The Devolution of MMOs
By: Kei Beneza (dividelife), Onrpg Journalist
MMOs have been around for more than a decade, constantly boosting its capabilities while coming up with various ways to make the experience better than ever. What was once a game of grinding and running has evolved to questing and riding, and what was once an ingame taxi service has become a free-roaming flight experience. It's amazing how MMOs managed to evolve throughout the years, continuously coming up with new titles and new subgenres to welcome into the MMO industry.
I remember playing RF Online for the first time and being blown away by its awesome mechanics. Being transported into a war-filled universe where your only purpose is to help your race reign supreme is just awesome, and I'm sure you enjoyed your first MMOs as much as I did. Remember what it was like back then when only a handful of MMOs existed? Everyone was always waiting for the next patch/episode, and as an RF Online player, I was waiting for the next siege kit for my Accretian Annihilator. The game evolved continuously, constantly giving us new class rebalances, and various features that made the game better than ever.
How I wish MMOs could stay the way it was back then... back then when the genre was growing rapidly, where the only way to go was forward. Sadly, progression stopped, and developers started to lack ideas, or at least the means to enact said ideas. Enclosed is my take on the Evolution and Devolution of MMO gaming. I hope you guys enjoy this as much as I enjoyed writing it.
IT'S EVOLUTION BABY!
MMOs have progressed in a variety of ways. Back then, during the MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) days, players weren't blessed with epic visuals. Instead, they operated on a DOS/IRC like interface and used their imagination, much like the table top games they were modeled after. Back then they did not deserve the M in MMORPG, as the game could only hold a few players. Back then it was all about reading and projecting, which would most likely bore you to death if you were to play it on this era. But we had lower expectations of what was awesome!
No Need For A Second Controller
When I first played an MMORPG, I was astounded at how broad the game was. It was like an open ended world where your decisions matter. Unlike the old Final Fantasy RPGs I used to know and love, these games didn't run on rails. Sure, you are still tasked to do horrendous jobs like killing three bears or killing a boss monster, but the STORY will always be stuck at a specific moment in time until the developers decide to move it further. It then occurred to me that this was my story, and that I was about to contribute to this world as myself, not Cecil, Crono, Cloud, Squall, Fei, Vahn, or any other premade protagonist.
My role or importance was completely up to me, depending on how much I make my impact on this world. The world was full of players, and back then I was in awe at how interactive this genre could be-- this "Online RPG". I could freely talk to everyone, and ask them where 'THAT' monster is, and they would answer in a variety of ways, unlike single player RPGs where most of them say the same thing every time you interact with them. I didn't need another controller to not feel alone. It was indeed Massively Multiplayer.
PVP, Dungeons And Bosses
Remember what it was like to control three separate characters in a turn-based game where you would most likely think for each character? That was seriously a drag. During my days in Ragnarok Online (the first MMO to ever grace my country), it was a blessing to have someone ELSE cast that healing spell on me. As a DPS assassin, all I did was slap that overgrown man-goat with daggers while the mages and priests back us up. We all had our roles to play, and it was awesome. As more players entered the scene, bigger and harder bosses were made-- bigger, badder, and ready to match blades against a larger player base. Dungeons also grew to become another epic feature in MMORPGs as they put teamwork to the ultimate test. Hell, I remember my first WoW (World of Warcraft) instanced dungeon; at first I thought that the instances were like dungeons in Ragnarok where you can just run around freely and wish someone has your back. Turned out help was not coming in the end.
Another feature that caught my attention was the PVP aspects. Teaming up is always fun, but of course, there must always be something to satisfy the player's hunger for player to player combat. Back then, Counterstrike was the biggest game we had, and no other game could bring that many players into the same arena. Fortunately for the genre, Ragnarok's PVP mode stepped up to the plate. It was amazing how the game managed to fit 99 players in the same room. In what better way can you test your skills than fighting a whole battalion of bloodthirsty players, ready to wipe you off the field?
And So On...
As more games were released, more and more systems were made available. Gunbound for example, brought a whole new light to MMO gaming, branching out from the RPG genre to a Worms Armageddon type game. It was somewhat refreshing to have a PVP based game after years of killing monsters and grinding experience nonstop. Gunz Online also appeared soon after that, giving us a Matrix-like shooter that lets players run on walls and do epic acrobatic shooting techniques in midair.
"Maybe that's where Dante (Devil May Cry) got it."
And now we move on to today... As much as I would want to be all enthusiastic about this article, I believe that it would be quite irrelevant given the growing number of disappointments released the past few years. Like many of you, in the early 2000s I believed the only way this industry could move was forward. Boy was I in for a surprise.
Soon after the release of Ragnarok Online, more and more games followed. At first everyone was happy to see 3D MMOs, especially after playing 2D games for a long period of time. Yes, more and more games came out and the corporate suits realized this industry was not just a passing fad. Soon after there came a time when a new title was just another renamed game with renamed classes, renamed weapons, renamed skills, and reworded plots. 9 out of every 10 games just became an exercise in tedium.
The Age of Mediocrity
It was as though the developers were running out of ideas. Games started to copy other games, which led to a continuous game cloning process. A good example would have to be the MMORPG genre. Before, everything seemed fresh and each game had its own specialty. Whether it's RF Online, Ran Online, Khan Online, or MapleStory, every MMO had its own trademark feature, and players would play that game for their distinct content. Sadly, most of the MMOs today are rehashes of semi-succesful games launched before them. You find yourself asking how many times you can really support Lu Bu in Ancient China's Three Kingdoms before it gets old.
Despite a few minor tweaks, you will always have that weird feeling that you have been there and done it all before. Boss battles started to feel linear, and even though some games have intense scripts that make the experience worthwhile, the majority of games just drown it with their standard repetitive systems. The designers put more time into designing hotkeys and auto-attack features to make these instances less straining than they do designing content to excite the player into active participation.
Character creation also became mediocre, despite the constant growth of quality graphics. Most of the new classes being released are now but renamed classes from 5+ year old MMO games. Some of them even divide a single archetype just to come up with two PSEUDO-NEW characters in an attempt to keep the experience fresh. I don't even want to get started on the lack of character look customization and how free-to-play games make you pay out the nose just to get any resemblance of uniqueness.
It is as though the developers have branded this genre as PERFECT and that it no longer needs to be improved. The grinding was still there, and most of the quests given were nothing but monster checklists that often just point you to your proper leveling grounds.
Back then, I didn't mind buying prepaid cards and having my card charged to play quality content. However, it felt like manna from heaven when these MMO started to become free-to-play. I mean, who could resist playing their favorite games for free right? Being charged $14.99 per month was acceptable, but it is definitely a whole lot better when you are not being charged. It was in this era when the item mall was introduced, giving players a premium boost whenever they decide to pay for content, giving them higher exp, better drops, and a lot of extras (and I mean, a lot). Somehow the lure of the next shiny toy distracted me just enough that I wasn't put off by the realization; I had begun to pay more for Free-to-Play than I ever paid for a subscription.
Soon, more and more buffs and privileges worked its way to various item malls, which slowly turned the words free-to-play to free-to-get-owned. Games started to become imbalanced, with paying members holding a big advantage over those who are playing the game for free. Things even got worse after THESE games started to charge for content necessary for character progression. Free-to-play became a bait for players who wanted to play for free, eventually forcing them to pay MORE to keep up with the competition. In my honest opinion, it may be free-to-play but it's definitely pay-to-enjoy.
Some of these games marketing teams even sunk as low as to disguise their advertisements as porn, redirecting porn hungry users to their generic games. MMO browser games are notorious at using this form of baiting. The bright side is that no matter which you get baited by, the gaming experience is almost precisely the same as each other. So at least you won't have to worry about what you are missing in those other browsers you bypassed!
Good Things Come To Those Who Wait...... Right?
I'm not sure if the games really did devolve as much as I said it did, but I believe that it's still something to think about. Did I just get used to MMO games? Maybe that is why I think they are devolving into the state of absolute stasis. Expansion packs are known to improve the game further, but most of the expansion packs I have seen lately are nothing but recycled content served on a silver platter. New content does not seem that new anymore, with innovation being as rare as a successful indie game company (coincidence?). The added storylines also seem forced, like a lackluster filler of Naruto you just can't wait to get over.
Don't get me wrong though--- I still love playing MMOs and still have a lot of recurring subscriptions for a bunch of games. I just hope they come up with something new soon because the possibilities of the industry are limitless. If they managed to give us that magical feeling they did back then, maybe it's only a matter of time before history repeats itself. A new decade is upon us. Let us hope 2011 proves to be the turning point in which the claims of ‘next generation MMO' are more than just marketing hype.
Thanks for reading my article. What is your input on at what point the MMO Industry went wrong? Check out our new reorganized forums and give us your thoughts!