Part 2 in my reflective, and a bit nostalgic, look at “what MMORPGs have lost over time” series.
When I think back at what we’ve lost, or have begun to lose, in the MMORPGs of today, I keep coming back to one thing: The World. We’re starting to lose that sense of a big/massive, open, true world that we can explore and live in as we develop or take on the role of our character. I want to share experiences from my MMO past to give you an idea of just how far we’ve drifted away from being able to replicate those experiences today.
It was somewhere near my third day of EverQuest. I was playing a Barbarian Warrior and getting my feet wet for the first time killing goblins. I came across a much larger spawn of them and found others hunting. It was then that I received my first group invite and proceeded to kill goblins for over an hour. At the end of our hunt one of the other Barbarian Warriors in the group announced that he had a friend who was making the trip to Freeport. “What’s Freeport?”, I remember asking him. He then went on to tell me that it was across the continent and one of the cities where Humans can start. “The hunting is much better there”, he said. That sounded great to me. I had spent a couple days now killing things in the snowy lands of Halas and I was ready to move on. “We’ll set out in 20 minutes. Make sure you have time to make the trip because it’s a long one”.
This trip across Antonica was the single most memorable experience I have ever, ever, had in a MMORPG. We began our trip by following an icy ridge to a cave. There were no maps at the time and we were following someone who had only made the trip once before. We made our way through a dungeon that actually acted as a passageway between regions. “If you get attacked, do not stop running!”, was one of the scariest things I had ever heard. Sure enough, we were attacked and all of us were frantically running for the zone line. Thirty minutes later we were making our way down the coast of a river and in the distance we could discern this great winged beast… “GRIFFON!”, they shouted. We ran as quickly as we could to the nearest barn that happened to be standing out in the plains of the Karanas. “We’ll hide in here until morning”. And there we sat. Why? I don’t know really… it wouldn’t have stopped the aggro from the Griffon and we would have certainly been dead since we were under level 8. We hid until daylight nonetheless because at the very least it was actually difficult to see at night.
During this trip we saw several sights. We stopped off in every outpost and town so that we could to let the adrenaline rush fade. We visited with people we came in contact with and actually picked up more travelers along the way who wanted to make the trip in a group. Seeing different races for the first time was a real treat. The first time I saw a Halfling in Rivervale I couldn’t believe my eyes that they were in such abundance here. This was their little corner of the world and I was out of place. The little Halflings crowded around us, gave us buffs, and even traded us turnips or something (I have no idea why) – we were just as neat to them as they were to us. We eventually made it to Freeport where a whole new, unique, set of experiences awaited me.
Finding people from other parts of the world and getting to hear about their experiences and how they’ve been leveling up is something unique to EQ. As a Barbarian coming to a place like Freeport, I was an alien. The way they did things across the content felt different. In the North we sold pelts and down here in the south they wanted Lightstones because it was hard to see without them – Humans had poor eyesight. I remember hunting near a platform in the North Desert of Ro and meeting a Wood Elf for the first time. We exchanged stories of where we started. He had started on an entirely different continent and had to travel past the Dwarven lands, across an ocean, and finally here to Freeport. I told him about my trip through the mountains, across the plains, and the Griffon. It made me want to visit his home lands and he mine just to have those same adventures and see how different the game felt across the world – because it truly felt different!
Although being a newbie greatly enhanced this experience [Note: I had these experiences for over the first YEAR of play], there are a few key elements from this adventure which are missing from MMORPGs today that would make this type of experience impossible, even for a newbie. We’re starting to lose that ‘big connected world’ feeling. I feel that devs are quickly condensing the content into smaller packages and spoon feeding them to us when they feel we’re ready, not when we want to experience them. Being a level 6-8 Barbarian making the trip to Freeport was a fool’s errand, but it was mine to make. Norrath was not linear. Games today are becoming increasingly linear with one path to travel. I could travel across the world to one of a dozen or so locations to hunt at level 10 in EQ. At 12, 15, 18, 20, etc my options kept increasing until I had so many options that I could actually plan out ways for my next character to level and see something entirely new the whole way. I could have left Freeport and gone to the Elf lands if I wanted to and had an entirely unique experience there.
In a games like WAR, LOTRO, and even Aion the worlds are so linear that all we have to do is follow a road to the next location. Players have no reason, and often no option, to diverge down a different path. There is often only one way to play a MMORPG released in today’s market, and trying to play it differently makes you a “niche gamer”, a “roleplayer” or a “nostalgic”. I do not want my content handed to me one instance at a time and I certainly do not want to have to follow one road the entire game. I can understand that people find comfort from some form of linearity, but we’ve crossed the line.
Accessibility has become the gateway for developers to take shortcuts and squander the sense of world immersion and connectivity. How wonderful for them! It’s less work and today’s current generation screams “Thank you!” But who are the ones that suffer? Everyone suffers from this. Right now the newbies to the genre will probably respond to this blog entry with things like “this is how MMORPGs are made” or with a slew of “casual gamer” defensive posturing because someone mentioned EverQuest. Trust those of us who know better. Trust those who have seen what MMORPGs once had and what they are missing today. You might truly be satisfied today, but wait until tomorrow. Wait until you’re not the one they’re making games for anymore and then remember the days when the few people waving their arms like madmen trying to get people to listen were right – then you’ll realize you’ve become one of us. We’re on a slippery slope leading to iPhone MMOs with 5 minute adventures being sold for $7.99 and “worlds” becoming 10×10 screens – yep, there will be an app for that.
It’s not overly nostalgic or unrealistic to want a big open world like EverQuest. I’m not asking for a sandbox – EverQuest wasn’t one. I’m not asking for something completely devoid of linear play. I’m not asking for hardcore mechanics like death penalties or harsh leveling curves. I’m not asking for anything less accessible than what you have today. I’m focusing purely on the world and how it benefits players when they feel connected – it becomes an experience rather than a gimmick or an obstacle. I want players to consider the benefits of a true MMORPG world again, one like I described in my experiences above where people are connected to the experience, not the deceitful excuse for “worlds” we’re being pushed into today.