We Do It To Ourselves, We Do – Why MMOs Are as They Are

Meridian 59 - An army of skeletons overruns a town.

Meridian 59 - one of the first modern MMOs, but often forgotten in the face of Ultima Online and Everquest.

Psychochild made an interesting post recently – why haven’t MMOs lived up to their early potential? Why hasn’t the early potential of games like Ultima Online or Meridian 59 with all their freedom and player-driven worlds been built on? Why have more controlled experiences like Everquest 2 or World of Warcraft dominated the genre?

Some people like to blame game designers as having some kind of failure of imagination, or publishers for only looking at the size of WoW’s player base and forcing designers to create clones. To some extent, this is a truth in this, but there is another, less frequently commented issue: it is what the majority players’ want. MMOs are as they are due to an issue of gamer culture.

It might not be what ex-MUD players want, who were used to having more control over their characters / the world among a small community of other, mostly friendly MUDders. It might not be what ex-UO and / or ex-SWG players want, who get to view those experiences through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia and ignore macro-grinding out skills or badly designed character advancement systems or being a sheep among PvP wolves. But it is what the mass of players want.

When EQ came out, it unseated UO as the most popular MMO not only by being shinier and newer (and 3D), but by offering clear direction in how to progress. It lacked the depth and potential of UO, but EQ provided something more important: signposts for the way forward. When WoW was released, it polished those signposts even further. Comparatively Everquest 2 arguably tried to take a step back towards sandbox and this (along with many, many launch issues) saw players not hang around.

Or even compare Star Wars Galaxies with WoW. On one side, the spiritual successor to UO and holder of one of the best known geek IPs all backed by major MMO and entertainment companies. On the other side, a first-time entrant to the MMO market based on the respected RTS output of one studio. I don’t believe there is one single factor for WoW’s success, but it proved how big the MMO player base could get if offered the right features, with one of these features being gameplay that was easy to play solo or in short bursts.  SWG might have done okay in terms of sub numbers, but it never met management expectations, which was why the New Game Experience (NGE) was foisted onto players. A big difference was the time commitment required to play and advance in WoW versus SWG.

Ultimately there are more casual players (or: players who aren’t going to commit a lot of time to a game) than there are hardcore players (or: players who are going to commit a lot of time to a game). In the short-term, both will pay the same amount in sub fees to play, so it becomes a sensible business decision to aim that multi-million development budget at the larger number of casual players. Over their play lifetime, hardcore players might end up being worth more, but it isn’t necessarily much more – hardcore players might lock in long-term sub payment plans to take advantages of discounts while casual players might pay from month-to-month. This means a casual player who pays $15 a month for 8 months is worth the same as a hardcore player who pays $10 a month for 12 months, plus the casual p(l)ayer can end up costing less in terms of bandwidth and data management (although admittedly these costs aren’t as high as they used to be).

So, why isn’t there a next-generation-with-a-big-budget UO on the way? Quite simply its because there isn’t the market size to support it. Look at the MMOs that are currently being developed – I can’t think of one that is really trying for sandbox. Darkfall and Fallen Earth have tried – make your own decisions about their success in achieving it – but these are both indie projects. Currently leading the MMO hype train is Star Wars: The Old Republic which would appear to be the most theme park-oriented  MMO you could possibly imagine – a sharp contrast to the open- and player-driven structure of SWG.

Where Is Your Sense of Adventure?

One of Psychochild’s points is that recent MMOs lack a sense of adventure. This is also mostly due to the focus on short-term gaming – casual players aren’t going to have time to explore, so it isn’t worth developing ‘hidden’ content that most won’t see. This becomes even more true as MMOs get older, where even ‘unhidden’ content can be completely ignored by the mass of the player base if it is superseded by more recent additions.

Alternatively, if hidden content is attractive enough, it becomes a major destination pretty quickly – being a tourist trap is pretty much as far from hidden as you can get.

Another aspect to adventuring is a sense of the unknown. If someone has been playing MMOs since UO, it is going to be pretty hard to surprise them with something new. Especially if they can (and will) go to the game wiki and read up on any content they want prior to setting out. Being new and surprising is scary. Being surprised is a good way of running into failure, which is something that most players try to minimise. There is also the chance of going out to explore an area and find absolutely nothing of note, which is wasted time. So either the developer has to have enough hidden content that means players can explore with a high probability of finding something, or else only the truly dedicated explorers will ever be likely to see it (without using the wiki, of course).

Lord British killed by Rainz

Lord British discovers that player freedom has a smokey flavour.

Blaming the Victims

Also, let’s realise that pretty much every MMO experience that hands freedom to the player ends up being a lesson in why players should never be given too much freedom. UO’s early potential was perfectly summed up by a player killing the lead designer in-game while he was giving a speech: if you open the door to the possibility, players will take advantage. And that advantage ends up with dead monarchs.

The other issue with freedom is that the more options you give someone, the more paralysed by choice they can become. It’s the paradox of choice – by giving players multiple goals, you end up seeing them freeze in case they make the wrong decision and pick the wrong goal to aim for. Much easier to be told to kill ten rats and know that is exactly what you have to do – at least that way you have direction and purpose.

Of course, most players say they are bored with killing ten rats and I’m sure a lot are. But it certainly isn’t seeing players stream back to sandbox titles seeking something different. Nope – they go to the next MMO with familiar game mechanics. (Being bored with killing ten rats is actually more of a presentation of that goal than the execution of that goal, but that’s another issue entirely.)

I Walked Into A Door, Honest

The next wave of major MMOs certainly aren’t returning to sandboxes for inspiration either; instead they are looking at the FPS genre (such as APB) or single-player RPGs (Star Wars: Old Republic). The reason for this is simple: that’s where the players are. EQ, followed by WoW, pretty much beat down the entire sandbox genre. Although there are a few out there – EvE being the biggest – they really are a niche in the market. Plus operating a sandbox pretty much guarantees a studio has to be prepared for players looking to manipulate the system wherever possible – CCP’s policy of letting players scam and deceive each other nearly unhindered is a part of letting players have their freedom.

Putting down rules to “play nice” is the antithesis of sandbox play, which should be equally open to everyone working together to create a utopia to every high level player ganking every n00b they see, desecrating the corpse and driving the unworthy from the game. Certainly MMO players will try to exploit mechanics within theme park MMOs, but the impact there is generally less and people are more accepting in those titles of being bound to play by certain hardcoded rules provided they generally don’t block their characters’ forward advancement.

EvE Online screenshot

EvE Online does a lot of things differently, all of which contribute to what it is. Being a sandbox is only one of those features.

At the end of the day, MMOs are as they are because that’s what the player base has shown there is a demand for. It’s not just “everyone copies WoW”, it’s that there hasn’t been a sandbox game that approached being a breakthrough success for a very long time. EvE was a gradual success as a sandbox after starting out as an abject failure, but EvE also does so many things differently it is arguable how much you can cut ‘sandbox’ out from ‘single server’ and ‘high drama’ and point at it as a singular reason for success.

Other sandbox MMOs haven’t attracted the same kind of attention – Darkfall and Fallen Earth might both be the most sandbox-y titles for a long time, but neither shifted a huge number of box copies at launch. Sure, they might be profitable as indie titles and grow, but conventional wisdom is that MMOs get their largest player bump from launch and box releases – starting small might be the quickest way to bankruptcy.

Going back to the original question, MMOs haven’t lived up to their original, virtual world promises because the audience has changed and indicated that online game > virtual world when it comes to what they will buy. Building a virtual world is an immensely difficult task and current experience shows that you won’t attract the same size audience compared to a new theme park MMO.

Ultimately if players want a new sandbox MMO, they’ve got to prove there is a demand for it. This hasn’t happened in recent history, which is why the future belongs to the MMOFPS (FPS being major unit shifters) and theme park MMOs with geektacular IPs like Star Wars and Star Trek.

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