What happened to the MMORPG genre?

Posted: December 22, 2009 in Uncategorized
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The state of MMORPGs today feels to me like it is utterly (but hopefully not irreversibly) stagnant.  I don’t know if WoW has stunned all the competition into submission, or if it simply is incredibly difficult (next to impossible?) to innovate in the genre, but the last few years seems to have given us fans one disappointment after another.  Even the best of the more recent releases are more or less retreads with very little new to offer.  And sadly, I see no end in sight, no knight in shining armor to save the genre down the road.  Even Bioware’s Star Wars game has more or less come up with what looks like MOTS, albeit with better storytelling and a great license (see recent PC Gamer previews if you disagree).  Personally I feel that a deep story-based game is best handled with a single or small scale RPG, like Dragon Age, where you can truly make quest/story based decisions that impact the world and change the story, without affecting anyone else’s game.

It’s been really frustrating for me, because I love the genre and I love the potential I see in it, and have seen in it, for so many years.  This is not to say I haven’t enjoyed much of my time in all of the many new games I’ve tried, but it just bothers me to see the same mistakes (or the same basic gameplay) repeated over and over.  I think back to my time in my first major MMO experience (DAOC), and in all honesty it seems like few areas have progressed, and some have actually gone backwards.  Sure the game wasn’t perfect, but for its time, it had a nice balance of PvE and PvP, fun dungeons and group content, *three* warring factions, tons of different classes (some with very unique gameplay like the Theurgist), etc.  And that was all EIGHT years ago!  I don’t know of a game out there now that has all these features (in particular three warring factions).  It’s as if once WoW declared it OK to balance a game with 2 realms having essentially all the same classes, everyone just gave up on making anything too much more complex. 

I really don’t know what happened, and I hate to blame it all on WoW, but it really seemed like it was the turning point.  It’s success became such a measuring stick that no competitor could measure up to, but everyone felt they had to.  Everyone had to either copy their formula (with perhaps inchstones of improvement or a few added features here and there) or run to the hills crying. 

Most disappointing for me is how no one has truly manned up to build what I would call a REAL MMORPG world, one that changes and evolves with the will of the players.  I’m talking a Shadowbane-esque sandbox that looks good, doesn’t crash, and has enough inherent content and gameplay built in to appease both casual and hardcore gamers alike.  In that sense, perhaps the failures of both Horizons and SB were what have seemingly killed the sandbox MMORPG.  I’m not discounting Darkfall entirely, but it is/was so niche that casual gamers really weren’t invited to the party.  It now feels like “Sandbox” has to automatically equate to”hardcore” – somehow those 2 concepts became linked together and entwined in such a way that no one seems to want to break that mold.

So what are we left with?  Re-tread after re-tread.  Sure there have been nice improvements in combat, incredible leaps in graphics, excellent tweaks to questing/journal engines, some twists here and there on PvP, but in terms of creating a living, breathing MMORPG WORLD that anyone can dive into – little  progress at all.  Every quest NPC resets, every story is repeated for every player, every mob no matter how mighty will eventually “pop” again for the next set of raiders to kill ad infinitum.  If this is all we’re playing for, why not enjoy an in depth story based RPG like Dragon Age instead?  Or play an Action-RPG like Diablo?  Of course I’m not accounting for the community experience of raiding and grouping, but even these could theoretically be achieved in a smaller-scale multi-player game (which allowed for as many as the largest raid groups these days).  What’s the point of the “massive” in MMO if individuals (or groups) are simply just repeating or doing the same exact content without interaction amongst the “masses”?

So is the answer to the above question more PvP?  Sure, perhaps, on some level at least.  Large-scale PvP is certainly a form of interaction benefitting from more and more players.  But no one has seemed to be able to consistently capture the essence of this in a truly meaningful way, for very much the same reasons.  Because ultimately nothing matters.  You can bring an opposing faction to its knees in games like WAR or WoW, but who cares?  You can kill the same guy or the same NPC over and over but he’ll just be back again.  Ultimately everything will all just “reset” magically so that it can be done again.  The fighting for fightings sake is fun, of course, but then again, that can simply be done in an FPS, or maybe an instanced, Guild Wars-esque environment, if the goal is to have balanced PvP team combat.  All the massive part generally adds to the equation (when left unchecked) is zerg-like gameplay which devolves into which side has the most players. 

This is what sets the Sandbox game apart, and should theoretically set the true next generation of MMORPGs apart.  When a group of people allied to destroy my guild’s city and plunder it’s riches, it actually happened, and there was no turning back.  There is no reset button to rely upon.  We fought to preserve what we had built, or planned to save what we could to rebuild.  Now that group that destroyed my city are my sworn enemies, and I will likely seek revenge.  But what if I need them to fight off an even greater danger, say some uprising of demons?  Will I set aside my past differences to ally against a greater evil?  Should I turn on my new allies at a critical moment and make a deal with the devil?   There are consequences to every action and every decision.  I’m not saying this style of game is necessarily for everyone, but certainly it would be a change to today’s model. 

I am also not saying there is absolutely no meaning or no fun in today’s batch of MMORPGs, as I have certainly enjoyed my time in many of them.  But it’s been EIGHT years and countless releases for me now, and I simply yearn for something that takes the genre to the next level. Slapping on a new coat of paint with a fresh new license is not the answer I’m looking for anymore.  If I really want old school style of gameplay I have more than enough choices to enjoy that in, many of them now becoming free to play.  So what I really want is to see a Shadowbane/Horizons hybrid with a brand new engine (that doesn’t crash), with NPCs and mobs that evolve, with life and death consequences, with cities built and lost, its history, politics and economy created by the players, and the ability to contribute to the meta-world/story even if I only have a few hours a week to play.  I want nothing less than my avatar to be able to enter and participate in, and even shape, a truly evolving virtual world.

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