What’s the appeal of MMO’s? Nevernevernever
Today is another posting day that I’m wholly unprepared for. While my colleague gave me an excellent topic involving algae, I feel a more pressing matter is at hand. And I do have some backup D&D stories waiting in the wings so don’t fear that I’ve been posting more opinion pieces and less trashy shorts. Those are coming in good time.
You see, my friend has wrangled me into playing a delightful game called Neverwinter. And he’s done this mostly for the title. And because he knew it would annoy me.
Neverwinter is a free-to-play massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMO). These delightful beasts have been around for some time, the first notable ones created back in the late 1990s with Ultima Online and Everquest. The most famous, without a doubt, is World of Warcraft (WoW). Millions of people log on to Blizzard’s behemoth every month and it has worked its way into the public consciousness through television shows like The Big Bang Theory and South Park. I’d be very surprised if someone hasn’t heard of it at least in passing. For a time, WoW’s success had a huge impact on the gaming industry. The amount of money it brought in through the combined revenue of the game’s purchase ($60 – and Blizzard is loathe to ever put anything on sale) and it’s monthly fee ($15) made it one of the most profitable ventures in gaming. Its success inevitably spawned numerous copies and clones with many industry experts predicting that this new online development was the wave of the future. And, for a time, that almost seemed right.
But whatever WoW was, one thing became clear: it was one of a kind.
A strew of failed games and collapsed companies piled at Blizzard’s feet. No single contender could match the subscription base even with some developers reportedly throwing billions of dollars into the development of their own monstrous MMO titles. The core base of WoW was reticent to leave and unlike the early predictions, it didn’t seem that this game was the next evolution in game design so much as the birth of a new genre. Thankfully not every company chose to chase this new market and their titles those sold well prompting the multi-million dollar publishing houses to pursue those next ‘big things’ that will undoubtedly revolutionize the industry this time! In the meanwhile, small studios have attempted to carve out their own niches in the shadow of WoW. Neverwinter is such a creature, wielding two unique weapons it hopes to win its player base with.
For one, Neverwinter is the first MMO to use Wizards of the Coast’s D&D brand combined with its 4th edition ruleset. This is a little surprising, since out of all the editions the king of table-top role-playing developers have made, 4th edition is the one most like a video game. The designers even admitted to drawing inspiration from none other than WoW itself when creating it. Wizards had quite a bit of success shopping around the D&D property in past years. Games like Baldur’s Gate, Planescape and Icewind Dale have achieved various degrees of critical acclaim and commercial success. Perhaps the largest brand is Neverwinter Nights which saw two separate releases from different developers. It was also the most recent releases which doesn’t surprise me that it’s become the setting for Cryptic’s MMO.
Now, I’m no expert on the genre. I played WoW for a grand total of five hours and promptly deleted it from my hard drive. I played it at the bequest of a friend but knew I was never going to get into it. Its price scheme I disagreed with and I don’t think any game could justify both a full price purchase on top of monthly subscriptions. Especially when I’m so used to free multiplayer as a PC player. But there’s no doubt that Blizzard makes the majority of its money through subscriptions so most of its competition has attempted the same. The only MMO I played to any serious degree was Guild Wars which required a one type purchase of the core game though it sold expansions to keep up its revenue flow.
So, Neverwinter is rather the perfect offering to return to the genre. For Derek, it’s in the damnable Forgotten Realms and has us treading through the old familiar stomping grounds of Neverwinter Nights 2. For me, the game doesn’t cost a dime.
I’ve found the experience so far to be… interesting. These games are billed as role-playing though there’s even less of that than in your regular RPGs. There’s a decent character creator with standard D&D characteristics like hometown and religion but none of these have any sort of impact on either the game or your interactions. It’s strange to me that the greatest appeal of MMOs is the idea that you’re inhabiting a shared world with others that should make it more realistic and engaging. You aren’t interacting with scripted NPCs anymore whose dialogue is limited to what is written and usually walk the same paths doing the same activities every time you greet them. No, in an MMO that stranger on the street is another player – another human being – with their own goals, quirks and attitudes. It’s the sort of situation that should give rise to an unending series of unscripted play. However, in execution, this is never the case.
I don’t know what it is, but massive multiplayer experiences seem to strip all of the creative layerings of a game and focus almost primarily on the mechanics. The quest systems are nowhere near as dynamic as a single player game and are essentially variations of ‘go here and fetch this.’ You will either be directed to spacious maps filled with static camps of enemies and asked to scrounge around for four feathers, heads, crates or whatever and watch as other players run by on their own menial errand. Given the free-for-all nature of these areas, it is not uncommon to come across your goal only to find someone has already cleared it before you. This requires you to stand and wait for whatever it was you were sent after to poof into existence before your very eyes. There is no real excuse or explanation for this in the world itself. It’s as if the game is kindly asking the players to ignore its bare gears while they churn distractingly before them.
There are also dungeon instances which are a little better. These are areas you enter by yourself or with a group and it locks you out from the global maps. While you’re rummaging around these dungeons, you won’t ever run into some random player who stumbles in after you as each of these instances are generated separately for every visitor. Here is where you’ll find the slightly more complicated quest sequences reminiscent of your single player RPG since the designers don’t have to worry about the player arriving only to find everyone already dead. However, even these instances have an artificial feel to them since they are so removed from the experiences of the rest of the game solely because they remove that ‘massive’ component. Furthermore, the design for these areas inevitably turns into a long corridor, encouraging the player to power through all opposition in a race to the finish. There they will expectedly have a big fight with some large boss, get whatever treasure they came for then are spat back out into the world where other players are rushing past with a conga line of enemies pursuing them on their way to the next checkpoint.
The result is this sort of mutant world that is far more plastic and unreal than if you were to strip the players from it. You load into a town and are flooded with trading messages, bunny hopping elves, and stampedes of horses or other exotic mounts trampling the poor citizenry into dust in their haste to complete the next big collectathon. Crowds of players will just stand idly before vendors waiting for auctions to finish or the start of some new quest or dungeon. It really feels like an amusement park than an actual world with queues forming before the next ride and visitors waiting their turn before rushing to the next line. It’s a bizarre product in a genre that’s always strove the most for immersion and the illusion of real worlds. Role-playing games arguably spend the most of their development trying to realize these fantastic worlds to such a degree that the players will – even if for a moment – get lost in them or believe them to be real.
Now, the reasons for this are obvious. Because the goal of games are to entertain, developers strive to make a homogeneous experience for every player. This way, no one person will feel like they missed something great or exciting because it was done before they got there. Thus, every NPC stands rigidly in place, waiting patiently for the next visitor before doing its routine, retiring and waiting once more. Players are aware of this, and likely feeling they are in a playground, they just fool around in the manner of the system they’re in. The world never takes itself seriously – at least in any sort of execution with NPCs having barely any character at all and everything working on a rigid timer – so players react in kind. Interactions are left strictly to discuss the bare mechanics before them. You aren’t grouping up with some fellow adventurers to stop the evil frost giants from descending upon the halfling villages. You are grinding the dungeon skirmish in the hopes that it’ll take less then a dozen repeated runs for the orc shaman halfway through to drop the blue totem you want to improve your item build.
Now, I’ve spoken very little on whether the game is enjoyable. I think there is some entertainment here, but it’s mostly in the shared experience you have with your friends. Unlike other games, MMOs feel like a board game. They’re something you sit down to play. With single player games, discussion between players is often about the story or character development. With board games the story and dressings are always nice and a brief amusement, but no one plays Settlers of Catan to imagine being an individual on the edges of some frontier trying to carve out the the foundations of a society. They play to get the most points to win. I’m not entirely sure what winning constitutes in an MMO but hopefully I can find out and tell you whether the journey there is worth it or not.