Only one word truly describes this year’s MMO releases: dismal. It was disappointing and inadequate. One hopes that each year there will be steps taken in the right direction, ones that will better the industry, but this year saw steps taken in the wrong direction or in a direction that simply makes no sense. Let’s look at a few of the big ones of 2009.
The year began with Darkfall. One could say the year ended with Darkfall but that would just be mean. Darkfall didn’t do anything save for showing what not to do with a game you spend a decade developing. It looked great at first. Aventurine painted this picturesque and ideal game where the hardcore pvp’ers wanting a sandbox game could retire in eternal bliss. What we got was the island of misfit toys. Let’s just toss the “don’t release a game before it’s finished” lesson out there and be done with it. What gets me the most with Darkfall is that they didn’t think ahead. The skill system was a ticking time bomb with people being able to shoot spells at the sky to rank up, zero limitations, and a ‘sky’s the limit’ straight vertical progression. Tossing lots of cool things into the game and hoping it works resulted in a bunch of hodgepodge that crumbled when the time came for it all to hold up.
Next we have Champions Online. Every so often a MMO comes around that really tingles my Spidey-sense. C’mon, this coming from the guy who has been burned a dozen times by thinking a game will be fun just to find out it’s not, when I’m negative about a game right out of the gate it’s at least worth thinking about why. Redundant instancing to the point of having no servers and just a bunch of instances, mundane combat full of all flash and beat-em up with no substance, the feel of a sloppy port, and completely shallow and uninteresting content are but a few of my grievances. What boggles the mind is how Cryptic thinks this model works. They’re even going this route with Star Trek Online! On top of it all, they charged a lifetime subscription, introduced microtransactions after-the-fact to nickel and dime their players, and still don’t have a clue. I’m not shocked at all to hear that the game has been hemorrhaging players and feels like a ghost town.
Aion hurts the most. On the outside it’s a gorgeous game with an interesting art direction, great animations and most of the right answers. The first twenty levels are great. There is lots of content for the players and most of it is fun. Then you hit this slow patch. The Asian market’s love for mindless slaughter of little creatures bleeds through the Westernization. A year’s worth of patching becomes obvious as you run through a dungeon at level 25 and think “This rocks!” just to run through a dungeon at 30 to think “omg this sucks!”, come to find out the level 25 dungeon was added later. Then you hit a wall. There’s no content. It’s all a grind. If only the game had content! I found myself wanting to play badly but I couldn’t bring myself to log in knowing that I had about 50 hours of grinding ahead of me. Leveling up can take a long time and it can be difficult, but at least give me something fun to do. The PvP was one of those ideas on paper that sounds like it could work but from what I experienced it ended up just being a clusterfluck of timed fortress flips — a little work on changing some of the mechanics would be nice. That’s why Aion hurts the most. It’s fun but needs work. Showing us a movie of what’s to come just to find out it’s a “vision” and not stuff that’s actually on the way was a slap on the face.
When you simply don’t mind logging off or find yourself thinking that you could be just as happy and occupied by not playing a game as you can by playing it, you know that something is wrong. Fallen Earth fits this description nicely. There wasn’t anything pulling me in. The crafting system is a good start but allowing everyone to craft everything eliminated specialization and a truly functional player economy. There was never any need to even think about other players because the game catered to and encouraged the individual becoming this self-sufficient and self-sustaining post-apoc worker bee. People wanted to make their own clothes, their own ammo, do their quests, mine their own stuff… it lacks a social game. A lack of housing for players to create shops, no guild buildings or other mechanisms of socialization and infrastructure, and overall a lack of that ‘extra mile’ ultimately leave Fallen Earth as a mediocre game when it could have been really great.
If you were asked to name ten new MMO’s that released this year chances are you couldn’t do it. Would you be shocked to know that somewhere in the ballpark of FIFTY (50) “MMO’s” were released? If you saw the pile they’re shoveling you too would be saying “You call THAT a MMO?”. Heck, you call THAT a game?! Somehow the reigns of this industry have been handed over to a village idiot. Anything that wants to be a MMO just needs to slap on the MMO tag and if it beeps, toots, or is somehow capable of having more than one person playing in any form of multiplayer it is a MASSIVELY MULTIPLAYER game. I’m not even counting the Facebook games or iPhone craps. I’m not even harping on the Free-to-Play model. I’m talking about pure quality. We’re actually being inundated with shovelware at this point and it’s disgusting to hear that they are profitable. Do yourselves a favor and simply resist it. Speak out against it. Draw a line and take a stand. The bar has been lowered six feet below and it is slowly killing the industry as we all slide further and further down this slippery slope.
I’m calling for the bar to be raised again. Let’s think about what we consider quality, what we want in a MMO, and stop settling. Aside from the shovelware MMO’s, the big names of 2009 were not acceptable. Developers need to be accountable for what they release to us but we also need to know what we want. That’s a bit part of my 2009 regrets, not knowing what I want or losing sight of it, and I’ll tell you more about that tomorrow.
There was a definite trend this year of bad games, but many of the titles from years past have shown remarkable improvement. Even games that have been out for many years are still coming up with ways to ‘wow’ veterans and attract new players. This type of improvement should be an indication that the industry is moving ‘up’, but when we see the trend of this year it looks more like an attempt to keep their heads above the water. It would be great if marked improvement could be bolstered by great games releasing alongside.
Let’s hope for 2010 to be a better year. My predictions post closer to New Year’s Eve will highlight what I expect, but I will tell you now that I’m optimistic that the “quality” will go up. Whether or not the games end up being what we want or end up being fun remains to be seen. Here’s hoping that in 2010 I’ll be able to speak highly of the industry’s achievements.
Edit: I do feel the need to add, although no one has brought it up, that I have no way of knowing whether or not a game was a success in terms of turning a profit. That’s not really what I’m talking about either. I’m basing a lot of this on my own opinion of what makes a good game (obviously) but also on popular consensus. Try as one may, it’s hard to say why or how a game was a failure or a success. What is the definition of success in these games anyway? Whether or not we, personally, are playing? It’s easier to describe it as a ‘feeling’ more than putting your finger on any particular reason. That ‘feeling’ this year was overall a year of letdown.