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 Ryzom, Champions Online, EVE Online, Star 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.
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 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.
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.
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…
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…