Once again, I’m late to the party. I happened upon this multipage dissertation a few days ago:
…and found that much of what I see wrong with the state of the MMO genre has already been elaborated on. Sure, I might have a sibilant spin on the situation, or a particularly philosophical (or pedantic) phraseology, but in the end, I’m really just riding the tail end of the wave.
So why do I keep writing? Because I want to, because it gets it out of my system, and because looking at things through new eyes might just help someone think a bit more. It’s also good when I get feedback, which helps refine my thinking. It’s also nice to think that I’m coming to similar conclusions in a relative vacuum, just from a bit of play experience and extensive research on existing MMO game mechanics and game design.
My navel-gazing aside, though… if these things have been known problems for a while now… why aren’t we seeing change? Tobold asks “Why don’t we play innovative games?“, and called for a “new vision” a while back, Saylah muses that gamers don’t really want revolutionary games, and Wolfshead and Cambios (among others) have some pretty severe beefs with the state of the genre. If little old me, an artist worker bee in the game industry and lifelong game player, can see some of these issues with no real “street cred” to my MMO career, what are other consumers seeing? Obviously, some are just seeing their monthly statement with $15 going this way or that, but what do MMO players really want?
What exactly is an MMORPG? Or POW, or PEG, whatever. What does taking a game online actually do for a game? What does the potential of dozens or hundreds of players interacting do for a game? Yes, there are millions of subscribers to WoW, but those are fractured into a few thousand per server, and the architecture of the game code doesn’t really allow for more than a couple of hundred in an area before crashing. We’re not talking about some sort of super-sized Renaissance Fair always alive and partying when we talk about current MMOs. But… should we be? Is there promise in having wall-to-wall player avatars bumping elbows all over a digital plane? I don’t even like crowded airports, and that’s with people actively moving on through. I’d probably go nuts with more than a few dozen people just puttering around, admiring shoulderpads and flinging “urmom” insults.
Put another way, gaming is a fairly solitary endeavor. Yes, things like Smash Brothers is most fun with a friend, and there are social aspects of the “metagame” (talking about games), but by and large, most games are designed for solo play. (I’m not counting audiences in this, since they aren’t all that integral to game design itself.) That’s not a bad thing. Forcing sociality is just as dangerous as forcing solitude. (And if there are any MMO designers reading this, let me repeat: forcing sociality is as dangerous as forcing solo play. Give people options, don’t force issues.)
Even players in MMO games log on and do their own solo thing. That doesn’t mean they are “missing the point” of an MMO any more than a hardcore raider who snubs the leveling content is “missing the point”. A virtual world is what you make of it, and ignoring any segment of the possible player population is ill-advised, ignorant, and inhibitory.
So again, what is an MMO? Is it a mirror, where you only see what you bring to the table (or a warped variation of the same)? Is it a sandbox, where you have to bring your own toys, your own imagination, your own fun? Is it a glorified chat room? Is it an unholy soul-sucking graphical interpretation of Progress Quest? Is it a game, a world, a frat house, or some sterile hybrid of the three, happy to make its players into pack rat mules? What makes it special enough to “deserve” subscription? What does it offer to make paying exorbitant amounts of money over the long run (compared to other games) even concievable?
Are MMOs just the game equivalent of the tech stock bubble? Will there be a little boy to call the emperor out? Do the back room valuations and hype drive anything of real value, or is it all just so much loose money falling to the local gravity minimum, heedless of a deeper well of desire just over the horizon? Will they ever offer something of durable value to validate their existence? …do we care?
I work on games as an artist. I like to design games. I think they offer a good way to relax, exercise the brain, and exhibit a unique venue for interactive storytelling. There’s a lot of potential in games as a whole, and MMOs have just as much (if not more) potential as any other game genre. So why are we content to run the loot/level treadmill instead of doing something more? I know, humans are inherently lazy little sods, but with the kind of money being thrown around in the industry, there’s a huge buffer for risk and innovation. I don’t want to be an EA clone, dagnabbit!
Bottom line, why do I care? Why do I have this impulse to make games, and why do I have the urge to make them better, rather than settling for what merely is? I see games as being an art form, and I see art as being one of the few things that make humans more than mating meat machines. It helps us strive to be better, to lift our view from the mundane mortal muck, to loftier aspirations. The ability to imagine allows for greater empathy and sympathy, it’s the key to learning, and it’s the only to progress into what might be rather than what merely exists.
MMOs are unique little monsters, and can act as a microcosm of their societies. Perhaps my disappointment with them stems from a larger disappointment with human nature. Still… we, and they, can be so much more. Maybe I’m just too impatient. Still, not to mix too many metaphors, but… baby steps are good, but not if they are on a treadmill. Perhaps I should “get a real job” or something, but some part of me just can’t help but want to fight the good fight, and try to make things better.
It’s tiring being Don Quixote, but I have only myself to blame. Put up or shut up, right? And so I type, at least until I can do more. And I think, at least until I can do so no more. Rally ho, eh, wot?