27 April, 2016
Okay, so yesterday I went a little dark and pessimistic. Or, as Richard Bartle calls it, “A normal Tuesday night.”
Today, though, I want to look on the bright side and respond to Timothy Lochner’s suggestion:
“What do you believe is an untapped “thing” for the MMO space that could actually be viable?”
I’m not sure I can completely counteract yesterday’s pessimism, but here’s a look at what could make MMOs great again.
The meaning of MMOs
So, let’s turn back the clock and look at what made MMOs so intriguing in the first place. This list is going to be a bit subjective, especially as times have changed and alternatives have appeared. However, I think this list is a pretty good representation of what people loved about MMOs.
- Playing with other people – This was a novel experience for a lot of people at the time. Want to do stuff with friends? Want to group with random people? Want to just go solo? These all became viable options over time.
- A persistent world – Choices you made and opportunities you seized could rarely be undone, except in rare and exceptional circumstances. A change from other games where changing your mind was a reload away.
- A dynamic game – The game changed over time. This ranged from things like UO’s ecology system to major content patches and expansions where major parts of the game would be radically altered or added to.
- A breadth of content – Especially as games got more complex, you saw a lot more systems added to the game. Wanted to level a character over time? You could do that. Want to craft stuff for others to use? Yep. Want to do complex raids that required more people and coordination? You could. Want to go kill others? Many games had that option, if not that focus. Want to wander around a wide world? Yes, that as an option as well.
- Competition – Part of what kept some people going was competition. World first, server first, most classes mastered, etc. Economic competition, organized arena competition, world PvP competition. People were always measuring themselves against each other.
So, what happened?
Flesh wounds from competitors and convenience
Obviously, there was competition. Online was a pretty novel thing back in 1996 when Meridian 59 launched, and even 3 years later when EverQuest launched. But, bu the late 2000s being online was a lot less novel. We had the rise of social networking sites, particularly Facebook with its exposed API, that allowed for networked games that had access to a lot more data and personal information. In the bad old days a game could spam everyone’s wall and demonstrate that games were more than something pimply-faced teenage boys did from their parents’ basements. Some of that excitement of playing with other people was present in other media, even if done in a much more limited and asynchronous way. Other games like MOBAs and Minecraft gave some of the elements of MMOs without some of the overhead people came to see as an obstacle to their enjoyment.
The other thing that happened was the limiting of MMOs. WoW in particular kept developing in a way such that leveling seemed trivialized and character customization was reduced. Socialization opportunities were reduces in the name of convenience, letting people you might never meet again control your social experience in a dungeon. Options became limited in the name of streamlining the experience for people, but a lot of the soul of the game went away.
Okay, so maybe I’m still being a bit pessimistic. So, let’s answer Timothy’s question: what’s the untapped thing that is needed to revitalize MMOs?
It’s not quite dead yet
Looking at that original list, and keeping in mind that competition exists, let’s focus on what MMOs do best.
The first thing is to address the social experience. One of the best elements of MMOs is the friends I made over the years that I am still in touch with. The social opportunities in early MMOs allowed me to form these friendships, and are much harder to form in modern MMOs. I’ve written before about a way to encourage repeated social interactions even with the convenience of a random dungeon finder. By allowing people to form strong bonds, bonds you don’t really get in random MOBA matches or from shallow social features in mobile games, you can put the focus on what MMOs do better.
I think the other thing here is to focus on the dynamic, persistent world with a breadth of content. And, once again, I’m going to pull from the past: the answer is Storybricks. Okay, so Storybricks isn’t around anymore, but the concepts have value. Populating a living world with interesting NPCs and letting the players’ actions affect the NPCs and thereby affecting the world. I still want to see this become a reality. And this isn’t something you could easily get in any other competitor.
Yeah, I’m still a bit disappointed that EverQuest Next and thus the bits of Storybricks in it, will never see the light of day.
And now for something completely different
So, if I can’t look to the past, what absolutely new thing would help revive MMOs? I propose a new type of game: a persistent, cooperative survival game.
Survival games have been popular lately, including Don’t Starve, Rust, and ARK. How can MMOs improve these types of games?
The first is by allowing a large, persistent world. Most survival games are intended to be short duration, with a server that can be easily reset. Allowing for a higher degree of persistence and larger groups of people could make the game more interesting. The game H1Z1 does this to some extent, with more MMO-like take on zombie survival.
The second improvement is by enforcing cooperation. Most survival games allow player to predate on other players. As we saw in UO, while this leads to a potentially more interesting game in the short term, it also makes the game feel a lot more hostile in the long term. We also see in ARK that griefing has been elevated to an artform where you can handcuff and force feed prisoners to pretty much destroy someone else’s play experience. By disallowing aggressive actions, the game can become more about surviving the environment, and perhaps even about larger goals such as building a stable civilization and city. Of course, there will be griefing by people exploiting the game, but we deal with that in normal MMOs already, so it’s not a stretch to deal with them here.
I think a large-scale survival game with enforced cooperation could be a really interesting game, and potentially very big if the interest in other survival games are any indication. Of course, the game would need continual development and new threats to the game to keep players from becoming too complacent with their accomplishments. The strength of an MMO setup would allow the game to find a good balance between boredom from accomplishing too much and danger that threatens to become overwhelming.
Confuse a player, Ltd.
What do you think? Do you think these could make for an interesting game? Or, do you have a new idea for something that would make MMOs interesting again?