The year was 2004, and the month was May. My guild was growing increasingly frustrated with Star Wars Galaxies’ slow development pace, so we hopped to this new superhero MMO that had just come out: City of Heroes. And it annoyed me. I have lovely memories of obsessing over the character builder, but in practice the actual game felt punishing, clunky, and solo-unfriendly. My guild lasted only a few months, with World of Warcraft lurking on the horizon anyway.
The thing is, City of Heroes is one of those games that changed a lot – for the better – given time. Not all games get that time, but this one did, and when my mates and I went back for Villains and AE and Going Rogue, I fell in love. I’m glad I kept going back and that the game kept evolving because my 2004 judgment was fair – but only for 2004.
For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked our writers to reflect on their own early-vs.-late impressions of MMOs that evolved over time. When did you make super wrong snap judgments of MMOs, and where are they now?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): World of Warcraft, like all Blizzard games, just seemed serviceable when it launched. I’d already done leveling via questing in Asheron’s Call 2, I knew about raiding from EverQuest, and I’d done three-faction PvP, so two-faction seemed super simple. The game also didn’t update every month or do live events, which my last games had. I figured people would play it for a few months and disappear back into AAA shooters and RPGs on consoles, and I’d just play for a bit with my brother.
… And that turned into a few years, couple guilds, and MMO friends hopping in too. I still feel like WoW’s biggest claim to fame was making the MMO seem more accessible for casuals rather than doing something truly unique, but clearly there was an audience wanting that. I guess you could argue that’s also what Blizzard does and probably why I always underestimate the company until I’m able to experience whatever thing it’s working on with people typically outside the project’s genre.
Andy McAdams: Final Fantasy XIV has evolved a lot from A Realm Reborn to now (I didn’t play in 1.0, but I’ve heard the horror stories). With each expansion, it seems as if SE loosens the extreme rigidity of the MSQ — it’s not gone, but it open enough now that I don’t feel like I’m being cattle-prodded onto the exact path the game wants me to follow and I can do my own thing. When ARR originally launched, that wasn’t the case, and I stopped playing because I felt so constricted in the game.
On the other side of the fence, I think it’s possible for games to start out in the right direction and veer wildly the other direction – WoW being an example. My snap judgement of WoW originally was that it was amazing and I loved it… but today’s WoW is a far cry from that.
I’m a bit of a MMO-nomad, so I bounce around and cycle through most of the big name active games. You get a unique perspective when you just assume the game has changed from whatever perceptions you had last time and give it a go again because why not? At worse, you lose a few hours of your life being frustrated with the same things? At best, you find a new digital home for a while.
Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): The first time I played Marvel Heroes I was not impressed. Having not played the Diablo series, I was not used to the movement or the isometric viewpoint, and the story felt extremely thin. It wasn’t until I watched Age of Ultron that I decided to give it another shot. By this time, the game had made several improvements based on player feedback and felt much more generous as far as gameplay options. I loved it. Part of this feeling came from the game itself and part of it came from my readiness to experience something different. Kudos to the dev team for sticking with the game and continuing to evolve and improve it over the initial iterations.
Where is it today? Well, I hope to someday understand what all went down at Gazillion, but as it stands, all I have left is fond memories.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): I already gave one example – City of Heroes – so let me give another: Classic Guild Wars, and for exactly the same reasons. I found early Prophecies to be a bit of a mess, even with my dedicated crew: Henchies were a disaster, the AI was all over the place, nobody knew how to build a good toon, it was super hard to switch builds, and pugging missions was a nightmare. I didn’t go back until Nightfall was in beta, and it was like coming to a whole new game. When the beta ended, I bought Factions, powered through it, and leaped into Nightfall, staying addicted for years, long after my guildies had all wandered away. It wasn’t really a snap judgment, but I’m still glad I gave it a second chance to make memories.
Carlo Lacsina (@UltraMudkipEX): You know what’s changed a lot? Guild Wars 2. It’s totally different now, and I’m not talking in the mechanical sense either. GW2 has had such a major tonal shift over the years. Case in point: Fear Not This Night no longer conveys the feel of the game.
But every expansion tends to change the feel, though, right? Totally agree, but nothing replaced Fear Not This Night.
Over the years, the scope of Guild Wars 2’s story has expanded to more… galactic proportions. Its no longer about just Tyria; the Mists are involved now. The fear of the unknown is still there; I would really love to see a song that best represents the game’s grander scale.
Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): The Elder Scrolls Online almost immediately comes to my mind. When I first tried it out at launch, it just felt like a stale and boring game with an Elder Scrolls veneer laminated on top of it. After some time away and some time for the devs to knuckle down on what works and what doesn’t, ESO has swiftly become a favorite game of mine and a source of some of my best fantasy RPG stories.
Colin Henry (@ChaosConstant): It’s been a while since I just loved a new MMO the first time I tried it. Even Guild Wars 2, the game that I have poured more hours into than any other, didn’t click with me on the first try. At first, it was kind of a sideline game for when I felt like playing an MMO, but didn’t feel like playing whatever I was mainly playing at the time. I thought GW2’s combat was too simple at first, and I wasn’t really into the story. Nothing really changed about the game, but as I dug into it a little more, I started to see the beauty of it. Both the story and the gameplay got deeper and more fun as I progressed, and now I can’t stay away from it for long.
By contrast, when I first played The Elder Scrolls Online, I knew there was a good game in there, but I couldn’t get into it the first few times I tried. There is an overwhelming number of options to customize your character character, and I had trouble finding a class and build I liked. But over time, they’ve really shored up the game, with One Tamriel’s level scaling, in-game build suggestions, a new class (and another on the way), and generally just a lot more to do. I think the quality of life improvements were really what finally got me into the game.
I guess what I’m saying is, I try not to judge an MMO based on my first experience with it. Sometimes my first impressions are totally wrong, and sometimes they’re right, but the game improves over time.
Tyler Edwards: Knights of the Fallen Empire made me a SWTOR player when I thought that could never happen. I tried the free trial when it was still a sub game, and I found it a bland WoW clone (picking one of the worst class stories to start probably didn’t help). I tried it again after it went F2P, but the monetization turned me off almost immediately.
The refocus on story in KOTFE caught my attention, and I decided to give it one final, serious try. And with the side-quests cleared, the grind removed, and the awesome BioWare story front and center, I ended up really enjoying myself. I paid for a couple months of sub and was able to get enough unlocks to make playing without a sub bearable. Now that I understand it better, I realize SWTOR’s monetization actually isn’t that bad. It’s just super confusing and leaves a terrible first impression.
SWTOR still isn’t my favourite game ever by any means, but I did finish every class story and expansion, so it’s probably fair to say that I’ve developed an appreciation for it.
I (almost) never count out an MMO. The game I hate today could always reinvent itself as the game I love tomorrow.