Believe you me, I know quite well the arguments that have been rehashed over the years about how the MMORPG genre and these online games in general have declined in quality. If you come out with a rant about how MMOs have gotten worse, you’re not making any sort of radical statement — you’re preaching to the choir!
And I probably wouldn’t even fight you on most of what you’d say. But that doesn’t mean that everything used to be purely perfect and amazing back in the day and has soured since then. Today in Perfect Ten, I want to push back against this notion because I truly believe that there are some serious nostalgia goggles and historical revisionism that going on where veterans only recall the good of the past and completely forget about how, in fact, MMOs weren’t quite as amazing or enjoyable.
No chat client
Out of all of the features we take as a given in MMOs is that practically all of them (save for Fallout 76 for some reason) come with a built-in chat client that allows you to communicate via text chat to the zone, the world, friends, and your guild. But that didn’t always come standard, because MMOs didn’t used to have a standard.
Bree often reminds us of a long-forgotten era of Ultima Online when players had to avail themselves of third-party chat clients like IRC to coordinate and communicate over long distance, as UO launched with only speech bubbles over players’ heads.
Imagine that you’re interested in getting into graphical MMORPGs back in 2000. Your available options could be counted on a single hand. It was a lot like watching TV before cable and streaming; you just had the three channels and made do with that. What if you didn’t like any of the few MMO options out there? Tough. You just kind of made do while you waited for a better-looking prospect to come along.
Now we have a feast of MMORPGs in operation, both officially and through rogue servers. For some, that’s never enough, but for most, there’s at least a game or three out there that holds strong personal appeal. Having options is a good thing, and we are definitely blessed with a lot of those these days.
Yeah, I get that the glamor of freemium and free-to-play models is largely gone from the culture at this point, but when I look back to how it used to be, I don’t see my old gamer self jumping up and down at the prospect of having to pay a monthly subscription to each and every game that I wanted to try. Subs locked you into games and made you feel pressured to “get your money’s worth” even if that meant spending time beyond actually enjoying yourself.
Again, I think this comes down, not to abolishing the subscription model, but giving players options. When we got the buy-to-play Guild Wars, that felt so freeing because now there was an easy option to play two online games while only shelling out for a single sub, as an early example of loosening that subscription stranglehold.
Limited web resources
Oh, you comment warriors who are itching to rebut every single line item here (and feel free to do so!), I’m already anticipating what you’ll say for each of these. For instance, if I point out that it used to be much, much harder to find actual useful information and guides for MMOs on the web back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, you might counter with something about datamining and spoilers.
But the thing is, we all get stuck at times and need help. And it wasn’t like these MMOs were completely intuitive — further explanation than what the devs provided was always needed. Today’s wikis, walkthroughs, mods, accumulated forum posts, Reddit threads… none of that was really around (or at least available in great quantities) in those early days. That became a serious obstacle to getting players onboard and keeping them long-term.
Hands up: Who here has played an MMO on a dial-up modem? Because I totally have, and there is no way I’d ever want to go back to that. The reason that MMOs — which had been around in text form since the 1970s — took so long to really take off was very much in part to waiting for the technology to improve enough to make them possible.
Early MMO gaming was a struggle on machines that couldn’t handle the 3-D graphics or the extremely slow latency from playing over phone lines. It was brutal, and sometimes the best you’d get was a literal slideshow of non-interactive images.
Now? Now we can play these online RPGs on our phones as we walk around the supermarket or sit on the toilet. Progress!
Social stigma against MMOs
It’s always the way of geeky trends that before it goes mainstream, an activity ends up being laughed at or hated by people who don’t understand. It was like that with Dungeons & Dragons, it was like that before Game of Thrones became an HBO series, and it certainly was like that with MMORPGs.
I’ll never forget a movie — I forget which at this point — from the early 2000s that had a character who was said to play EverQuest. Anytime his hobby was mentioned, it was always in a highly derogatory, “no lifer” sort of way. The irony is that those same mockers were probably dumping hundreds of hours into World of Warcraft just a few years later.
There’s no way around this one: If you only had a small or moderate amount of time in which to play a video game on a given day, an MMORPG was not for you. These were slow and time-intensive games in nearly every respects, from leveling to traveling to combat to combat recovery, and making progress meant blocking out a good chunk of hours.
Sure, the slower pace of… everything meant that players filled up the time with more conversations, but it’s hard to deny that this was a prohibitive barrier to entry and continued engagement for many.
Hideously ugly graphics
In a way, I kind of wish that there had been a greater push for beautiful isometric MMORPGs back in the late 1990s, because 3-D graphics back then were so incredibly ugly. That was kind of true on nearly every system (which is why I can’t go back and play on the original PlayStation or Nintendo 64 these days), but early EverQuest, Dark Age, and Asheron’s Call were ugly, muddled messes of sharp polygons and generic terrain. The sheer novelty of massively multiplayer games had to do a lot of heavy lifting to overcome negative first impressions of the visuals, especially when there were so many better-looking games out there at the time.
Brutal death penalties
I can’t think of any contemporary video games at during the late ’90s and early ’00s that outright penalized players for dying as much as MMORPGs did. Death was no joke, kid, and when it happened, you often lost a good chunk of experience, or racked up XP debt, or even potentially lost all your gear. I do not shed a single tear for that era, and I am truly grateful that I’ve spent a majority of my MMO existence with titles that didn’t shove my face into the gravel and push it around roughly whenever I stumble.
While the lingo of MMOs kept newbies and outsiders scratching their heads, the actual game systems were even worse. So much of it was needlessly obtuse and convoluted in a way that only developers and experienced veterans could decipher, and if they could, then you should be able to do the same, right? Except that the community back then didn’t have all of the video and web guides (see above), so it was entirely possible to be playing the game highly inefficiently or craft a sub-par character because you didn’t have all of the information to make good choices — and the game wasn’t really going out of its way to explain it.