It Is What It Is

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.

Comments

Well written, but I disagree somewhat. I see the MMO more as a platform than a genre. You, in theory, could have FPS, Sports, and Action/Adventure MMOs in addition to the well trodden RPG genre. So while you could certainly keep on the same path in the RPG section, you may take a different road with another genre of MMO. Maybe more similar is comparing the aforementioned JRPG in your article with a western RPG. They're the same type of game, but run completely differently in practice.

I don't think anyone is saying that WoW should change. Or that any established MMO should change for that matter. I think there are people that would love to have a massive shared experience online that this particular genre on the platform does not cater to, and these are the people you hear waiting for something different in the MMO space.

When something different happens, then everyone gets to be happy. And choice is always a good thing.

What daringone said. There are countless permutations of an MMO that have yet to be explored out of fear of straying from the formula. Unfortunately, that kind of stagnation kills genres.

I'd take it further still, because JRPGs have explored many different takes on just about every element that comprises them, from combat to skill trees to inventory and party management, even within a single series (Final Fantasy). They're all still JRPGs. Imagine where that genre would be if all JRPGs played exactly like Dragon Quest 1. I personally cannot wait until a company has the guts to take a chance and stray from the WoW path and realize that what you (healthily?) love about the experience can stay in place while the rest of the concepts evolve.

Being a gamer (and a non-smoker) that has never played an MMO but has watched their effects on friends and housemates over the years I have to admit that I loved the analogy you drew and though in your last paragraph you attempted to deny it accuracy I think it seems pretty spot on.

*cough* I have no idea *cough* what you're talking about Sean.

FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFF..... ahhhh.

I don't have a problem *cough* *hack* at all. I can quit whenever I want, man!

WHENEVER I WANT.

I personally cannot wait until a company has the guts to take a chance and stray from the WoW path and realize that what you (healthily?) love about the experience can stay in place while the rest of the concepts evolve.

But I think that has happened, and is happening. Look, to me DQ1 probably looks a lot like whatever number their on now -- not from a graphical perspective obviously -- because my frame of reference is pretty far removed from fans of the genre. I'd argue that there's a lot of diversity in the MMO space, but that's because my perspective is skewed from what it looks like on the outside looking in.

I know you can, Zenke. You bet ya can, buddy.

I personally cannot wait until a company has the guts to take a chance and stray from the WoW path and realize that what you (healthily?) love about the experience can stay in place while the rest of the concepts evolve.

And, to clarify: it's been done. By a couple of different people. Several of the F2P MMOs are pretty slick implementations of MMOXs, and I worked on a Massively Multiplayer action combat game that a lot of people didn't realize wasn't just another hotkey game.

DCUO is a very different animal than WoW. Not an animal without problems, don't even need to bring that up. But it's very different than WoW. And overwhelmingly there was a lot of "It's too MMO" from the console players and "It's not MMO enough" from the PC players.

So. Different, as nice as it is to think about, isn't always automatically something that people will flock to.

Elysium, from reading what you've said, it's not that you love the core gameplay of MMOs, it's that you love the sense of a huge shared world with progression, leveling, questing etc. My theory is that, like with cigarettes, people don't "like" the taste of smoke, tobacco, or cigarette papers; they like how it makes them feel. It just so happens that that associated feeling is delivered in that way. And after a while all those associated trappings of smoking becoming classically conditioned to go along with the good feelings, such that if the cigarette smoke tastes different or has no smoke, it can actually affect people's enjoyment.

And that's how it is with MMOs. Everquest was a happy accident. They did what made sense for them with the technology and game design of the time in terms of depth of story, structure of combat, zones etc - but that became the norm for the genre. And I believe it wasn't successful because of that structure and gameplay, but despite it. And now, that type of game has become synonymous with a large shared multiplayer RPG.

To Michael's point, yes, other things have been tried and not been as successful as WoW. But I don't think that's any fault of the changes to combat etc they've done. WoW did what Blizzard does with all games, and that's take something that's wildly successful and streamline it. They made the cigarette with smoke that is less harsh. What those of us who are nauseated by the smell of cigarette smoke want is to share in the joy of all the advancement, questing, shared experience, immersive world experience, without what we consider unnecessarily mundane and mind numbing gameplay.

It's interesting to me to see this perspective spelled out as I recently tested the waters with SWtOR and have practically run back to the familiarity of single player games and co-op shooters. At the same time I've got those friends who can't come out to visit if it's raid night and who assure me that SWtOR doesn't really begin until level 50. That's where I want it to end.

I agree, it's not really an acquired taste. You have a propensity or predeliction or whatever toward that type of play or you don't and it's just not for me. Mostly because the concept of a subscription that I'm not using constantly is more agonizing than enjoyable.

It's interesting to me to see this perspective spelled out as I recently tested the waters with SWtOR and have practically run back to the familiarity of single player games and co-op shooters. At the same time I've got those friends who can't come out to visit if it's raid night and who assure me that SWtOR doesn't really begin until level 50. That's where I want it to end.

I agree, it's not really an acquired taste. You have a propensity or predeliction or whatever toward that type of play or you don't and it's just not for me. Mostly because the concept of a subscription that I'm not using constantly is more agonizing than enjoyable.

gains wrote:

the concept of a subscription that I'm not using constantly is more agonizing than enjoyable.

This is, more or less, my reaction to the article. Sure, the grinding will become tiresome, but an equal obstacle that has made me anti-MMO is the subscription. With so many other good games out there to play and with my limited time to play games, I know that in order to get my money's worth from a $15/month MMO subscription, I would have make the sacrifice of missing out on lots of great experiences from lots of non-MMO/non-subscription games.

Even though I haven't played them so far, I'm glad to see the current trend of MMOs switching to or launching as free-to-play+microtransaction games. This model changes the chance of me playing your MMO from zero to, well, more than zero.

For once, I'm fully in agreement with Elysium. I don't like or play MMORPGs, but I know people who do, and they're mostly happy where they are.

A game mechanic that you (or I) don't like isn't necessarily a flaw or an imperfection. It may simply be something personal - some people like it, some people don't. As Elysium notes, faulting a game or a whole genre for the very things that its fans play it for is missing the point entirely. Ripping out the variety of guns in Borderlands, or criticizing it as a game fault - it completely misses the point. The random gun loot is one of its raisons d'être! It's like saying that Mario would be such a great game if only it weren't for all that annoying platforming.

What some players would call "grinding," meaning "chore," others call "grinding," meaning "home."

Meatman:

That's one of the advantages of the F2P model. It maximizes the profit curve by being all prices at once to all people. Two of the core principles of F2P are:

1. Do not compromise the free experience. That's your advertising. It must deliver the full game experience.
2. Do not stop people from throwing money at you. It must be fast, convenient, and rewarding for fans (but should not lock away important game experiences).

daringone wrote:

Well written, but I disagree somewhat. I see the MMO more as a platform than a genre.

...

I don't think anyone is saying that WoW should change. Or that any established MMO should change for that matter. I think there are people that would love to have a massive shared experience online that this particular genre on the platform does not cater to, and these are the people you hear waiting for something different in the MMO space.

I agree. There's a lot of things you could do with a bunch people in a shared space, and only a few things that have been tried. (And even less things tried more than once.)

The comparison point of stealth shooters is an odd one, I think. At one point in time, people did complain that shooters---all of them, they were "Doom clones" back then---were little more than key card hunts through mazes. That was cool for me (and that's still cool for me), but other people wanted more than "shotgun->red key card->rocket launcher->switch->next level".

And we got more! And I'm happy for it, and I'm happy those people pushed for more, because "shooters" is no longer a giant mono-genre, but a wide space ranging from simple shotguns and zombies, to super-involved tactical affairs. I still like Doom clones, but the other stuff I hadn't really thought of us cool too.

Personally it's the internal narrative that i have inside the game world. It's why i drift more to sandbox implementations over whats become the standard model of MMOs. It's because of this narrative that i think allows me to be comforted and allows me to keep coming back to different games over time.

When I look at Skyrim, I think, "This would be better if my friends were here." When I log into LOTRO or TOR, I almost always pop open the Kinship/Guild panel and see who I'll be gaming with that evening. Even if I don't quest with them, there's the meta-conversation (maybe) about the game, in the game. If I'm going to spend my hard earned gaming time on something, I want the option for it to be social. I think this is really what keeps me coming back.
XBOX Live and PSN seem to me to be attempts to capture that feeling of connected-ness. What they fail to capture is the sense of possibility. When I hop into an MMO and I immediately get an invite from a friend in Australia requesting help on a raid, they've just done something specifically MMO. Soon I'm chatting with people I've never met in person, but know well enough to ask about their health problems, kid's progress in school, or simply what happened in their part of the world, all while playing an enjoyable game with complex mechanics born from multiplayer online parents.
Stepping out of the AAA MMO titles, Minecraft (can I call that an MMO? Probably not...), http://www.quelsolaar.com/ and A Tale in the Desert (http://www.atitd.com/) represent something I want more of. Sandbox FTW! Let me change the world, let me build things other people can see. These minimize the button mashing, macro-ready skill rotations, the raid-drop armour min-maxing, the Barrens-chat "F*G" comments and present something of what I consider a "Next Generation" MMO experience.

saxtus wrote:

When I look at Skyrim, I think, "This would be better if my friends were here."

Funny -- when I play, I think, "I hope no one f*cking bothers me."

Warriorpoet897 wrote:

Unfortunately, that kind of stagnation kills genres.

Does it? I guess that's why the Call of Duty and Madden franchises died off years ago. Oh wait, they're still churning those out every year and selling a bajillion copies each time. I'm not going to argue that stagnation is good from a creative standpoint, but from a commercial perspective I can't think of a single game genre that was killed off by a lack of innovation. Can you?

Meatman, if a AAA title with 8 hours of gameplay can be worth $60, that's $15 for 2 hours.
So a subscription is not wasted if you do the cost averaging and come out ahead of other new releases.

duckilama wrote:

Meatman, if a AAA title with 8 hours of gameplay can be worth $60, that's $15 for 2 hours.

While that is true for people who pay $60 for 8-hour games*, I am certainly not one of them.

* PC only, excluding console games, as they can be traded in to recoup up to half of the $60

So here's how I'm reading this. MMOs are an incredibly competitive genre where many titles have launched and many have died, leaving only a few successful survivors. So, on the one hand, we can conclude that the ubiquitous gameplay we see in MMOs are the "best" for this type of game: the market has selected for social games that are more relaxing than taxing, a winddown rather than a windup. Elysium's analogy to smoking is perhaps apt in that this button-clicking might have more in common with Facebook games than they do with, say, Fallout 3.

But, in evolution, a species can also get "stuck" on a fitness peak and unable to get to a more adaptive place because the steps between are too maladaptive for the entire species to shift over. In the case of the genre of MMOs, perhaps there is a "better" game that we'd all enjoy more than we have right now, but to get there would require such a large leap that it's become, for the moment, impossible -- not in terms of creating that game, but marketing it to a captured segment of gamers who are already primed to want existing MMOs or trying to reach a hypothetical new crowd who are too "burned" on MMOs to try this hypothetical, vastly superior game.

Anyway, all that is to say I'm fascinated thinking about whether MMOs are what they are because that's what they were meant to be, or because of an arbitrary starting point that set an evolutionary path in a completely different direction than if they'd started somewhere else.

As someone who played MMOG's for 20 years before WoW launched I found WoW the pinnacle of the classic threat model/trinity MMoG design. But that was it for me...in fact after WoW if any MMOG would launch with the same mechanic I would shrug and say why bother? None of the games after WoW have even bothered to attempt to advance the genre...and maybe it's because those still playing don't want it to ever advance beyond that...to me that's sad. Living through 26 years of evolution and refinement to simply stop is depressing.

I would still be playing WoW if I had good friends to play with. Nothing has ever come close to it in the current structure of MMOG's

Edit

I just took a quick look at the TOR catch all thread and it reads the exact same as a WoW thread. People are even bitching about the exact same problems WoW went through...it's actually kinda mind boggling... I mean 100% exact same problems.

On one hand, I agree. I think when criticizing the current MMOs, it is often implied that the genre is following a linear evolution and that the World of Warcraft type of MMO is doomed to be replaced by something else. And also, like you pointed out, it is often implied or stated that there is something inherently wrong with that model. To me, that kind of criticism is like saying Starcraft is doomed to be replaced by Total War.

On the other hand, I feel the way the article is written leaves absolutely no room for any other model to exist. As such it was an almost depressing read :

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.

MMOs are so vast, have so many systems, that some of those are bound to cater to some gamers more than others. Recent MMOs haven't really been up my alley. I'm hoping this will change with other games existing along the current dominant model (perhaps, guild wars 2?) bringing more variety to the genre.