Massively Overthinking: Reconsidering the all-in-one MMO

    
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One of the forever-arguments MMORPG players seem to enjoy having is the one about niche MMOs. There are quite a lot of gamers out there who believe that older games tried to do too much – tried to put in too many different types of content, tried to appeal to too many different types of people, and in the end appealed to no one. Niche games, that’s where the MMO should go, they say.

So naturally I thought about that argument recently when MOP commenter xpsync pointed out that niche games can also be really easy to leave because they don’t provide you all or even most of what you’re looking for in an MMO. I’ll paraphrase his point a bit here:

“I’m playing [a Star Wars Galaxies emulator]; I don’t have time to play games. And no, I’m not joking. I swear that’s why we don’t get games like SWG, EQ, EQ2 […] All MMORPGs from back then became peeps’ homes; you played that game, and only that game, [and] there was no reason to go bouncing around from game to game like a pinball. You had it all under one roof.”

So let’s Overthink this idea a bit for our weekly roundtable. Do you agree with this characterization of the state of the MMO genre? Were we better off when we had all-in-one MMOs that provided a wider variety of things to do – and sucked up so much more of our time – that we weren’t constantly wandering away looking for something else? Or are we actually better served (even if the games and studios themselves are not) when we can pop around between the “best” of different types of game styles?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I think I preferred the all-in-one approach and still want something like it, though having my avatar as something like a glorified Steam account where my achievements (and of course some gear) carry over between games is similar.

Don’t get me wrong, the niche approach is good too. You usually have a tighter experience that isn’t as affected by new features the way all-in-one games do. However, it’s also why it can be harder to lure friends in and keep them there, which was how things worked for me before.

Of course, game genres are also expanding, free-to-play is a thing, and indies are giving us options AAAs often don’t, so those also affect how sticky games are these days. There’s so many more potential “next best things” that it feels harder to stay in one world.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I’m a fan of the everything box in general, so my answer is probably obvious here. The truly great and original and defining feature of the MMORPG compared to other online or multiplayer titles is the fact that they are virtual worlds. It bothers me that MMOs have slowly disintegrated over the years, becoming online RPGs or combat sims instead. It’s as if they’ve given up on the one thing that made them a thing.

I can’t argue that niche MMOs don’t provide higher-quality content than their closest cognates in virtual worlds; of course they do. We all know this. We’re first to admit that, for example, PvP shooters and MOBAs offer better PvP than what’s available in MMORPGs. And if all you care about is pristine, quality PvP, you should probably be there and not here.

But I would rather play a B- MMORPG that has 10 different types of gameplay than an A+ MMO with just one or two. This is why sandboxes always recapture me over and over and why I’ll tolerate weak graphics and emu drama to live in one. I need that variety; I prefer it inside a singular, coherent simulation. I like playing with people who like variety, or who like doing their thing next to other people doing their thing, inside a community that values broader content. I like the worlds that take shape when all of those different types of content and the people they attract meld together into a functional ecosystem. I like the studios that make world simulation their first priority rather than privileging one specific type of player content at the expense of the rest. It’s not that I don’t want to ever dabble in niche – I do. But like xpsync, I also want a virtual world to come home to when I’m weary of dabbling.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): As a proud dirty casual and game hopper, I don’t entirely subscribe to the idea of having one game cover every need or that visiting a variety of games somehow makes you lesser than someone who has logged years in one title. It’s just another of those wrong-headed tribalist lines of thinking that fans of games just can’t ever seem to walk away from.

I guess I just find more interest in a game that has a clearer identity than one that tries to be a bit too homogeneous. I like when an MMO knows the kind of world it wants to be and the players it wants to court and the activities it wants to provide those players. I always feel like spreading out the assortment of things to do s more trouble for the devs in the end and ends up making a game that much weaker. How often have you felt the sting of your PvE build get nerfed because PvPers were angry about things? Yea, that’s pretty much what I’m talking about.

Horse?

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): I think the reality of the more niche vs. more broad split is partly just a fact of realities, and it’s a series of things colliding in one space where they didn’t before. We’ve gone from the days when internet access was rare and not always reliable, games designed to use online functionalities were limited, and PC distribution was confined to whatever the local gaming store stocked to a time when everyone is online all the time forever with a panoply of gaming options available at all times. One of the things I’ve said frequently is that every game basically has its field of competitors as everything in the world, and that’s a bit hyperbolic but it does speak to the difference in the market.

Realistically, in that environment, it makes sense to make a game that does one thing really well instead of a lot of things decently. This isn’t actually tied to World of Warcraft except as a response; while World of Warcraft was the biggest breakout hit of the genre, it accomplished that goal by doing a bunch of things well for the time and removing a lot of tedium and misery from just playing the game moment-to-moment. Games attempting to recreate World of Warcraft too faithfully failed, so the obvious response is to find something the game doesn’t do well (and there’s a long list of things which the designers keep lengthening) and do that one thing very well, selling people on doing something specific that the bigger arena wasn’t properly serving.

The down side, of course, is that the niche title holds your interest only so long as you want to fulfill that niche. Like anything, it’s a design pendulum, and we’ve seen the signs that more recent big tent games can work well. Will we see more of them? Probably, but it’ll take a few years.

gorg it

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): I most certainly think that both MMORPGs and the fans that loved them were well served by a broad design that offered more than just a narrow slice of gameplay. The tradeoff between graphic fidelity and a tailored single-player experience was worth it to get large virtual worlds in which you had seemingly limitless activities and options. It’s what made these games “massively” in more ways than just population, and it’s also what allowed us to stick around for a good long time.

We’ve seen pared down MMOs emerge over the past decade or so that attempt to do a few things better, but that’s not a tradeoff worth doing. Single player games can still trump those titles with blazingly fast action and narrative flow, while MMORPGs have more to offer on the buffet of features. But one nice thing about limited MMOs is that they usually have the opportunity to grow into much more full-fledged offerings. Just look at Cryptic’s titles to see how that can be done.

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): To me, it is all about the all-in-one. I want one place to settle down and devote my time, attention, and energies to! I hate having to flit between multiple titles and even genres to meet my gaming whims of the moment. I don’t feel I get nearly as much out of any game because of this. My best gaming time ever was when I could be settled in a community, be invested in and build that community as THE place I go. While I appreciate that there are niche games (else there are things I’d never get to experience anymore), I am not a fan of them because yes, it is too easy to come and go. Why devote my heart and soul to something so transient?

Also, I loved being around and getting to know so many different types of players and people. These varying personalities and skill sets enriched the game world as well as my life. In niche games, you tend to meet only that one type of person. I understand that people who only ever like one type of play may prefer to only have that one type of play and have all dev attention focused on that. But honestly, a single dish would get old and stale after a time no matter how good it initially was, and then you’d want to taste something different. So that game gets dumped anyway. Variety is the spice of life and gaming, and want that spice all in one dish!

The fact that games did do it in the past means I know it can be done. But no one may want to if I am alone in my wishes.Still, I’d love to settle down in one game, devoting my time and money to one instead of feeling like I am missing out all over the MMOverse because I can’t play all the things.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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