I wrote a piece over a year ago which brought to attention the extremely slow progress MMOs have made over the past ten years. In fact, that original article is what brought my writing to the attention of Jody and, in turn, gave me the soapbox emblem. This is a subject that I am rather passionate about because the first game that really took me to another world and immersed me into a rich, carefree culture was the original Everquest. I've played countless MMOs both before and after this experience but none have captivated me in the same way (especially afterward.)
The first good 3D MMO (Guild war going on here.)
The causes of the current stagnation are numerous, but I believe I have whittled them down to a handful of main concerns which, if addressed, could begin a renaissance of sorts in the MMO world. The following are only a few of these concerns. More will be written in another part later in the year.
Throwing loot at players has been an easy way of sustaining prolonged connection to a game. The player gets the feeling of progress while also having the desire to push on to find even more riches in the deeper sections of the dungeon. This, however, is a very artificial form of accomplishment, and the history of loot hording will not be something the player looks back on and relishes. Does the player get excited because they just defeated the greatest threat in the city by slaying the massive dragon and freeing the people from fear, or is the player mostly excited about the +3 Sword of Raging Inferno that dropped from the "mob" which the player has been salivating over for months on forums? If the later is the prime reason for slaying the dragon, then I believe the game is not a rich RPG experience but an infinitely deep database designed to slowly doll out ever more powerful items like cocaine on the streets. Just like drugs, the rewards have to be continually more colorful with more flames, more damage, and loonier designs to keep the increasingly desensitized player lulled into cutting the monthly check.
There needs to be a connection with the character and the world in which the user plays. There needs to be a purpose for killing, questing, and helping (or hurting) the other players and non-player characters (NPCs) in the game. Without a connection to the players and actors in the game, there is not purpose or emotional attachment to, say, freeing the slaves from the slaver's ship, skinning hides for the local leather shop, or bringing a message to a long lost lover.
Did William Wallace fight against the king to obtain theCrown of Beguile and Backstabbing? No, he fought passionately for his country, his land, and his people. There was emotion there, a sense of purpose that drove the conflict not a loot table.
He did it all for the purples?
To facilitate the connection between the player and the character in which they assume, a stockpile of previous actions needs to be recorded in the character's profile to be used to shape the future interactions with NPCs and other players. Did the player kill a merchant in the next city over and then run to their current city? After a few days, word would have gotten around and merchants may not do business with the player until the debt is sufficiently paid to society (or coin pays the merchants off.)
I'm not talking about canned general responses to exact criteria. I'm talking about a behavioral simulation system which runs in the background using your past deeds as the input. The point is, you shape the world and how it interacts with you due to your past actions. This is only one step in the right direction.
I briefly touched on this at the end of my last piece. Creation as it is now is hand generated. Developers toil over creating the landscape to be "just-so", design entire cities with a blueprint in mind, and try to create a world which seems possible but new, and exciting. This is the main portion of the cost and design of a game. The bad part is, this is exactly the portion of the game which ends up making the game feel dated and boring for a veteran player. This content is static, never changing from the time the developer penned the area during the early stages of the game. Some games have addressed this by overhauling the entire game (Cataclysm.) This is only a band aid fix because one to two years from now they will be exactly in the same spot as before. Boring, static landscape.
Instead of investing heavily into hundreds of people working on every detail, have them work on an underlying physics engine which can produce varied, unique, and rich landscapes using variables which can be changed depending on the situation. This generated landscape can then be brushed up and important features added (such as starter cities, monuments, and other cultural items.)
The Earth we see today was created (well… hopefully I don't open a can of worms here) by physical systems. The Grand Canyon by erosion, mountain ranges by plate activity, caves through water channels, and many more weren't created by some artist sitting in a chair for hours. Using an adequately complex simulator could bring about landscape features never dreamed of.
Simply look at the most basic system which Minecraft uses. Only having a handful of blocks and a very simple algorithm, Minecraft makes completely new worlds in seconds which hide all sorts of fantastic secrets. Just think of the possibilities if a few million dollars are sunk into a natural physics simulation.
The best part about having an underlying physics simulation which created some portion of the content is not only the natural feel of the land but the fact that the simulation can easily continue when the game goes live. There would be weather models which could simulate something as simple as a summer rain fall to complex blizzards, hurricanes, and tornados which do actual destruction to the land and player buildings. Earthquakes could happen, seasons change, meteors hit, and the list goes on. All this could happen and the developers may not even know it. It would be simulated with the rules set by the developers, but without their direct interaction.
Supercomputers model all sorts of extremely complex systems.
Perhaps the player takes a year off of the game. Instead of coming back to the exact same thing in which they left, the player is greeted by massive changes. The forest was harvested and a city built, the old capital burnt down from conflict, and the player's house long looted with homesteaders shacked up there.
Great side effect? Every server would be entirely different after some amount of time.
A dynamic world is what we live in, why not play there too?
Before This Gets Too Long
I'm going to have to cut this short, but I have a lot more to say (for another editorial.) One of the problems with MMOs is the fact they do nothing to affect me, as a person. They prey on my wish for more power and ever higher rewards, but fail to deliver real long-term accomplishment. Practically every MMO has a linear path to rewards which everyone follows, even step-by-step guides are sold. Level up to max level (usually a straight shot), get this set of gear, get these skill ups, and then wait for more gear. Strip a max character down in most MMOs to only their underwear and they are all identical.
These brave souls fighting the mighty Arthas are all the same underneath the shiny gear.
A simulated reality will help differentiate the good players from the players who purchase or view guides to progress in a game. It will give purpose and change to the world which will in turn make it seem more real and immersive. Cities can burn down, houses can be attacked, and players can lose their empire through natural events. This brings a sense of risk and a feeling of the unknown into play which is sorely lacking in today's games.
We need simulated realities based on physical laws so we can manipulate them in game for our purposes, just like in real life. We need simulated behavioral laws for the NPCs so, again, we can manipulate them for all sorts of wild purposes. This dynamic, changing world is the next frontier not only for MMOs but for videogames in general.
I'll end on what I wrote in my previous piece:
The MMO arena is stagnant. We wait for expansion packs that keep us busy for a few months or a hyped up game that might leave us 100 dollars poorer only to have wasted our time. We need a game changer. We need something so radically different that it brings us directly into the next generation of MMOs. I am waiting and see nothing on the horizon that will do that.
More to come in Part 3.
What irks you about the current generation of MMOs?
What is the number one thing you believe needs to be addressed?
What is actually good that should stay with the genre as it progresses to the next generation?