Massively Overthinking: The paradox MMO


Back in February, the MMORPG subreddit offered up yet another fun thread: User Friendly_Fire told the MMO community that what it really wants is a paradox MMO – a game that is simultaneously popular, hardcore, and social, which is impossible. He posits that old-school gamers want to return to a “golden age” of MMORPGs “when quests took time, raids were hard, and you had to talk to people in game to do anything” – in fact, that they believe the shift away from this style of game actually wrecked the genre’s popularity. But in reality, he argues, the popularity of online games has only continued expanding as the genre shifted away from activities that took untold hours to complete.

I thought this would be a fun one to talk about on the back of last week’s Overthinking on everything boxes. “Either get on board with games that don’t make playing a chore in the name of immersion, or accept you will be playing niche games,” he concludes. Do you agree with the premise and conclusion? Do old-school MMO players want the impossible? Or is it possible after all? Let’s Overthink it.

I am not supporting this lizard-shooting quest.

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): I thoroughly disagree. Maybe it’s because I came from sandbox MMOs, but hardcore games that require hours of work aren’t inherently better let alone more fun. Look at EverQuest and World of Warcraft. While they brought attention to the genre, the amount of people who actually participated in raids was low. I remember seeing actual graphs of the number of people who got through the original Vanilla Naxxramas was less than 1% of the active playerbase at the time, and I was the only person I knew who was working on it (at the time, I knew tons of people in real life who played the game).

Hardcore and social don’t exactly go together well. A game needs to be big enough to cater to both crowds, as I find the social people will talk about the hardcores almost like celebrities… if the game/server is small enough for people to know each other. Which is also why it’s hard to replicate the old school MMOs, as we know instancing/phasing tech can make playing with friends a million times easier than coordinating with servers that may be full or have a cap.

The thing is, it’s very hard to go back. Some people on staff may play older MMOs (or emulators of them, cough cough), but we’re also people deep in the genre at a time when mainstream AAA games tack on online multiplayer and mainstream gaming sites cover that. To be blunt, what really seems to hold people is big games with long grinds well masked with good IPs and/or fun mechanics that often make playing with friends easy. Final Fantasy XIV, EVE Online, Star Wars Galaxies, Elder Scrolls Online…. all of those games have those attributes in common. Their “hardcore” values are less C’thun raid dancing and more grind for a few more stats (or in EVE’s case, grind plus hoard in case of PvP). The failure of Wildstar really shows that we don’t need more “hard” games; we need games that try to include everyone. The challenge should be only a small, optional facet, not the core of the game.

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I agree with Friendly_Fire to a point. The specific things he mentions – lengthy raids and questing and intense socializing – were all major roadblocks for the genre’s popularity even when gaming was much smaller. Now MMOs are competing with online games that have a lot of the same fun without all the friction. They need to adapt. I can definitely see where gatekeeping content like what’s referred to here is a problem now, just as it was for people then, and there’s a serious risk that we can fall prey to cargo cult thinking here when it comes to understanding (or not understanding) how the genre has developed. It’s far too easy to trick ourselves into thinking the loss of something like forced grouping is associated with and therefore at the root of decline (because then it would be so easy to fix, and don’t we all love easy fixes?).

At the same time, it’s still fair for old-school gamers to raise hell about some of the content we’ve lost of the years that wasn’t actually a player roadblock and didn’t serve as a tool for gatekeeping communities but in fact has been proven time and again to increase community and stickiness and longevity. I’m thinking about things like housing, live events, proper trading, visual character customization, creation toolsets, player economies, and even PvP. We have lost a lot of depth in MMOs over the years, and that depth is often the kind that adds welcome glue rather than unwelcome friction – here I’m thinking about the intense popularity of survival sandboxes right now. Themepark MMOs have ceded a lot of territory to subgenres. It’s fair to criticize that and fight to get it back. But let’s do it for the right reasons.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I think Friendly_Fire is on to something here, especially since these kinds of games — whether they’re immense worlds or smaller form multiplayer titles — aren’t what one would call terribly unique anymore in terms of quantity. Whether that’s attributed to a quality shift is perhaps an Overthinking for another time.

Did a shift from MMORPGs that required long sessions contribute to an increase in popularity? Perhaps. As online gaming has become more proliferous and free time has begun to wane for most, the value in having an MMORPG with extreme levels of immersion or gaping time sinks to do basic things does diminish. Having less time to yourself to really enjoy a game and having options of games that appear to respect that thin length of time are certainly more appealing.

Even as one who tags himself as a game-hopping casual, though, I still appreciate a game that makes you slow down and hearkens back to some of those old genre tropes. I’ve got just as many fond memories playing Final Fantasy XI as I do playing City of Heroes. I even manage to find the joy in having to walk to my ship, climb inside, and flip on a few power switches in Star Citizen for heck’s sake.

In the end, I 100% support the idea of people playing niche games as much as those who get a sense of accomplishment out of a short gaming session, so in regards to the “get on board or get left behind” conclusion, I disagree there. Whatever brings that smile, yo.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): “Here’s the funny thing about older games. In my memory, my time in Final Fantasy XI did not include anyone wistfully sighing and saying with appreciation “thank goodness we have to waste nearly half an hour waiting for and/or riding airships just to get to the place where we can start getting a party together in hopes of doing something.” We all did that, but it wasn’t something we considered better or worse than a hypothetical game at the time that just let us… you know, do stuff. And it’s a testament to how much people loved the basic element of playing these games with other people that this mind-numbing tedious nonsense didn’t kill our genre dead whilst it was still in its infancy.

World of Warcraft was an overwhelming success because a whole lot of people who had long been interested in the premise found out that they could suddenly just play the game in a way that was previously not possible. Sure, it still involved some nonsense that has subsequently been obsoleted; people put up with things like slowly assembling manual parties for leveling dungeons, zones were harder to get through, and so forth. But if you compare the ratio of time spent doing tedious traveling garbage vs. time spent actually doing things between vanilla WoW and the then-active FFXI, it would be mindblowing. It’s not even a comparison. The game let me actually just play.

And here’s the really funny part. If you want highly challenging content that requires a bunch of people with strict schedules playing together? Go play WoW. That’s literally what Mythic raiding is, like, right now. The overwhelming focus the game puts on exactly those mechanics is actually hurting the game as a whole and player perception. Complaining that MMOs now are too easy literally ignores the content that’s actually there, and it seems to be arguing more that leveling or accomplishing any content is no longer treated as an exercise in two-hour coordination.

I’ve already written about how inconvenience is not immersion before, and there’s plenty to be written about how leveling was never an accomplishment so much as a tedious chore. But not only did MMOs become more popular as these elements got pruned, the more games rely on large forced groups and egregious tedium, the more people back away. And there’s a whole lot of potential suspicion about what you’re really looking for if you want more like Dynamis and less like Mythic Raiding… but that’s a topic for another day.”

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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