Crafting My Ideal MMO
I’ve never cared much for MMOs. I’ve tried out several different ones, only lasting a few hours in each, among them Age of Conan, Rift, The Lord of the Rings Online, and even the most lauded – or nefarious, depending on your point-of-view – World of Warcraft. Although in fairness I only played WoW for about ten minutes while the guy who owned the account took a shower. It’s odd because I should adore the genre, as it grants me a massive, deep world that I may explore at my leisure, complete with guilds to join and giants monsters to slay. And the sheer volume of lore and well-hidden secrets should enable me to sink countless hours into it. So why am I not doing that, and instead dispensing my rambling thoughts here? The problem is two-fold, and the solutions are simple, yet extremely difficult to make a reality.
A few years ago, I went to school with some odd people. In addition to booze and sex – common topics for teenage males – the favored conversational topic was World of Warcraft. However, they didn’t tell much about their adventures in Azeroth, what dragons they’d slain and such. No, it was about how quickly they could get a character to level 80 and what strategies to use to achieve maximum efficiency. What did they do when they’d reached level 80? Why, they made a new character and started all over! The “hero” in this group of people was the guy who was best at leveling-up his characters. The guy who was the best at managing statistics was revered. I’m being very judgmental of them, which isn’t entirely fair – they were, mostly, alright people. I suppose if they enjoy the game in this way, I should let them. On my part, having the numbers shown directly to me diminishes any impact the world has. Instead of enjoying the exploration, it becomes something I feel I should prepare spreadsheets for to get the “most out of it”.
The first problem – and the most commonly cited from other people who dislike the genre – is grind. To get further in the world, you have to grind endlessly. You need to gather thousands of wolf pelts to get the needed XP to level up, so you can beat larger wolves, gather bigger pelts and get more XP. Rinse, repeat ad infinitum. Grind is just a necessity to get to the higher, grander altitudes of whatever world you find yourself in. At some point you’ll reach the more challenging dungeons, and achieve greater freedom as you are economically stronger.
When I stated earlier that I’d never gotten very deeply into MMOs, that’s not entirely true. I played a “game” called NationStates – a game where you sat as Supreme Overlord of a nation among a sea of nations – for a number of years in my younger days. I say “game” because it basically consisted of deciding on some political issues that determined whether your nation became a Psychotic Dictatorship or a Left-Leaning College State, or any of the other forms of government. The real game took place on the forums that practically every serious region – a larger collection of nations – had. There politics would be discussed, bills would be passed and elections held (personally, I held such glorious positions as Game Warden and Secretary of the Region!). Entire new forms of playing were conceived here, such as “invading” where players would take over a region’s founder’s account, thus taking control of a region and evicting the original inhabitants. The point is that the players of the game essentially co-created it. Without player involvement, there would only be an extremely simple political simulator that would be fun for a few minutes. I rarely see that kind of player involvement in conventional MMOs – except perhaps EVE Online, which is also well-known for players breaking the rules.
That’s part of the second problem: the people. I’m not suggesting that other people should not play a role in MMOs – after all, that would take away what the genre is all about. The problem lies with the sheer number of people involved. In the major cities, I suppose it makes sense that there are hundreds of adventurers running around, trying to get rid of their hard-earned, but now useless loot, In the outskirts of the world, though, why are those hundreds of adventurers now still running around confusedly, trying to found out which monsters to kill? Why must I climb some mountain the developers had no intentions of me climbing just to get a bit of solitude? Even then I can still vaguely see the other players’ tags in the distance, and my chat log is still filled with racial slur. These aspects aren’t immersive, they’re the anti-thesis of that. Even intriguing lore, well-written quests and grind-free gameplay cannot save a game if the players seem like they’ve been teleported here straight from a CoD match.
Then, how would the ideal MMO be constructed?
The first problem to address is probably the hardest to solve. How do you create a persistent world that always has new, high-quality content for its players available? That would require a gigantic team for the developer to write new quests and create new areas continuously. Cryptic’s upcoming MMO Neverwinter is trying to prevent this by letting their players creating their own content for the game, a practice that could lead to some truly spectacular experiences depending on how well-implemented the feature is – personally, some of the best experiences I had with the old Neverwinter Nights was from its user-created content. However, while this could theoretically prevent grind, the core gameplay would still be the same. You’d still be using the same spreadsheets as before, albeit you were involved in some more interesting quests and areas.
Instead, the gameplay would have to change. Practically all major MMOs feature a fairly stiff combat system that relies more on just finding the right combo to beat certain creatures in combat. There’s none of the fluidity of more conventional games like in many action-RPGs such as Mass Effect or Mount & Blade. There isn’t even a hint of unpredictability in the combat, as it you can nearly determine the outcome mathematically. So, the solution would be to implement more fluid combat – Mount & Blade is actually a good example of how to create that without huge funds – and the challenge in that would be to implement it on a large scale.
The second problem has a more obvious solution: make the world bigger, and reduce the number of people on each server. One way I’m imagining this could work – bear in mind that it’s totally unrealistic – would be to open a considerable portion of the Forgotten Realms up for players to explore. Ideally the whole thing, something that’s going to be increasingly likely as technology shifts from focusing on realism to creating larger worlds. Without making some hefty compromises the level of detail this is something that lies in the fairly distant future. As for the smaller group of players, these would instead form adventuring bands – that could be formed and disbanded at leisure – whom they went adventuring with in the Realms. The smaller amount of players would hopefully also result in these adventuring bands being spread out over the world, meaning that they’d only occasionally interact.
The dullness that I’ve experienced in the MMO genre could fairly easily be mended, if not for that bastard known as “technology”. Still, a man can dream, right? Isn’t that what idealizations are for?