May 31, 2012

Thoughts on the MMO market; Why I loved UO

Things are interesting when it concerns the landscape of the MMO world. In the current MMO age, everything is set to a level of hand holding and made so ridiculously easy that any sense of gratification one might feel for having accomplished anything is nearly lost almost as instantly as it is accomplished because things were just too easy. On the other hand, the concept of a living, breathing world that players could interact in and be a part of has been neatly swept under the rug and replaced with essentially single player games trying to pass themselves off as MMOs. The world we live in, as far as the gaming world is even concerned, is not an MMO world. It’s just businesses trying to cash in on the actual MMO genre without understanding what truly got people so interested in it in the first place.

I’ve been sitting back and just thinking, mostly. And so far I realize that I miss the young nature of the MMO industry. I don’t mean WoW; that pretty much heralded in the current generation of single player games disguising themselves as MMOs. No, I mean the games that came before, like UO, Dark Age of Camelot and so forth, where the world was more determined by the player than the players waiting on the actual world to get updated in expansion packs.

For me, the best world was always UO. This was a world that was determined by the players, and events and such were only small hallmarks. I wasn’t required to be a fighter of any kind. I could just spend my days being a crafter, making things for other players, and I know the things I made would actually be desired. Crafting in today’s MMOs is such an afterthought, I am left wondering why they even bother having crafting anymore, because it’s little more than lip service in the end instead of actually being something that players can aspire to or want to desire in the long run of the game.

I guess it might be nostalgia talking at times, but it really is something I do desire; a return to what an MMO was truly supposed to be about. Something more than just creating a specific character class and going out and bashing monsters continuously over the head until they relented, that has just never really struck a chord with me. And even as much as I love protecting the team, that role itself has been becoming less and less needed as developers continually push their MMOs to be more single player than ever before.

No, my best time ever that I can honestly say I’ve ever had was sitting, as a blacksmith, at the Britain forge in UO just talking with other players, repairing their goods and even making armor. You didn’t feel useless because the stuff a crafter made was actually on par with the stuff that could be found. Very little was actually needed to actually improve upon that, though they could have done so without destroying the actual integrity of the game. I don’t even think I could possibly describe how much I would love to go back to UO right now and engage in that world again. But, unfortunately, that world is gone.

If I were to show people UO now, they would probably just imagine it as another Diablo dungeon romper, as the crafting professions themselves are pretty much dead. Though socializing and such still exists, and from I’ve seen, a strong commitment of the RP community, in the long run what UO is now and what UO was just are two different entities and what I would desire just won’t ever come back. Not without basically a complete and drastic reboot of the entire franchise, and doing that to a 15 year old game would pretty much just require a new game at this point.

So what is it about this game that I always end up pining for in my mind? What keeps making me pine for it in ways that no modern MMO has been able to fill the void in? I don’t think the answer is simple. Parts of it can be describes as nostalgia, parts of it may be described as mechanics, and maybe even parts of it can be described as the community itself. But I think what really attracts me, and I think a lot of people actually remember, is that you truly could decide your own fate and how you actually wanted to spend your time in the game.

Ultima Online wasn’t just another game, and while the learning curve for getting into it was steep (nowhere near as steep as other games mind you, but it definitely was not newb friendly) once you got into it, the possibilities of what you could do became wide as all can be. There was a lot to do in UO, from owning your own house to being a tailor to exploring dungeons. And none of these activities, believe it or not, required the player to take up one offensive weapon or spell in defense. If you were skilled enough or planned yourself well, you could play the game without worry of ever having to cross swords with another player or monster in your gaming life.

Of course, if you were to look back on history, the one thing that would probably be noted as infamous about UO was the fact that player killers were rampant in the game. The original premise for UO was that it was a social experiment. Believe it or not, the grand-daddy of the modern MMO movement wasn’t expected to last 6 months when it launched. But when it did, it pretty much exploded onto the world. And what was remarkable about this simple looking game was actually how complex it turned out to be. I know people think that the 250,000 player subs at UO’s peak means it was a failure of an MMO, but most people are also too young to remember or even know that until WoW came along, the largest MMO on the market only peaked 500,000 once and quickly declined.

This is why I am disappointed on the announcement of Elder Scrolls Online. When I heard the rumors, I actually thought, Maybe they might make a sandbox game like classic UO, and of course I set myself up for disappointment. But I was using my knowledge I had from the fact of how the previous Elder Scrolls games had been created. But, instead, they flat out stated it’s going to be yet another theme park MMO, a single player game disguised as a multi-player game with classes locked in and such. So, players will not have choices and such. Now, one of the things they cite is the difficulty of balance in a freeform system, and I don’t disagree that can be hard, but that is just dumb to ignore the one core facet of your entire legacy, not to mention why can’t I be a bloody werewolf? Again something that was core since Morrowind.

I just don’t understand developers who want to jump into the MMO market, with their famous products, but not stick to the core fundamentals of the product that made it great. Elder Scrolls would have been perfect to usher the MMO back into the living, breathing world set up that MMOs use to espouse to. Giving players the ability to be whatever they wanted, play how they wanted, without forcing them into a set class. Let them be the blacksmith and forge weapons. But instead, we are given yet another theme park loot hunt game that will probably have yet another tacked on crafting system that means jack shit in the end, except for maybe the one that is all important (probably the potion maker) if they even bother with crafting at all.

In short, I believe Bethesda is making a big mistake. They are shunning the fans of their game to appease the lowest common denominator. They are looking at WoW and going, let’s be like them because they think copying them but changing the wallpaper is just going to be enough. It really isn’t. This was the perfect opportunity to take MMOs back to their roots at what they were all about, to allow people to actually be a part of a living, breathing world, and allow them to play it how they wanted to without always being forced to play some form of damage dealing character and always having to hunt and kill monsters, or other players.

So, what would I have done differently? Well, I would have incorporated a skill system. No levels. I would have looked at classic UO as the basis for the design. I would have then decided how I would have wanted it to pan out, how crafting should work, and built the world around the idea that crafters are important to the game. I would have let the player decide how they want to play, if they want to mine, or be a blacksmith and hang out and repair gear for the adventurer players, let them. Allow them to enjoy the game as they see fit.

How I would have handled crafting would have been done thusly; the skill of a crafter determines the quality of the items, with a highly skilled crafter making the nearly best items. I would have incorporated a type of enchantment system that would allow for prefixes and suffixes that give special boosts to items as well. Items found in the world could potentially be slightly better than what a crafter could make, but it would be very rare. A gatherer would be just as important as someone who goes out and slays the rampaging dragons that swoop down on the world. This would help to create an in game economy and such that would actually help promote trade and commerce and yes, items would have durability maybe even requiring replacement in the end.

Speaking of items, I would finally get rid of the stupid bind system. It was novel, but now it’s just a ridiculous control system that has done nothing but hurt community and promotes elitism in the worst ways. Elitism is not a bad thing, but the type of elitism that spawns around it is. Item loss from death is a bad thing to deal with, but I think some items lost from death should occur, but other things like weapons and armor can probably stay.

Death would be something that would need to be handled carefully, but I don’t think the game should be easy, and I do think that a death penalty of some kind is a necessary evil in an MMO. Otherwise you just end up with the death zerg. A loss a consumables on death, and possibly gold should be a good start with ways to get them back. Primary items like weapons and armor I would consider as well, since in order for an economy to thrive there needs to always be a constant demand for things. I know people would hate that, but economies don’t really thrive when there is no reason to repair, replace, or sell items.

I also probably would have pissed off a lot of people that enjoy their ranged classes by bringing ammo back and of course, with mages, having reagents again of some kind, just like in UO, for their spells. I know that’s probably not very Elder Scrolls, but it would have helped balance things out in the long run where the warrior types would have to constantly run in melee while the ranged can just plink away at range.

Another thing I would have brought back is limited pack space not based on arbitrary slots assigned by a bag type, but by actual carrying capacity. The weight in your pack and how much can be carried would, in the end, determine exactly how much you can carry. This limit could be determined by strength, of course, but wouldn’t restrict players based on a slot system but more on just how much they can actually physically carry.

And then there is the one thing that often gets brought up in every MMO but either not implemented or very poorly done in the modern MMO because there really isn’t a point to it, and that is housing. Housing was perhaps one of those features of UO that basically added icing to the cake of the fact that UO was a living, breathing world that people were a part of. You could own a slice of the land and decorate a house. You could have vendors to sell your goods for you while you were in town, and there were actual player towns that sprung up like this. Space was limited, but players could buy or sell houses as well, and later, were able to build the plot as they saw fit. If you want a theme to build an inn, you were capable of doing that. This is something I would do, but probably use a plot system similar to horizons, but not as convoluted or restricting as that. That way the players can build how they want.

And of course, the final part of the puzzle would be PvP. PvP is important in a living, breathing world of MMOs. But there would have to be some differences from the willy nilly gank style of old UO to today. Safe areas, maybe kings territories, and of course probably special rules for PvP. After all, today’s PvPers who’ve grown up in the safe world of WoW (yes, I am calling WoW PvPers carebears) would probably froth at the idea that their uber leet sword of pwn just got ganked from their corpse, but then again, I say the one thing about UO’s PvP is that it acted as its own kind of stat loss as a player went to regear. It was probably the biggest factor in helping control the battlefield and keeping people from zerg rushing. It was probably one of the biggest make people think things, the fact that dying could result in them losing all their stuff. But again, it’s something that most MMO gamers just wouldn’t accept.

In the end, I don’t expect much out of ESO, especially since they made it clear they are just going to copy the tried and true WoW formula. I can hope they will wake up in the end and realize that giving a finger to their fans is a bad idea, but who knows. I would hope they might actually experiment and try to make the MMO a true sandbox world instead of yet another bloody theme park that we have entirely too much of on the market. I think that’s what a lot of the angry posts are truly about in the long run. Who knows, I am still waiting and seeing, I guess.

If I could wave a magic wand, I would probably make a classic UO reboot with modern 3d graphics but keeping its classic gameplay albeit streamlined and the isometric viewpoint. Hell, if I could magically get it, I would use Blizzard’s graphics engine because that’s just about perfect for UO, make the entire world of Britannia, maybe double the size of the world and just go from there. But that’s a pipe dream, and currently while most developers think that more theme park games are magic dollar signs, my dream of seeing another game like UO just keeps becoming smaller and smaller.

But I keep holding onto hope. Maybe soon a developer will wake up.

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