If you ever need to understand why MMORPGs today look so different from how they looked back in 1997, there are a lot of answers. But a big portion of that answer can be found on your smartphone.
Oh, sure, there are other reasons too, like going from designers who were trying all of this for the first time because it didn’t exist before to a mature field and increased competition. But I think a lot of it comes down to something much simpler, and that is the internet. You know, the thing that actually facilitates online games in the first place. Yes, I know how that sounds.
Bear with me as we take a trip back to the year 1997. I was 14 years old, and you do not want to know about the hellish life that I had in the real world; what is important is that my social life existed primarily online. That in and of itself probably doesn’t sound all that different until you consider what that actually meant in 1997.
For starters, I didn’t have the internet at home. In fact, I wouldn’t actually have the internet at home consistently until I was 21, which was influenced by a lot of factors. But that wasn’t in and of itself bizarre. Oh, sure, I had the internet at college, and I had it at public libraries, but the idea of everyone having an internet connection was just not a thing. Which as you can probably guess meant that my social life had some interesting restrictions.
I’d wake up, go to high school, and spend whatever time I could in the school computer lab or library online. When school ended, I headed to the local library to get an hour or two of time on the computers there, downloading things, posting on message boards, and the like. Then that was basically it until the next day.
When I heard about Ultima Online, it sounded downright magical to me. Adult me looks at the game as it existed at launch and knows that I probably wouldn’t have liked it, but if I had an internet connection at home at the time, that would have been it for me. Heaven knows how much I wanted to join in on games like the various Transformer MUSHes that were running at the time, but alas, I could not.
Do you know that for a long while it was kind of a dream of mine to have an email address? Seriously. That was a thing.
“Hold on, as fascinating as all of this is,” you don’t actually say right now. “You still haven’t explained how things actually changed that backs up your initial thesis.” Which is a good point! Because the thing is about a lot of these online games pre-UO and even early games like that is that the whole point was… having a space.
In 1997 the internet was kind of like the mall. You might go there a lot, you might even have convenient access to it right at hand, but by and large it was a place you went to do a thing and then left. MMORPGs kind of had a different place in culture. The first one I ever played, Final Fantasy XI, wasn’t just a video game I played; it was somewhere to hang out and talk with people and run around and make jokes and there was a game in there. It was an interesting sort of everythingbox, a chance to not just be online but also be talking with people and playing a game in a way that didn’t really exist otherwise.
And it updated. Like, sure, video game updates weren’t new for PC games, but usually you got one expansion and that was it. You played Warcraft II and then you played Beyond the Dark Portal and then you downloaded some maps online and dreamed about what cool stuff might be out there. Sure, there were various deathmatch games out there with online functionality, but MMORPGs were a different breed where you could hang out and enjoy your time with others.
That was all a different time. It wasn’t that long ago in some ways, but in terms of the internet, it was like an entire different geological age.
I can’t stress enough that at this point my job is online. I don’t have a commute beyond walking over to my desk and turning on my work computer, and the vast majority of people I work with have never once met me in person. Earlier this evening I was playing a game online while playing another more passive game online and chatting with a friend in a third window. I am constantly connected to the internet when I’m at home and also not at home.
And the two things don’t really have to be separate, either. It’s easy to just tab over to talk to someone while playing a game or search idly when I need to. I wake up every morning with my connection to the world and news within arm’s reach. And… I kind of no longer need a hangout space. I already have plenty.
That’s not to say “old MMOs are garbage and bereft of value” or any such nonsense; it’s just a statement of fact. Games have shifted as players, competition, and the environment has shifted. As a reviewer, I think it’s important to note that there was a time when being a game reviewer often meant literally finding out if the game worked at all because sometimes they didn’t or only barely did. We are all poorer for the loss of VGJunk, but you can see that the anonymous author played some older games that were truly dire, and yet they were retail products.
As the years have passed, we are less in need of MMOs that serve primarily as hangout spots, and so MMOs have increasingly become actual games that focus in on accomplishing certain goals and have a more defined end state. That doesn’t mean you can necessarily win, nor does it mean that good MMORPGs don’t offer you plenty of space to play however you like; you’re just talking about a genre that has shifted to offer more structure as it’s become a natural consequence of changing interactions.
Ultimately, that’s probably a good thing. FFXI is in my estimation a much better game now that you spend less time sitting in Jeuno waiting and more time actually doing things. But it is worth understanding how things changed, and more often than not it tends to be blamed on “oh, players these days are too impatient/lazy/demanding/educated evil stupid and not understanding nature’s four-day harmonious TIME CUBE” or whatever.
But really, it’s the same reason a lot of elements of video games have changed over the years, just like the reason that website design has changed from being something you could bash out in a weekend with CSS and HTML (which I definitely did, many times) to something that required more specialized development. It’s just part of the march of time and changing incentives, and you can’t unring that bell. You can’t make people need to sit in a video game to have a space to hang out any more, just like you can’t make me go back to browsing the internet on a text-only browser with an amber monochrome screen.
Seriously, it doesn’t even work any more. Don’t try.