As more and more high-profile MMOs stagnate, it's clear that we need something to shake up this ailing genre.
By James Pinnell on January 17, 2014 at 3:04 pm
On the long, long road to Guild Wars 2, even the hardened critic inside me couldn’t get enough of ArenaNet’s breadcrumb trail of hype laced videos, previews, interviews and reveals. The beautiful art, the varied number of classes and races, the lush, gorgeous locales that encouraged exploration and teamwork. Everything about the game seemed to entice once die-hard players back into the fold – your level dropped appropriate to the area and your party, PVP was engaging, difficult and rewarding, and leveling was actually fluid and, well, fun. To top it off, it was free to play – forever.
It should have been the perfect game. But it wasn’t.
Guild Wars 2, unsurprisingly, has suffered from the same fate as most MMOs — with weakened box sales, stagnation on purchase of Gems (in-game monetisation for cosmetic items) and a growing reliance on Chinese markets for subscription revenue. The bulk of casual players have moved onto other games, while lesser populated servers begin the age old cycle of amalgamation. This is not an indication that the game is dead, or even dying far from it, but what it does show is that Guild Wars 2 was hardly the genre buster, the game that many said would out grow World of Warcraft and destroy the competition for years to come. The problem is, frankly, that Guild Wars 2 — like almost every other MMO before it — failed to advance the genre, to overturn much of the stale, 90′s era systems, and to fully embrace the opportunities that come with faster, more powerful machines, better networks and an experienced player base.
By contrast, EVE Online continues to grow and thrive, after a decade of controversial updates, setbacks, and an enormous difficulty curve. It still charges the same $15/month subscription payment it did when the game began, while over half a million players, many of which can claim they were there from the beginning, still pay it. It has outlived a plethora of other contenders, from quirky themed sandboxes (Star Wars Galaxies), to behemoth backed theme parks with strong foundations (Warhammer Online). Yet whenever it is mentioned, people are extraordinarily quick to deride it — it’s a “spreadsheet simulator”, full of scammers and assholes, boring and pointless. It’s no secret most of those people haven’t played it.
But its success is something developers and MMO designers need to examine, as EVE‘s niche is no longer just an unusual blip on the radar. What the game provides players is something of almost absolute freedom. Many players drool over the well known claims of the upcoming Star Citizen – thousands of star systems, fully live and player run economy, complete freedom of movement and trade, the ability to own and run parts of space — but all of these things have existed in EVE for years. It’s the excitement of control — knowing that your choices matter, that one person can make an enormous, permanent difference (not the respawning-in-2-hours difference) based on a string of unexpected and fortunate events.
If developers want people to stand up and care, if they want them to pay $15/month (which in 2014 is a extortionately expensive fee for a single service) then they need to trust their player bases and cede control to them. This doesn’t mean the standard piecemeal efforts either — some instanced player housing here, easily rigged “elections” that offer nothing but buffs and gold, or “free” crafting for items that offer no uniqueness or intrinsic value. I’m talking about real world changes — the ability to build actual cities and towns, from scratch, designed by players and groups, that can be run (with the help of some AI, granted) by players themselves.
I want battles that leave real scars, leave battlefields littered with completely dead players (many developers have, and are, designing ways to prevent griefing or to offer insurance in these matters), and can level the very towns and cities that were painstakingly created. This means there are now incentives to keep playing — defending your home or your district, being elected to discuss taxes or building permits, or promoted to a war chief/air martial. Much of this microwork could be automated or sped up via “policy” systems that offer predetermined paths or decision systems that cluster together like puzzles to form the framework of a city or town. This gives everyone a meaningful purpose to contribute, whether in the form of leadership, building, trade or even entertainment and transport.
Then there are the complete lack of character builds that do not involve combat. Combat is one of the genre’s biggest, and grindy, crutches and is the real cause of player reduction. Why? Because killing things is, eventually, boring. It’s the least satisfying portions of most games, because it doesn’t engage much past quick reflexes. Mixing combat, and reducing its impact – by making it either extortionately expensive, or thoroughly dangerous, means that it becomes a last resort than the status quo. It’s the tense gun battle after an illicit trade gone wrong. It’s the result of a breakdown in diplomatic relations between two cities or regions. It’s the full scale destruction of an entire star system over the course of 8 months because your alliance’s leader got sent a compromising photo to his email account.
But even EVE isn’t perfect – its UI is still horribly convoluted, its player base largely insular, and its tutorial mostly irrelevant to end-game play. Too much of the game relies on anticipating or waiting on other people, and it’s for that many players may not find it their cup of tea. In my case, a sheer lack of time requires keeps me out of EVE, which is why games like Star Citizen and ArcheAge look so exciting, as they promise to reward small bouts of play as much as large ones. My point is this — once players are forced to invest in their game, as they would their house, marriage, friendships or choice of console, they become pushed to expand and exploit that investment. Most standard MMOs, ones that feign open paths yet largely stick to a single line, treat gamers like tourists rather than residents.
None of this is even remotely far-fetched, either conceptually or in terms of technological ability. What it is, however, is risky.
The enormous bulk failure of MMOs over the past 5-6 years especially has made them far less likely to be wider in scope – when the money and means was there, developers and publishers decided not to reinvent the wheel. Meanwhile, small but talented developers like CCP continue to expand the scope of their game, linking warring players planetside with orbital warships providing support. Games like these aren’t easy to sell nor easy to code — but they are the key to saving one of the most promising genres that has yet to even remotely reach its potential.