Massively Misrepresented Online Games
I have been involved in and played almost every main stream and underground MMO since the very first day of EverQuest way back in April 1999.
While many massively multiplayer role-playing games refer to themselves as second, or even third generation titles, I think it is very premature for anyone to claim to have created anything but a first generation title. I look at the development of the first person shooter genre as a model.
When Wolfenstien 3D was released, many geeks and computer enthusiasts found a large amount of pleasure spraying large red pixels of nasi blood all over their screens. Wolfenstien was really not a very good game when you break it down piece by piece but the way in which it was conveyed and the fact that until then there really had never been a game quite like it made it extremely enjoyable, it was something new.
What's a Polygon?
Doom took things to a new level. No longer was this a pass time for computer programmers with nothing to do on Friday nights, it was a technologically advanced game that had plently of mainstream appeal. Doom really brought action gaming on the PC to the masses in a way no other game had managed to before.
Doom's success spawned a plethora of copycat games. Games like Rise of the Triad, Heretic and Hexen were decent games in their own right, but really were just conversions of Doom with new content and storyline. There were many differences, and many innovative features, but when it came down to it the gameplay was almost identical.
This is where I get back to my origional point. No one claimed that Rise of the Triad, Heretic, Hexen etc. were second generation first person shooters as it was obvious that they were not. Most avid fans would agree that the true second generation of FPS games were those few based on 3D Realms' Build engine.
If you compare this to the rather short history of 3D MMORPGs, you can think of EverQuest as Wolfenstien 3D. It was buggy, did not have very many features, and was not much of a technical achievement. Much like Wolfenstien when you break it down it really was not a very good game. EverQuest did have a purpose though and similar to Wolfenstein it demonstrated potential, the potential to make a great game and for better or worse, the potential to make a massive amount of money.
Imagine Wolfenstien Had Lasted 6 Years...
This is where the similarities between the genres get a little blurred. They are still there, but you have to know the whole story in order to be able to see them. Largely due to massive growth in the PC games industry compared to the state of things when Doom was released, a number of designers were able to start up their own massively multiplayer games shortly after the release of EverQuest. The industry learned from Doom and everyone was eager to make a game in EQ's mold that had mass market appeal, just like Doom did after Wolftenstien.
Many designers tried, and most of them failed. While there were some moderately successful games such as Asheron's Call, Dark Age of Camelot and even EverQuest II, none of these titles were able to gain as much support as the original tried and true EverQuest. Online only games were still an emerging concept and overcoming the design issues, content creation demands and potential for exploits and bugs to ruin your game was a colossal undertaking for small to mid size teams. In the end the effort to design the "Doom" of massively multiplayer games would not be successful. For almost six years no MMO surpassed EverQuest's subscribed player base.
The fact that EverQuest remained number one through this many years and after the release of many self proclaimed "second generation" MMOs is quite a feat in today's technology driven market. The code has passed through so many hands at this point that the engine is dated, buggy, and slow. I would hate to have to work with it.
Standing on the Corpses of Giants
The numerous failed MMOs weren't without a purpose though, they quite undeniably proved to developers that massively multiplayer games weigh very heavily on factors other than graphics, frame rate or brand names – content is king.
It was after this series of quick release "EQ Killers" that most developers smartened up and stopped trying to make rehashes of EverQuest with better graphics and a handful of quick fixes to EQ's problems. The development on many titles was either halted or delayed as the design houses rethought their processes in order to capture what EverQuest had, and give the players the content, challenge and forward thinking design that they want from an MMO.
One of these oft delayed projects was Blizzard's World of Warcraft, and while the jury is still out on whether or not we can truly call this the successor to EverQuest there is absolutely no denying that it is the most commercially successful MMO to date. With over 5 million active subscriptions and counting, WoW is a huge success, or is it?
Now, I'm not completely crazy, I am not about to claim that WoW is not a success commercially, but as an avid fan of MMO's do I really consider WoW a success? Am I really comfortable calling it the successor to the almighty EQ? As of this writing I would have to say no, however that is a debate in itself which I will have to save for some other time.
MMOs Get Their Poster Child
To get back once again to the original comparison between FPS games and MMOs, World of Warcraft is for all intents and purposes the "Doom" of the massively multiplayer genre and I am willing to bet my level 60 Paladin that we will see multiple titles released within the next year or two that are nothing more than WoW clones with different graphics and more recognized brand names (Lord of the Rings anyone?) trying to cash in on the current MMO craze.
The MMO market as it stands really isn't that bad. Much like it was for first person shooters, a new game means new content and it will interest a large number of people for a couple months even though it is, on a low level just a copy of the original. When the inevitable WoW clones make their way to market there's no doubt that they will turn a decent profit just like Hexen and Heretic did after Doom.
What Lies Ahead?
The question that remains though is which of the upcoming titles will be considered the "Duke Nukem 3D" of MMOs, a game that players unanimously agree upon as new, and unique. While Vanguard is quickly gaining support in this area, my personal belief is that we can learn a lot from the history of the first person shooter, and that it will not be until a MMO allows players to not only play with the sand in the sandbox, but build the sandbox and fill it with whatever they want as well.
What I mean is that just as Duke 3D encompassed new levels of interactivity in a FPS, the true next generation of MMOs will be in games that allow a new level of interactivity and influence on the world around them. No matter how revolutionary skills or classes are in an MMO, or how clean the UI is and detailed the environment becomes; you are still just killing NPCs or completing connect-the-dots quests and earning items. Exactly how you go about doing that changes and sure one method (and therefore one game) can be better than another, but none of these games will be truly revolutionary until what you are doing changes, not just how you are doing it.
Unfortunately with the extremely high cost and long development cycle of massively multiplayer games, I am afraid that we are doomed to a couple years of low risk cookie cutter endeavors that will only be a brief break from our social and professional lives. It will not be until a company is brave enough to create a MMO around a concept of an evolving world, a world that players can shape with their actions, and change with their decisions that we will feel truly refreshed with the genre again.
It Feels Like the First Time, for a Second Time
There are those that claim that it is only my opinion, and that it is really WoW or DAoC that are the current pinnacle of online play. I admit that there is a certain amount of bias in this towards EverQuest because it was the first game that introduced me to the world of MMOs, and I would expect that anyone would have the same nostalgic connection to the game that provided them their first foray into the massively multiplayer gaming world. In any case, the bottom line remains that no matter how you were introduced to these games they are all effectively copies of EverQuest with a plethora of technological changes, but only a handful of game play changes and I expect that to remain the case for some time.
The Blizzard Effect
Unfortunately the effect that WoW has had on the MMO genre is not nearly as positive as the effect Doom had. Where Doom showed people that PCs were a viable game platform rivaling or surpassing the power of any current console, and acted, rightfully so as the face of PC gaming for quite some time, as a representative of MMO games WoW's effect is nothing but detrimental.
Whether it is due to the cartoon style graphics, Blizzard's sense of humor or simply a direct reflection of the age of Blizzard's main fan base, the players of WoW have a significantly lower average age than any other MMO currently out there. The effects of this are hard to explain to someone who has not spent a lot of time playing MMOs, this is the closest analogy I can think of:
Pretend that you were back in school playing baseball with your friends, now it is just a friendly game but you take it pretty seriously and want to practice, improve your game, learn from your mistakes and make you and your friends into a skilled team.
Now imagine that out of the ten teams you can play against, nine of them just goof around, ignore the ethical rules of play, and sacrifice any semblance of teamwork under the guise of "just having fun".
That is basically the atmosphere in WoW, and needless to say it is very frustrating. Sure it is meant to be a fun game, it doesn't have to be serious all the time but when in every group and on every raid there is someone who is acting like a spoiled child, complaining about things being too hard, or that they are unable to get this or that item easily and quickly, it really takes a lot of fun out of the game for people like me who are more "serious" about it.
Couple that with WoW's gameplay, which consists of extremely addictive leveling, and a self-admittedly boring end game and now we have these "B.Net kids" out in search of a new game to overwhelm and probably ruin after WoW's four month grasp on the player's attention has released.
Projects I mentioned earlier like Sigil's Vanguard: Saga of Heroes which was once a beacon of hope for the "MMOs as a hobby" crowd are now being swarmed by bored WoW players just looking for a new arena in which to sling homophobic remarks at each other. It's not that they are unskilled in their gameplay, it is that there is nothing in WoW that hampers a player's advancement based on their social or cooperative ability, and they have come to expect that from future titles.
My fear is that there will be pressure from publishers on their design houses to cater to the demands of the masses. There is no doubt that making a WoW-like game with easy, shallow game play and minimal required time commitment is the best way to attract the largest number of subscribers, as it translates directly into larger profits. Because of this fact and with each new post I see on the forums of upcoming MMOs arguing for easier and easier advancement, I cannot help but become very skeptical of the ability of these designers to go against majority demands and create a truly ground breaking, interesting and challenging online game.
I truly hope that I am proved incorrect, and that designers like Sigil and Red 5 hold true to their original design goals despite possible pressure from their publishers, and the majority of the public to create another arcade style MMO.
Considering the lengthy development and lifetime of your average MMO I am not expecting anyone to come out with a true "next generation" MMO just yet, but I would be extremely disappointed to see the success of WoW mistakenly believed by new developers to prove that Blizzard did things right. WoW is a great game there is no doubt about that, but it is not a great MMO. While the interface and premise behind Duke Nukem 3D was not very original, it was considered a ground breaking FPS due largely to the fact that it approached the genre from a new angle. It allowed the player to really get into the role of Duke and interact with the environment in a way never before seen in a FPS game, with weapons that went beyond the simple point and shoot of previous games, not to mention the ability to look up and down which may seem commonplace today but was a huge change in those days.
The true "EQ killer" will never come from a game with game play based on WoW, but from a game play that is not based on any previous MMO, a game that breaks away from the D&D roots and approaches the genre from a new angle to truly make the MMO a unique genre of its own and one that offers players an interesting, challenging and at the risk of sounding cliché, innovative experience. While I am definitely skeptical, I can't help but be excited about the possibilities.