I previously spoke about how the narrow focus of the MMO endgame is ultimately hamstringing the genre from achieving greatness. For the final act, I’ll talk about the game world itself.
MMOs exist in a strange space where it seems like two games are mashed together to be played through with a single avatar. There is the exciting adventure phase, where your character explores the world and discovers their true identity, and then there is the daily routine phase, where your character realizes that their identity is ultimately unimportant and they just need to settle in and get a job, already.
And routine is really the way to describe the modern MMO – your character is determined solely on a mathematical basis (unless you want to be sub-par), the things you do on a day to day basis only change in the wake of a new content patch, and the parts of the game that should be exciting are repeated ad infinitum until they, too, are just another task on the checklist.
It is a formula of stagnation that relies on addiction to keep people coming back.
The final four sins of the MMO world deal with this adherence to stagnant routine. Let’s start with:
The Sin of Mimicked Champions – Lack of Character Variety
Your avatar should be something that you truly enjoy, but with so many MMOs obsessing with end game, raids, and encounters that rely on big numbers to be challenging, your actual character is hardly in your own hands.
At first glance, you may be offered a wide selection of different specializations, talents, abilities, or whichever word that particular game calls its customization system. In the end, it all boils down to numbers. Do you want to do the only content that the developers have put any real time in to? Then you are going to be going with whatever choice offers the biggest numbers.
MMOs are in a constant state of change, with abilities changing in strength at the whims of the developers. Players have very little input about this, and the result is that many people do not get to use their preferred specializations or abilities because they are simply not good enough to compete; in many cases, the best choice changes on a patch-by-patch basis, leaving players chasing numbers instead of having any sort of identity for their avatars. To compensate for this, players are offered the ability to easily swap their character’s entire identity, so they can have access to the current best choice to prevent them from having absolutely no viability (though, even that is never a guarantee). Your choices are temporary. You do not build the character you want, but rather, you select the one that best fits whatever situation you intend to face. In raid-heavy MMOs, your class choice or specialization may vary from encounter to encounter.
Characters have no personality or identity. They have templates they can swap between at varying levels of convenience. In a genre that should involve a great deal of immersion and connection with your avatar, there is very little that you can do to make your character feel like your own.
This may not be such a huge problem, if it weren’t for the fact that few MMOs offer any real connection to the world itself. The world may have more identity, but it also suffers from the regular MMO stagnation. This leads to:
The Sin of Eternal Stasis – Players do not Affect the World
The moment you first enter into the world of an MMO, you have the denizens of the world telling you how you are a hero and a savior. They are happy to let you know that you alone solved all of the problems that have been plaguing them for an undetermined amount of time. They always fail to mention the thousands of other heroes and saviors that had been in your place minutes ago, solving the exact same problems that you are solving right now.
The world of an MMO attempts to be lively and bustling, but it all once again boils down to a routine. An npc that repairs your armor will remain there for the rest of eternity, waiting for you to come and have your things fixed. The local bandits will forever roam the road, hoping to prey on low level players who accidentally wander into them. Farmer Johnson will always sit just outside of his house, exclaiming how the bears are going to slaughter him and his family, despite the fact that you have already killed those same 10 bears a dozen times over.
Everything you do in the game has no effect on anyone but yourself. Saving the village does not make the bandits just outside of it go away, nor does destroying the latest big enemy actually thwart his demonic invasion. The world is not dictated by the players; instead, it bows to the whims of the patch notes. The story of the world is not in the hands of its inhabitants.
It results in a curious stasis where no drama or uncertainty exists. If a new enemy is introduced, be it a freshly risen warlord bent on taking over the world or a demon king who wants to destroy it, the players have no influence on the outcome. In most cases, it all boils down to the good guys win and the bad guys lose, because the players go into the raid and kill the bad guys. The outcome is generally attributed to a random famous NPC who steals the credit for your efforts at the last second, given to the faceless, nameless crowd and explained as “adventurers did it,” or given solely to you, and all of the NPCs from your point of view inform you that you are indeed the greatest hero whoever performed heroically, in spite of the line of hundreds of other heroes directly behind you.
It takes a little bit of plot magic to work around that, but some MMOs have been able to make the player factions lose, despite winning in the raid. This shares the same problem, though. Despite going in, doing a good job, and overcoming the enemy, you still lose. Plot armor is impenetrable, no matter who wears it.
This returns to the players having no say on the world their avatars inhabit. There is nothing at stake—either the latest threat is destined to accomplish something or be immediately defeated. There is no urgency in going to combat the threat, because what is going to happen will happen no matter what.
Players need to be given the ability to fail if their victories are going to mean anything. What if the local bandit gang could be dealt with for good? What if the invading demon army actually had to be stopped? What if Farmer Johnson could actually grow his crops after all those poor bears lost their lives?
But that is not the case. As it is now, the various enemies are not attacked because they are true threats, but because there really is not anything else to do in the MMO world. When a new enemy shows up, all previous big bad guys still exist, they simply become so trivial that the only reason to return to fight them is for nostalgia’s sake.
For an MMO’s world to feel more alive, then there needs to be some risk. The world should be something the players shape, and they should be able to lose things if they are not vigilant about countering new threats. The emergence of a new nemesis will feel personal if that new challenger razes a player’s favorite city or his armies kill one of the player’s favorite NPCs. Keeping events like this scripted, however, would do little—it would have to be an event that players could pass or fail. Failing to prevent an invasion into your homeland could lose you a city. Not being there to protect your favorite NPC could result in his or her death. The ability to actually protect the things they enjoy about your world—and the ability to actually lose them based on their own failures—is an experience that MMOs could offer, but do not.
The world and the story are entirely out of the players’ hands. MMOs should offer a world that the players change, not one that they react to. Instead, players are given the illusion that they are accomplishing something through quests, a staple in many MMOs. This leads to:
The Sin of Mundane Adventure – Quests Accomplish Nothing
Everywhere you look when you first start an MMO, you find NPCs who need things done, billboards posting deeds for heroic adventurers to perform, and roving bands of endless bad guys whose heads constantly hold a hefty bounty. The truth behind it is that none of these deeds accomplish anything – the NPC will not go on to do anything after his task is finished, your heroic deeds will not make the world a safer place, and the bad guy population will not dwindle in the slightest no matter how many times you behead the nameless bad guys.
Quests are busy work. A cheap method for developers to dole out experience and other rewards for doing menial, repetitive tasks. And repetition is what quests are all about – kill this thing, collect those things, go talk to this guy, deliver these things to those guys. These four situations make up the majority of quests in MMOs, and you are to repeat them a certain number of times until the game says you are experienced enough to be max level, where quests actually have the potential to show some interesting ideas and reveal some of the story behind the world.
But even max level players are often given the same treatment – kill this many max level bad guys, collect these things in dangerous areas, and go talk to that really, really important guy. These are often used to gate rewards, again, or to pace a story line to set up a big climax or set piece. A story that the player does not affect, but simply plays through.
This is all because quests have become a common thing that developers feel the need to create in massive quantities. Find quest, read enough of the text to figure out what to do, do it, collect reward. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat.
Quests could instead be a less frequent but more deep experience. They could be turned into grand journeys that require days (or even more) to complete, and dive deeper into the history of the world, while involving more than simple mob grinding or object collecting. Even if some amount of these activities were present, it would not be so mundane if it weren’t an everyday experience that had already been done hundreds of times.
Quests could be a great method of engaging players and teaching them more about the world, the lore behind their chosen class, or even the history behind some of the major NPC characters. Instead, they have been turned into chores—boring grinds that gate rewards. Most are not even story-driven and are given by random schmucks who you will never see again and have no discernible reason to care about. Random, boring tasks that you complete because you have to, not because you want to.
Quests are just gates that ensure the actual fun content is not consumed too quickly. You need to level through quests, you need to grind mundane quests to advance the story, and some MMOs may even require certain quests to be completed before other content is allowed to be accessed.
You don’t have a choice—you do it because you have to. And this lack of choice is not only present in questing. It permeates the very theme of MMOs.
The Sin of Involuntary Devotion – Lack of Meaningful Player Choice
Players in MMOs have little choice from the very start. It is already pre-determined that you are the good guy. Some MMOs will have you pick a faction before even starting, and others have all of the player characters on the same team, but that team is firmly entrenched on the side of good.
Every motivation your character has is determined by the developers of the MMO. Your character helps people because that is the only choice you have. You fight for justice because you do not have a say in the matter, not because it is anything you or your character particularly believe in.
The organizations that you can join or work for are already selected for you. You gain their approval and they give you their rewards and then you never bother with them again. Players are given no reason to be invested in these factions, nor are they able to create their own. If players had the ability to pick their sides in the various conflicts that occur in the MMO world, they may feel a bit more investment in proving themselves to the factions they choose. If the existing organizations within the world had a real presence, players may feel a reason to align with them for more than a few weeks or months, until they fade into obscurity like so many other things in the MMO world.
This connection may be even further strengthened by allowing players to create their own factions and organizations that could actually have an impact on the world. This would require players to have the ability to actually affect the world, but it would offer a much greater incentive to care about a group and put actual thought into its goals, instead of seeing it as another bar to fill up to get whatever goodies are on offer.
This endless chase for new shiny rewards has become the essence of what is wrong with the MMO genre. The journey, the exploration, and the adventure have all taken a backseat to the fancy reward at the end of it all. You complete quests to get things, you go out of your way to fight bad guys to get better things, and you improve your standing with pre-selected factions to get their things, too.
If MMOs want to grow and thrive, they need to offer experiences that can’t be found in other genres—repetition and grinding do not attract new people, they simply prolong an addiction that is already present. The only thing on offer that current MMOs have are large raids and boss fights that require a group of actual people to overcome, and it is only a matter of time until someone figures out you can cut out the pointless grinding and cardboard stage pieces that make up the world of MMOs and create a game that allows players to get straight into the real action.
The current selection of MMOs may be too far entrenched to ever be fixed, but here’s hoping that a new player will emerge that can learn from the mistakes that the MMO genre has made over the last 10 years and breathe new life into the genre before its struggle to stay relevant turns into a popularity nose dive. If these mistakes are not recognized and rectified, then it may not be long until this genre fades away.
Do you believe the MMO genre does not offer players enough meaningful choice? Do you think they would benefit from allowing its players to have a real impact on the game world and story?