tools, how to harvest trees, forage for food, mine, combine items to make better items, how to walk up hills, and how to create roads. Basically, it covers how to do everything but fight. Fighting is pretty much the low hanging fruit of the game development world, and I guess the Wurm devs figure that you already know how to swing a sword, but you really have absolutely no clue how to actually survive in the wilderness.
And survival is the name of the game! You’re given a lot of tools to start out with, but no food or water. It’s up to you to apply what you learned in the tutorial (you were paying attention, right?) to find something to eat and something to drink. Although you won’t die of starvation, everything works off your stamina, and in order to replenish your stamina, you need a full belly. So you can forage in the grass for berries. You can try and kill some animals and while you’re working on that, you can also learn how to die because the creatures in Wurm aren’t trash mobs; they’re bad-ass killing machines. Remember the initial advice Neo got in The Matrix about how to handle an Agent? That’s right; you run.
The graphics blow. But before you thoughtfully push in your chair on your way out of this post, let me explain. Wurm isn’t about the graphics. It’s barely even a game, really. It’s more of a simulator, like a street-level High Fantasy meets SimCity. The purpose of the game, so far as I can tell, is to put you to work. There’s no empty accomplishments here, no achievements that pop up when you kill something, or make armor, or tie your shoe, or just log in like in other MMOs. The success is the achievement. It’s in the survival and the progression from tree to plank to wall to house. You spend a lot of time doing what may seem like menial work – cutting down trees, making logs, making planks, and failing frequently – so when you finally get enough materials to put it all together, your hard work is meaningful. It’s something that you’ve focused on, spent time learning how to do, and actually has a use in the game. For many people (myself included), this is the ultimate progression game: tangibles, not meaningless and arbitrary numbers that are raised with each successive expansion.
One of the most interesting aspects of the game is how it’s set up to encourage – for lack of a better term – settlement. Players can buy deeds which allows them to claim land. Once a player claims land, he or she has control over that plot and can dictate who can build, who can harvest, who can plant, and who can take. Several deeds together make a village, and players can become citizens with rights to act in that village. Roads can be built to facilitate transport, and gates and fences and walls can be constructed to make real, honest-to-goodness towns. This is both a good and bad thing, though. It’s good, because people who pay for the membership (a paltry $6.50ish USD per month) to support the game have a piece of the world all to themselves. It’s bad because new players have a hell of a time finding an unclaimed place that allows them to harvest anything unless they know other people who are kind enough to let them have a tree to work on to get started with.
Remember when I said the graphics blow? That might have been a bit harsh, because to be honest, I was quite taken with much of the visuals. On my way to Darkpaw Bay (home of several Twitter Luminaries), I passed down a road that was hemmed in by several buildings, and which was over-hung by willow tree branches. It was very cozy and secluded. Later, I entered a “forest”. I put that in quotes because many in-game forests are just sparse trees here and there. This forest had a canopy so dense that I felt like I had just gone indoors. The landscape is fully deformable, so there’s hills and valleys, and gardens, orchards, mountains, animal pens…all kinds of things to see on your trek throughout the land, many of which change over time due to players making the world their own.
What I decided, then, was that Wurm Online reminded me of my fond memories of Ultima Online. Both dropped you into the world with little instruction, both gave you tools to make what you wanted, both had that element of danger even on the outskirts of an otherwise safe village. You can walk for quite some time and never see another moving object (player or creature) so that when you do see something or someone, you just have to stop for a second and evaluate your options: keep going? Fight? Backtrack? Flee? Everything we normally wade into with bravado in other MMOs requires calculation in Wurm, be it combat or crafting.
I can’t “recommend” Wurm, because it’s not something that you just download and try when you’re bored of whatever game you’re currently playing. You need to really want to try it, because you need to be honest in your attempt to make a go of it. The first time I tried it, it didn’t go well because I was overwhelmed with the options, and the lack of direction. Thanks to the help of Arkenor, Stargrace, and Petterm, I’ve had a much better time my second time around, and that foot in the door is really what is needed to see how the game can grab you (if you’re interested in being grabbed in this manner).
I am not whining. I am not kissing-off. I’m not looking for (any more than the usual) attention (that anyone who blogs appreciates).
In fact, this is more of a revelatory post than anything else.
So this morning, I decided that I had experienced my fill of Star Wars: The Old Republic. I hadn’t logged in for a few days, and the last time I did, I had forgotten where I was in the story. In the absence of that critical feature, I just couldn’t get excited about what was left: trashing mobs between objectives; rinse; repeat. This isn’t a bash. SWTOR is an excellent game, very well done, and is a worthy addition to the MMO genre. My ADHD just got the better of me once more, and when I don’t log in to a game for a few days, it’s always hard for me to return to it. In this case, blame Star Trek Online.
Yeah, STO. It’s older. It’s sometimes polarizing. But I got an email saying that I could get in early for the F2P shift because I was a lapsed subscriber, and I’m finding that I’m having a lot of fun with it. This is not unusual for me. I find that I have returned to most of the MMOs I’ve quit. In thinking about my future with SWTOR, I actually thought about this cycle: if I return to these games later on, and potentially have a lot of fun with them, why did I quit them in the first place?
Like a lot of gamers I know, I’m pretty easily swayed by hype. It’s OK; I’m man enough to admit that marketing materials are super-effective when it comes to new games, most of the time. What really pushes me over the edge is the excitement generated by the People I Trust™ on the social networks. When the tide rises and people start peeing their pants over the next MMO, it’s infectious, so long as I can find something about the game that I can enjoy, I’m more then willing to jump on board on day one and play hard until the steam runs out. That’s when I usually quit, and it mysteriously ends up being around the mid level 30s.
But then I return at some point down the road. I have done it for EVE Online, Everquest II, Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online, and many others that I just can’t remember right now. Usually at that point, I end up having a lot more fun then I did the first time around. So my mental task for this morning was this: How can I skip that initial burnout, and just get that second-wind enjoyment?
When I say “play hard”, it’s not as hard as other people. I’m a fairly casual hardcore gamer; I play frequently, I play many things, I play on almost all platforms, but I don’t usually use guides, and my goal has never been to get to the “end game” of any MMO. I end up leveling much slower then others around me, which is both OK and a pain in the ass, but if I’m in at launch, I usually ramp up the participation. I played 15 hours straight on Rift’s launch day, and maybe 9 hours for SWTOR. So when I say “burnout”, it’s not in the traditional sense; it’s more like I get a point of fatigue where I allow another game to intercept my time, and then my momentum is broken. So “Play hard” is really in relation to the end result: a precipitous decline in time spent in the game, which translates into a “what the hell have I been doing?” sobering up.
When I go back, though, it’s usually after the announcement of an update or expansion. Developers have had time to fix issues and release new content. When I return in these situations, I’m seeing the game with fresh eyes, and have something new to experience in the process. Unlike the new release, there’s no pressure when I return. I’m not surrounded by people rushing to the level cap, and I’m playing the game because I want to, not because I got swept up in the excitement of marketing and communal hysteria.
The problem is, I can’t skip that initial foray into the game and just get to “the good stuff” because it’s precisely that initial leaving that allows me to have those relaxed epiphanies that I enjoy so much more. When I (or we, if you agree with me) fire up a new game, it’s new in so many ways (even SWTOR, with it’s classic theme park sensibilities, had that “new game smell” about it). There’s new artwork, new UIs, new mechanics, new vistas, and new people. Even those repeated tropes we see across many MMOs are tweaked and for a little while it’s possible (if you allow yourself to) to see them all in a new light. New games offer new discoveries, and it’s fun to make those discoveries alongside everyone else. When the dust settles, though (for me, around the 30s), I’ve gotten into the groove. The mechanics have been memorized, the UI is burned into my mind, and one zone starts to looks an awful lot like the previous zone, in composition if not design. Here’s where the fatigue may set in unless there are extenuating circumstances to negate it – like people to play with on a reliable basis.
Returning to a game that’s familiar, but changed slightly, makes it an almost different beast. You get a little bit of that “newness” back as you try to remember what your abilities do, and where you are, and what you’re supposed to be doing. Chances are at this time, anyone you might have known in the game has either left, or is on his or her Nth round of alts. The players have rubbed the game to a smooth sheen in your absence, and it’s now comfortable and relaxed, like a comfy armchair in front of a fire on a cold evening, as opposed to the mad crush of Wal Mart at 4AM on Black Friday that we have with launch days.
So it’s because I spent that initial mad rush shoulder to shoulder with everyone else on launch day, learning the ropes, that I get that disappointment of losing all the “new” from the game out of the way, and can come back to the game and appreciate it when the dust settles. I can’t ever expect to start a new game – even six months after it launches – and to stick with it through to the level cap. I apparently need this cycle of hype-play-quit-rest-replay in order to get the kind of comfortable enjoyment that I need to enjoy these games.
For a video of the space combat…and some sexy spoilers of Bioware’s unique brand of “adult content”…check out my recorded Livestream.
I was fortunate enough to get an invite to a smaller beta weekend, the last, last public event of the testing period. The game opens for “early access” for pre-orders in 10 days (or so), and it’s been announced that anyone with a recent beta client can just patch it up to retail. I’m pleased, because I’m sure there’s a Comcast sniper on a neighbor’s rooftop, waiting for me to walk in front of a window.
This weekend, I completed the third part of the Trooper’s story on Coruscant (level 16), and at the end, I was given my starship. This was really the reason why I wanted to get in on the action this weekend, because I wanted to see how it worked as a mode of transport, and also how the space combat worked out. I was unsure how to get my companions doing their thing while on-board, but realized that it’s mostly a downtime scenario which allows you to send them out to collect or craft without having to worry about needing them back in time to watch your ass should combat arise. Plus, when out in the field, your companions back on the ship can be sent out or be made to craft stuff, even as you’re in combat:
Droid: “Yeah, L.T. I need something to do…”
Me: “Christ! We’re under heavy fire here, can it wait a while?!”
Droid: “Uh, sure… I guess. I’m still getting paid, though. Right?”
The space combat is a decent diversion. I’m going to go out on a limb and equate it with the rifts in Rift from a psychological standpoint. Both exist to break up the monotony of running everywhere, and give the players another way to earn XP. You can switch between ground-pounding and flying the unfriendly skies pretty easily (if you’re in your ship), so heading back to your ship after a hard day’s work will afford you the greatest opportunity for activities the next time you log in. I admit, though, I didn’t RTFM, so I was flying around with no clue about what I needed to do or how to do it. I failed one mission twice because I didn’t know what objectives I needed, or how to use my missiles (Right mouse button, of course). Also, I picked up some upgrades for the ship, and when ON the ship, right clicking them made them vanish…but I got no confirmation that anything happened. Ah well.
I am still impressed with “story as a vehicle” for getting me to “do stuff”. I artificially cut myself off at a decent point in the story. I admit: it was hard because I don’t really have a plan to play a Trooper in release, so I knew I wouldn’t “spoil” anything by experiencing the story here. But I realized that even though I might not go Trooper, I will be asked to tackle the 75% of the Coruscant missions that I have done, and which are non-class-specific. The further I progress as a Trooper, the more tempted I’ll be to pick up those side-missions, only to have to tackle them again in release. I’m usually not a fan of re-doing content, which is why I’m not an alt-aholic, and is something that I suspect SWTOR is going to break me of.
I do have one spoiler, so highlight the rest of text if you want to see it (it’s Trooper specific, so if you don’t plan on playing a Trooper, spoil away!)
One good thing about relying on the story is that Bioware has made connections between you and NPCs which reaches across time. When I had to bring down the Black Sun cartel, I was put in touch with an undercover operative named Jaxo. During the conversations, I had a chance to [Flirt], so I did, but I eventually walked away to the next mission.
The first mission off Coruscant had me rescuing a kidnapped Senator from a space station, and my local contact was Jaxo. Once again, I used the flirty options, and at the end, she invited me to “visit” her at her place back in the Black Sun territories sometime soon.
So I did. And we did. Sadly, there’s no achievement for “Intergalactic Booty Call”.
If you watch the Livestream, forward to 59:40 to get a taste of how Bioware handles this kind of thing
This isn’t super-predicated by anything in particular, except that Skyrim continues to be relevant at this time, even with the impending bull-rush that will be the more-or-less open beta for Star Wars: The Old Republic this weekend. Of course, since I write a lot about MMOs and their people, it seems almost a given that this topic should come up here. I’d like to register the fact that I am totally against the idea of an Elder Scrolls MMO, and would suggest anyone who enjoys Skyrim to do the same.
Skyrim is a sandbox game, which is a term that many people use often to refer to MMOs that don’t force you to progress mainly through a railroad of quest chains. You’re allowed to go where you want, when you want, and if you come across something that’s more interesting to do at the time, then you’re welcome to do it without having it affect your potential to complete any other tasks (which is a tangent for another post). Sandboxes are about freedom, and Skyrim takes the further by allowing you to pick up anything that isn’t nailed down, to become a vampire or a werewolf, to own multiple houses, to command retainers, to slaughter villagers and their chickens, to construct, enchant, and do alchemy while shooting fire from your bare hands and unleashing powerful shouts in the ancient language of the dragons.
Seems like a perfect candidate for an MMO, right? Sorry, no.
Wanting more of something great doesn’t automatically mean that it’s appropriate to have that thing appear in another form, especially when transmuting said thing into said other form would require massive concessions that would severely neuter what made the source material so great. Skyrim works so well as an ultra-sandbox because it’s single player. There’s only one instance of that particular moving part – the player – which means that the design decisions are far different then they would be if there were hundreds of thousands of players that all have to be made happy enough to continue to play (and pay). The sandbox element would certainly be nerfed because not everyone could loot that barrel or slay that dragon without the game resorting to MMO tropes like instancing and re-spawning…two examples of things that the lack of which makes Skyrim pretty great. MMOs need to be designed to offer equal opportunity to all players, which necessitates throwing most of Skyrim out the window.
Of course, that’s not an assertion that’s set in stone. MMOs are the way they are today because “conventional wisdom”, accountants, and forum whiners have made them so. They are designed to appeal to a wide audience through egalitarianism, so that your choice of race, class, or even gender should neither grant a benefit or apply a detriment to your opportunity to experience content from start to finish. Classes are designed to compliment one another in a triangle of arrows that proves the effectiveness of the “Holy Trinity” in order to get people to play together, but each class also needs to stand out so that choosing one over another has meaning, but then there has to be balance between the classes in PvP, because those players need to kept as happy as those who don’t do PvP. So the next time you think about bitching about balance or opportunity in an MMO, consider this broad overview and realize that MMOs are about keeping as many people as happy as humanly possible while trying to keep all of these eggs and chainsaws in the air. It’s not an easy task, and is probably the second choice job for developers, because they couldn’t find a job as a police attack dog test subject. The unspoken bottom line, then, is that many thing could be done if developers could (or would) jettison the notion that everyone needs to have the same opportunities open to them. That’s a loaded idea, and in the interest of tl;dr, I have to leave it hanging out in space like that for now.
But there are other roadblocks to making an Elder Scrolls MMO. Part of what makes Skyrim kick so much ass is that you can intend to make a bee-line from point A to point B, only to wake up three hours later after having stumbled up seven mountain paths, clearing two forts, a dwemer mine, and served as an errand boy or girl for a few daedric princes, just because you were curious. If this were an MMO, there would be 200 online guides which play connect-the-dots, telling players where everything is, what you get from it, and which order to tackle them in order to maximize your stats, and other players would be on your ass if you didn’t use those guides. Basically, it would totally ruin the point of a sandbox game, which is that “Ooh! I wonder what’s on the other side of this mountain!” sense of exploration and reward that anyone who’s played Skyrim is probably familiar with.
So no, I don’t think the Elder Scrolls would be served by having an MMO set in it’s universe. Yes, it could exist “out of time” the same way earlier Elder Scrolls games do, but let’s face it: people would expect Skyrim: The MMO but would end up with something that’s associated in name only, leading to disappointment and a troll-feeding frenzy across the Internet. Instead, let’s keep our Elder Scrolls apart from our MMOs because we need to have games like Skyrim to keep us grounded, and to offer us a break from the grind of the “modern” MMO.