The lure of the MMO

MMORPG - in the gaming world, the acronym to end them all - a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, sometimes abbreviated to MMO, is a dizzying social spectacle. Hundreds, thousands, nay - millions of players, inhabiting a universe, joining parties of adventurers and going off on quests. For many, this is the pinnacle of gaming. For some, this represents their entire life. I have played many of these games. It has been said that I may have no life.

Of these, the most popular by far is a certain World of Warcraft.

This is a game I have not played.

...

Now if you'll calm down a bit, I will attempt to explain why this is the case.

Ultima Online


The bank. Where a player would spend a large amount of
time, trying to manage his inventory and attempting to
not get scammed by others.
My first foray into the world of MMO gaming was thanks to Ultima Online. It was by no means the first of the genre, although it was possibly the most accessible of the time thanks to its use of actual graphics. As such, it was, for many, seen as the first of the MMOs. Presented in the style of the previous 2D Ultima games, it allowed players to roam the land of Britannia and live their lives as they saw fit.

I was a carpenter. I made furniture. But this was just a day-job whilst I was in training for my real purpose - adventure!

To this end, I saved up enough for a sword and set forth into the wilderness. Aha! A Deer! A fine target and I'm sure the skins will go for a pretty penny... Oh. Okay, maybe that was aiming a little high. What about that Sheep? I'm sure I can make use of its wool... No? A sheep can kick my arse? Really? Right then. That Rabbit. I fancy me some stew... Oh come on! What is this? Monty Python? That's it. Small Bird - you and me are going to have words...

UO was pretty simple really. There was a world filled with denizens and you'd run around, generally getting yourself into trouble whilst improving your character's skills. Outside of the towns, there were no laws - the wilderness was just that - and running into another player was one of the scariest things imaginable. Many of the systems that a modern MMOer would take for granted were not present. PVP* wasn't opt-in - it just happened. If you died, your corpse would lie there for anyone to loot - the likelihood that your killer would steal all of your hard-earned items was very high indeed. In short, the wilderness was terrifying.

There wasn't even a map. Okay, that's not true - the game came with a map. It was just printed on a tea towel is all. I can remember an epic journey that my brother and I undertook - from the capital city to the town of Yew, many miles away. Our only guide was this map and a road marked on it that may well have just been some irregular stitching. We would follow the path, although not actually on the path for fear of running into PKs***.

UO was excellent. Raw, but excellent. There were very few contrivances made - especially outside of towns. The spell system (especially the teleportation runes) was excellent, as you'd expect having been refined over several iterations of the offline series. The combat was clunky, although it certainly set the scene for the games that followed. Damage was tied to animations meaning that it was possible to perform that kind of dive in, dodge back type of combat, although not easily by any stretch of the imagination.

Fighting another player, with everything on the line remains one of the most intense experiences you can have in gaming.

Everquest


Next up was Everquest, Sony's effort. EQ brought actual 3D graphics to the party, allowing for a much more immersive experience. The other thing they did away with was the concept of a day job - you picked a much more interesting class straight off the bat and started fighting fierce monsters immediately.

Okay, they were rats and spiders, but frickin' huge rats and spiders!

EQ also 'fixed' other issuses that UO had. The most obvious being PVP - there wasn't any. Instead, the entire game was built as PVE**** Okay, so you could join a PVP server, but the vast majority didn't. The wilderness was still a scary place, but now it was scary because of the monsters rather than the other players. So long as you learned where they appeared and what ticked them off, you could avoid them where necessary.

There were also strict rules about combat and looting corpses - namely only the people actually responsible for killing the thing could get the loot from it. This fixed the problem of exploiters who would lurk at the edge of combat before diving in after the kill and stealing the loot. But it also meant that if someone had a beef with you, there was precious little they could do about it.

Combat became a case of selecting a target and watching a pretty animation that inflicted damage over time. The distances involved or even aiming became considerably less relevant to the outcome of combat, relying instead on the relative statistics of the participants. The reasoning for this was not only to reduce the micromanagement of combat, but to help cope with sketchy internet connections.

All of these changes made the game considerably more accessible to Joe Public and this, in turn, was responsible for the rise in the female gamer stats. Prior to this, women gamers were as rare as hen's teeth as all games were about running around being all macho and kicking the crap out of stuff. Sure, EQ let you do that, but there was a much more social side to it as well. It was more of a life simulator that just happened to be set in a fantasy world than a mindless combat engine.

And therein lies the appeal for a lot of people - the fact that it's the players themselves that make the story. If you've played an MMO, you will have heard tales from other adventurers. These differ from the normal, single-player fare because they are never the same twice - the human interaction sees to that. It could be seen as the genesis of User Generated Content.

Asheron's Call


Keen to get in on this new-found market dollar - the bored housewife - Microsoft joined in with their offering. AC was pretty much the same as EQ. In fact, the only things that were different was the level of customisation offered to the player.

In UO, each player could tailor their outfit. Largely this just meant picking a hat, top and bottoms then cocking around with dyes until you got the colour combination you wanted. The move to 3D graphics in EQ kinda put paid to that sort of thing and each class basically had a canned set of looks depending on your level and degree of equipment you had. AC kinda brought it back to UO, with each part of your wardrobe being selected from modular pieces. In short, it allowed for a greater level of personal expression. Sadly, the art direction was a bit generic and lacking any sort of character, so whilst the system itself gets a thumbs up, the final outcome was sadly lacking.

The other cool feature was the Fealty system. Essentially, this was a pyramid scheme. As a new player, you'd be approached by more experienced ones who would offer you all manner of assistance in exchange for your pledge of allegiance. You would then pass on a percentage of your earned experience points up to your Liegelord. Assistance would range from actual help to deal with tough enemies to cool items of equipment to get you started. You would also be encouraged to go out and recruit others - getting them to pledge fealty to you and so on down the pyramid.

As interesting as those features were, AC didn't do nearly as well as EQ and people moved on fairly quickly.

Dark Age Of Camelot

A familiar screenshot regardless of your MMO of choice.
The "Are we all here yet? / What are we doing next?" shot.
My next one was DAoC. Again, a pretty similar affair to EQ. Class-based charac
ters, crafting system, you know the drill by now.

What DAoC brought to the party was Realm vs Realm combat. That is to say, you created a character and he belonged to one of three overarching factions. Whilst each faction had it's own take on the base classes, they were all pretty similar and fit within the established tropes. As such, the choice of faction was incidental but once that choice was made, you could not make a character in a different faction on that same server.

It had greater support for guilds or clans. You could even design your own cloak for guild members then tool around like a boy band made of superheroes.

When you attained a high enough level, you could then engage in PVP with members of the opposing factions. Not just any PVP mind - this stuff included proper sieges. You would vie for castles in the battlegrounds, constructing huge siege engines to take them then calling all of your friends to help defend them when they finally fell. Sieges were awesome. They'd require some serious cooperation as the raw materials to build a siege engine simply couldn't be carried by any one player. Instead, a constant stream of players had to ferry this kit from back in the world to the battlefield where one lucky soul would sit, encumbered, constructing the device to breach the gates and liberate the castle from the defenders.

Man, that was fun.

Eve Online


Now we come to Eve Online. Eve is an incredible undertaking when you think about it. In essence it's like Elite but massively multiplayer and with a greater focus on the ship loadouts and overall strategy rather than any particular skill at dogfighting.

Eve is possibly the most hardcore MMORPG you could play. There are precious few of the contrivances that were put in place after UO, with literally anything going as soon as you clear the relative safety of Empire Space. In Eve, the 'wilderness', or Null Sec, is just that. It's a very dangerous place, filled with fleets of other players. Some have staked a claim to the territory and established rules and laws that they themselves enforce. Others roam the systems and plunder the unwary, living in the grey areas between the player-set laws and the game's own AI police force. Either way, in Eve, the adage states that you should never leave the space station in something that you're not prepared to lose.

As such, the combat evokes UO levels of tension, especially when facing another player.

The degree of player ownership in Eve is second to none. The entire economy is player driven and huge empires have been forged by the players themselves. There are massive conflicts and single engagements that feature more players in the same place than you'll ever see. It also features an incredibly powerful avatar creation system - one that, at the time of writing, is almost entirely pointless.

A big space ship. Even whilst work in progress, this
game could still look stunning.
Unlike the other MMOs on this list, there's also only a single server. If someone else is playing Eve, you're playing with them. Of course, they might well be on the other side of the galaxy, but they're there alright and you can go and adventure with them.

Of course, there are some issues with the whole thing. It's pretty brutal and unforgiving with a frankly baffling interface. There is also a curiously disjointed feel to the control of your ship, but there is plenty of entertainment to be had with the customisation of it. There is plenty of freedom to be had there and that's what I like most about it - you can do whatever you want.

You just need to be prepared to back it up with a fleet of battleships is all...

City Of Heroes

When we were making Indestructibles, it was always my plan to have a Create-your-own-superhero bit as a fundamental design pillar of the game. The powers that be disagreed with that as they thought that people would only be interested in playing established and well-known heroes. City of Heroes let you do both... kinda.

The strength lay in its avatar creator which, up until Eve's new one came out was easily the best one in terms of flexibility. In all the time I played CoH, I don't think I ever saw a duplicate hero. Leastways, I didn't see a duplicate original hero - there may well have been several Sp1derM4n, Wolf Verine or Human Flameboy zipping around, but that's cool too.

Another thing that CoH did was play about with the combat a bit. Sure, the underlying system was the well-established animations + damage over time model that everyone else was using. But CoH also brought in some rudimentary physics, allowing the superheroes to punt the puny henchmen halfway across the map. This made everything a lot more dynamic, as befitting the superhero scenario, as these hapless goons found themselves flung from building to building, quite often on fire.

Even the act of getting from A to B was fun. Unlike previous MMOs where you'd normally just press the 'automatically walk forward button' or instruct your avatar to follow your friend before going off and doing something else, CoH kept you engaged. There were several mobility powers, ranging from the simple - speed and flight - to the technical - super jumps and teleportation. Each was fun and made crossing the city entertaining in its own right. I mean, it wasn't Just Cause levels of fun, but it was right up there.

Final Fantasy XI

Going into combat? You need one of these handy,
otherwise you're doing it WRONG.
Other than the art style (of course you'd expect nothing less from Square), the thing that really drew me to FFXI was the combat. Sure, like the others, it was the fairly standard, default attacks whilst waiting for special abilities to cool down.

But what set it apart was the Renkei system. This enabled groups of players to time their special attacks to create incredibly powerful combos. It was a very deep and complex system to navigate but, if you pulled it off, you could take down much larger creatures than you would otherwise have a hope of defeating.

It also had this auction house, allowing players throughout the realm to trade rare items to each other.

Not WoW

So that's my MMO lineage. To date, and other than a brief couple of Eve reinstalls, FFXI remains the last MMO I played. I think it is also the game that highlights why I've not been back to MMOs for a while. On that timeline, WoW came out shortly after FFXI and I wasn't interested in it. 

The simple reason was that, despite bringing a level of production value that was unheard of, it really didn't do anything different to the games that came before it. Each one of the systems can be found in one of the previous games. Sure, the WoW one might look nicer and be more polished, but it's nothing I haven't seen before. 

In short, I'd already played it. Several times, in fact.

Also, part of the attraction for me was the discovery element. Finding out things about the world. Exploring the landscape. Were I to start WoW now, there would be none of that, largely because so many of my friends have already played it and would doubtless help me play the game in the 'correct' way. My path through the game would be optimised - honed to a keen edge. I would know the best places to farm and how to spec out my character to be the best possible example of whatever class I had chosen. Hell, they could probably even furnish me with the finest levels of equipment.

But therein lies the problem.

I don't like being told how I should play a game.

For me, the ability to express myself within the game is key. I need to be able to make my avatar look and play like what I want without someone telling me I'm doing it wrong. I need to be able to explore the environment and discover things that no-one else knows - or at least that no-one else that I know, knows. I like being the source of information. The go-to guy that people quiz on the whys and wherefores of the systems in play. Or at least to discover these things with my friends. According to my Bartle score, I'm predominantly Explorer. I know that might surprise some of you.

I like it to be my game. To have ownership of it. To be invested.

It's one of the reasons why I'm not a huge fan of linear, narrative-led games. Someone has a story to tell but the story I get is the same as the one told to everyone else. I get to point B at the same time, carrying the same equipment, with the same interactions. That's why I like Mass Effect - sure the overarching plot is the same, but things happen very differently in my game to yours. That gives us something to talk about. I love the stories that emerge from MMO sessions. That trip to Yew with my brother? Epic - no guides and a shonky map. The first time we took the boat in FFXI and got boarded by undead pirates? Man, we cowered in the hold that day. The time Ropes went to build his house in UO and got ganked? Feldman falling off the boat in EQ and spending all night cowering on the beach of a cyclops infested island?

Something like FFXI really highlighted this for me. Instead of being able to express myself through my character design or combat skills, there was a prescribed method of playing that you had to adhere to. Match the wrong subjob to your character, equip the wrong weapon or take the Renkei along the wrong path and the local community would be upset. There was a prescribed best way. You had to hunt very specific things to ensure you were getting the optimum amount of XP for the time you spent playing. It's like someone was playing the game for you.

People in Eve would set their ships up and their characters would develop a certain way. People would extoll the virtues of a particular design over another and, by and large, everyone would be correct in their own right. In Dark Souls there are so many different weapons and armour combinations that are so intertwined with the player's development that you're very unlikely to find people wearing exactly the same stuff as you. You can play these games in any way you want. Some might be more successful than others in a number of ways, but they are your way of playing.

...

But if I were to play, it would be For The Horde.

What he said.
* Player Versus Player. A style of combat that sees you take on actual human opponents rather than just wailing on AI MOBs or NPCs**.
** Artificial Intelligence, Mobile Object Block (Monsters), Non-Player Character. Suffice to say that the MMO business is all about acronyms and you may well struggle to keep up with them all. There are many glossaries around to deal with the main terms so that you don't end up coming across like a total noob.
***Player Killers. Other players who favour player-versus-player combat and will do their best to kick the crap out of you given half the chance.
**** Player Versus Environment. The players all gang up against those aforementioned MOBs.

Comments

  1. I love it. Exactly how I like to play. Frank Sinatra eat your heart out! :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I played Star Wars Galaxies for a bit about 7 years back. The problem was everyone just wanted to be a Jedi!

    ReplyDelete

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