Playing the Modern MMO

I’ve been out of town for about a week, but am back now, and back to my usual posting schedule. A short break helps me get my thoughts in order.

Playing the Modern MMO

I’ve spent a decent amount of my available free time playing SWTOR, as I mentioned before I left. In the two weeks since I picked the game back up, I’ve levelled my original Jedi Shadow up from 50 to 60, have a smattering of characters between 15 and 20, and have levelled a Sith Inquisitor from 1-51, completing the main story for the class and getting a good chunk into my goal of seeing all of the class stories in the game.

My /played time on the Sith Inquisitor is 23 hours and 14 minutes as I check it while typing this. I’m taking advantage of the massive exp boost you get for main class story quests as a subscriber, which levels you at an incredibly fast pace. It’s honestly been a fairly leisurely pace for me, I’ve taken the time to do a few side quests that I liked, to play through a bunch of the companion stories, and a variety of other neat things. What it reminds me of, more than anything, is playing the original KOTOR. I’m essentially playing the game as a series of single-player campaigns, but the pace is fast enough that I’m not bored of grinding for the next story hit. It’s just a steady stream of storytelling that I get to enjoy, and the natural pacing of the main story quests is rather good.

Playing the Modern MMO

What I’m realizing as I do this is that I MUCH prefer this to the usual slow pace. Things are changing and moving along at a pace that doesn’t bore me, and I actually get to enjoy the stories. What it does is rob the experience of the sense of playing an MMO. I haven’t interacted with a single other player in my entire two weeks of playing, and for the most part I don’t *want* to, because this is a story experience for me that doesn’t mesh terribly well with other players.

It’s interesting to me that the MMO space has moved so determinedly into the storytelling space. With story as a central ‘pillar’ of an MMO, it asks a player to voluntarily cut down on how much they play the game, lest they run out of story. As anyone who’s worked on an MMO will tell you, you can’t possibly hope to keep up with the speed at which players consume content. As a result, we get the grind, a way of slowing things down so that we as designers have a prayer of releasing content at a rate fast enough to keep people from getting bored and leaving.

Here’s the problem: we’ve gotten really good at writing stories. We’ve gotten good enough that players get hungry for more story, and will grind as fast as possible to see it all. We’ve paired this with a pervasive sense that “max level is where the game really starts”, when in reality the so-called elder game is a desperate struggle to keep players interested when they’ve run out of all but the most minute forms of progression.

Playing the Modern MMO

Once upon a time, an MMO was a place where you logged in nightly to hang out with friends, meet new people, explore someplace you’ve never seen, try some dungeons, do some farming, basically live a second life. We’ve stripped away a lot of those frivolities in favor of streamlining, and ensuring that you have all the tools you need to experience the content we’re creating. We’ve replaced the frivolous “life” parts of the game with storytelling and high-production-value glitz and glamour. We’ve chased the fidelity that single-player games have brought, and attempt to deliver stories and experiences that meet that quality bar.

I’ve had a lot of time to think about it, and I think that the pursuit of higher fidelity has broken the genre. I know a great many people who tell amazing stories in the MMO space, but I’m not convinced their talents wouldn’t be better placed in a brilliant singleplayer or small-group co-op game, where player actions can be more constrained for a better story experience. In the meantime, none of the MMOs I’m playing feel like a ‘home’ I can log into; they’re games, not worlds, and my pursuit is for more tokens to buy fancier gear. Very specific things, not the vague “adventure” or “something new for my house”, or “meet some new people” that I’d chased after in earlier times.

As I run through SWTOR, I’m struck by how much I avoid other players. They’re an active detriment to my experience– I’m not talking to players I run into in the world, I’m not talking to my friends on voicechat (because it interferes with the storytelling!), and I’m not seeking out shared experiences because the ones I’m having are so personal that having another person around might harm it. I’m reminded of the opening segment of Divinity: Original Sin, wherein you run around a town talking to NPCs with a friend, and quite possibly find yourself frustrated or ignoring the writing because you’re there with a friend and really you want to get out of the town and do something.

Playing the Modern MMO

We’ve successfully brought single-player aspects into MMOs, and with them has come the single-player mentality. It’s why I think Pokemon Go is the future of MMOs– not because it’s a technical marvel or a new frontier in storytelling or raids or whatever, but because it’s building on the original promise of the MMO: get out there and meet new people in this game, who will be your friends and allies on a great big adventure that YOU set the goals of.

It’s a promise that even the most sandboxy of MMOs (EvE, Elite: Dangerous, etc) fail to deliver. Seeing other players in those games is very rarely a joyous occasion. You can set your own goals, but other players exist to disrupt them, not add to them.

I worry that we’ve forgotten how to make open multiplayer games where seeing another player is a cause for delight and excitement, rather than concern and worry (or competition, if you’re a PvPer). It’s so much easier to paint red targets on every other player than it is to make that green or blue highlight something you’re happy to see.

Leave a Reply