"The whole damn [MMO] genre has run off the rails and become a parody of itself. Click the button and a gamer-treat rolls occasionally down the little pipe activating neurotransmitters in the brain that beg endlessly for more tiny little gamer-treats." -- Sean "Elysium" Sands
All good things must come to an end.
What sickly-sweet, TV series-ending crap.
The persistent-world online role-playing genre is never going to disappear. It cuts too close to what we humans want from our online existence. Today's 3D graphical MMORPG, though, has reached a point of stagnation. It hasn't met the promise of its potential, and never will. It's time to recognize that and start planning for the rebirth of large-scale online roleplaying games.
How did this happen? What's gone wrong, and what can be done differently in future? I'm descended from a hyper-intelligent subspecies of Yorkshireman, but I wouldn't presume to preach from the mountaintop on this matter. The Goodjer Collective has some big, juicy brains in it that like to ponder MMOs. GWJ articles often become starting points of a conversation; I'm just stating my intent to start such a discussion from the beginning.
EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies developer Raph Koster has said, "once [game genres] get past a growth phase and become mature, they tend to calcify." Have you noticed MMORPG tutorials have become more like briefings? If it's not your first MMO, you want to know what's particular about that particular MMO's interface and control scheme. The rest of the dance is pretty much the same. This hit home for me after I coached another player through one game's tutorial, emphasizing the rich world and its roleplaying possibilities. He asked where the beginning monster area was. I offered to take him to a ruined castle nearby. He marched straight toward the rat-infested dungeon after taking a couple of experimental swipes with his beginning weapon. "All right," he said, "let's go get paid."
It's easy to get this blasé. The first couple of games, you were immersed in this strange and wonderful new world and needed to learn how to interact with it. After a while MMORPGs began working much the same, and tutorials became more of a technical exercise. The growing MMORPG playerbase and the game publishers were in a feedback loop: the consumers' past experiences created expectations for future games, and the businesses providing those games wanted to emulate the success of earlier ones. Such a loop gets smaller and smaller: just look at the fairly rigidly-codified "standard" for the interface and control scheme of first-person shooters. Deviation from the design status quo becomes highly risky. Bolt a new multiplayer widget onto an FPS and you're praised for your bold vision. Shift movement from WASD and you're branded a heretic. The loop becomes a noose, and innovation is left twisting in the wind.
Content in MMORPGs went the same way as the user interface. Quests, check; monsters to kill, check; player guilds, check. In this way, things weren't much different from the first text MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle created in 1978. More and more "stuff" got thrown into the pot over time: instanced dungeons, auction systems, and fast transportation, for example. Other changes were meta-content that affected the shape of the genre, driven by a vocal minority of players. These changed the very language of MMOs. I go berserk when people speak of the "end game" in an MMO context. End game raiding, end game balancing. Level caps and time to reach the end game. End game equipment. Back in the good old days, there was no "end game." You set yourself other goals if you reached the end of your class or skill progression. We accepted that like other roleplaying games, MMORPGs had no "ending," and we liked it. Hey you kids, get out of my Jell-O tree!
Player vs. Player (PvP) combat is another example of how the lexicon changed to fit the changing MMORPG standards: no one spoke of "PvE" initially. There was PvP for a few enthusiasts, and then there was everything else. Devising a term to describe Player vs. Environment play brought the "normal" dynamic of gameplay down to the same level of importance as this minority interest. As with the end game, the tail wagged the dog.
The final blow to innovation in MMORPGs was the success of one particular game -- you may have heard of it -- World of Warcraft. WoW's success has given it a gravity that no in-development MMO can afford to ignore. To stray too far from their formula is seen as certain death.
Even before WoW, game companies all wanted to stake a claim in this new gaming frontier and brought the risk-averse, "me too" approach to game design mandated by their sycophancy to shareholders. Gamers grew in number, clamoured for design decisions that dispossessed one or another type of player, and demanded that each new MMORPG be different -- but not too different. Each existing MMORPG just wanted to feed the maw of its existing playerbase in order to keep themselves alive with a revenue stream. Meaningful development got pushed aside in favor of content, content, content.
The core of that meaningful development? Systems and structures to create living, breathing persistent worlds. It seems an almost laughable fantasy to say it, but the dream has long been alive. The true dynamic world, one in which players can tangibly and permanently affect its environment and history, has been lost to the exigencies of the business of catering to a playerbase whose horizons have narrowed and whose expectations have stagnated.
So: all that needs to be done now is to leave behind the husk of the MMORPG genre as it is now, create new and different games, re-train a huge number of players, and totally revamp the online gaming business model. Who's with me?
The MMORPG is dead! Long live the MMORPG!*
(*don't get me wrong; I am totally playing Conan when it comes out.)