Dumbing it Down: The future of MMOs?

There has been talk that the Elder Scrolls series from Bethesda (ZeniMax Media) might be making its way into the MMO scene soon.  If you have been living under a rock for the past few years and are clueless as to who Bethesda is then simply think of Morrowind, Oblivion, Arena, Daggerfall, etc – yeah those guys.  Popular single player RPGs famous for their open and free approach to the game world.  Remembering back to the few hours I spent playing Morrowind I remember fondly picking up a glass on a table and throwing it across the room… ah good times.  I also remember making my way to the roof tops and shooting arrows down upon the citizens of the city and taking out all the guards thus making the entire town void of any life.  I single handedly eliminated the population and there was nothing or no one to stop me.  What happens to the series if they take the logical next step towards an online world?

Since its inception the MMO development process has been moving in one direction: streamlining the gameplay; make it more simple.  Appeal to the masses they say!  Don’t blame World of Warcraft (although it sure is an easy target, isn’t it?).  It’s not Blizzard’s fault that they were simply better than anyone else at making a once complicated and drawn out process much more simple and appealing to a mass audience.  If you have been with the MMO genre long enough you know that things were not always so simple.  The Realm, which is considered the first MMORPG, was fairly complicated for being the first.  We might look back at it now and scoff at how prehistoric the gameplay elements seem but back then it was a big deal to enchant armor, gain 1000 levels, know what spec to go, gather loot, and work socially with others in a virtual world.  When the next step was taken into full 3d via Everquest and then Asheron’s Call players were once again flooded with a whole slew of new elements to learn.  EQ was really not a simple game at release when you factored in all the races and classes and quests let alone the new idea of raiding and working on an even more personal level with the other gamers.

Then bam!  Enter the golden age of Warcraft where mailboxes and experience points flow like mead from the gods.  Suddenly MMORPG development is about making everything easier and accessible to everyone.  I remember when I was really in to EQ there would be herds of people on message boards harassing me and my fellow EQ’ers for “Omg!  Paying a monthly fee for a VIDEO GAME?!”.  Yes, there was a time when paying a monthly fee was laughable.  “LOLs my Diablo is free!” – yep, I heard that one.  Then suddenly the creators of the famous Diablo, Warcraft, and Starcraft series decide to get their hands on a cut of that pie.  Suddenly, through honest to goodness brilliant development on the part of Blizzard, MMORPGs are common and so widespread that we are hearing about them on prime-time television.  Cartoons dedicated to MMORPGs are winning Emmy’s and suddenly who DOESN’T pay a monthly fee?!

Back to my initial train of thought here.  Imagine Elder Scrolls, as famous as it is for the freedom of gameplay, becoming a MMORPG.  Would they suddenly turn a blind eye to what defines their games and adopt the WoW formula and simply apply their lore?  Or would they dare to be different and come up with some unthinkable way of retaining that openness and freedom?  Some say (Graev included) that Oblivion was already the first step towards abandoning their once great idea and moving towards this streamlined simplicity.  Right now it just does not seem possible not to be assimilated into the WoW formula.  Resistance is futile.

The future of MMORPGs really is at stake here.  On the current path we’re on it won’t be long before players suddenly decide that either enough is enough or that we progress far enough on this path of dumb that we become dumber.  There was a time when players wanted it difficult.  Challenge us!  Make us work for that goal.  Now ‘we’ want it and we want it now.  Fat loot, shiny graphics, and a Santa Hat for my character on Christmas kthx.

How I see it however is different than perhaps the vocal majority.  I want the game to return to that stage where achieving the top level was a real accomplishment.  Make the gear obtained an accomplishment.  Make everything you do feel like you earned it by doing something that took effort.  Effort isn’t necessarily time nor should the accomplishments be limited to the end-game.  Throughout the leveling process you should feel like you’re achieving everything you do.  For me that sense of accomplishment is what drives me to play more.  Brad McQuaid’s attempt at bringing EQ back through Vanguard was going backwards. The solution is not to try and recreate the past but to move forward with an eye to quality and change.  I say challenge us and make us work for the prize.  Resistance is not futile.  It’s just not going to be easy.

  • Great post. I’ve thought about this from time to time and I just can’t help but wonder if the difference is between an MMO being viewed as “just a game” versus a “virtual fantasy world where you live and adventure”. Much more could be said, but I have to run to a meeting! 🙁

  • The thing is, there is a difference between making a game accessible and making it shallow. Just saying it’s been “dumbed down” doesn’t really capture that. A game can be accessible and deep at the same time.

    One of the biggest problem with WoW is that it is really just a matter putting in the time. That is what really makes it dumbed down. It isn’t until the end game that any real skill is required. It would be great if they could add elements to the game that tested a players skill with their class – preventing them from levelling until they manage to prove themselves.

  • I’m right with you on this one. Don’t get me wrong, I’m the GM of a raiding guild in WoW so I’m part of the problem here. 😉

    I like the idea of a difficult MMO, but difficulty isn’t what appeals to me. I like a game that is polished. I remember when WoW first came out. We all know that it had it’s problems but as far as art direction and design I’ve never seen an MMO look better at release.

    If a difficult MMO were released with a similar level of polish I would sign up immediately.

  • I wonder how many people who call for a difficult MMO would actually play one. Last I heard, FFXI Online, EvE Online and EQ1 weren’t exactly busting up the charts (though EvE gets better all the time).

    Saying “I want a really difficult game” but then turning around and logging into WoW or EQ2 or LotRO sends devs mixed messages.

    If you would like to play an older, harder game but don’t want to level, buy a character and give it a shot.

    Really. There are hard games out there. And easy games. If you want hard games, don’t play the easy ones.

    Most EQ1 guilds will take bought characters now — everyone is desperate for people. If you have the gear and AAs no matter how acquired, they’ll teach you how to raid.

    I don’t know about high level FFXI, since I didn’t make it out of my 40s, but there’s one game that would take some study. Luckily, you can learn the game on a low level job and use your desired high level job as a subjob and get familiar with them both before you have to do some insane burning circle event…

  • There is a difference between difficult games that give you a sense of accomplishment and games that are tedious grinds. Time does not equal difficulty. FFXI and EQ1 are not the solution (Which I said in the post). Look at Vanguard’s attempt at recreating the EQ1 formula and you’ll see that no one, myself included, is interested in going backwards.

    Games can be challenging to the mind and skill sets of players today like the games of old once were. It just takes someone to break out of the latest WoW formula to do it.

  • The harder a game is, the fewer people will see the end, or all the content, or whatever — most will drop out long before they see it. This is the hallmark of *all* hard games. If people could see everything, it isn’t hard.

    Back when all games were pretty hard, people accepted this arrangement. You could play EQ1 and have fun, knowing you might never reach level 50 but you would have had a great time anyway.

    Would you play a new, shiny EQ1, knowing that only the most dedicated would get to level 50, now? Would you go to WoW, knowing that few people ever got to Scholomance or even got far into the Eastern Plaguelands at all?

    Heck, I played EQ1 for seven years and can’t imagine doing that again, and I was at the top of the game when I left.

    There are hard, current-gen games out there. EvE is just one — MMORPG.com lists dozens of MMOs of varying difficulty, we only hear about the easy ones because that’s what people want, and that’s what we’re getting.

    I’m going to look and find a current generation, hard MMO, that isn’t EvE. So Lineage 2, FFXI Online and EverQuest are not on the table either — all hard Fantasy-based MMOs. But I’ll set them aside and find a new one. Just for myself, because I’d like to know… would *I* play a new, but hard, fantasy-based MMO?

  • WoW didn’t make the MMORPG more simple, they just took the suck out of the experience. They made it so that everyone could play…no matter what their time commitments and there is the challenge for future MMOs: How do you bring forward the challenge without reintroducing the suck.

    I don’t really think this is an issue of hard/easy/casual whatever…this is an issue of making a game fun and I think that’s what we loose sight on. If it’s hard and I’m having fun and progressing, so be it. If it’s easy and I’m having fun…fine.

    The industry should be concentrating on delivering fun games (that just happen to be MMOs) and not worrying so much on whether people like us think they are taking the easy way out.

    …good post.


  • I absolutely agree Darren that fun can equal anything depending on the player. Right now WoW created their formula for MMOs that meets the biggest demographic. It just so happens that their demographic, in my eyes, simplified the game to the point where the game feels like an assembly line.

  • WOW would be sooooo cool if it was set in a D and D Forgotten Realms setting and not the dumb generic Tolkienize one it is. They could adjust stuff like mmm levels some how to make it D and D ish

    I soooo hate the HArd and frustrting D and D Aeobore gmae… it was like a FPD shooter which I dont play ether…

    WOW is TOOOO HARD and challegingg for me becuse I can not do a good job in the dungeons let alone Herioci oones you guys must have add ons and stuff but I dont

    So actually I think WOW is about right in hardness and I would not like a game that was hard so non twitchy playerslike me who stink at games cant get c00l stuff like you long term raiders

    So it should be fun and easy not hard and twithchy where dumbos like me at games l00zwe

  • Hello. I too have been thinking about the direction off MMOs for some time now. I was one that was actually really into Vanguard. I thought personally it was Great. Yes released to early. But, It was everything i wanted. Then came the pure fact that they werent making enough money. So they cut the servers in half, and “DUMBED DOWN” the game. They made it more Easy for people. Because it brought in the money. Its sad really. But i guess whining wont help much, but damn it sure feels good to vent sometimes. I miss the old EQ days. Brad you almost had it man. One day. Some day. Bzzt.

  • It seems to me that you’re walking a pretty fine line here. On the one hand, you want a game that has dynamically challenging game play. That’s perfectly reasonable. But an MMO also has to be popular (at least to some extent) to be fun. If I want to play a single-player game, I’ll go out and buy the latest Elder Scrolls or FF game. MMOs need to be “Massively Multiplayer”, and that means attracting a reasonably large player base.

    Also keep in mind that this is a business. The biggest budget MMOs have to go after hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of players in order to make any money–and justify getting made. And given that WoW owns that marketplace, you’d be foolish building a game like that and not trying to figure out why so many people play WoW, and how we can build on that. Smaller budget MMOs can afford to take risks or to go after an inherently smaller player base, and there are a lot of small to mid-size MMO projects in development right now doing a lot of different things. It’s exactly what happens with movies, books, television, and any other consumer-driven markets. “Dumbing Down” as you say isn’t the future of MMOs; at worst it’s the future of big-budget MMOs. But there are other games out there.