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.


MMOs are a strange beast to me. I really like the idea of them, but the reality never excites me. I'm intrigued by the story side of the new Star Wars MMO, and that might be enough to get me to give it a try for a month or two.

Still, I think what's missing from MMOs is the ability to affect the world around you in a meaningful way. If you could do something that would change the world in a way that affects all the other players, even if only on a very small scale, that would make the MMO side of the equation that much more exciting. If one person can change stuff a tiny bit, imagine how different things could get if thousands of people start to play with things. The grind wouldn't bore me nearly as much if I felt like it had an impact on anything other than a handful of numbers.

When the WoW zombie event happened a few years ago, that interested me because it sounded exactly like the kind of world-changing thing I'd look for in an MMO. I don't know how much it really changed things, but I imagined a relatively peaceful world being slowly transformed into a wasteland of walking dead and abandoned cities, with fortified camps set up throughout the land trying to survive and drive back the zombie menace. An MMO that's entirely about PvP between two groups could be a lot of fun in my mind, especially if losing a battle meant being forced to switch sides.

The exception to this is LOTRO, which basically took WoW's model, adjusted it to their purposes, and remained true to the story and simply built a good quality, long-lasting MMO. It's enjoyed a solid steady ride with very few mistakes. In short, LOTRO is the Honda Accord of MMOs, and that's just fine with Turbine.

This is what I was going to point out. Turbine had the insight that while what Sean is talking about is right - MMOs are at base composed of repetitive actions - that in order to attract and keep players, something else must be the focus of the game *experience*. In their case, it was story and mechanics. Asheron's Call had a huge backstory and mechanics that ranged from simple (for tanks) to very complicated (the original magic system had you *discovering* spells through experimentation, something that I don't think has been repeated).

Obviously, over time, they worked to find the stickiest story they could in the demo that's likely to play mmos, and so LOTRO came about. For mechanics, within the accepted framework, there's a great deal of variation, encouraging players to repeatedly climb the ladder and stay in the game.

Add the social features, and LOTRO is not a club you visit on weekends to dance and flirt the night away. It's your own living room, hanging with a few friends, chatting and enjoying the familiar ambiance. It's not season tickets at the 50 yard line with a once-a-week super fantastic tailgate party, it's an hour or two of Uno with your friends every evening, with a few snacks and tasty bevvies. If there's a successful formula outside of the WoW model, LOTRO is it - story, friends and enough interesting mechanics to keep you going for years.

I throw that out for what it's worth. Turbine is on to something, and while it's not raking in billions per year at it, it's making enough to survive indefinitely, and that's better than most of it's competition.


The inability of any MMO to affect the gameworld is only true of Western MMOs. In fairness, Elysium was only talking about MMOs from a Western perspective, but I don't think it's fair to all MMOs to just paint them all with a broad brush that doesn't always apply.

A lot of Westerners who try Korean or Chinese style MMOs often get disappointed because they often miss the point. Grinding levels in Perfect World is something you do while you're chatting with your gang. It's a boring mindless clickfest that keeps your hands busy while you're hanging out.

In an example game like RF Online, one of its claims to fame is the player-run and guild-run world, a little bit like Lineage-lite. In RFOnline, the power of a guild is party influenced by which mining fields it commands, from which the guild's artificers and other members grind XP or get crafting ingredients. Control of the fields is contested in scheduled monthly guild vs. guild battles. If you do your bit in the battles and you win, your reward is increased access to the field you fought for.

Also, the Guildmasters are drawn from the roster of players, and the Guildmasters meet on a regular basis to determine the state of the factions. If your Guildmaster can't agree on a point with another Guildmaster, if they're forced by ongoing events as dictated by Level Up, or if they just think it's cool, they can set their respective guilds at war with each other, and this determines whether or not you can damage other players in the set PvP locations.

If you put in enough time and press enough hands, YOU can become a Guildmaster, with all the responsibilities and power that that position dictates.

Hanging around RFOnline grinding is kind of like hanging around a bar drinking beer. It's technically a part of the game, but that's not really what you're there to do.

So pretty much the closest western MMO to eastern MMOs, is EVE, which is a whole other barrel of monkeys to itself, and depends whether you can even call EVE a "western MMO" as it doesn't really fit the generic MMO mould.

Larry, Horizons was a western MMO that tried that same sort of player & guild-controlled world. Unfortunately, it was also buggy as hell, and not very much fun.


I stand corrected. However, RFOnline isn't buggy at all, and provided that you can get into the guild action, it's pretty engaging as MMOs go. Player controlled and populated marketplaces are all the rage these days. I had assumed that WoW had gotten in on that action, since Lineage really is pretty ancient as MMOs go.

The MMO getting a lot of action in my locale is Grand Chase, which is a little like a coop 2D brawler married to a Roguelike-lite on an MMO chassis. I understand that the paper-doll customization options is one of its main attractions.

Larry, I think the issue for many Americans is the hierarchical nature of the social side of Eastern games. Western players seem to believe that everyone is "The Hero" and don't expect to start at the bottom and work their way up. Culturally, they want to join a guild on Monday and lead a 25 man raid on Friday, then spend Saturday with two friends in a pvp area, with no obligations.

That may be the root of why Western MMOs "can't have nice things." You can't create a consistent MMO in which players can interact, can change things, and have every single person be a world-shaking hero whose actions shape the firmament. That's just impossible.

You're either interacting with real people and get the same chance everyone else gets to be a force in the game world, or you get to pretend to be a force in rote sequences that all look like WoW.

The way it looks from my perspective is that MMO gaming in East Asia is shaped after society itself. We expect to come in as the lowest, least powerful member of a group, with the chaperoning and guardianship and newbie responsibilities. Absent those, it just doesn't feel very much like you're interacting with a lot of people, at which point you have to wonder why you're playing an MMO to begin with.

So you can be "The Hero" in a stale unchanging theme park, or you can be a smaller "real" virtual hero to all your squad mates when you take one for the team in the monthly guild wars.

I liked to play almost every MMO in existence and this genre is very slow to evolve. I think there should be more types of MMOs than the current EQ/WoW inspired crop. Not necessarily Ultima Online style, which I still deem to have the superior platform for a virtual world rather than a virtual FedEx or quest giver story inspired game.

MMOs today reurgitate the same formula over and over - with all the drawbacks and problems of the system.

I'm playing other games/genres till Guild Wars 2 comes along and hopefully does not end up as another very easy and accessible MMO at the cost of any depth for Joe Subaverage.

Player generated content, PvP, and procedurally generated environments seem to have a lot more potential for long term playability than "story" to me, which is why I think KOTOR is just barking up the wrong tree here.

Of those three, procedurally generated environments is the only proven mechanic to extend the longevity of a game.

PvP and player generated content, I feel, have only served to take the remainder of a game's longevity and burned through it brighter but quicker. It creates the illusion of a resurgence that will ultimately leave the MMO limping worse after 3 months.

I think it is this nature that is why TERA will fail and GW2 will succeed. The action nature of TERA and GW2 will excite players for a few months. But when that zeal subsides, TERA will lose subscribers because the monthly subscription won't be justified with the drop in monthly amount played. Whereas GW2 will not have the burden of the subscription so it will retain its pool of supporters.

I do hope Bioware takes some of the things from Star Wars Galaxies that worked and uses them for their game. For example, if I make a Jedi in TOR, I don't want to immediately have a light saber and force powers. I would much rather start out as slightly force sensitive and wield a sword or some sort of basic melee weapon. Then later on start us on a series of quests that gradually take us closer to Jedi. I would love to see this idea happen for every class in that game.

I hope they don't just hand us our awesomeness from the get go (like what happened in SWG). Make us work for it. Isn't that part of the draw of not just MMOs but RPGs in general?

You haven't been keeping tabs on SWTOR much have you?

I'll put this in spoiler context but this info is widely available and well known


4 classes get force powers and light sabers from the get go. Jedi Knight, Jedi Counselar, Sith Warrior and Sith Inquisitor.

How much are the limitations of today's MMOs are technical? I think it would be great to have real-time combat mechanics, but are servers powerful enough to handle the data and physics, is the Internet fast enough to ensure it's a lag-free experience? How quickly and easily can these virtual worlds be updated with new content? I feel that in many ways we may just asking for more than is possible at the moment.

I never played SWG, but it sounds like the kind of game that probably came out ahead of its time, when the gamer demographic was still pretty monolithic. I imagine the original version of the game, being so focused on the mundane details of daily life, would work much better today as a social game on Facebook, than a conventional hardcore MMO. They could team up with Zynga to make Tatooine Farmville!

One more question--are there any MMOs that are actively DM'd by real people, who are able to manipulate the game environment and plot development in real-time? according to this 2009 article, maybe not. If not, developers ought to consider adding full-time paid staff who take on such roles, or could at least play NPCs (even enemies) to create more believable interactions in the world.

Interesting if useless fact about Chinese MMOs--they're generally designed to be played one-handed, leaving the other hand free to hold a cigarette.

Rift GM's can manipulate the game on demand. They can trigger invasions on a general level and world boss events on a specific level.

fangblackbone wrote:

Rift GM's can manipulate the game on demand. They can trigger invasions on a general level and world boss events on a specific level.

Actually I suppose that's the other side of the coin, having a PvE game that's interesting and not just 'collect 8 wolf tails', and in a certain way that means having more complex events happen in the world, and potentially staff running them.

WoW is still an excellent game. But I don't think it should be the blueprint for MMO gameplay. I wish companies would take some chances. Some of SWGs original problems was just poorly conceived combat mechanics.

SWG was a fun game in the early days. The discovery phase was great. Learning skills and exploring the world.

one of my main complaints with MMOs lately is the worlds feel too big for the number of players on the world. There is like one populated hub and every where else is sparse.

fangblackbone wrote:

You haven't been keeping tabs on SWTOR much have you?

I'll put this in spoiler context but this info is widely available and well known


4 classes get force powers and light sabers from the get go. Jedi Knight, Jedi Counselar, Sith Warrior and Sith Inquisitor.


The Jedi don't. At least in the newbie/tutorial area you don't start with a light saber. That is the impression I get from the videos.

Also SWG was awesome.

I have to say - as living proof - that it is only many not all western gamers that want/need to be The Hero of their games, from the get go or even at all. I have very fond memories of being a newbie in Asheron's Call hitting the portal hub for the first time, taking on it's 'orc' variants. Especially remembered was Shadowbane, which did a fantastic job with player->world influence in my opinion. Guilds could raise towns throughout the continent and populate them with NPC guards and vendors, walls & houses/lodges. These could be aligned with neighboring cities or at war and completely decimated at any time. I remember seeing enemy players while out in the woods and running (flying actually, I was a Fury) back to the guild to warn everyone.

I feel like in a lot of these early cases, which I'm sure many of us here share, there seemed to be greater joys in discovery and exploration. The game(s) were legitimately dangerous for your char with what felt like worse penalties and your party/guildies/friends seemed much more apt to just hang out and - dare I say - bond while maybe 'grinding' like someone earlier mentioned happening in the East Asian MMO's. I suppose it is because the games have become so formulaic and we have just learned what to expect. There is no way to forget how these things work and start over clean. "I don't need to buddy you up because someone else is out there that already knows what to expect and I can get their help." It's a shame really.

If I could get involved with a nice, socializing group in some MMO community out there I'd play damn near anything, even FFXI...