An MMORPG Love/Hate Affair
by Damien Foletto
While single player CRPG's will always remain my favorite genre of video game, I also very much enjoy MMORPG's. There, I said it - and I do not regret that I said it! I like, and am a fan of, MMORPG's! I like being able to group up with friends and adventure in a vast, danger filled persistent online world. I like having the option of going it solo, knowing that at any time I could find like-minded players and group up if I get lonely. I like the variety of bad guys, the (often times thinly veiled) story lines, and fumbling upon that one item that makes my character stand out in the crowd. There are many things that I like about MMORPG's, however, there are also many things that I would like to see MMORPG's do, or change, in the future, and then I might love MMORPG's.
Right now, MMORPG's are like having a new, potentially worthwhile girlfriend - you think to yourself, "this could be the one," and eagerly wait to see what the coming months will bring. Ultimately, though, the fire dissipates after a few months, you're bored doing the same old thing over and over again, and you're ready to move on. Then another candidate comes along showing great potential, and the same, wonderful feelings of anticipation resurface. The cycle starts anew.
So what kills an MMORPG for me (and I am talking about "for me," here. I am writing this article from the perspective of me being a fan of the genre)? I think the core of it is that there are five things that most current MMORPG's hold as law to presumably be successful; the player must be able to group, kill, loot, craft, and level. These items are held in the forefront of the core game design, with story and player centralism as secondary (or even tertiary) requirements - or so it seems. No MMORPG has ever made me feel like I was the hero of the world, or even a heroic contributor. I always felt like I was one among many, with fleeting moments of heroism from battles well fought. Now, I did have fun with the MMORPG's I did play and have fond memories from the characters I made. For example, I loved my troll Thane, Puuk, who battled evil critters in the world of Midgard in Dark Age of Camelot. His divine powers coupled with his awesome prowess with his two-handed hammer left many monsters swimming in pools of their own ichor. He was always well received in groups and, because I focused his stats more towards offense than defense, he more than held his own with the pure melee characters. But even with a fun, powerful character such as Puuk, the game lost its appeal after almost a year of on-again, off-again play. There are only so many mobs to kill and so much loot a player can gather before the whole thing becomes overly repetitive, especially when there is no central story to egg my character on.
But then I was introduced to Anarchy Online - after their first expansion which fixed a lot of the pains from initial release. Anarchy Online had three things that really appealed to me; the first was it was science fiction based. After playing Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and even a short stint on Everquest, I was more than happy to dive into a science fiction based MMORPG. The second appealing factor was the high amount of character customization, especially in appearance. People like to feel different, but also like to stand out from the crowd (disclaimer: at least they do in MMORPG's). Anarchy Online had the most detailed avatar customization that I had ever seen. Everything from trench coats to full battle armor to bikinis (I'm still in therapy after seeing an Atrox in a bikini). The last and most appealing aspect was their instance mission (private realm/dungeon) system. This was revolutionary to me. It was the first step, in my eyes, at an attempt to grab the single player aspect of having the game revolve around me rather than the world revolve around itself. I had a great choice on how I wanted to play the game. I could click on a terminal, read the little story behind the mission, and then choose my mission based on difficulty and whether or not I was in a group. I even got to choose a mission based on the reward! THIS WAS HUGE! I cannot emphasize enough the importance of giving the player choices on how they can play a game, and Anarchy Online seemed to get it. I was happy - for a time.
However, even though Anarchy Online had a great mission system with great choices on how I wanted to go about them, the missions eventually got very repetitive to me. The missions boiled down to either go kill this individual, while taking out the subordinate lackeys; go poison the food supply (or whatever) and deal with the lackeys; find the notes/data disk/finutinator and bring it back, after dealing with the lackeys, etc. I suppose these missions would be fine if they advanced some sort of story for my character, but alas they did not. I felt like I was in the proverbial MMORPG level grind, and the romance was ending.
I all but gave up on MMORPG's until I started following what would have been a revolutionary product. This game was called Mythica. Aside from the very cool setting of Norse mythology and the ascent to godhood, the most appealing aspect to me was the multi-leveled, story driven, player centric instance missions. In theory, every instance mission was its own world where the player(s) could tackle the main and side quests in a number of different ways and achieve goals through varying means. The NPC's who the player was supposed to help would recognize the player character's accomplishments and offer their worship to the player, furthering the player's ultimate quest to godhood. After completing the instance mission, the player could go back to the general population areas and boast about their latest endeavors, go hunting baddies, or go for a few rounds of PvP (player vs. player) in a special battlefield straight out of Norse mythology where warriors would battle, die, and come back to celebrate the highlights of the battle. This was the ultimate player ego-stroke and Mythica stood the best chance, in my mind, of brining compelling single player experiences to the MMORPG genre. But sadly - and mysteriously - Mythica was cancelled.
I ended up trying a few other MMORPG's, looking for that elusive extended fun factor, but I was unsuccessful. I will not mention the other titles I tried since I do not want to totally bash them, but suffice it to say they followed the five laws of MMORPG's to the letter while completely ignoring any semblance of creativity or even user friendly game play. Where were the "next generation MMORPG's" that I kept hearing about? Was there anyone out there trying something different? Well yes, there are a few, but I want to first get into what I want to see in future MMORPG's. These are the things that will make me a happy gamer in the genre, and maybe even make me love MMORPG's.
The first thing I want to see put into MMORPG's are in-depth instance missions. Not just missions that give the player another outlet for level grinding, but meaningful, interactive, story driven instance missions that have an influence on a larger, overall story arch. Oh, and plopping down a non-descript structure in the middle of nowhere and populating the perimeter with baddies that any passing bozo can shoot is not my idea of an instance mission. I want to get a private mission where there is more than one way to solve the main mission quest. I want there to be multiple objectives, with some of those objectives as optional. I want in-mission, friendly NPC's to recognize my (or my team's) efforts and praise me and offer me gifts. I want my successfully completed mission to have an actual affect on the game's main, ongoing storyline, even if it is in a very small capacity (being realistic, here) - perhaps by weakening the affected bad guy's presence in the world by some small measure. And I don't want to have to jump through hoops to get the "privilege" of doing an outlandishly hard instance mission when I reach level "something-teen." I want instance mission opportunities at each and every level. And I want choices when given the opportunity of choosing missions. Let me choose not only what kind of mission to do (main mission quest), but also let me choose the reward. I'm fine with nice, surprise, random drops, but let me choose my main reward so I'm not let down at the end of the mission because I was rewarded with the "Amazing Flimmer of Extraordinary Uselessness!" Lastly, I want to feel heroically bad-ass in my instance missions (or any mission, for that matter). I don't want to do anything that resembles a bunny hunt. I want to feel like my character is actually a hero who can do heroic things right out of the gate. I can be a loser killing rats and bunnies in real life, let me be a hero in my virtual life.
Next in my wish list are fully customizable avatars. I want to look unique while roaming around in a persistent online world. Right off the bat, let me choose my skin color, build, height, face, tattoos, hairiness, and, to some degree, what I'll be wearing when I first enter the online world. And don't just give me three or four choices; give me two or three dozen choices so I don't look like fifty-percent of the rest of the online population. I don't want my toon (another word for online avatar) to look like he was a product of mass inbreeding. And during my adventures through the wonderful online world, let me upgrade my look, and not just with clothing. Let me get new tattoos, scars, hair coloring, nose ring, etc. Let me be able to advance my look to reflect my online bad-assness (Anarchy Online pretty much does all this, so they get high praise from me in that department).
Another thing I would like is to have a lot of fast travel options. One thing I cannot stand with most MMORPG's is that the newbie to the world is not only punished for playing the game by having to kill five-hundred bunnies/rats/bats, but further humiliated with lengthy, boring land travel. Running around the countryside for thirty minutes looking for that special village/hut/hermit/crash site, all the while being either chased, or otherwise molested, by high level baddies, is not my idea of a good time. Even if the route is "safe," the most beautiful scenery can become monotonous after the fiftieth time. Let the player travel where they want, when they want, as quickly as they want. If the player wants to skip the glorious, artsy landscape that some poor artist spent 90 hours a week for 13 months to put together, then let that player skip it and enjoy rapid travel. And for the love God (whatever you hold that to be), don't make the price so outlandish that only power-gamers can afford rapid travel. In fact, make all forms of travel FREE! That nifty griffin that flies all over creation carrying passengers - FREE. That space shuttle that carries varied player characters with questionable fashion sense to far off planets - FREE! Having travel be free will not ruin the local economy. And if the player is not a high enough level to go to a particular part of the world, then have a guard simply say, "You are not prepared for the dangers that await you in that realm," and block their entry if it is really that horrendous and will break the game into millions of tiny pieces if they enter. Simple.
Lastly, let me group with anyone I want and scale the experience accordingly so there is no exploitive power leveling (disclaimer: I really have nothing against power leveling per say, as long as it falls within the game's rules and not through exploits. If a player wants to spend endless hours ignoring story and atmosphere and just level grind, then let them). In fact, let me "mentor" low level players so they can fight on an almost equal level as me. Not everyone has the time to always be on at the same time and level at the same rate. Allowing a mentor system would let people group together without having to worry about level disparity.
So there you have it; those are my main wishes for future MMORPG's. Are there any out right now that do any of these things? Well, yes there are, to a certain degree. One that I'm playing at the moment is City of Heroes - a MMORPG that has the player don tights as a newbie super-hero and patrol a massive city called Paragon City. It is the first MMORPG that I can say tries to incorporate a lot that is on my wish list. City of Heroes (CoH) has instance missions that the player can choose, and the missions advance a main story arch. The missions are not as in-depth as I would ultimately like, resorting to mostly defeat the main boss, gather some artifact/data/clues, or do both. However, to Cryptic's credit, they are planning an update that will make the missions more in-depth. I'm looking forward to it. Also, the character generator is a thing to marvel - it rivals the 'Barbie dress-up" of Anarchy Online.
However, I won't go into any more detail about CoH at this time, otherwise it will start sounding like a review. But suffice it to say CoH is on the right track to making me love MMORPG's, and is hopefully a positive reflection of where the genre is heading.
So, what do we have here, besides a lot of belly-aching and wishful thinking? Well, we have one fan's opinion on what they would like to see in the MMORPG genre. Everything I put in my wish list can be done and, in my opinion, should be done. The core reason a lot of people play MMORPG's is to get involved in a world with other players and do things they could never do in real life - fun things; adventurous things; things that would either get a person arrested, mauled, shot, and/or killed in real life. But the main reason is to have fun. I think some MMORPG developers forget the fun aspect and just stick to formulas, thinking that's the way it's always been, why muck with it. Step back from the formula, I say! Take what is fun in single player CRPG's and try to incorporate them into MMORPG's. Let people adventure in a group within an actual story, and allow them to solo if they want. Make the player feel like they matter, that their actions and questing actually have an impact on the world and the factions within that world. Don't design to foil the player, but design to help the player enjoy the virtual world and all the adventures within. MMORPG's should be about fun, not frustration. So let's get creative and make some real fun, shall we?