MMOs Need a Counter-Revolution

Back in 2010 I concluded that the MMO industry is working backwords. January 3, 2010 I said, “Looking at what the MMORPG’s of the past were able to accomplish, and what is being designed and attempted today, does it not appear as though we are working backwards?”  MMOs were once achieving certain things, progressing (EQ/AC to DAoC to SWG, etc) but MMOs today are going down a path which leads them in a direction where it’s impossible to become better.

Over three years later, I am haunted by this industry’s perpetual failure to recognize the greatness in games long past, and an industry now plagued by horrific ideas thought to be ‘just how games are made these days.’  Embracing worlds which are instanced to the point of being single-player experiences, PvP in little frag boxes, absolutely no reason to ever interact or socialize with anyone, and nothing but the same game being made one iteration after the next.

When is a game going to come along that bucks the trend, stands up against this regression, and starts us back on the path moving forward?  Inspiration for this musing comes from Camelot Unchained’s Kickstarter page:

“In the rush to cash in on the WoW phenomenon, publishers/designers tried to simply “out-WoW WoW”, leading to most MMORPGs becoming more risk-averse, more “casual player”-focused, and overall, less challenging.”

Developers and players alike these days seem to think this was an evolutionary trend, and the ones drinking the cool-aid think it was a revolution, when in fact it was a devolution.  Now to buck this trend we must begin an era of (as CSE puts it) counter-revolutionary MMO design.

That’s why I’m willing to back a game like CU years in advance.  I believe in their ideology.  I have no idea if the game will even be any good — I mean I really hope it is, but I’m not investing in this like a pre-order banking on hype. This is me throwing my support and backing what I believe.  I believe we’re never going to get back to making MMOs that actually innovate and move beyond what was originally being developed a decade ago until someone steps up and takes us back to a point in which we can actually begin moving forward in the right direction.

  • Great observation! I, too, feel like for every step forward the MMORPG genre takes forward with accessibility and graphics, it takes two steps backwards in terms of community and getting people to invest in their characters. I am drooling over CU and am glad you are, too. I pitched in my $250 today and here’s hoping others see its potential and do the same!

  • I get that CU is going back to earlier design goals of MMOs and cites WoW as an example of what is bad in mmo game development trends… but what CU is desiring is not really a step forward evolution at all.

    It is not new, it is going back to hard difficulty pvp based worlds. That is a good thing for the audience that loves it, but it is not an innovation at all.

    The community of wow is the same community of people in every other game. Do you think the online chess community doesn’t contain dickheads? Gevlon disparaged WoW until he left and now disparages Eve’s population of morons and slackers. The nights where Wow was patched the server pop in Star Wars jumped up, and the same shitty people played against the same brilliant people.

    When I read the CU kickstarter all I saw was a dev company using the strong thematic dislike for mainstream (theme park?) MMOs as a platform to fund the game style he likes. Good on him. He has the same hyperbole, and will have the same spread of players as wow – but they’ll have bought into the idea that they are special snowflakes playing a different game. Good for them too, but until I read a feature-set which is actually an evolution I’ll call bullshit on the CU hype.

    New game, reliable known features, different audience; respectable goal. Alas not worth my per-investment.

  • The only bullshit is what we’ve been fed for the last 6 years since WoW decided to whore out to the McMMO crowd. Every release since has been nothing but garbage, an entire generation of MMO-RPGS regressing to designing their games around the ability for brainless slime to succeed.

    How’s that worked out for the genre?

  • We can’t lose sight of the fact that WoW started out as a decent MMO. It had class variance, a reason to group with others, a community, and a great backstory. Sure, it was entirely PvE-based, but it was an MMO in the way we here think of them.

    Now I’ll be the first to say how absolutely horrible it is now (and has been for years), but don’t lose sight of the fact that the devolution came not from WoW’s release, but from its eventual decline into the “Please the largest standard of people at once” ideology.

    A Paladin used to be Alliance only, a Shaman likewise for Horde. A Druid used to be a unique class all to itself, a Priest was a HEALER and better than others at that role (the trade-off for wearing cloth), the Warlock had an exceptionally fun and enjoyable backstory, separating it from a Mage by more than simply being able to have a pet out always (Oh hey Mages can do that too last I checked now 😛 )

    All of that went the way of the Dodo. Every class is the same. Every talent tree has been reduced to the bare minimum of choice. Grouping involves clicking a button and randomly being thrown into a hole with 4 other people. (Reminiscent of an FPS, actually) The MMORPG aspects have degraded into something so far removed from their roots as to be unrecognizable.

    And because it started out strong, and maintained massive subscriptions by tailoring to the largest playerbase, everyone wanted to get some of that cowbell.

    But it WAS good. At one point. Long ago. =/

  • Pledged. I’m actually amazed at how well this campaign is doing so far. Multiplayer games and especially PvP ones typically do poorly on Kickstarter, but this one looks on track to hit its $2 million target.

    If they can actually make their engine as scalable as their tech demo suggests, they might be able to rival EVE for epic sized battles. In a fantasy game (which would have many more technical challenges than a space game), that alone would be a huge innovation.

  • @typhoonandrew: “Do you think the online chess community doesn’t contain dickheads?”

    The difference is that chess does not promote dickheads or such attitudes while the new MMOs with X-realms,lfg,lfr and a game you can “finish” just alone does promote this or to say it otherwise, you don’t lose anything or be penalised if you are a dickhead. You cannot play chess alone and if you are dickhead no one will play with you.

    @Rawblin: “A Paladin used to be Alliance only, a Shaman likewise for Horde. A Druid used to be a unique class all to itself, a Priest was a HEALER and better than others at that role…”

    Sadly the homogenization of the classes wasn’t a result to cater to casuals but it was a result of the arena wow introduced and generally their decision to “balance” pvp. Since then all the classes became the same. I reached a point where my keybinds were “global” for every class. x=stun y=silence z=proc ability, e.t.c. I could cicle my gameplay through classes without problem cause everyone was the same. What was changing was 2-4 cooldowns. But as I said that was a problem of the arena pvp and the 1v1 balance which is terrible mistake in a Massive Multiplayer game.

    The Counter evolution we need for start, is games that will focus either on pve or pvp. These two type of gameplay cannot exist in harmony in a game without the one destroy the other(except if you have your focus on pve and leave pvp there for fun and balanced when people fighting 10+v10+ rather than 1v1)

  • In regards to developers and in general how seemingly out of touch many are today, I found it quite refreshing to see this video on the design philosophy for EQ Next. I’ve never really played EQ,or EQ2 much, but this dev seems to really want to buck the trend.

    Of course who knows how the game will turn out and we don’t know too much of it (they want to keep it very quiet from other companies) but it seems the right intent is there. Either way I found this insight into the mindset quite interesting.

    Not sure if its ok to post links so feel free to remove it, but here you go:

    The Design Philosophy of EverQuest Next with Dave Georgeson at Pax East 2013

  • @Rawblin – agreed 100%

    @Keen – agreed 100%.

    I think the underlying issue with modern MMO design is that they give everyone what they want, right now. You like quests? Here’s a pack of quests every half hour. You like loot? Open wide, because it’s going to be coming fast and often. You want to be 5 zones away? Poof, you’re there!

    I mean, remember when we railed against instanced dungeons? How long ago does that seem? It’s hard to even remember. Imagine trying to get someone to wait for a camp now – inconceivable!

    Forwards or backwards, what someone needs to do is move away from all the easy, meaningless, instant gratification crap. Move away from the instanced filled, loot funnel *video games* and build us a virtual world to live in and explore again.

    Quick litmus test for anyone developing an MMO: If a pack of exclamation points exists in your game, throw the whole thing out and start from scratch, because you’re doing it wrong.

  • I agree with Rawbin and John (your POV’s are not mutually exclusive). The game has been simplified for greater accessibility, and balancing for PvP negatively impacts PvE in my experience.

    I also think that there was a drive to establish an addictive token economy in the battlegrounds, which shifted the focus from playing a prolonged conflict for the enjoyment factor to one where one tried to get the match to end as quickly as possible to garner as much honor/minute as possible or just AFK.

    There was a time when players tried to summon all those bigger than life NPC’s in Arathi Basin. WoW relied upon its initial group of hardcore early adopters to get through their growing pains stage and then insidiously abandoned them for a larger casual playing base.

  • @Gankatron

    You mean Alterac Valley but yes, I miss that so much. As an old school HWL who spent many hundreds of hours there, I don’t miss anything in WoW as much as AV. Summoning Lok, the wolf riders, the wind riders, capping the mines. Someone taking snowfall, and then getting pushed back because people were spawning and dying to Korrak. Trying to push across the bridge – THE BRIDGE – impossible! Several times after playing the better part of a day, I’d log out, come back the next day, and find out it was still the same battle.


    I don’t miss anything in MMOs as much as I miss AV. I was watching a video yesterday of a shaman w/ Sulfuras dominating pvp, and when it cut to AV, (no hyperbole) I actually felt a stab in my heart. :*(

  • Haha, yes, good catch, it has been quite a while since I played my old Frost Mage! 😉

  • @TyphoonAndrew: The entire point of the counter-revolution that I talk about is to quite literally go back to the point before the industry veered off on the wrong course. So in many ways there won’t be a whole lot of ‘new’, you’re right about that. I’m not saying this is a revolution — it’s a counter-revolution.

    That’s not to say that there’s nothing new in Camelot Unchained. I have never played a medieval setting based purely on PvP with absolutely no PvE. Taking that a step further, I’ve never played one looking to do the crafting model and in-world shop model. It -is- unique, even if it is combining mechanics and features that aren’t themselves innovative.

  • It’s the ‘we’re writing our own engine from scratch’ bit that makes me feel dubious, not so much the game design snippets.

  • @Spinks: I don’t know enough about engines to really weigh in on the tech demo, but if it can really show that many people all at once it’ll be a huge change of pace from the lag-fests we have today.

  • Not sure I would say MMO’s need a counter-revolution in general. It would be nice if there were more options for people that aren’t into the current style of MMO’s. But there is still a place for the GW2, Rift, TSW, WoW MMO’s as well. Problem is that is all that has come out in the last few years. Hopefully with games like Wildstar, EQNext maybe ArchAge and Camelot Unchained there will finally be options for fans of the more virtual world oriented games.

    Speaking of, has anyone given Age of Wushu a chance yet? Supposedly it is a fairly sandbox style game.

  • @Darkstryke
    How’s that worked out for the genre?

    WoW continues to be a billion-dollar industry unto itself, still larger than it was pre-“McMMO,” and has weathered both the birth of iOS apps and F2P, so I would say it worked out pretty well.

    We can’t lose sight of the fact that WoW started out as a decent MMO. It had class variance, a reason to group with others, a community, and a great backstory.

    Ah, yes, “class variance.” If you were a paladin, you healed and nothing else. If you were a druid, you healed and nothing else. Only warriors were designed to tank, all the way up until nearly the end of TBC. Yeah, and then how Retribution paladins were only viable for Horde players due to the exclusive Seal of Blood ability. Yep, that was brilliant game design right there, back when men were men, and you were either benched or rerolled and liked it. Game design really went downhill after that, when you could no longer lose the game at the character select screen.

    You know, I do hope Camelot Unchained is everything you guys want it to be. Because maybe then, and only then, you will realize that what you enjoyed only ever existed in a time and space that is never coming back; or arguably doesn’t exist outside of your mind in the first place.

  • @Azuriel: I guess the last two months of playing UO and EverQuest in their 1999 form, and SWG in its 2003 form, have been entirely imagined.

    No, actually, I’m pretty sure it has been real. I’m positive it has been fun. I’m confident it can be done again.

    Remove Camelot Unchained from existence and I would still believe the same things, as I did in 2010 when I first wrote about the idea.

  • @Azuriel

    I guess we both played a different WoW on its release. I had plenty of paladins, druids, etc that did things besides the “cookie-cutter” specs you are describing. Hell, I was playing a Warlock and outdps-ing the Mages in our 40 man raids. (Your input here is that Mages were THE only damage spellcaster, because Warlocks were DoT!)

    My post was talking about how there WAS variance when it launched. Nowadays, there is no difference at the character creation screen besides how you look, and most of that is because of the racial choice. I personally enjoyed the fact that my Warlock was not a Mage, by any stretch of the imagination. Now it is hard to tell the real difference between a Mage, Warlock, and Shadow Priest. And why? Because people didn’t want to make another character in an MMO? Why hate on us wanting decisions to be meaningful?

    And then at the end of your post you just agreed with all of us, even though you sound like you wanted to disagree 😛

    Yeah, and then how Retribution paladins were only viable for Horde players due to the exclusive Seal of Blood ability. Yep, that was brilliant game design right there

    You are right, after WoW’s launch it went downhill. But I actually remember myself saying that just a few posts up 😉

  • @Azuriel: Is WoW really still that big? It’s not a facetious question, it’s a honest inquiry, and I’m not anti-WoW in any measure.
    I ask that because I was away from the game for a long period, and when I went back (at the end of Cataclysm) all my guild had stopped playing and my server was a ghost town. I ended up unsubbing again after beating Deathwing via LFR.
    Of course, that’s just my personal experience. But it made me wonder if it’s indeed still thriving or if it’s stagnant. I have no idea how it is on other servers, or after Mists of Pandaria. How is WoW really doing this days? Thanks.

  • I agree. And to add to this. Any time a developer mentions the “end game,” I’m immediately discouraged. End game? The very term implies linear progression for an MMO and I always thought there weren’t about linear progression.

    Developer-driven stories, plots, and content that doesn’t allow players to determine the future of the game is wrong and costly. Build an MMO world with game rules, mechanics, and tools gamers must abide by, understand, and use, and you’ll have the perfect recipe.

  • @Azuriel

    So much wrong, but I’ll just pick on what is patently false:

    “Ah, yes, “class variance.” If you were a paladin, you healed and nothing else. If you were a druid, you healed and nothing else.”

    Until wrath was nerfed (I believe BWL era), balance was an extremely powerful (overpowered) spec for a druid in pve, if your guild allowed you to roll on cloth spellpower gear. To be fair, most people thought the way you do, which is why it took so long to nerf them.

    And feral? That happened to be my class – and as someone who smiled all the way to HWL, I can tell you we were far from lacking in the PVP department in vanilla. Other than enhancement shaman, I don’t think there was a spec that people wanted nerfed more.

  • Every single person that speaks about Vanilla wow with disrespect, if you read his arguments, it is clear that he have no idea about vanilla wow cause never played it and in the same time he is sad/angry cause he missed it..

  • I thought Vanilla WoW was a great game. (In fact, I still play it sometimes on a private server: Emerald Dream)

    Current WoW? I can’t stand it. They’ve whittled the game down to a ridiculously casual level, and made it feel much more like a lobby based game than an MMO. The limited time I did play it, I was left with a wanting for a return to “old-school” MMO’s. Like DAOC, and even Vanilla WoW.

    I really hope CU funds. I think this (like DAOC) has the potential to be one of my favorite games of all time.

  • I never get the assertions that if we only built everything would be wonderful again. These were niche games who had tiny populations by today’s standards (and similarly tiny budgets, much tinier than is required to develop a game that lives up to current gamer demands). Maybe I’m a johnny-come-lately on MMOs, I only started with GW1/WoW (unless you’re counting MUDs) so maybe I just don’t appreciate the old-school EQ/UO/etc. stuff as much, but I didn’t play them precisely because they didn’t appeal to me. There’s no reason to suspect that folks like me who joined the MMO audience for WoW-style games would now play older style games that we didn’t play 10 years ago.

    It’s probably getting even worse, I know as I’ve gotten older I’ve moved from my early 20s and having the time and just enough disposable income to properly dig in to an MMO, to my early 30s with plenty of cash, but carefully husbanded time. All the things Keen wants to get rid of battlegrounds style PvP, soloing options, freedom from having to craft for 40% of my playtime in order to play, are lots of things that let me play MMOs for short bursts when I can’t find a big chunk of playtime. Doing away with them makes the game wildly inaccessible and raises a giant middle finger to those of us who can’t devote the time of the younger and less committed. (Not to say high involvement elements should be gotten rid of, which IS a bad trend, they’re still the things people like me aspire to participate in when we can)

    I hope it’ll succeed (I hate seeing titles flop), but my money is on CU going down hard.

  • @Shutter

    I think the idea behind Keen’s posts is that these types of MMOs are no longer being made, while the plethora of instant-gratification (or in your case time-deprived) games being shoved out of the gates is endless.

    There isn’t a reason why these two types of MMO should be mutually exclusive in the world market.

    But I do think you are confusing the idea of having your time investment be truly meaningful and help you connect with your character and the world, with sitting in a raid for 10 hrs at a time to get Mastery Level 4 or a piece of exceptional gear or whatever.

    The first idea simply correlates meaning with the time you put in. The second suggests that any time someone puts in that is meaningful must be a large amount, often in large increments.

    I know I toot on the EvE horn a lot here (and I don’t even play it atm), but it is a good example again for this. Sure, people that play EvE can log on for an entire day and get a whole bunch of fun stuff accomplished. But they can also log on for a half hour here or there, do a mission or two, maybe some mining, trading, whatever. In each instance the player is making meaningful progress for their character and possibly even the world (universe) with their corp (guild). Neither is the “proper” way, nor the only ways in which to play.

    This post is running on now, but one more example involving your mention of “Battlegrounds” PvP; I have always hated Blizzard for stealing that phrase and ruining the connotations that it actually had. I agree with Keen that jumping into a queue to fight 8 other people in the same map over and over is horrible. I’d even go so far as to say blasphemous when compared to what a Battleground was in DAoC. But people enjoy it because it is “instant”.

    The other end of that spectrum was Thidranki, the level 20-24 Battleground in DAoC. You could roll a character, /level to hit 20, and jump right in. The great thing about it was that it was a persistent zone (sadly, a thing not often found these days). ANYONE on your server that went to Thid, was in THAT Thid. There was a keep in the center that each faction could take over, and then defend from the other two factions. But there was also a sprawling wilderness people could roam if they didn’t want to assault the keep or what have you. Hell, there was even a few mob camps people could use to PvE (if they were crazy enough 😛 ). But the point is, even without an instanced, jump-in-queue-and-wait BG, people could go in there and be pvp’ing within minutes, with everyone on their server that was that level. A great way to build community at a low level (new players), throw instant-fun at folks, and maintain the essence of what Keen is talking about.

    Battlegrounds can be done either way, of course. We have seen that. I guess most of the older generation of MMORPG gamers would prefer it to not be the FPS Lobby style in our MMOs of choice.

  • @Rawblin

    No, I agree that there’s no reason for them both to co-exist. But (and I guess this is where I often feel the need to jump into Keen’s threads to play devil’s advocate), there may very well be a reason no one makes these games anymore.

    Devs didn’t start churning out WoW clones just for the heck of it. They were made because lots of people (many of whom hadn’t played MMOs before) started playing WoW, and many people stopped playing the ‘old school’ games.

    Just making an old school game isn’t likely to work beyond a small niche, if they did they wouldn’t be old school, they’d just be part of the landscape. That doesn’t mean that the features are bad or that they wouldn’t be a draw, but they’re unlikely to make a game successful, especially in light of how many have tried and failed (WAR did Mythic RvR, Darkfall did hardcore PvP, etc. etc). There’s often a vibe of Old School MMOs can’t fail, they can only be failed, and the games that didn’t work weren’t Old School enough. And I think that sometimes blinds the commenters here to the reasons newer MMOs did outperform the older titles. MMOs haven’t gotten worse across the board, and getting the new generation of (hopefully) better *and* successful MMOs requires recognizing both where MMOs have improved, and also how the audiences have changed.

    (Just to be clear, I’m very shades of grey on all of this. Soloable content, and Dungeon finders and jump-in-queue PvP have made games more fun and accessible. Lack of permanence in the world, more instancing, loss of server cultures, interchangeability of classes has made things duller and less meaningful. I’m as against calling newer MMOs an evolution over the old as I am of calling them a devolution)

  • Just realized that “but they’re unlikely to make a game successful” is really unclear, I mean more that old school features are not going to make a game successful on their own without being part of some larger package of improvements.

  • I am, to my wallets detriment, backing Camelot Unchained. I am investing quite a bit of money, but I’ve realized the ONLY way I am going to see an MMORPG that I really want to play is through smaller, niche companies that aren’t concerned about getting hundreds of millions in sales.

    I am so impressed by Mark Jacobs and his vision for CU. This guy is one of the few that gets it. I really hope this Kickstarter succeeds.

  • @Keen

    “I guess the last two months of playing UO and EverQuest in their 1999 form, and SWG in its 2003 form, have been entirely imagined.”

    These games are playable today. It is arguable that EvE also has the depth you are looking for. Meanwhile CU, EQ Next and Darkfall 2010 (trollface.jpg) are on the horizon.

    The counter-revolution is seemingly already here.

    Or are you asking for something more – a game that looks like 2013 and yet gives you the same feeling you had playing DoAC for the first time?

  • @Bernard: A few hundred people playing an emulated server, with antiquated graphics, mechanics, and features, released over a decade ago — arguably the point the industry should return to — does not qualify.

    The point being that these older games got more right in one game than the industry has been able to muster in the decade following their release.

    These older games are fun and have much of what I am looking for in a game today, but they are old. I’d like something new. Heck, I’ve played most of them for longer than some of these newer games have been out. I’d like a new game, but one that can at least not fail to understand what the older games did well.

  • WoW was so incredibly boring for an mmo it was a joke. Everyone chatting normally, no rpg? And the same damn people flooding rooms with million coin item sales nobody can afford unless they waste money and precious life in front of a PC. I’ve yet to find a lush game like the witcher where people had a concept of imagination. If I want to socialize ill leave my house. I log into these things for gaming and rpg. Not to make buddies

  • Yeah saw Mark Jacobs face and it completely lost all meaning to me. The guy who made the buggy warhammer online where server crashes where a everyday thing. Where RvR was a lagfest with 5 fps and 500 ping.

    And you wanna put your hopes on a kickstarter project? I wouldnt hold my breath.

    Its okay to dream, I fully encourage that but Mark Jacobs just cant swing it.