Saturday, June 28, 2014

Why No MMO Talk?

As some of you have probably noticed, it's been a while since I've mentioned anything regarding MMOs, particularly new titles. It's mostly because they suck. Just hear me out and you'll understand why.

MMOs Coddle You

The physical version of modern MMOs.
 Remember when MMOs didn't hold your hand all the way through, providing exact waypoints or step-by-step paths to complete quests? When you actually had to *gasp* explore and solve puzzles on your own? It was a long time ago, so don't feel bad if you didn't get to experience that.

Don't get me wrong - it wasn't always the best thing ever to have no clue as to how to complete a task at hand. Sometimes it was just infuriating, leaving you hopelessly wandering around and trying random things until something worked or searching online for hints and walkthrough guides.

In those cases, the problem was typically one of three things:
  1. You failed to comprehend the task, information and/or clues provided.
  2. The quest was poorly written/planned from the start, making it difficult to complete.
  3. The quest was made intentionally ambiguous to mess with you.
 Over time, game developers responded to player complaints about the difficulty by providing more information. This is fine, particularly when the lack of explanation for a quest/task is to blame. There's no excuse for bad story writing, so addressing that issue makes perfect sense.

TMI Man, Just TMI

Far less expensive than MMOs,
and essentially the same thing.
Some developers went a different route, however. Instead of fixing poorly designed/written quests, they added a waypoint-style system to show players where and how to continue. Normally that would take much more work, but by that point many MMOs already contained add-ons that had accomplished this. It was simply a matter of applying that code to the base game itself instead of being optional.

This system was continually refined with new MMO titles or expansions to the point that you now have obvious markers indicating everything related to your quests. Need to open a gate? Just follow the magically appearing arrow/path to a brightly glowing lever! I wouldn't mind this if it was part of the beginner's tutorial to help explain how to accomplish things, but it persists throughout the entirety of the game(s) now.

Think it's impossible to have
"too much information"?
Remember that the next time
a friend goes into graphic
details of their surgery,
complete with pictures!
Additionally, a number of MMOs provide incredibly detailed stats and formulas for some of their base game mechanics (like combat) online. Publicly releasing this kind of information was unheard of in the past, because experimentation was part of the learning process for many games.

By laying bare the mathematics of the game, players can simply plug in numbers to see results, removing any need for experimentation. This creates a scenario where players feel (or are told) they must choose a very specific set of options for their characters to be considered any good.

When you can mathematically prove that a certain set of options is superior to another, what is the point in having options? World of Warcraft (among others) significantly reworked their entire talent system several times trying to address this issue.

I argue that it could've been avoided entirely by not handing out so much information. Yes, there would still be people trying to min-max the system and attempting to figure out the formulas. When they do, it will be glaringly obvious as many players suddenly change to the dominant builds being posted online. At that point, developers could alter the game so that other builds are still viable.

More Regress Than Progress

This pretty much sums up the evolution of MMOs.
We're 10 years into the "current generation" of MMOs, with a full history of over 30 years (more around 40 if you count anything prior to MUD). So, what's new since then? Sadly, very little. We've had vast improvements visually, but that just came along as the technology got better. In terms of gameplay, advancements have been pretty slow and in some ways regressing.

Think about all the MMOs you've ever played and the quests you did. I'm fairly certain those quests involved one or more of the following:
  1. Kill X things. Whether it's one boss, 10 rats, or 30 players, you find and kill a certain number of them.
  2. Collect X macguffins. Maybe it's a magic ring, maybe it's a pile of bear paws.
  3. Go to X, typically an NPC or location. This is typically a segue quest to move you to the next area.
  4. Escort X from point A to point B. Usually, it's an NPC you have to protect from harm along the way.
Those four scenarios make up the vast majority of quest content in every MMO, ever. If you find yourself in a situation that even slightly diverges from this formula (for example, having dialogue options with an NPC that changes the outcome depending on your decision), cherish it dearly because it's a rare sight.

It's even worse when you look at some of the other types of content. Take for example the player housing options in more recent MMOs (and upcoming expansions). They're no better than what was offered in the previous generation of titles, and actually pale in comparison to the options available from classic (aka really, really old) MMOs. That's just sad. There are very few upcoming titles right now that even look promising in this area, and the one that stands out (EverQuest Next/Landmark) doesn't seem all that great in other aspects.

With all the doom and gloom concerning how I feel about MMOs, the obvious answer then is to ignore them entirely and just play something else like single-player RPGs, right? Not quite.

It's Pretty Much Everywhere

Pictured: A game more akin to
oldschool RPGs than most
modern RPGs are.
The aforementioned problems I have with MMOs have also seeped their way into other games. It's pretty much standard now for AAA RPGs to show you objective markers (unless it has 'Souls' in the title), with the same boring quest tropes we've seen since the early days of gaming. It's frustrating that to find games that don't hold your hand all the way through, you almost have to look outside the RPG genre entirely.

 Most of the time it boils down to what type of RPG are you looking for - one with a vast open world but mostly meaningless options (like Skyrim) or a more linear story-driven game where your decisions matter (KOTOR, Dragon Age)? I'm still not certain why we can't have both the open world and the impactful decisions in more games, but I suppose that's a topic for another time.

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