Friday, September 26, 2008

What happened to my MMORPG?

Frankly, anything that has a title so long that it has to be shortened like that is rather scary. I mean…the shortened version is almost as long as the regular version. So, what is happening with the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG for medium)?

They suck. That’s what’s happening. Stay with me folks. Most MMORPGs out there today suck. They’ll claim they don’t suck, but they do. They will also claim they have come a long way, but they haven’t, really.

Now, I don’t mind MMOGs, don’t get me wrong. It’s the MMORPGs that are just…wrong. But what exactly is wrong? Let’s start anywhere, anywhere at all…oh, how about magic? Magic systems in use in most fantasy-themed MMORPGs today are by and large the same magic systems pioneered by D&D games nearly two decades ago. There are flashier, prettier, and have some bells and whistles added on the side, but the way magic affects the characters and players within the games has remained exactly the same - it seems game developers have read a single fantasy book and never bothered with another one. Magic is offensive, defensive or utilitarian (make my rusty kettle shiny again). It's usually bound to a single magic meter of some kind (I wonder if Gandalf the Grey had one), and it doesn't interact with the environment.

Fire bolts fly into dry brush without so much as a spark and ice bolts leave green grass unperturbed. No one seems to want to bother to really explore things like complex interactions of multiple spells, creative ways of using defensive spells offensively and vice versa. No one is considering the possibility of using that shiny kettle spell on your shield to reflect fire bolts. No one is considering what actual sources of magic (other than the stupid MP bar!) it might be interesting to represent. How about directly using the environment to source magic power? Like drawing magic power for water related spells from lakes and streams, fire related spells from lava rocks and the sun, air spells from windy gullies…

How about we look at questing? The thing that is commonly referred to as “quests” in modern day MMORPGs is a shame upon the true meaning of the word. When exactly did running between towns carrying useless objects between useless NPCs has come to be known as a quest? That is a $3 an hour job for bicycled teenagers, not a quest. Neither is killing rabbits by the hundreds, or wolves by the dozen. No, not even Charr. Not a quest. Sorry.

What is a quest? A quest is an involved, perilous, unique adventure; an adventure, mind you, that is usually undertaken by a character because it is part of his own story, his place in the world, his belief system. NOT because he needs that 70 platinum for a new piece of armor he is saving up for. It's no wonder that so many of the older, more mature gaming demographic never stick with an MMORPG for too long: a world that defines your place in it by assigning you deliveries is not exactly something that people who look for more than just “hack and slash” in their gaming experience want to keep coming back to. World of Warcraft made a very tiny, but ultimately important step in the right direction in the area of questing - but very, very much more is truly needed.

Though, I am reminded of a story about how two people were going to have their wedding on WOW. Seems that a bunch of people who played orcs or goblins got wind of the wedding. While the ceremony was taking place, they trashed the wedding and killed everyone.

I really wish I could have seen that.

The fact of the matter is, proper “questing” could be implemented in any current MMORPGs without so much as a new line of code - all it would take is a dedicated, motivated community of players coupled with a little visionary leadership from those running the game. Literature is chock full wonderful adventures, intrigue, and mystery - core components of a true quest. I don’t want any more “trading sequences” in games.

The examination of the questing problem in particular leads us to a useful generalization, which is that the problems with the current batch of massively multiplayer RPGs lie with the very factors that are supposed to make MMOGs such a unique genre - massive-multiplayerism (this is now a word) and world persistence. Many of these games make such poor use of the massively multi-player aspect, they become, from the player interaction point of view, little more than glorified chat rooms augmented with rudimentary combat and item exchange. To make things worse, even this benefit usually comes at the price of greatly dumbed down gameplay mechanics as compared to most single-player PC RPGs. As a result, most serious RPG fans are better off with just a regular role-playing game.


alex-ness said...


I like those orcs. They seem to get it.

Derek Handley said...

Well said. I once worked on the production of such a game, and I quickly realized that it had little to do with the role-playing and questing that I knew from pen&paper games. I just couldn't see the appeal in what the company wanted to do, so I parted ways with them. I'd rather play with a dedicated group and a GM, whether offline or on.