The beast that wrecked wonderland. Or: Oh noes, I’m an RPer?

The blogosphere is loaded on fundamental design questions and debates lately and it’s not just events like Blizzard’s most recent Call to Arms announcement that make us wonder about where the future of MMOs lies. The more I’m reading, the more I realize how conservative I am – and how I really hopped off the bandwagon somewhere around the Burning Crusade. Very few game design changes have actually appealed to me since then. Maybe I’m just not the average MMO gamer anymore. Maybe I have become too “oldschool” for this genre.

Scrap that “maybe”.

I’ve tried to put a finger on this sentiment lately, but I couldn’t quite find the right word. This recent post by Green Armadillo is a great example of the overall problem though: I really do resent the fact that dungeons have become a synonym for lootbags in MMOs. That is SO far apart from what dungeons used to stand for, game designers might as well stop putting any effort into dungeon design if drops are all that matters. And now, as if loot, gold and tokens weren’t enough, you even have to bribe people further to play cooperatively in there. Sic transit gloria mundi?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg which fast-food, drive-thru MMOs are developing into, with their dungeon finders, achievement points, welfare loot and in-built quest helpers. Big fat red arrows across your fantasy world. Flashy text hovering over your stupid head. Min-maxing guides for teh win.

All the things I want are almost completely opposed to the current trend: no quest helper, no maps, no fast leveling, no soloing major content, no anonymous grouping, no welfare loot, no cookie-cutters, no bottomless bags, no epeen titles and silly achievement points. Instead, more need to cooperate. More need to play intelligently. More consequences when not playing cooperatively or intelligently. More customization. Lore rather than loot. More need to travel without an instant map. More wetting your pants on the way. Proper outdoor PvP. Less linearity and more player-generated content. Player housing. More campfires. A bag-pack with bandages you actually use.

And then it dawns on me, the inevitable conclusion: my wish-list strongly resembles the 100+ pages long RPer’s wishlist that was up on Blizzard’s official RP forums a few years ago, a collection on how to improve the game for roleplaying (unfortunately that topic is long gone). Is to wish for these things, to be an RPer in today’s post-WoW MMO world?

I’m not an RPer in the strict sense. I do play role-playing games, but I’ve always played on PVE servers. I cringe a little at the whole “in character”-stuff some people really take to extremes on dedicated servers. On the other hand, I’ve absolutely no problem with players who enjoy their MMOs that way, it’s just not my cup of coffee to make up a past history for my character, attend ingame weddings or talk in Shakespearean English. But when it comes to everything else that adds atmosphere to fantasy worlds, yes I do want that. It’s been there before.

So, am I an RPer now? A traditionalist? How do you call MMO players like me today? And is it really me who needs a new name?

But finally, I realized what this whole mess is called that’s currently happening to the genre (thank you Spinks): the beast that’s wrecking wonderland is called “Gamification”. It’s been going on a lot more rapidly on consoles ever since the XBOX went live and now it’s made its way into PC MMOs too. And I really shouldn’t be surprised: just the way traditional RPGs have become a rarity on console ever since, the classic MMORPG is doomed to disappear. I never realized the parallels in such clarity. MMOs might be part of the world of games, but they never played by the same rules, their virtues were always of a different kind. They were virtual worlds; not linear, scripted scenarios with the goal of instant gratification, stilling players’ achievement hunger and collection drive whenever they please. Those games were about setting, narrative, simulation and cooperative longterm goals. But there’s a whole new mentality out there today, a new type of gamer walking down my virtual streets. A gamer with different values than me.

And I’m fine with it, really – you can collect achievements ’til kingdom come for all I care. But if game studios start developing more and more MMOs for you rather than me, then I have a problem.

And no, I don’t want to start playing MUDs or write fanfiction.

20 comments

  1. Nils

    *clapping hands*.

    I so agree. But I also think we are at a tipping point. Almost all bloggers I know are disatisfied with the direction MMORPGS have lately.

    The only people happy about gamification seem to be those that hope to make money with it.

    Even the WoW forum has intellient posts about the importance of the world.

    Even Tobold – a long-known advocate of gameplay>world, is bemoaning the lack of any world in World of Warcraft lately.

    A lot will depend on how Bioware and GW2 develop.

    But in any case, there are more MMORPGs in development than ever before. We will eventually get a diversified market that offers something for everybody in AAA-quality.

    I’d just wish it was today and not in some 5-10 years.

  2. Syl

    Nils, I wish I could even be that positive. I am really not sure this is going to happen ever again, 5-10 years sounds almost too optimistic. It’s true that many voices in ‘our’ blogosphere sound like that lately, but bloggers just aren’t the average mainstream gamer. we’re a minority and you don’t make money with us these days – it’s kinda sad isn’t it: the players that made this genre big, sticking to it from the very early days when all it was was a niche others would belittle, are now the players that are forgotten along the road..

    I get reminded of what a friend of mine told me when he left WoW in vanilla – he said “the fact that so many counterstrike players are playing this game, can’t be a good sign”. not that I blame anyone changing to MMOs thanks to WoW, it’s great that the genre grows, but in the end it DID change things and I simply don’t like it the ‘how’.

  3. Nils

    Where we, the bloggers, are now, the average player will be a few years after starting to play MMORPGs.

    In some way people nowadays are even more willing to interact socially over the internet than ever before. WoW just doesn’t allow them to do it.

    Add a huge market gap to that. There is not a single AAA-simulation-heavy fantasy-MMORPG out there for years now!

    Even if people like me are just 1% of the playerbase it makes sense to make a game for us! And a lot of people would even like to pay much, much more for a MMORPG than today. For a well-done AAA-simulation-heavy fantasy MMORPG I’d be easily willing to pay some 50€ a month. If I know it’s good even much, much more.

    I have 30 days per month to spend the money I earn and I get 1000% more fun out of a good MMORPG than out of a Ferrari.

    Maybe I’m on the extreme side here, but I just can’t imagine that so many players really want to play for nothing else than itemlevels! This may work on little kid or newbies. But any advanced WoW player will see that so much more is possible if you emphazise the simulation-aspect a bit more.

  4. Syl

    “Where we, the bloggers, are now, the average player will be a few years after starting to play MMORPGs.”

    Am not so sure. Can you miss something you never experienced? If you start MMOs today, you take their current state for a given. and if you enjoy them that way, which many do, you don’t ask for different or old. I think your theory only works if these new players look for the same experience we do, and I somehow doubt that.

    but I agree that there is still a market for more oldschool MMORPGS, there should be plenty of room for different games and different players. if a developer focuses on that customer base, he can establish an entire niche for himself and a bigger one too than back in the days. there is good business here still (although I hope I won’t have to pay 50+ euros per month :P).

  5. Gilded

    you know what they do to RPers *grins maliciously*

    It’s interesting since I am by no means an “old school” MMO gamer (I never played UO “in the day” or any of that, not even EQ2 although I know a lot about both by now), but the genre has always felt like there was something missing for me, even when I didn’t know about the alternatives. I would find myself clamoring for something more (this is starting to sound religious), and it is through the blogging community that I see I’m not alone.

    An investor will tap into the community of critical thinkers someday and make a game that can appease them (and in extension knock the socks off of all the sheeple of the world).

    I have hope that someday (soon!) someone will make that investment and make a great game that will blow the numb, gamified world away. Have faith Syl!

  6. Syl

    “you know what they do to RPers..”

    I’m….not sure?! *scared*

    That’s why voices like yours are so great – this adds backup to Nils opinion (and gives me hope), because if newer players perceive something to be ‘missing’, then not all is lost.
    You can’t tell all the others out there and convince them, by any chance? ;)

  7. Hugh

    I don’t have much to say except “I agree”.

    I remember when Blizz removed the cooking quests and the requirement to carry Simple Wood and Flint and Tinder for a fire. The blogosphere seemed, in general, to be in love with this simplification. I felt like I was the only one saying “erm, hang on a minute, immersiveness, guys…”

    Seems, a couple of years later, that that was the thin end of the wedge.

  8. Syl

    @Hugh

    The sad part is, I’m not even against ALL types of simplification. there’s a line where immersiveness can become an annoyance, too much of a sim. but that’s why devs need to have a feeling for this delicate matter, to know what adds authenticity and what can be simplified a little. to take Blizzard as an example – flight lines were awesome, so were flying mounts at first. but that wasn’t enough, it had to be lightspeed birds later. always faster, always more, always better.
    Or the whole way group organisation has gone: from using general chat to meeting stones, then cross-server LFD.

    Someone should have pulled the break halfway through.

  9. Gilded

    “You can’t tell all the others out there and convince them, by any chance?”

    Actually you’d be surprised, even the people who grew up on WoW (it’s been going that long that an entire generation of gamers grew up on it) are not satisfied with how things are. Most of my friends who are still playing WoW are only doing so because they know other people who play. I had a simple conversation about design with one of them one day and that was all it took to make him think twice and not even bother with cataclysm. The reality is that for the most part players just deal with the fact that the game is no longer satisfying.

    It’s not as if games like Rift are doing well due to using a winning formula; they do well because there is such a strong demand for something new (even if it isn’t that new).

  10. Shintar

    Being interested in roleplaying is not a binary thing. In fact I dare say that every player has to engage their imagination at least a tiny little bit the moment they first decide to slip into the role of a night elf hunter or whatever. The question is where you take it from there. I have a very active imagination and want to immerse myself a lot more, but to others that might already feel like too much work.

    That reminds me of how I made my first ever WoW character a human because at the time I was worried about making a fool out of myself by playing a race whose lore I didn’t know and possibly being caught red-handed by other players. Even back in 2006 that was a ridiculous notion, but I think it says a lot about just how much more of a virtual world I was hoping/expecting to find in the game.

  11. Syl

    @Gilded
    That’s very true, Rift isn’t only well-timed but sorely needed. I see a problem with unhappy players who keep paying for Wow though; Blizzard are sporting their subs-numbers as if it was some sort of confirmation of what they’re doing in WoW. other devs too, must look at it and think that’s what people want if that’s what they’re paying for. a majority of MMO players do probably indeed only keep playing Wow for other people (for the community) today, but the bottom line and effect is the same for Blizzard.

    @Shintar
    I agree. I wonder how highly appreciated the imagination/fantasy or simulation aspect is among the average player though – I’m sure everyone enjoys the fantasy setting for example, but when it comes to having to play that way, many ask for more convenience. they don’t care for the ‘little things’ that make the game for us others.

    or to follow up on what Gilded said: maybe they just haven’t been properly introduced to it yet.

  12. Mhorgrim

    You know Syl, I agree with the mechanics portion of the posts here. I do miss certain things like flint/wood/ammo for hunters etc because it made you have to think a little more.

    I want to go out on a limb here though. There is a difference between wanting immersion (The Immersive player) and an RPer.

    Understand the underlaying causes of each.

    The immersive player will want a bit of “realism” in their gaming world. Things such as carrying the correct tools and having to travel distances to get from point a to point b, Having worthwhile fights where the few rare items again feel epic, etc. It gives you the immersion you crave without binding you to wondering about lore or specific ways of speaking etc.

    The RPer on the other hand requires both immersion AND a sense of self for the character they create. They WANT to tell a story of a hero on their own terms. They WANT to feel like they are REALLY that soul they created. This is why you see the long litany of fairly cookie cutter back stories (most sadly are of the tragic hero kind whic gets very very boring). Ther eisn’t anything wrong with this but it’s not for everyone.

    I sort of teeter between the two. To be honest, there are times when I am grinding for rep or JP or whatever, I don’t want to be bothered with long travel times. Then, there are those times I try to put my self into the shoes of who I am playing and getting down their motivations which ultimately are created by my heart/soul and inner drives whether good or bad.

    Ideally, a world should have interesting things to do, but more a sandbox and less a node to node for rewards. PArt of the problem I think stems from the fact that everything is gear based. That whole issue is a structural failure. AoC had that started, but as soon as their development team went to gear intrinsic rewards, the game failed.

    Just a couple of disjointed thoughts during my busy work day lol. Good article though!

  13. Max

    I agree with most of guys say

    but why the hate?

    the fact that so many counterstrike players are playing this game, can’t be a good sign”.

    I am CS player ,FPS ,RTS competitive MP is what I like . I naturally played pvp in mmos.

    I do miss virtual worlds. Because while MP FPS/RTS do provide excellent gameplay they have no persistence , I want conflict change and shape the world

    EvE would be my game if only the core gameplay wast so mind numbingly boring

    PvP brings its own set of problems, and like with pve current crop of games goes all the wrong ways to solve em

  14. Gronthe

    I am definately NOT “oldschool”, by anyone’s definition. I say that because I feel a lot of the same things you do in that I don’t think it’s a good thing, for example, that dungeons are only thought of now as “lootbags”, as you put it. That’s just one of many things that I’m beginning to frown on.

    I think Nils is right, we are at a tipping point, but money speaks a lot louder than voices most of the time, and until players start speaking with currency many of the perceived design flaws and unwanted features (unwanted by you or me or other) in MMO will remain because money is being made.

    It may be a cynical or over-simplified opinion, but these are just my observations from my point of view. If we really don’t like what’s happening in MMO’s, we need to stop paying for them. Until then, changes will creep along slower than we wish.

    I’m not saying devs will NEVER listen, but having been behind the scenes of many large corporations in finance meetings, profitability has a powerful hold on idealism.

  15. Syl

    @Mhorgrim
    Well met, Mhorgrim! :)
    (now was that opener already ‘rp’? hehe..). I absolutely agree with what you say, there IS a difference between the two types of players – that’s really what I meant to discuss in the article, too. I never saw myself as the RPer type, even if every now and then the border is very fluent. but these days, it seems that my kind is being pushed into the same corner, the things I want (and most here in this thread) are already “too much”, or not “gamey” enough. so I wonder what the future holds for us.
    and WoW was already heavily item-centric in vanilla, yep.

    @Max
    Don’t misunderstand me there; I always felt one of Blizzard’s biggest achievements was to win other gamers over to the MMO genre. from the PoV of a ‘niche’ player, it was remarkable how everyone would suddenly take so much interest in the genre. but it also says something about Blizzard’s new approach or this would never have happened. my friend was overly negative and stated it in a very b&w way – for me his remark simply stands for the overall worry of ‘classic rpgers’ that with all the players coming over from more “gamey” backgrounds (games that traditionally really arent about virtual worlds), that gamification will be ‘imported’.

    To me, that’s still too simplified though, I don’t see such a direct causality: after all, it’s not other gamers fault if Blizzard designed the game the way they did. at the same time, you have to wonder about the course of events since WoW launched: did WoW become what it is now because of that ‘mixed’ playerbase or was it all Blizzard’s plan from the start(?) it’s probably both. but as a developer, the main responsibility always lies with them, not you or anyone else. that’s my opinion, they should’ve known how to keep a balance and when to stop.

  16. Syl

    @Gronthe

    “If we really don’t like what’s happening in MMO’s, we need to stop paying for them”

    that is indeed a big issue. I already mentioned something similar to Gilded further up – Blizzard benefits from the fact that longtime MMO players are often very reluctant to drop the game, for social reasons, even if they might not enjoy it much (anymore). and that sends a very ambivalent signal, also to other developers.

  17. Nils

    Blizzard profits – and is profiting for a long time by now – from the fact that the competition is too stupid to fill market gaps.

    I said before: I feel like living in communism: The only cars around are yellow. Now, yellow is nice, but what about blue cars or red ones ?

  18. nugget

    Can you miss something you never experience?

    No. You can’t. You can’t even begin to know the experiential value of an experience you never had.

    You said you didn’t want to start playing MUDs.

    That, there, is a great illustration of not missing something you never experienced. More than that, it’s not having the experience with which to judge the quality of the thing you’ve never experienced.

    :(

  19. Syl

    @nugget

    Hehe, that’s partly true. but I do actually know MUDs and have looked into a few (mostly rp ones). also other more “text-based” fantasy adventures, like p&p and so forth, I’ve been exposed to a variety of things.

    MMORPGs directly go back to MUDs, and yet the difference for me is very big – if you grew up with videogames like me, you love them for being VIDEO-games. ;)
    game design and concept art are a very dear subject to me, so MUDs simply don’t deliver all I need for my personal enjoyment.

  20. Telwyn

    Regarding the ‘lootbag’ fate of dungeons I think to a certain extent even when I started on MMOs with WoW in 2007 I was already feeling disappointed with MMO dungeons.

    DDO is the only game I have played that felt like the dungeons were lovingly crafted. In WoW, even back in TBC, it was mostly copy paste monsters with the odd boss fight to break up the tedium. This isn’t about artwork, it’s about the general lack of interaction with the environment or any variety in gameplay.

    In DDO you have traps, levers, hard to reach areas, puzzles, locks etc. It’s old-school ‘RP’ style stuff whether you play it for the min-max gaming or for the “stop at every junction and /e peeks around the corner” style gameplay.

    In WoW you have very little of this. Poor Rogues may have had pick locks and disarm traps but they were seldom utilised in the actual design of dungeons themselves, despite the positive fact that you had skeleton keys and seaforium charges as craftable alternatives to always bringing a Rogue.

    That’s not to say DDO is my idea of the perfect game – the sheer blatant grind and min-maxing in that game horrifies me, but there’s a kernel of something good in there still.

    I certainly agree 100% with the sentiment of wanting more from the world I play in that an endless solo quest for gear….

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