What do MMOs need?

Online Multiplayer Maseev…

After playing a lot more World of Warcraft lately, along with more recent entries to the genre such as The Old Republic and Tera, it’s got me wondering what the next big thing will be for Massively Multiplayer Online games. World of Warcraft is getting a bit long in the tooth despite constantly reinventing different aspects, and it’s time something new and mighty came along. We’ve given positive reviews to Tera (here) and The Old Republic (here), but they’re not quite perfect; what do MMOs need?

First of let me clear what I mean by MMO. Massively Multiplayer Online games hark back (As far as I’m concerned) to the days of early MUDs (Multi User Dungeons). MUDs were usually text based and created by either small teams or individuals. They revolved around a grid system of maps whereby you could input commands and the game would tell you what was in the immediate vicinity. The different between these games and single-player masterpieces like Zork was that other people were connected at the same time. A server would be constantly processing the actions of a multitude of players and letting everyone know what was going on. Due to the text-based nature pretty much any kind of universe was fair game, expansive space nebulae are just as easy to write about as high-fantasy castles and dungeons. The games tended to follow a simplistic version of Dungeons and Dragons rulesets, with twists depending on the genre of the game.

The appeal of these was the interaction, and the levelling. I personally played ‘Land of Legends’ (or LoL) for a year or so during secondary school with a real life friend. We’d sign on in the evenings and mess around killing enemies and finding items, and often making a nuisance of ourselves. The game had very little in terms of structure, there were no real quests, but there were monsters. There was no wiki for the game because the creators kept changing things as they saw fit. One evening they created a ‘world event’ whereby all of the ‘rooms’ (areas in the game) kept shifting around randomly. After being used to going east out of the start point to get to a town all of a sudden you’d find yourself in the bottom of a cave, then on a farm, then in the sea. Spells were equally unbalanced and random, I remember spending an afternoon running away from a gnome with an army of zombie chickens, because a player had realised that the ‘raise dead’ spell worked on anything that had hitpoints. Another play was given a ‘bomb’ item that would kill everything in one room. He promptly ran to the dungeonmaster, that unkillable creator who ruled over us, and blew him to pieces. I remember him showing me the head he had in his inventory. (I just did a search and found that Land of Legends has been resurrected, although it has changed from when I used to play it, if you’re interested have a look here.)

These early multiplayer games were followed by Ultima Online with its player-built towns and heavy death penalties, and you regularly heard real stories coming from the players. Because the games were unbalanced, and the penalties for death were fierce, people could have real adventures. People invested a great deal of themselves into the games and they got quite a lot out.

Now of course I may be being nostalgic, and I need to remember those games were in a different time. The people playing them were more willing to indulge in banter and storytelling because it was such a niche activity. The communities were small and closely knit, like-minded nerds huddled over their computers connected with dial-up. The game worlds were easy to manipulate as they were so low-res or text-based, budgets were smaller and so risks could be taken.

We live in a world where launching an MMO is an expensive prospect. I’ve heard figures for The Old Republic ranging from $300 million to half a billion, and that’s without marketing. Games like that can’t afford to take risks, and the high-definition worlds they have created cannot be modified in the same way, they’re just too complicated. Games are also played by so many people it’s much harder to do anything ‘new’. Every new MMO spawns a few wikis and guides and quickly every secret is mapped out and every skill build is theorycrafted to perfection.

But I think we’ve lost something in that transition, we’ve lost the sense of adventure and wonder, and sometimes the sense of community. I would take Minecraft as an example of how games could recapture some of that. Minecraft, a game created ostensibly by one man, allows you to create random worlds and then allow other players to join you in exploring them. The game did without quests and story, or voice acting and refined visuals; instead we were given a giant sandbox to play around in with our friends, that no-one had ever seen before. Of course it is fairly primitive, there are only a few types of enemies and worlds, crafting is restricted to a few different objects and chat options are basic at best, but the sense of wonder is there.

I think this is what MMOs should strive to capture. Give us a sandbox and see what we make of it, rather than forcing us down questlines towards an ‘end-game’ that you have designed. All that does is funnel players through into a situation where you have to create new content constantly or they give up. With an open sandbox players can create their own adventures if you give them the mechanisms to do it. Some servers will be failures, with people failing to get organised or one player finding a way to dominate, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Find a way to let players move between servers easily and those servers could become notorious, or sinister even. Stories will spring up about what happened there, heroes will emerge to break down the tyranny of those trying to beat the system. A lack of goals can be spectacularly refreshing and liberating. You could even keep achievements for spectacular feats, just avoid forcing a story down players’ throats.

“But wait!” I hear you cry, “What about Eve?” For those who don’t know, Eve Online is a space MMO that features pretty much all of what I have asked for, but to me, it is dull. I have tried to play the game so many times but in my opinion they have over complicated the entire system. The game has been running for nine years and in that time there have been some truly amazing community stories, and there still are, but a new player will find it extremely hard to get involved in those stories. There’s a lot of mining, and numbers, and inky blackness in the way of you and ‘any fun’. I do stand by the principles of Eve though, even if it isn’t for me, I’m waiting for someone to make an Eve-on-land, or possibly a pirate-Eve. Take the freedom and the community features of Eve, and put them into a fantasy Game of Thrones style-sandbox and it would be perfect.

Imagine the community stories as different players group together to form houses and contest for the iron throne. Some casual players would be content to craft and the game would allow them to create their own recipes from basic ingredients. Skill would be involved too so the quality of items would vary depending on who made them. Entire player-led communities could be destroyed by a rampaging group of bandits looting and pillaging. Balance could be thrown out of the window as a player is chosen at random to have powerful magical abilities, or a connection with dragons. It could be amazing.

In conclusion, what MMOs need is to let go of the desire to force a narrative onto a genre that doesn’t truly support it. The Old Republic was great but the multiplayer and singleplayer aspects didn’t sit all that well together, Tera is great despite some awful quests. Just give us a world to play in, be creative and inventive with the mechanics, and see what happens. You might be surprised.

Don't forget to follow us on Facebook and on Twitter