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The Trouble With MMOs: Escaping the Bounds of Pre-Established Conventions

Too often have I been tempted by the allure of a cinematic trailer for a game, and this is especially true for fantasy MMORPGs since these trailers are essentially high-end eye-candy. But let’s face it, while they’re fun for everyone and especially rewarding for pre-exisiting fans of the game, they are unrepresentative of the gameplay (or even the cutscenes in many cases), since these cinematics feel more like movies than dungeon crawlers.

For me personally, the problem is that when I see these cinematics without any knowledge of the gameplay, I start to imagine what type of game I’d like these trailers to represent solely based on the presented visuals, and these types games more often than not simply do not exist. The end conclusion is that when these MMOs are finally released, despite my interest in their aesthetics, I have no interest in the actual games. However, it’s rare that these desired aesthetics ever crop up anywhere beyond the MMORPG sphere. There is a big a glaring reason for this, and it’s one the game industry as a whole needs to move beyond.

The trouble begins with our definition of MMOs and MMORPGs.

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The world of gaming is riddled with misnomers when it comes to the designation of genres. For some reason, most game genres are actually defined by the technical style of play rather than a game’s content. A game like Halo is decidedly ranked as a shooter rather than a interstellar war game. However, titles like Half-Life and Call of Duty are also labeled as shooters even though neither of them have anything to do with wars amongst the stars.

This is a residue of the fact that games used to be purely gameplay and lacked any form of narrative or atheistic that would traditionally tie a piece of media to a genre (I’m thinking back to the Pong days here… even though that is technically a sports game because of the whole tennis thing), but even by the time of 8-bit console gaming this practice should have ceased.

Books, movies, plays, etc. are all classified, at least when it comes to genre, by their content; we do not define their genre by the mode by which it is delivered to the audience; books are not put on shelves labeled ‘first-person perspective” or “third-person omnipotent.” But because games, for the most part, are designed with gameplay in mind first, with narratives too often tacked on later, this system still prevails.

While it should be agreed upon that this entire notion is a ridiculous one, and that games ought to be classified by their actual content – with gameplay under a different classification system – it is simultaneously interesting and disheartening to see how this system has backfired on gaming. By labeling an entire set of games in common discourse as simply “shooter” rather than “post-apocalyptic shooter” or “modern-war shooter,” we are not only oversimplifying things, but narrowing the definition of what these games can be.

This is most seen with MMORPGs. Labeling a game as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, should only imply that said game is played online, with a large amount of other players, and contains role-playing elements – where role-playing is simply the assumption of a role.

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However, when someone mentions MMORPGs, most people think of a very specific type of game, and that’s a fantasy-adventure game usually set within a medieval-inspired sword and sorcery world where you assume the role of a user-created character, who levels up by performing quests to gain experience to progress through the game. This mental definition pretty much sums up most RPGs as well if you ignore the online multiplayer part.

The reason why most people think of this type of game first is simple: it’s because that’s the game that sold. Most RPGs are essentially derivatives of the original Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game, and when the online multiplayer aspect was tacked on, and hugely popularized by World of Warcraft, most MMORPGs became derivatives of that. WoW has a huge user-base, and it sells; of course other developers where going to make similar games and try to ride that success too. And while these games do offer differences they are all at their core essentially the same type of game in terms of mechanics and general concept.

Because of the taint of WoW and the gross simplification of labeling it as just an “MMORPG,” labeling any other game as an MMORPG communicates that it is similar to WoW even though this shouldn’t be the case. The same idea holds true, though to a much lesser extent, with shooters. Why is it most shooters lately are modern war first-person shooters? Call of Duty.

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I was lucky enough to be able to participate in the Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn BETA periods for the past three weekends and the Elder Scrolls Online BETA starting this past weekend, and while I was able to observe a conscious effort to move away from the WoW formula, it is still very present. Even Guild Wars 2, which has established itself apart from WoW in the eyes of MMORPG fans, is still essentially the same type of game. Coincidentally, I was able to become far more invested in both upcoming titles than I ever have been in WoW, which isn’t surprising considering they’ve had nearly ten years to improve on what Blizzard did back in 2004, but ultimately I know I will never pick up any these games once they actually are released.

The problem is that I’m attracted to the genre of these games’ content and the online experience but not the mechanics. MMORPGs are these havens of sword and sorcery fantasy. Yes, it lives on in a few places like Fire Emblem and The Legend of Zelda, but as a whole it’s way less popular these days than it used to be and far less saturated than zombie-esque games and war games.

But I’ve spent my whole life loving sword and sorcery. I see these vast open worlds, plethora of characters, general visual aesthetics, and I like what I see; but I dislike the gameplay, and the narrative is either poorly written or not well-balanced against the gameplay. As many times as I’ve tried to get involved in an MMORPG, I ultimately only play for a few days to a week at best. I’ve often been told that the best stuff comes later on, but if a game takes 30+ hours to even start to get to the interesting bits that’s a big problem.

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I’m not saying we should get rid of this type of game simply because I do not like it (there’s clearly a large audience for it and if people want to keep at it they should be able to), but I think it’s time a greater level of variety was introduced to the MMORPG “genre.”

I’d love to see an online multiplayer fantasy game that handles more like a Zelda game, especially in terms of combat, while also having strong and well-balanced narratives. I’d even love to see fantasy spread to less-charted waters such as shooters. For instance, I can remember getting really excited over Project Offset (before it was canceled ages ago) because it was a first/third-person shooter set in a fantasy/steampunk world; I can’t recall if it was ever meant to be an online game, but it’s still a great example of breaking the mold.

Stepping away from fantasy – since, as argued above, MMORPGs should not feel pressured to be all fantasy, all the time – it’d be great to see an MMORPG with the handling of a third-person adventure game, but set in space where you can travel between planets, go on flight missions between planets, do some bounty hunting, or defeat the rebel alliance (yes, I did just imagine a game that combined atheistic elements of Star Fox, Metroid, and Star Wars) while still feeling like a real and organic universe.

Upcoming games like The Division, a near-future apocalyptic title, appear to capture and combine some of the better elements of typical shooters and online multiplay and co-op (it being a online multiplayer third-person tactical shooter role-playing game), and show a promising hope for diversity withing the game genre, especially since this next generation will shift towards increased content and online-play.

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Ultimately, gameplay styles come and go, riding the wave of industry trends, and too often gameplay genres get locked into particular content genres and mechanics simply because once upon a time a game sold well, and everyone felt to need to make games like it to keep up because the alternative – successfully making an original and stand-out game – is a much harder task.

However, it’s these games that move beyond the expectations of their genre that are usually the ones that thrive. We’ve seen it with titles like Portal/Portal 2 (a shooter that plays more like a platforming puzzle game, with an interesting approach to delivering narrative and character as you progress through the levels) and Minecraft (a first-person adventure game that’s really a building game where you can almost literally do anything), and we’ll see it again in the future.

However, these are too few and far between, and as result the industry too often than not feels like it’s stagnating. It may graphically be pushing the bounds every day, but in terms of actual game design there could be significantly more experimentation.

*Featured image by Genzoman

  • zdog

    Great article, and great points!

    • BreanaMelvin

      Thanks

  • MinishDude

    There’s plenty of variety in MMOs…. it’s just that only a few of them get the spotlight, most of which are fantasy ones. There are games like the old Star Wars Galaxies (which does have things you mentioned), some more casual free-to-plays (ie. Mabinogi), Shin Megami Tensei online (it’s an MMO shooter game set in a post-apocalyptic future overrun by monsters) and there currently is Cube World in the works (early alpha is released for ~$20), where they’re planning to make an MMO server later (it’s reminiscent of Zelda and Skyrim gameplay in a Minecraft-style world that can go on forever… seems like it’d be a nice MMO if they can implement a party system on the server)

    • BreanaMelvin

      Ahhh, but Galaxies is pre-WoW =p However, I’m not familiar with that title, so I can’t comment on how similar the mechanics may be… and it’s the mechanics and game design that I want more variety in the most.

      I’ll check out this Cube World

    • BreanaMelvin

      I have checked out the Cube World, and it is pretty much just another DnD derivative but with a Minecraft-style art direction. It’s a cool little project though

      • MinishDude

        The combat system is pretty nice, and there is more of an emphasis on exploration, so they have hang-gliding and sailing (which once you hit one of the infinite oceans, it feels a LOT like Zelda: Wind Waker but with more to explore and being able to go below the surface)

  • Daniel

    I’d also like an MMO Zelda style… I just love the gameplay.

  • Scott Satkin

    What about Star Wars: The Old Republic? Admittedly, the mechanics are pretty WoW-like, but it’s more story-focused and built around a sci-fi setting rather than fantasy.

    • BreanaMelvin

      I don’t mind MMOs being fantasy (I just want a lot more other stuff as well in addition to fantasy), and while I do consider Star Wars more space fantasy than sci-fi and am glad for the slight variety, I’m more miffed by how fantasy tends to be trapped within RPGs and doesn’t extend out as often as I’d like to other areas of gaming. Old Republic is another example of a game I’d like to have played, but I’m not a fan of the WoW mechanics.

  • jugglaj91

    So you want a game that does not play like WoW and is not a typical fantasy setting? My main argument is the reason people try to replicate WoW so much is because of how much they got right in how to make a game.

    As for Medieval time periods for fantasy games, I think you are just fighting an uphill battle unfortunately. Well, at least until someone comes along and can prove other settings can work just as well.