It’s hard to convey why I care about MMOs to people who don’t.
I would say that the mechanics and gameplay of these games are an acquired taste, but they’re not. No one ever starts from a position of disliking combat-by-number or long hours of grinding collection quests only to come to appreciate all of their subtle joys later. It doesn’t work like that.
Sometimes I feel like being an MMO gamer is a bit like being a smoker. As a former smoker from the mid-nineties, I can tell you from experience no one ever starts or continues smoking because they taste delicious. Or because of all that awesome coughing you get to do. Or the repellent smell. Or the cost. No, you smoke because there is something about it that makes you feel comfortable and internally sustained. That eventually gives way, of course, to the fact that you smoke because you smoke and you can’t stop, but that’s not where it starts. It starts with the odd satisfaction of grass-filled paper perched between your fingers and a calm that rushes into your brain when your lungs fill with what can only be described as a toxic miasma of soot, tar and cancer catalysts.
When I fire up World of WarCraft or The Old Republic or EverQuest 2 or RIFT or any of the dozens of MMOs I’ve played, I get that same kind of rush before I ever hit the auto-attack key or click on the first guy with a question mark over his head. Which is part of the reason why I also am part of a mostly quiet segment of gamers that doesn't want MMOs to change.
It may not be good for me, but there it is.
I am an unrepentant critic of JRPGs. It is not a point where I have avoided being vocal, and I realize that my criticisms and rejections are steeped somewhat (if not entirely) in ignorance and closed-mindedness, and for too long I said things about how I might better enjoy those games if they only did X or Y. Of course, the truth is that by doing X or Y, at least in the way that I imagined, those games would become something wholly different. Asking the Personas or Dragon Quests of the world to play like Skyrim or Dragon Age is missing the point entirely.
This is what I think when people complain that the problem with current MMOs is that they play just like all the other MMOs. Well yeah, I say, that’s why they have that name. It is, to me, a bit like complaining that stealth shooters would be a lot better if they didn’t have all the sneaking-around and shooting-gun bits.
I don’t argue that pressing a series of buttons (a series which in most cases can be theory-crafted and min-maxed into an ideal pattern) is the best combat system designed by man or beast. I realize that not everyone is going to find peace and solace in going from hub to incremental hub, completing similarly styled quests. It’s fine to accept that MMOs, like JRPGs, are not for everyone, and that the things I find entertaining are to others almost offensively backward and antithetical to everything they believe gaming stands for.
But, it is what it is. It’s time to stop waiting for MMOs to be something else. This is what they do. This is what they are like. This is a style that has a fan base measured in the millions, and it’s okay for the rest of gaming not to get it. Or, more specifically, to get over it.
I played EverQuest for years off and on. I remember going back again and again, subscribing, playing, cancelling, moving on, growing nostalgic, re-upping and playing again. The great thing to me about these worlds is that they improve over time, they reinvent themselves and yet they are these secret bastions of familiar comfort at the same time. No one can argue that World of WarCraft is, now, what it was when it launched. And yet, I can find myself standing at Northshire Abbey, and it is somehow a bit like driving down Main Street of your home town after being away for a very long time. Going back to the Field of Bone or fighting wisps in the Qeynos Hills felt the same in EverQuest.
I’m not looking for the genre to change appreciably. I’m not waiting for the big reinvention or revolution that will address the many valid concerns of MMO critics. I think it’s fine to just accept that this is not for them — this is for us. Are we addicted, the gaming equivalent to outcast smokers standing at the sides of buildings cupping our hands around a tiny flame so it won’t extinguish in the winter wind? I don’t really think so, but I’m not exactly an unbiased source. The one thing I do know is that I don’t see myself coming inside from the cold any time soon.