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.