December 1, 2013

Two things that have been lost to MMOs in the past few years

It’s been a while since I posted anything here. There isn’t much I can say other than I have just been trying to keep my mind busy with all that has been happening lately, kind of a roller coaster ride I guess, but suffice it to say I guess I need to just get out there and talk a bit. Anyways, onto the point of this blog; one of the things that just came to mind recently was that the concept of my mind of the MMO identity. Now, this is not some singular thing but an encompassing idea that I personally feel has been slowly getting lost in the MMO.

Now it’s no secret that even to the casual observer that MMOs have been getting easier and less involved with the social aspect of the game in place of just focusing more on the singular experience. A noble goal, in its own right, but one that has blinded what the entire genre was about. Instead of creating worlds that are interesting to be in, a singular experience of objectives have been created that instead focus too much on a singular story that ultimate makes the player feel more like a bit piece in the end than someone that could potentially forge their own destiny. I’ve covered that before but there are other, smaller things I’ve been taking stock of that I feel has actually been hurting the whole experience.

So, what follows after this point is not an end all be all, but I feel that these two items demonstrate things that actually have removed the feeling of an immersive world in favor of just simplifying things and kind of excusing the need to put effort towards other objectives for this.

The Flow of Time
The flow of time is one of those things that I’ve been noticing has been getting sacrificed on the edifice of telling a story (not necessarily a good story, but a story). Some of the most recent MMOs released and those currently under development have even taken this one step further by completely removing any day and night sequencing in the game. The time is always locked to one particular time of day and it’s something that players won’t notice at first, but as they continue to play, they begin to notice that the sun never sets, or it is always dusk, or even just night time.

The whole goal of this, from a developer and storyteller’s perspective, is to create atmosphere, but in doing this it does something very jarring that is subtle but your brain notices immediately; there is no sense of scope or passage of time. Now while this effect can be done beautifully without ever removing the whole concept of day and night from the game, it irrevocably demonstrates that the flow of time is being lost, and any concept of the story “advancing” seems lost when you do quests in their game that are basically from 3+ years ago next to events that are supposedly be happening as part of a future.

This creates what I generally call a world frozen in time effect. The absence of any true time progression is sacrificed in favor of allowing newcomers to partake in these quests and thus either new “future” quests are placed beside older quests, creating some very jarring time experiences, or new areas have to be introduced that are far out of time compared to the old areas, thus creating yet another dichotomy as one passes from the old into the new it almost feels like stepping through a bubble as one area is locked in a perpetual state and the new area is suppose to be three years ahead of that last event.

It just fascinates me that this basic concept of a world that actually advances in real time has been lost so readily to the whims of the story, and the attempt to appease people that weren’t there, that they try so hard to appease everyone, but the end result is just mediocre at best.

I never understood why players and even developers are afraid to let the time line advance anymore, and to remove old quests from the game to represent this passage of time. It’s not like anything from those old areas would even quantify as needful things, as the items themselves have lost any meaning or value when the game reaches that point in theme park games. But then again that is the problem in itself, the desire to make a theme park instead of an actual, interesting world that players want to keep coming back to instead of just a bunch of strung along stories that may or may not be good.

Part of the reason MMOs don’t have much staying power anymore these days is because of that lack of desire to create a living world and make the story apart of that world instead of just trying to create set pieces around a story. A story has to progress to be good, and always having the old set piece sin place can be more problematic than helpful in the long run.

Player Tools are often Missing
Outside of the misanthropes who think socializing is something that they never need, MMOs are very much social experiences. Personally I think if you hate playing with others then complaining about being required to team in an MMO is not exactly the fault of the game, but with yourself. But, the squeaky wheel always gets the grease and more and more the entire concept of the social tools for players have been getting removed slowly. Just areas to idle and converse or areas to do things that would evoke a sense of belonging to the world, these things that some of the oldest MMOs had are not even given though to anymore these days for the modern MMO genre.

Doors are closed to houses, never to be opened, while things like auction houses and smithy’s are becoming less and less social outlets and more and more private ones away from the contact of fellow players. Hell, some games have even given tools to remove other players completely from ones screen, thus removing any sense of the whole multi-player aspect of the game.

Then there is perhaps the biggest victim of all; the crafter. Crafters were one of the biggest outlets for social experiences in an MMO. Long ago, a crafter never had to be someone that focused on being an adventurer; in fact a crafter never had to pick up a sword once. But, as games have gone, the idea of the crafter became something of a taboo as companies kept thinking up ways to get players to play in their carefully constructed dungeons. The result, what crafters made was less important than what a player found in the heart of a dungeon.

Adding insult to injury, going out and trying to gather up resource nodes became a level locked past time, instead of allowing for the idea that players actually enjoyed just doing that. Resource nodes were considerably shrunk down in number, and their placement often dictating that the player had to join his fellow adventurers and level and gear up through the dungeons. Indeed, the crafter found that to create gear of equal level to what they needed, they often had to be much higher level to create the gear, thus destroying the whole concept in one fell swoop. Thus, the life of a crafter ended. This signaled the beginning of the end for the social experience of MMOs, as gearing and dungeon runs became more important and socializing and getting to know your fellow players became less important.

In today’s MMO, the idea that socializing past a weekly event is considered taboo. Many players are still trying to rally against even those as the requirements for these runs continue to decline. The number of participants for raids has drastically been declining. And big encounters are no longer events that one might see, but now turn style encounters that you do every week or few days now. The removal of such social aspects has created what amounts to drones doing what they are programmed to do in the end, and while some find those activities fun, it is no longer an MMO experience, and more or less a multiplayer game experience session.

This of course just creates what is laughingly known as mega servers (something Zenimax is trying to claim they are pioneering, but many MMOs have been using for 8+ years now). It’s an interesting quandary, the whole aspect lately has been to remove as much social interaction for MMOs, then why are developers going out of their way to force as many players together then? The short answer is, they want to get players to socialize, but of course they don’t understand how they can do that in the current dynamic of the MMO world they’ve created. They are afraid to give players the tools and a sandbox, as it might go against their ideals, so they put the cages and leashes on, but tell us to enjoy.

The thing is it can’t really be enjoyed when you know what you are doing has no potential outcome to affect anything. Personalizing a story in a world where thousands of players are playing in the same space at the same time just doesn’t have an impact. The whole idea of trying to recreate a single player experience in an MMO just doesn’t work like developers like to believe. There is a reason that MMOs have never reproduced the success that WoW has, and even WoW is showing signs of losing steam.

WoW started making a lot of design choices specific for their own game, and as a result it worked for them. But they’ve continually been amputating all the bits and pieces that MMOs use to have that players enjoyed that has resulted in a loss of self in the long run. MMOs blur together now, because playing one is like playing the others. Differences might range in UI and names, and maybe some control schemes, but fundamentally they are the same games now with a different coat of paint. You spend all your time, rarely even paying attention to whatever story might be there, just to get the objectives and move on. Some devs are trying to get clever and lengthen the quests with micro objectives in their objectives but it still the same deal.

In the most basic sense, MMOs should be massive sandbox worlds that players have the tools to create their own adventures. It’s sad to me that players need intentional guidance and handholding to be inspired to go explore that cave, or check out what might be at the top of the mountain. If the game play was there from the beginning, a part of the world as a whole; players wouldn’t need to see NPC # 374 to be told to kill those wolves, the player would do it themselves as they would want to get the skins for their leatherworking to create armor for themselves or their friends.

You wouldn’t need quests every step of the way to make a player feel like they are progressing and you wouldn’t need the game. To tell a story you would just have events happen that players can be a part of, they get to see them unfold and participate with quests specific for them, but not something the player has to work up to through some misguided notion that the player might be lost of what’s going on because they didn’t do the zone beforehand. It’s honestly time to get back to making the MMO what it used to be about and not try to just take single player games and slap MMO on them, because in the end, developers can’t create content fast enough to keep the player interest that long.