Good Old MMOs
News that Star Wars Galaxies was shutting down at the end of 2011 shouldn’t have mattered to me in the least. It was a long time ago in a dim man cave far-ish away that I first experienced the disappointment of Galaxies, but somehow finding out that the case is now truly terminal is a bit like finding out a high-school ex-girlfriend has been given only months to live. Suddenly, you decide to remember the good times, even if there weren’t very many. Or really any at all.
It seems odd to think about all the casualties in the MMO space of games I’ve played throughout the years. Sometimes good, occasionally truly bad games have had their brief run at this difficult genre, glowed dimly for a few months or years and then finally succumbed quietly. Games like Auto Assault, Horizons, Asheron’s Call 2, Star Wars Galaxies and Vanguard have lived, struggled and ultimately died.
Wait, what the hell do you mean Vanguard is still up and running?!
Regardless, I still somehow think of the MMO genre itself as exceedingly young, which it very much isn’t. The more I think about it, the more I realize that my perception of its innocence could, if one were feeling particularly snotty, be construed as an indictment on its complete failure to truly evolve. That may be why for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’m not really playing a massively multiplayer game.
After all, in the span of nearly a decade and a half as a legitimate video game genre, I don’t really feel like MMOs have done much to refine and redefine. There have been tweaks here and there, and certainly the visual sophistication of the modern MMO is worth at least a passing mention, but ultimately it feels like the great ideas that should have evolved the massively multiplayer experience never really did so. We’re all still basically playing EverQuest to some degree.
After six years of World of Warcraft, ten years of AO, twelve years of EverQuest and fourteen years of Ultima Online, I feel that we players are basically doing the same things and asking the same question.
MMOs may be the best test case of all time for the culturally accepted definition of insanity, and after more than a decade I feel like my great capacity to do the same thing over and over again may have finally been exhausted. Because that’s really the whole scope of the genre: a platform for extraordinary repetition, to the point where the more you play, the more you are asked to “grind” away at the same action until your fingers and eyes bleed.
Of course, I say this as someone who has become disillusioned with the system. After all, repetition—some might say iteration—is a firm foundation for gameplay and game design. One round of a modern war shooter is ostensibly like any other. Strategy games can be built on the approach of continually refining builds. When I play my favorite Rock Band song, I’m not being given a different note chart to follow than the one I’d been given on any of the hundred times before. So why do MMOs get dinged for asking you to do another kill quest or grind for rep?
Maybe it’s just because the expectation for results for the genre is on a much broader scale. Give me fifty hours in a shooter and I’ve probably had the opportunity to experience everything the game has at its disposal, and I’ve begun to feel like I’ve accomplished something for my time. For MMOs on the other hand, fifty hours is still considered to be exceedingly casual and barely enough of a time commitment to have made a dent in the game. MMOs measure their players’ success on the scale of months and years spent in game.
But it goes beyond that. As I say, there seems to be little evolution in the genre as a whole. When deeply committed MMO players talk about change within a game environment, they often appear to be talking about the finest of minutia from an outside perspective. Rescaling some formula for reputation mechanics has a major bearing on players with 5,000 hours of gametime, but it is irrelevant if you’re just looking from the outside in, when the real complaint is that the overarching game is just another bloated dragon hunt through orc town.
Worse still, I’m not sure there is a solution. The development and maintenance of these games is such a risky and complicated procedure that reckless, or even risky, innovation is just impractical. This isn’t a situation where two guys in a garage with a server and a dream are likely to launch a plan that changes the landscape—in part because it’s such a tricky beast to tame without the support of a large organization, and in part because it’s not really a situation where the major players have an impetus to change.
Instead, MMOs have become a bunch of snarling carrion eaters barking in the darkness, biting at scraps as they wait for the fat lion of Blizzard to slink away from the carcass. Right now, nobody seems to be hunting for the fresh kill.
I suppose someday, someone will go take down the next big prey, and maybe then we’ll enjoy a new meal. But for now, the MMO genre feels mired in the mud, dragged down by its own weight. I miss the sense of wonder and adventure, now roughly a decade gone, but on the upside I’m finding so much more time to play other games that I almost don’t even miss it.