I Am Error: MMOs and their future
|November 16, 2011||Posted by S.A.Perkins under I Am Error|
Well, the main reason I despise MMORPGs is what they do to people who play them. I covered this in my previous article on video game addiction, but MMOs are the only game genre around that is aimed to be played perpetually and come first above all other interests a gamer might have. When a company releases an action game like Gears of War, they aim to give the player a few dozen hours of entertainment, maximum. You play the single player, mess about on the multiplayer, and then that’s it. If the game isn’t even that good – I’m looking at you, Call of Duty – then you spend some time on the multiplayer, don’t even touch the horrendous single player, and then put the game in a dark corner to be forever forgotten once you’ve got tired of playing the same game mode over and over and having the word ‘noob’ shouted down your headset so many times your ears have turned into blood. If a company releases an MMO then they require, as part of their mission statement, to keep the player continually funnelling money to their game and playing constantly, hooked with constantly changing content and compelling gameplay. The result? Have you ever seen those pictures of rather large nerds sat in front of their computer while sitting in a pool of bio-degrading crisps, cookies and human filth, or heard a rumour of people starving to death while playing an MMO or selling their bodily parts to afford it? Well, that’s what MMOs do to people. Yes, ninety percent of the stories you hear are complete bullshit – bullshit you want to believe but know you really shouldn’t (like when you laugh at old people falling over, you know you’re going to hell but by the gods you’re going to enjoy it) – but the other ten percent that’s true is the stuff that really gets on my hypothetical tits (I’m not that fat yet). If a company develops a game with the intention of being so compelling that young people spend their lives in front of a computer screen, whiling away the hours tapping on a keyboard and trying to boost the numbers on their favourite night elf, then that company is run by satan. Or Blizzard. Either way, they sit on a throne of bones and gold, drinking the blood of innocent virgins and sending their minions forth to drain the life from the universe.
However, MMO games often do have a very rich story and a detailed setting and environment, and if you’ve heard me bang on about Mass Effect – and how can you not, my articles seem to comprise 70% of this site and all I ever do is bang on about Mass Effect - you’ll know that I do love story and setting. I don’t like World of Warcraft, mainly due to the point that encompasses the previous paragraph, but if I have to give it a point in its favour, I’ll give you that it has a detailed story and a diverse setting. I’ll admit that during the free trail I had… Okay, several free trials… Okay, the free month I got from a friend (don’t judge me, everyone was playing it and I can’t handle peer pressure!) I did enjoy travelling from the frosty mountains of Khaz Modan via the underground tram underneath Ironforge to the city of Stormwind and the fields and greenery of the Elwynn Forest – I’m just a big ball of shame right now for knowing all of that – and, I’ll be honest, the story grabbed me with its interesting, diverging storylines, like the return of Varian Wrynn, true King of Stormwind, which is an Alliance-only storyline, or the epic march against the Lich King, which was a cross-faction journey that would have made a fantastic book. That’s why I love the story of World of Warcraft; if they wrote it down and turned it into a massive series of tomes telling the epic tale of the world of Azeroth – and it didn’t bear the World of Warcraft logo on the cover – I would buy it and I would love it. Not as much as the Song of Ice and Fire series though, because reading that is like giving your imagination and brain an orgasm.
In terms of other games, Guild Wars as I’ve already mentioned was story-driven, and had a brilliant plot which was the basis of the entire MMO. Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game developed by BioWare, the company who write the best stories and the best dialogue in games – of course my opinion may have been biased somewhat by the continuous stream of pure visual awesomeness they release time after time – and that MMO is driven, once again, by story. In fact in Star Wars, each player can actually have the story develop along their own personal route, being able to follow different diverging story paths for each mission, which I love the idea of (and I really want that damn game, but the monthly price tag turns me away. Damn student budget!) and which is a point in favour of all MMO games. Even the little ones, like Shaiya and Champions Online, have storyline that were written with the sole purpose of engrossing the player enough to keep them locked into the game, even if it takes about seventeen days and an hour of trawling the internet to understand Shaiya’s plot or if you end up getting completely lost in Champions because, let’s be honest, who’s going to pay attention to the storyline if you can see just how much you can mess around with the flying and jumping travel powers (plus to actually get the comic-book storyline emulating missions you have to pay for them, and Cryptic Studios can kiss my godly arse if they think I’m going to pay money per mission).
Money is, of course, one of the main reasons why a lot of MMORPGs fail. Any studio that wants to develop an MMO is going to be looking at a multi-million, if not multi-billion, dollar – and I say dollar because I don’t think I’ve heard of a British-developed MMO – investment, and no studio is going to want to take a significant risk on a new innovative MMORPG, because such a gamble with such large amounts of money can make or break a company. Add in the fact that World of Warcraft owns everything, and I mean everything – even your soul and the souls of all your children and their children – and you can understand why every developer who wants to push an MMO out there decides to create a WoW clone. Therein lies the problem. If an MMO needs money, and there are several dozen carbon copy games out there, and you only have enough money to pay for one game per month, are you going to spread out into the realms of new games when you know for a fact that everything else will be WoW with a palette change (what’s that? World of Warcraft? Good heavens, no, this game is called Planet of Battlecreation)? The answer is no. World of Warcraft may have lost two million subscribers in the last two years, but considering how long the game has existed in the world and factoring in age, and the logical conclusion is that the spotty nerds have grown up to be reliable, working-class people with full time jobs… Yeah, even I find that hard to accept, but chances are it’s true. World of Warcraft commands the fan base, and while a lot of people may decide to pick up a free-to-play MMORPG because it doesn’t cost money, the popular opinion is that WoW is better because the constant stream of revenue allows Blizzard to constantly alter and evolve the game content. Yes, the graphics have improved somewhat from the abysmal stylings of the original release. True, the Paladin has been sufficiently downgraded so that the class can no longer cause instant devastating character rape. Yet free to play MMORPGs are also updated, if not as much. Many MMOs released these days end up going free-to-play, and I invoke DC Universe Online or Champions Online as an example of this, centred around micro-transactions (want to get the game’s best weapon, which causes instant kill with a full health regeneration per hit? Give us £20) or with optional monthly subscriptions to acquire better or early content, and this is because they fail, badly, at their original mission statement. Why? Because WoW owns everything. If Blizzard sees a challenger approaching its throne made of the stripped corpses of the fallen, it will raise its hand, lazily flick a finger, and the combined nerd-rages of its millions of subscribers will rip the lesser game to pieces. Studios stand to lose a godawful amount on an MMO, and they like to play it safe and create a reliable, familiar game, but this inevitably fails to create a massive amount of revenue or even take a small slice of the market from Blizzard’s bloodstained hands. Unless studios are willing to take a risk with MMOs, they won’t be seen as anything more than the next aspiring WoW clone. Of course studios will be inevitably held back by the investors behind them, who are always going to be needed for such an enormous cash project, and when the investors want their money back, they won’t go for the risky unique idea but will instead go for the idea that builds on familiar notions, hoping that it will appeal to players looking for something ever so slightly new. It never does. As a gamer, I want to see innovation, but I understand that the games industry is a business, and when it comes to risk, there is only ever one company in each industry who is willing to innovate and dominate the market. Unfortunately for MMOs, their overlord is Blizzard.
Of course, MMORPGs also need a social aspect within their gameplay. Every game has some variation on ‘guilds’, which allow a group of players to constantly chat and team up to help each other, either in PvP (which I will get to later, believe me) or in normal gameplay. When you go on a mission or instance, you can either join with random players or friends/guild mates, but if you don’t know your team mates and you don’t talk and plan together then you’re going to get massacred. That’s part of why I like MMORPGs; they force gamers to be social. If you’re one of those guys or girls (see, I’m aware that there are women gamers, but lets face it, gamers are kind of asexual genderless amoeboids) who spends the entirety of a mission telling your party that they all suck and you’re a god of gaming, then you’re either going to rage quit or be kicked, and you won’t advance in the game… or life, you little bastards. You have to be nice to your team, and you have to talk with them. If they’re your mates, even better. It adds a whole new platform of social interaction which I agree with, even if people think that interacting with mates on video games is sad and unsociable (which it is, but we like to pretend its not because reality sucks), and it makes the whole experience better if you can have a bit of a laugh when you get ripped apart by a ten-foot tentacle monster with swords for fingers and laser death beams coming out of its crotch. If you form or join a guild, you can make dozens of what I’ll call ‘guild friends’ because they’re not your proper friends (and if they offer to meet you in real life, do yourself a favour and Facebook stalk them first to make sure their fake identity is at least well thought out) and you can have a laugh and have a good time online. Yes, that sounds horrifically bad, but you can have fun conversations with people you’re playing with on an MMO. I once had a twenty minute conversation with my guild mates, whilst in the middle of attempting to survive against onslaughts of terrifying plague monsters (which oddly enough looked like those fem-beasts from Jersey Shore), about just how awesome Yorkshire is. If you disagree and say that Yorkshire is not the best place in the world, take two things that Yorkshire has produced: Arctic Monkeys, one of the best bands around, and Sean Bean, both Boromir and Eddard Stark. The man. Is. GOD.
To conclude, there is a lot of room for the world of MMOs to grow, change and evolve, and it would be fun to watch it happen, but until World of Warcraft reaches the end of its life cycle – probably once the Kung Fu Panda *cough* I mean Mists of Pandaria comes out – the genre won’t have any room for new games to find a foothold in the market, and until that time, games will still be brought down by the continual influence and dominance of WoW and the lack of risk by studios and investors. Let’s hope that when WoW dies the game to take its place won’t be WoW v.2. Then again, by the time Warcraft ends, Blizzard will probably have turned its infinite resources to creating the next game from which they will craft their mountain of gold and vanquished opponents anew.