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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xpsync
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xpsync

I dunno what it is, what draws one to a singular game world and quite happy to stay there? Is it that the game becomes an extension of you, your life?

As in that some nights when i get home i log in straight away and atm i’ll check the next Hate Raid and adjust my evening around that. Check my sales.

OK raids not for another hour and half, but i’ll stay logged in, do chores, make dinner, work on another hobby, and check out the game when i walk past that machine.

I’ve spent some nights doing absolutely nothing as in the way of getting something done, spent it all exploring, or learning about this or that, tweaking the whole thing preference wise, dabble in space, figuring out how to effectively deal with loot cause its interesting and things you can’t sell you set up in your home, and oh yea housing… lol

Then some nights i log in later on, regular time and play for a few hours, the desire to bother with any other game is not there. The main thing i’m doing at the moment is working my way through a 65 level quest line story titled Legacy on a brad new toon, i didn’t go for the 90 boost yet, in fact i barely claimed any of the rewards. Talk about savoring this game.

I’m thinking long term goals already for when i finally finish the epic quest line and hit 90. Crafting, housing, roll new alts obv, entertainer, medic, tackle space flight, get out and explore all the galaxy has to offer. However atm keeping it simple as i learn the game more and more each day.

Without fail the game literally inhales time and what i mean is, when you think 2 hours have passed, 4 have. Time flies when you’re having fun but even the nights where i’ve not done much that still happens?

So far mostly solo’ing, outside the raid and a few groups haven’t met the right peeps or guild as yet, and i may never, i’m sure i’ll get to know people and find a guild in time, but i find that whole thing can’t be forced, as in you meet the right peeps or you don’t.

Sometimes it’s the game and you don’t really need the right peeps as in EQ2 to do top end you need very like minded peeps as you’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time with them, same in SWL E10 content ain’t a cake walk, and here tbh i don’t know if that type of content exists but it matters not, taking the game in a day at a time and loving every second of it.

I said right from the start we’ll see how i feel in a month but that’s starting to near and if anything i’m only falling harder.

xpsync
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xpsync

“MOP commenter xpsync” OMG! i know that guy! lmao

On a quick scroll this topic looks to have inspire a lot of profound thoughtful reflection. Which i must read, all of it.

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Fred Puckett

I may catch a fair bit of criticism, but I am an all in one type person who has been playing FFXI since NA PC launch. I have taken extended breaks and such, but I have stayed to see what the game has evolved into. I have also played over half of the top grossing MMORPG’s of all time.

I enjoy a great story with somewhat complex gameplay and strategy. FFXI has such depth built into the game. I certainly believe the gear swapping system via macros or the gearswap addon is the best strategic system in an MMORPG I have experienced. Each spell type, weapon skill and job ability have their own modifiers. You can’t just go around the game with a single set of gear. Various gear comes from a plethora of different events or quests which send you all over the world. For 1 job you will probably need 40-50 pieces of specific gear to operate at a minimal level and beat most high level content. You can also play all 23 jobs on the same character. It’s very unique with the specialization, yet the diverse gameplay you can get out of 1 character. IMHO the best experience, yet I am not ignorant enough to understand the game was incredibly too grindy at the initial iterations of the game. I know why people were deterred from it long term.

The Ultimate Weapons (relic, emperyon, mystic, aeonic) systems are second to none in MMO’s that I have experienced. They take considerable time, money or questing to complete. And when completed, have a very huge impact on the pertinent job. It becomes a great feeling of accomplishment, much like obtaining a rare piece of armor for a specific build.

My point is going to dig at modern online games as I have been seeking a similar experience to FFXI and every new online game is completely dumbed down. In newer games you all get the same generic endgame gear. RNG is what drives the players back rather than an experience of defeating a piece of content with 9 well geared and knowledgeable players that is meant for 18 players. People who have experienced this understand what I mean about the level of accomplishment you feel when you conquer some of these intense battles.

You are probably going to say I am some crazy fanboy with nostalgic connection. Yep. I’m ok with it. But if I was a billionaire, I would help Square-Enix create a sequel to FFXI that would include parts of the original, the new XI and aspects of FFIV. Graphics update! Leveling solo is a must, instanced ques are helpful for certain missions and quests. High end content demands your ability to work with your guild (or in FFXI the linkshell lol).

Most of what is missing from today’s online games is the meaning of community. Completing the same instance 20 times should not give you all the best gear. Look to XI and the variety of events, areas, method of means to achieve the best possible gear to be the best player. And challenge players to look at builds beyond one stat line. Unfortunately the instant gratification needed from the current generation is ruining the genre. I could go on forever about the team work of skill chains and magic bursts. Now I sound old school as hell. Lol. Appreciate the conversation folks.

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Fenrir Wolf

Neal is speaking my particular language.

What I look at is what the tightest knit communities in MMOs do. It’s been my experience that these are the roleplayers, who experience the genre as casual escapism. It offers worlds where they can gather around with like-minds.

In my experience, these people rarely have any interest in those oversized raids or PvP. Where their interest lies is in completionism. They want all of the hidden bits of lore, the lost knowledge, the forgotten scrolls.

This provides them with an ever more broad bibliotheca of worldly knowledge they can study to discuss the more subjective aspects of the place they call home. This is why I think that TOR’s holocube implementation is genius.

I do feel though that such systems are best suited to a truly diverse world backed up by talented writing.

Intrigue is always the best spice.

I really love collections in any game that has them, too. Especially if the reward is furthered knowledge. Which is, to my chagrin, why once again I feel myself chafing against the poor writing of GW2 as the collections system there is simply sublime.

I enjoyed gathering collections in Free Realms, as well. It was a really cathartic experience. Through my explorations and investigations I was filling out collections of various kinds. I’m also reminded of Beyond Good & Evil, which had the photography mechanic to achieve much the same goal.

As such, I’d love to see an MMO whose primary focus is on talented writing and intrigue. Where the gameplay is diverse and features puzzle-solving, sleuthing, racing, jumping puzzles, and activities which are skill-based. And I’d like to be able to collect things.

I think that’d target the circles I run in perfectly.

I remember that one really popular add-on in ESO, WoW, and some others was one that allowed you to gather books. If that had been a properly implemented system (ESO’s libraries were half-arsed and included less than a quarter of all of the documents in the game, as is my understanding), which rewarded players for seeking knowledge? That would be amazing.

I could see a game revolving around ideas like archaeology and/or thievery that could really make all of these systems work. Instead of just hitting a rotation of keys, you’re solving puzzles, riddles, and being careful not to trigger traps.

I’d also like crafting to be a part of it, yet without the excessive grind of more recent games. Somewhere between Ultima VII and Ultima Online might be a sweet spot, not too granular but just granular enough.

Perhaps there could be skill-based minigames for crafting, which reward how well you play those rather than rewarding gathering ludicrous excesses of materials. Certainly, you could still gather some, but they’d be more plentiful in the way they were in Ultima Online.

I really liked Ultima Online’s mining.

So, yes… I would like to see more niche MMOs. Something that really targets roleplayers with all of the aforementioned, with a game revolving around those experiences in a multiplayer setting rather than just cookie-cutter builds, button rotations, and RNG grind.

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Anstalt

I think I could write a massive essay about this question, so I’ll try to keep it short.

I prefer all-in-one MMOs.

They have the best communities, because diversity results in stronger communities. Communities increase retention, which increases revenue, which increases development. A saying that used to be around when I started MMOs was “friends don’t let friends quit”. I’ve certainly stayed with an MMO long past the point where I completed all content because the communities I was a part of and the friends I had met made the game enjoyable.

Also, I’m a diverse person. My primary activities are group content, both pvp and pve, but I also sometimes enjoy crafting, exploring, mini-games, leveling alts, doing speed runs etc. The few times I’ve played niche games, I end up quitting because I’ve satisfied that itch and need to do something else. I end up game hopping, which means I never fully join a community and don’t get that benefit, so I’m relying 100% on the game mechanics to keep me entertaining. Repetition always results in boredom, so niche games become boring very quickly.

Finally, I would never pay a subscription for a niche game unless it was really cheap, and I don’t support F2P as a business model, so niche games are unlikely to even get me in the door.

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Schmidt.Capela

I favor the more niche games myself, for a number of reasons:

– More expansive games tend to use the “virtual world” approach to the genre, which usually includes both having the players create some kind of virtual society — and, with that, its virtual pecking order — and extensive tools that can be used by players to hinder or grief others. As someone that abhors actual conflict but will never bow my head to another player inside a game, those aspects make such games unpalatable for me. And changes that eliminate the conflict between players, which would be necessary for such a game to become enjoyable for me, are likely to destroy the “virtual world” aspect of the game.

– I’m a completionist. I enjoy a game better if completing absolutely every single piece of content a game has to offer, and obtaining every single reward, is feasible without ever having to engage in any activity I don’t find fun. Or, in other words, I usually find a game that doesn’t include anything I don’t find enjoyable to be a far better experience than a nearly identical game that merely adds a bunch of content I don’t want to play. Thus why I tend to simply avoid games with raiding, or with an extensive player-controlled economy; I find engaging with that kind of content frustrating, but not engaging with it makes me feel like I won’t be able to “complete” the game and, thus, frustrates me just the same.

– A more niche game doesn’t have to account for very diverse systems and side-activities when balancing the few systems it focus on. For example, a PvE game that doesn’t have any PvP at all can include skills that are insanely fun to use but would be utterly frustrating for the target because the devs don’t have to worry about a player potentially being on the receiving end.

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Fenrir Wolf

Brother!

I concur with all of this. There’s this palpable dread regarding any patch in a game that has PvP as I know it’s going to once again destroy a concept build because I happened to trip over something a bit fun. And because I’m not using the most meta, theory-crafted culmination of that build, I get so rudely, callously cast back to square one.

In some cases, I understand. I mean, I had a build in Champions Online that could tank Groot, solo. I’m not sure how I managed that, but it was the funniest thing being able to aggro over a hundred VIPER agents and just sit there letting them attack me without having to do anything.

Incredibly dull, but funny! Got bored of it fast and reported it. I did cling to it for a while though as Cryptic balanced on the more harsh side of things. So much so that I recall there was a meme at one point which was something like ‘Civilians Wot Shoot Colourful Lights from Their Hands Online.’

I mean, yes, if I’m completely invulnerable? Sure, nerf that a bit. In most cases, though, it’s heavy-handed, ham-fisted, and and hand-over-fist delivered cruelty.

There’s nothing that turns me off of an MMO more than having every single concept build I come up with destroyed, and being forced to grind again for resources just to build another that I know will be dead a week after I finish. That’s disheartening and depressing.

That’s why I know I can never get on with the all-in-one approach, because there’s absolutely a hierarchy and the people who pay — for whatever bizarre reason — are second class citizens to those who devote their life to the game.

What this means is that the all-in-one games are actually all-in-one-except-you-guys-who-aren’t-no-lifers. Which is rather exclusionary and not all-in-one at all.

I don’t think catering to everyone in the same title is possible, I never did. I’m certain I have made my feelings on that quite apparent many times since I started posting here.

I’m pretty sure I’ve advocated how smaller developers targeted under-served demographics would probably make more money than one megadev who’s trying to cast the widest net. With the profits of all kinds of video games (even mobile) falling across the board, I believe that much is obvious.

I think that niche is the future. It’s the only future that can exist, really, and it’s the inevitable one we’ll thankfully see once the games industry has crashed again.

xpsync
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xpsync

“except-you-guys-who-aren’t-no-lifers” lol How do you kill that which has no life?

Yea, all it means to us is we put all our game time into one game, not many games.

Either play SWG:L for 2 hours, or warframe for 1, Fallout 76 for 1, the only difference.

Random MMO fan
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Random MMO fan

All-in-one MMOs is my choice and it is definitely the future. Problem is, developers are still afraid to make something like that, even the ones with almost unlimited source of money (like Amazon who COULD technically keep feeding their MMO project dozens of millions each year as long as their other businesses stay profitable) so I currently have to settle for inferior compromises.

Even EVE never went there, although CCP has tried it in a form of Dust 514 or in-station walking (both of which were good ideas which could turn the game into a large world with things to do for both the people who like flying ships and who like walking avatars instead) but did it in a worst possible way (especially with PS3-exclusive Dust). They still have a chance at trying it again, though I’m not sure whether they’ll be willing to take it. And before anyone will tell “EVE’s current engine cannot be used for seamless world with both flying ships and FPS gameplay” – that may be true, however you can get around this by doing stuff like making “walking avatars” part in different engine then switch those different parts when you click on “leave your ship” button while showing some loading screen to make it more “seamless” and hide the fact that you’re essentially switching games.

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PanagiotisLial1

The good thing with EVE is they got their engine development “in-house” so they can and have keep improving it. Its definitely not the same quality now as it was years ago and I believe in the future it will be even better. I think they can do such changes if they focus only EVE and their new “landlords” permit it(Pearl)

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Fenrir Wolf

Um… They’re afraid because that most indefatigably isn’t the case, a belaboured point to be sure. They’re afraid because the all-in-one MMO doesn’t look even remotely profitable.

Yes, the all-in-one MMO achieves a large player count, sure, but what it doesn’t do is achieve what it needs to in order to survive — a large payer count. This is because all-in-one MMOs are exclusionary, and alienate the sources of profit (the whales) which they need to stay afloat.

While a whale may be able to pay their way, they might have limited time. If they feel their free time isn’t being respected by the game they’re playing, they’ll stop giving that game money. You know what I’m going to point out next, right?

I’d had this theory for a long time, but ArenaNet confirmed it for me with Heart of Thorns. They tried to target those who devote their life to the game, the hardcore players, at the expense of their casual audience. They lost, what, 90~ per cent of their profitability over night? They were so scared they wrote a letter of apology about it.

As undesirable as dirty casuals with limited time might seem, they’re the only ones who have the money to keep an MMO afloat. Every time an MMO dev has been too stubborn to adapt, targeting only its larger, underpaying, hardcore demographic — hoping that the casuals are so used to being second class citizens that they’ll just deal with it — they sink.

This is why the MMO genre looks unprofitable now due to so many of these companies targeting the larger — but far less profitable — demographic. ArenaNet was the first time a company had the perspicacity to realise their error.

And this is why they’re afraid to take the chance, now. Since it’s taking the chance on either appealing to the hardcore demographic (good luck with that), or buying into the idea that ArenaNet’s discovery was correct.

Both are a risk. And if they opt for the all-in-one approach, they stand to lose an increasingly cynical community of casuals faster than ever. That’s why these all-in-one MMOs aren’t being made.

So I disagree that they’re the future. They’re the reason that no one is making them any more. When the first company that tries to make a niche MMO that targets the roleplayers shows up on the scene, that’ll result in a powerful paradigm shift.

After that, I can’t see anyone making an all-in-one MMO ever again.

I think the best that people can hope for is MMOs which target their niche. And if raiders and PvPers want titles developed for them, I think they need to show that they’re willing to pay for it.

semugh
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semugh

I agree with Justin. Cryptic is a good example for how to rebuild. Studio died, games died, yet they rebuilt everything.
I think STO is now AAA game.

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Toy Clown

I played one MMO at a time, up until I got into the era around GW2. I played UO solidly for 2 years, played EQ1 solidly for several years, played SWG for 7 years, etc etc., but never at the same time.

Back then, there weren’t a lot of choices and you had to pay for a sub to all of them. It’s not like now where you have hundreds of niche MMOs that are free-to-play with no subs, which makes it easy to try them out and not really garner loyalty to them. I struggle to find an MMO to be loyal to like I used to, because not one of them out there has everything rolled up into a neat package as SWG did, and to an extent, UO. So I end up playing two MMOs side-by-side, in which I can get all of the features I want to play. I can’t do it off of one MMO anymore, sadly.

The most popular MMOs have something for every playstyle with plenty of content, but don’t force the different playstyles to interact with each other, unlike the current slew of forced PvP sandboxes that have come out in the last 3 years or so. When you have a game where PvPers, Raiders, PvEers, Explorers, Crafters and RPers can all live harmoniously together, it’s going to be popular, IMO. Of the top MMOs, I believe every one of them garners the ability to play many different playstyles, instead of niching.

xpsync
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xpsync

“struggle to find an MMO to be loyal to” there are too many watered down options, everyone is coming and going, content locusts come in, and leave. Always the same story, we’re openimg more servers, month later, we’re merging.

I always roll with the 2 game option too for situations like servers down, or whatever.

However as i’m playing swg:l the server was down for a couple hours one night smack dab in my prime time to play, ok np i have warframe meh, np i have fallout 76 meh, just no desire all i want is to continue my journey.

SOLVED THE PROBLEM! I put back my SWGEmu, uninstalled it thought Legends was the only version i’d play. NGE goes down i go pre CU.