Westworld has emerged this fall as the geek obsession TV show, a gunslinger's LOST about which people can't stop talking and theorizing and debating. Don't worry; Massively OP is not suddenly becoming an entertainment website, but I hope you'll indulge me for a round of Westworld in this edition of Working As Intended because in every episode of the show, I see the MMORPG genre: our players, our proclivities, and our many, many problems.
And that's by design. The show's premise is that in some sci-fi near-future, wealthy people are able to pay their way into an elaborate, real-world themepark, where corporate gamemasters and engineers and designers control high-functioning human-like robots ("hosts") in an Old West setting to create whatever roleplaying or entertainment environment the guests are seeking. The players can interact with the robots in extremely realistic ways, from playing cards and having sex to going on scripted quest adventures -- and even murder.
Minor spoilers follow, though I'll avoid the big ones since the season's but half over. Let's talk about Westworld's MMORPG trappings.
Wanna feel old? Three years ago, I wrote a Second Wind piece for Massively-that-was on Ultima Online, which had recently been turned over to Broadsword and was celebrating its 16th birthday. "The 'old things suck' snobs can scoff all they want," I concluded, "but feature for feature, UO surpasses far too many modern games to be ignored."
Now the game has just turned 19, and I'm back in the grand-daddy of MMORPGs poking around for the readers who've requested another look and listen. I'd call it a third wind, but for me, it's probably more like my 103rd wind, as I've gone back so many times I've lost count. This round, I'm going to give a little tour of some of my favorite features, like housing, runebooks, boats, and combat, plus talk about some basic mechanics and highlight cool community hot spots on Atlantic, then wind down with some opinions on UO's place in the genre and the lessons we can learn from its long and glorious sandbox development history even here in 2016. Enjoy!
Last week, a clever Massively OP commenter, SC_Deadline, neatly summed up the ongoing Nostalrius emulator shutdown as Blizzard "bust[ing] up someone's nostalgia party," which stuck with me all weekend as I mulled over how to approach this piece. I sympathize with emulator players, of course; I've been tooling around on emulators since the earliest days of Ultima Online's, and the Star Wars Galaxies emulation community kept me sane after my favorite MMORPG of all time was ripped from the internet and replaced with a themepark. I'll forever champion emulation communities from the angle of historical preservation even as I know that much of what they do falls within the dark shadow of the law.
And you know what? I sleep fine at night. I can accept that part of myself that gives zero fucks whether SWGEmu, for example, infringes on copyrights, as long as I can still have my droid shop on Tatooine.
I can also accept that my fun will come to a halt the day the copyright holder puts its foot down, and while I'm sure it will hurt like hell, I won't proclaim I'm entitled to intellectual property that was never mine to begin with.
What's impossible for me to accept is this ugly and pervasive idea that people who play emulators are hopelessly mired in some irrepressible, unflattering "nostalgia."
I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that this past weekend was a strange one in the MMORPG community, when gamers across the wide expanse of MMO worlds came together to collectively mourn, fear, rage, and regroup after a day that shook the foundation of the genre.
Daybreak, itself one of the founding studios of MMORPGs, finally admitted what many gamers already believed: that EverQuest Next, one of the few inbound classically inspired Western AAA MMORPGs and heir to the venerable EverQuest franchise, had been canceled after so many months of stalled development and media stonewalling.
And just a few hours later, we confirmed reports that dozens upon dozens of WildStar's developers had been unceremoniously sacked in the wake of the cancellation of the game's Chinese launch, which we'd presumed was one of Carbine's last hopes for shifting WildStar's downward trajectory. Even now, rumors contradicting NCsoft's confidence in the game persist as gossip of a planned sunset seeps out.
Given how many letters we received this weekend on this subject, and having had a few days to think it over myself, I have a few words I'd like to impart about the fate of our beloved MMORPG genre.
If you've listened to Massively's staff and readers talk about Star Wars Galaxies a little bit, you might come away with the impression that the now-sunsetted, pre-WoW Star Wars sandbox was perfection in every way -- that classic SWG was all fun, all the time, with no bugs and no problems, and that all MMORPGs should aspire to be it in its entirety.
The thing about superfans is that no one knows the games better than we do... and no one knows their problems as we do, and in fact we could all probably fill volumes with gripes about our very favorite games. But is there a point to going on at length about design and development errors made in an old dead game? I say there is. Better learn from old mistakes than repeat them, right?
That's what I'd like to do in this edition of Working As Intended. Star Wars Galaxies is, in my estimation, the best MMORPG ever made, at least so far, but it had some serious problems I'd like the future best MMORPGs ever made to avoid - and I'm not just talking about the low-hanging fruit of the NGE.
It's become tradition to fare well the MMOs that sunsetted in the preceding year, but that wasn't always the case. At the beginning of 2015, in saying goodbye to 2014's sunsetted games, I tried to put that into perspective.
Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote about how Vanguard's early stumbles foreshadowed the changing MMORPG industry. In January 2007, when Vanguard lurched its way to launch, the genre was barely a decade old; it was booming, and it had never suffered hardship on a massive scale. In the west, we'd seen only three "major" MMOs sunset (Motor City Online, Earth and Beyond, and Asheron's Call 2), and only one MMO, Anarchy Online, had "gone F2P," though we hadn't yet thought to call it yet because it was such a rare and new thing. In fact, it wasn't until 2008's first big wave of AAA, post-World of Warcraft MMOs launched and mostly flopped that MMORPG players gave much thought to the future of the genre and how WoW had reshaped (and possibly broken) it. Maybe not even then.
In 2016 and in 2015, sunsets are increasingly common, a result of market oversaturation, business model struggles, and changing gamer tastes and investment options. Let's revisit the games we lost in 2015 and consider what their sunsets portend for the year ahead.
In the ongoing, neverending sandbox-vs.-themepark MMO debate, the folks on the side of sandboxes want one thing: more. Actually they want a lot more. They want more to do, more to see, more to experience. They aren't content with linear, level-based, content-poor design tracks scrambling to be the next floundering WoW-killer. They definitely want more than just another online murder simulator. They want to cook and dance and explore and smelt and fish and argue and build and teach and fly and age and discover.
But there's one thing almost no sandbox junkie asks for.
Almost no one asks for sex.
Guild Wars -- the first Guild Wars -- celebrates its 10th birthday this week alongside several of my characters who are equally old. I originally picked up Guild Wars as a diversion from World of Warcraft, and at the time, I liked everything about it but actually playing it. Pre-Searing felt like home; it was pastoral and lovely with a haunting score. But back in 2005, the game past the Searing was difficult to traverse in a small party, let alone solo, and the deeper into the game I got, the less I liked it. In fact, I didn't Ascend in 2005. I gave up on the grueling PUGs right around the time I got to the Crystal Desert.
But I went back, and went back again, and eventually I fell in love. That's just the first of Guild Wars' many lessons. Here are 10 things I learned from Guild Wars -- in honor of its 10 years of fun.
With PvP-encrusted MMORPGs like Camelot Unchained, Crowfall, and even Revival on the genre's horizon, I have a glimmer of hope that the future of MMO PvP might not be a dreadful dichotomy of sterile MOBAs and psychopathic gankboxes after all. PvP might just have a chance at restoration to a place of honor in MMORPGs rather than be jammed into themeparks as an afterthought or unleashed into empty open worlds as the lazy dev's idea of "hardcore content." MMO PvP has been great before -- wouldn't it be fun if it were great again?
This is how I'd like to see it go down: Here are six things I expect from serious MMO PvP.
Back in December, film editor and author Jason Bailey wrote a piece on Flavorwire called How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA. He spins a tale of the booming movie industry of the '80s and '90s, when mid-budget films were commercially feasible and commonplace. By the turn of the century, however, the movie industry had bisected itself; studios stopped committing resources to mid-budget films, "betting big on would-be blockbusters" instead and generating a hard-scrabble indie scene in their wake. As Bailey's title suggests, that dramatic shift uprooted a generation of brilliant filmmakers and cheapened the art of films and filmmaking for everyone.
It's no stretch to say we're witnessing the same phenomenon in the world of MMORPGs.