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Giving Up on MMORPGs – The World of Warcraft Experiment

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In the end of the summer I made a deal with the devil, or at least with my fiancé: she would get more active in the social media, and I would get into World of Warcraft and come raid with her and our online pals for half a year. For me this was a win-win proposition, since if everything went well, we both would get a new great digital playground, and also a nice common hobby. The latter would be a great way to spend time together online, especially since I tend to travel a lot because of my work. Also, I’ve been wanting to find another community online where to belong to, something different from irc-channels or net forums: a virtual world.

So, I started from level 1 and started the climb to level 80, mostly alone but sometimes with friends, and decided to fit at least two evenings per week of gaming.

An important note right off  the bat: this whole blog post should be read as consisting “I”-expressions. This is just how it felt for me, and I’m not slagging the genre, the players, peoples’ taste in games etc. as such. I understand what’s there to like in these games, but looks like it just doesn’t appeal to me at all.

On my part the experiment lasted for about two months, before I had to give up. There was just no way I could maintain interest in what World of Warcraft had to offer. I couldn’t get interested about the gameplay, the combat, the setting or the storylines. There was a kick ass group of people online, many of whom I knew off-line too, but whenever I had the time to log on, people were just getting ready for a raid and the channels were full of game mechanics chatter. According to my fiance there’s a lot of random chat about movies, games, trips and such, but I just never was online at the right time to catch that. And the game mechanics, let alone talking about them… meh.

I could have gotten someone to level the character for me, but trying to raid without any real understanding of the class or the game mechanics would have made me about as useful as tits on a nun. Pretty quickly the playing and leveling became an irritating chore, during which I was just listening to podcasts and audiobooks to alleviate the boredom, and counting the XP to the next level. I’m usually pretty anal at reading all the text material in games, but I just started clicking “Accept” on the quests, because I didn’t see the point. In any case I’d just have to kill 12 rats or fetch 20 magehooves – and that’s when I decided to call it quits. If the thought of logging in makes one sigh about a wasted evening, then there’s hardly any point in continuing.

My History With MMORPGS

I’ve tried playing several MMORPGS, starting from Star Wars Galaxies and going through City of Heroes, Legacy Online (which maybe doesn’t count), Saga of RyzomChampions Online, EVE OnlineStar Trek Online and Fallen Earth. Each time the experience is the same: for the first two weeks the game is kind of awesome. There’s a new world to explore, all new character classes to try out, etc. Then, after the honeymoon, the reality hits home: the game is just about trudging through quest after quest, which are all in the form of it’s either “kill X of Y” or fetch “Y of X”. The combat starts feeling like it’s only about clicking a target, whose AI is dumber than a bucketful of bricks, pressing 12342323423234 until the enemy dies, and then clicking the next enemy. Leveling alone starts feeling dull as fuck, and with someone else who was more experienced it won’t be that much more interesting, just faster.

Once I almost skipped a cabin weekend in order to level up my CoH character. That's probably the most hooked I've ever been to a MMORPG.

There were some exceptions that grasped my interest, such as Star Wars Galaxies with the varied crafting and playing house, Fallen Earth with the more twitch based combat than most games, and EVE Online which I’m thinking about getting back to, because well, I can see the appeal in multiplayer Excel with spiffy graphics. When I tried it the first time, though, I was horribly disappointed by the fact that you couldn’t fly the ships in any meaningful way, but the combat was the same old “click the target and tap the optimal sequence on the number row on the keyboard”. Legacy Online is not really a MMORPG as such, but it was an online game I’d still be happy to play, if it hadn’t crashed and burned financially.

MMORPGs and Sports Games

Towards the end of the WoW experiment I was hit with a realization, that made me feel a little bit stupid, because in hindsight it was kind of self evident: when I was playing WoW, what I was actually playing is a sports game with My Little Pony graphics. If you drop all the pretense of a story driven experience and start thinking like that, modern popular MMORPGs start suddenly making sense in a whole new level. I’ve kind of known this all the time, but being a tabletop, live action and computer roleplayer, I’ve sort of let the letters RPG make me try and hammer the games into a more traditional story driven RPG mold, where they really don’t fit.

The captain coaching and leading the team to victory.

The standard variety of enjoyment in MMORPG gameplay seems to come from the same source as with sports games: repeating things until you have honed your performance to the maximum, and breaking new (personal) records. This can be maxing and balancing your characters gear and skills, coming up with the fastest quest chain to level up your toon, and of course raiding, where you are essentially running and managing a sports team – not only in competition gaming, but just in any raid you are running.

I myself don’t generally play sports games, since they mostly bore me to tears, which explains my reaction to most MMORPGs out there I’ve tried. Of course, with MMORPGs the social factor is very important for a lot of players. As my fiancé put it, it’s like IRC where you have something to do while you chat with people. You can go online mostly to chat and to kill time by killing mobs. I can see the fascination in there and it’s something I’m looking for in a virtual world, but it’s not enticing enough to offset the gameplay.

Star Wars Galaxies and Player Housing

So, a whole lot of whining and complaining so far, but here’s the beef: I would want to find an persistent online game where I could hang around with my online pals, spend time in and enjoy myself. The question is, what would such a game be like.Well, I’d like a story arc, atmosphere, interesting combat or conflict, and closure of some kind – or, alternatively, plenty of time to tinker in peace in my little sandbox and construct cool systems and logistics. Very few MMORPGs seem to address this. I’ve really wanted to get hooked on a good MMORPG, but I’ve given up with trying to find a game that caters to what I’m looking for (select three or more):

1) Good storytelling and setting.

2) Missions that aren’t just repetitive kill and fetch jaunts, with a Post It note worth of storyline as a skippable excuse.

3) Combat that’s more twitch based than number tapping, against enemies whose AI is a bit more sophisticated than if (player==in range): run straight towards him and hit repeatedly.

4) Meaningful crafting, which lets you tinker, optimize and use your own creativity.

5) The ability to carve yourself a small part of the gaming world as a “home away from home”, in the form of player housing / cities. The ability to build a Community that’s not just a chat channel or a forum, but an online space.

I think storytelling is pretty much out in games where you have to rely on random people around you not to be bloody morons. There is actual role-playing going on, of course, and we had a great campaign going on in City of Heroes, but it died away after a while. Role-playing in WoW, though… *shudder*, not in that setting, not for me. Bioware will try to bring in storytelling elements to a MMORPG in Star Wars: The Old Republic, but I’m very skeptical about their approach. Most likely it will be half assed in a way that doesn’t satisfy storyline junkies and irritates the hardcore MMORPG fans. I hope I’ll be proven wrong.

What kept me playing Star Wars Galaxies longer than all the other MMORPGs combined was simply the fact that gave you a chance to build you own player housing and cities, and it made crafting feel a meaningful activity. What was really ingenious was that you could place any item in the game inside your house, with no collision restrictions and in any orientation you could think of. As a result people came up with really incredible stuff, like building a whole TIE fighter from completely random items, figuring out how to make mirrors by aligning shelves just so, etc.

Star Wars Galaxies let the players tinker with the insides of their buildings in a really flexible way.

In other words, there was something in SWG that’s missing from more or less all the other MMORPGs I’ve tried (CoH bases came in a bit too late for us): an outlet for player creativity. Instead of grinding whatever points by whacking rats or peasants to get the Tier Five Epic Underwear of +23 Against Carpet Burn the game creators have pre-packaged, I’d like to create something of my own.

In SWG I was playing a crafter, and I spent countless hours tinkering with my house and my cantina, and handling the factories and the manufacturing chain, so I could produce stuff to sell on the auction, and get even more interesting items and structures built. The combat in SWG was the run of the mill 122332233 crap, which couldn’t have been less interesting. Nevertheless, if I got bored with building stuff, I could go out to kill a few space rats with the guys and gals. So, essentially I was playing a kind of multi-player Settlers, with an option to do some combat if I felt like it.

SWG graphics are a bit dated now, but I'd like to see the same done with modern technology.

Playing Home and Virtual Hosting

Going on a tangent, this is also something that got properly fucked up in PlayStation Home, which I was eagerly waiting back at the time. I had tried Second Life, but meh… there’s just so much bad cybersex, flying divebomber penises and general technical clunkiness a person can take. When I was interviewing the Home creators in London as a part of my former job, I asked them if I could turn off the item collision and do creative stuff with all the items. They just blanked out for a moment, and resumed talking about the brand approved T-shirts, Havok physics and pre-packaged designer furniture  you could use to build a pretty little decorating magazine apartment for yourself. Yeeah…

In PlayStation Home player can exhibit their creativity by buying furniture from famous brands and handling them in only the sponsor approved fashion. Much like many middle class homeowners.

If things were tailored for me in World of Warcraft, I could log on and enter my apartment in the city, or go into the wilderness and into our guild’s town. I could use items and elements to make the buildings look neat and I could go out hunting for rare ingredients or tools to make stuff look even cooler. The quality of armor, weapons and such would depend on the level of ingredients used to build them, instead of being just about collecting a list of immutable ingredients and slamming them together. I’d love to go and dig out the best ingredients to make a certain armor or whatever as good as possible, and going the extra mile by making it look good. I want to go “Hey guys, come see what I built in our guild hall, and come fetch your new armour I pimped up – and then let’s go kick Lich King’s ass!

Wake me up when a game like this comes out. Preferably, one that doesn’t look like My Little Pony and read like the stuff that was edited out of Pratchett books for being too cheesy. Then there’s the bigger problem: how to get a critical mass of cool people I know to switch games…

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7 Comments

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  2. If they roll out such a game, having your kind of people flocking to the new sandbox won’t be a problem.

    I feel like you feel, mostly. I’m not yet bored to tears with the combat so I guess there’s a virtual sportsman in me somewhere, and I’m a diehard achievement whore who has still things to strive for in World of Warcraft.

    Unfortunately what I used to demand from my games was a suitable, lifelike platform for roleplaying and WoW falls so badly short on that that it isn’t even funny. The world is so shallow an eggshell feels like adamantium and the candy cane graphics ain’t helping. And whereas every game’s general population leaves a lot to be desired in WoW I wouldn’t dare enter an inn in-character because the asshattery factor is just too great.

  3. I can’t help looking at that list and thinking you wouldn’t really want to play that game either. I’m thinking mostly of the crafting aspect, here, but also (to some degree) storytelling.

    Galaxies demonstrated very well why allowing players to adjust the quality of their gear is problematic: they *will* minmax, and they will do it to a degree that throws gameplay all out of balance, either by allowing the best-geared people to succeed at silly efficiency, or because the devs adjust parameters to the new “top” performance, and that “best” gear becomes less of an edge and more of a base requisite for any expectation of success at all. I don’t think you’d really enjoy farming that supergood 99% conductivity ore any more than you enjoyed the notion of farming 30 Emblems of Triumph for new pants. A Skinner box is a Skinner box, and if you can’t find the zen in the basic grind, adding more blinky lights to it won’t fix it.

    You don’t go into the details of how the system should be different from “x bars of Y, z bolts of N and b bars of D” -system, so I don’t really know what you would like to be asked to do when “finding the best materials possible”. If I’m missing some grand redesign principle here, tell.

    As for story – I’ve come to think of good MMO’s as ones that say fuck the storyteller, and let the player do what they want, which is run the Skinner box with a minimum of grandstanding hoops to jump through. WoW’s storyline has only managed to engage me as a backdrop for independent RP plots – the same was true for LotRo, CoH, SWG and DAoC. I don’t think it’s a matter of lacking setting, it’s just that even the games that supposedly excel at storytelling (Dragon Age, Heavy Rain, Mass Effect etc.) are still going about their art in ways that in written fiction would be incredibly crass, hamhanded and outdated. In single player that’s survivable, because so long as you’re the only “real” thing in the world, immersion and SoD make up the difference. In multiplayer, where the game is a social platform as well as a game, the illusion breaks, the uncanny valley between players and game content emerges, and storytelling simply can not deliver.

    SWG’s bloody genius housing system, on the other hand, I totally agree on.

    The twitch vs. whackamole combat models I’m not getting into, in comment space – mostly because my avid hate for twitch is a rant in itself.

  4. I agree with what Susi wrote. lack of housing is sad in most mmo’s, but i just dont think it actually matters that much in the end. Why? Because the “minmum level tools” of being toghetter are already there, and most games would not benefit from them gameplay-wise. What got me hooked in the first place was not the game itself, or heading to somewhere or any of that, but making it a hobby.

    Playing somethign regularily, with bunch of peeps, setting times when we all got online, and being there often doing various silly things was what got me into it, when I progressed further, the game changes – in wow for instance – there are several subgames. “levelling game”, “crafting/skilling up game”, “collecting game” , “achivements game” “bg game”, “Raiding game” (that can be random, casual, dedicated, or hardcore). For me the teamplay driven raiding game was finally a sport where I excelled – unlike any other “sport” before. 🙂

    I’ve always hated the levelling part, but doing it regularily with Markus was silly fun, and levelling with Juki, Outi, Markus, Mika, Veera and then doing silly kara raids with them was even more awsome. for me the key elements were ventrilo – (I’m unable to type very fast, so chatting away works better), and people who I liked so much that I genuinly enjoyed putting everyhtign all aside and running some silly lowbie place for umpteenth time because one of us needed a drop.

    in my opinion – it was you and your playing preferences that clashed, and might keep on clashing in most mmos out there. 🙂 Solo levelling in wow is really boring imho, but levelling can be made fun if one just finds the “team” they are willing to play with. 🙂

  5. Susi:

    Well, I see how the top gear can become the standard, but what was really fun in SWG was making the food buffs, which was what I mostly made. Everybody was making only the goddamn Vassarian Brandy or whatever, but after looking at all the other cools stuff, I decided that I’ll try and sell it. If you remember, what I did was to put some of it in auction, then just go around cities in character, chat up people and tell them about all the foods – and got people to buy them. “Oh, damn, this helps with prospecting, didn’t know there was stuff like this, I’ll get a crate!”

    And THAT was fun. Never have been able to replicate that in any other game, although Fallen Earth had potential.

    I also had very good time crafting in Fallen Earth, mainly because there was a LOT of different kinds of stuff to build, and interesting stuff at that. I do enjoy crafting grind when it’s done right – if you remember, I spent a couple of nights in FE making tent sticks 🙂 With WoW it just felt simplified and dumbed down as far as it can go. In FE I liked the fact that ingredients had classes (you need: a vegetable) and I also like the fact that the ingredients had quality (which was in SWG). I’d like different ways to build, say, an armor: use this critter’s pieces and you get a bit of resistance against that, use this mineral and you get it lighter but vulnerable to something, and all that. A little bit more more multifaceted than “drop in two rat skins and some string, heat and stir and presto, you have trousers”.

    As I wrote, storytelling is probably an impossible cause, so no more about that. Then again, setting and mood… I have to say that one of the biggest dealbreaker for me in WoW was the setting. It was just so unbearably… gahh, clumsy and childish.

    With the combat, I understand the skill that’s needed in figuring out the rotations and aggros and all that, but I’d like something a bit more… action than Excel. Also, I’m having a hard time thinking up a mmorpg I’ve tried where the AI of the enemies was something else than “run towards the player when he comes in range / hit the one with the most threat”. I, personally, find this extremely fucking dull. Nethack had this level of AI, FFS.
    Having the enemies have the AI of even a mediocre shooter would make the combat infinitely more interesting for me.

  6. Satu:

    Well, I just don’t agree about the housing part 🙂 Call it a “community building game” if you want to. If it wouldn’t bring anything to the game, why do I get a bunch of people going “yeah, the player housing was fucking brilliant” every time I mention SWG.

    The hobby part I understand, since that’s what I’m looking for. It just won’t be this game.

    And yeah, about the last chapter – my tastes and what WoW had to offer indeed clashed. But with other games… Feels like every fucking mmorpg out there wants and tries to be WoW, and it seems that there’s a legion of players for whom “not like WoW = crap”. I noticed those in FE beginner chats almost daily when playing. That might explain at least some of the clashing around 🙂 I’ve heard of games trying or planning some interesting stuff, like the Age of Conan player collision in battles, which would have made shield walls etc possible. In the end it gets dumbed down because the dumbest players find it too difficult or WoWified because it’s not enough like Wow…

  7. yeah, well, the thing is that wow is actually awsome game. It might not be what you are looking for in a an mmo, but it’s ability to hook players, roll new content, develop game itself, and keep it fairly lowlevel tech and still runnign for huge masses is something that no other game has sucseeded in doing. (that imho is a great pity). But wow has lot of awsome things developers should take with them as well, like the ability to reward players early on.

    when I started playign the game first time, and didint even know what raiding was, nor had even seen it ever, the levelling alone hooked me very well to the game. later on I found friends, so the hook changed, and then as I reached the max level i had group of friends, a guild and skills to go raiding. that is really neat design wise and soemthing that most other mmos seem to struggle still despite of it’s simplicity.

    I loved aion so much. it is beautiful, the graphics and customization are in whole another level and the crafting is awsome (bit too hard for my tastes even – sounds liek you would janos like it more than I did). but: the selling point was flying – and one can actually fly like 2 minutes on a time in certain areas. please!!! not like this guys! also focus is on pvp – nice idea, how ever the pvp is so much of the min max stuff again that is not very rewarding to many classes. grinding is done very close to wow, except, quests are a bit too similar and levels dont fill up nearly fast enough making it tedious. heck for me alt levelling in wow even in heirloom gear is tedious 😛 and in aion it is wayyy slower.

    but the real deal breker for me was lack of endgame – in wow there is always something to aim for and unless you are in server first guild you usually cannot simply run out of somthing to do – in Aion well, there were few group instances and thats it. They said they didint want pve end game but unfortunately there was really not much where to play towards. 🙂

    So I’m not saying wow is the ultimate best way to design mmo – all I’m saying is that it does so many basic things so well, that when the competing products cant get even those right, it is no wonder they cannot cumulate masses big enough to actually innovate soemthign cool and unique.

    rp- well persoanlly after tryign it in Second life, there, wow, Daoc, aion – I just gave up. I need like minded people, typing as a medium is just too slow and unintresting way to do it for me and even if the world is awsome looking and lovely, the other 10.000 players will kill any immersion I was having. 😉 Even on rp servers – because unfortunately the 90% of those “rp-players” play so cliheic “plot lines” that they make out teenager rp campaigns look like high art or Tolstoy in comparison :-P. It is just not for me anymore. I prefer table top any day. if people rp around me i always respect it, and will join in if it seems asked for, but it is definately not a thing I’m even remotedly trying to look for in these games anymore. 🙂

    as a person who has hated all forms of sports with fiery passion for all of my life – I *love* competetive raiding. I would have never ever thought it to be so, but i love doing the background research, nuber crunshing, watching tac videos, sorting healing groups, calculating buffs and what not. I love wiping, failing fights untill they go right, learnign new hard bosses, and the rush that a good team play, and especially frantic miracle saves of really awsome playing can bring.

    for me the only single playing game I dont seem to bore out is the Sims, but all other console, adventure, rp, what not games I bore out before reaching the end. I pushed myself though dragon age – in the end with walkthough, and my love to might and magic games would never have lasted if me and susi hadnt changed tactical hints and talked over over about the games. 🙂

    in mmo’s I have people who to play with also in any time of the day :-), and also the possibility to play alone too. with my zero sized selfesteem being a good healer player, makes me wanted and needed companion in mmos. and, hey, I am happy to help since I can actually bring soemthing to the table there, unlike in any fps game where i am lost in the map half the time! 😉

    mmo’s also need the player to follow though the boring “opening boxes routines” and have them motivate themselves with their own targets “one more level” “I’ll quit when the rare pet drops” “I do thsi one instance untill i get the staff I need” “15 more kills- and 10 more flag captures”. with those as motivating factor the game offers contiuous fun, and even though I dont tend to get hooked on games like many others do – with Wow I sill sometimes find myself looking the watch at 03 in the mornign with an awe – oops, how did this happen? (because i just wanted that one more dragon hatchling to drop!)

    so my initial gut feeling is that yes we would all love to see more varied game deisgn from mmo’s but it also boils down to player types and what we are at any givent time looking from the gaming.

    i’ve noticed that atm my gaming thirst is satisfied with the mix of odd console gaming, regular Wow and regular random fb gaming. those minigames in fb as so casual, that I can play lil bit everyday, or every now and then and it still keeps me entertained whitout pressure. they also have other players that I can help and who will help me – so it is like mmo -light and few minutes of entertaienment with self generated goals .:-)

    storylines – i look for books, comics and tv/movies, and rp from table top and the odd larps. but co-operative gaming and “collecting/achiving” that is what I like in my games atm.

    but they that is just the games *I* like! 🙂

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