Setting the stage: My love/hate relationship with MMOs

Everything has a beginning.

My experience with MMOs began innocently enough. After relocating to yet another desolate fly over state as part of my job, I didn’t really know anyone outside of work, and I didn’t really care to. Rather than spend my money in local dive bars on Saturday nights, I spent them on my couch, blowing up my friends playing Rainbow Six 3 over Xbox Live. In some ways, it was like I never moved at all. It was the same group of guys getting together the same way we always did. The social experience was better than the actual game. It was my version of poker night.

Then, out of the blue, I got the bright idea that I needed to ditch my piece of shit laptop (which was good enough to run the Baldur’s Gate games on and not much else), and buy a REAL PC. As I was discussing this with one of my friends, he suggested I try out this new game called World of Warcraft that has just recently released. It was February of 2005…

I still haven’t completely forgiven him.

Fast forward to today. I haven’t played WoW in over a year. Cataclysm was less than enjoyable for me, and offered little after the new goblin car smell wore off. Looking forward I just see pandas and Pokemon, and it makes me physically cringe. All complexity has been stripped from the game, and even some of the tried and true mechanics that helped make it a juggernaut are really showing their age compared to other games in the genre. It still may sit at 10 million subscribers, but I think it has far more to do with people being creatures of habit and their need to preserve virtual friendships within the medium they all have in common, rather than the quality and current state of the game. I know I kept my subscription rolling long after I was tired of the raiding grind just to keep interacting with the people I enjoyed hanging out with.

I’ve enjoyed other MMOs outside of WoW in that time as well.

Warhammer Online still holds a special place in my heart because it had a PvP scenario where scoring a point meant setting off the fantasy equivalent of a tactical nuke that would wipe out both friend and foe in its radius, and because guarding the battlements of a keep in a game with collision detection was amazingly fun. There is nothing like slamming a shield into the face of another player and sending him off the edge of a ledge to his death; especially if that player was a healer and ended up being the first domino to fall in a failed assault attempt. It also introduced me to the murder ball style of PvP in which each team would try to control an object that slowly kills the person holding it.

Rift held my attention for a couple of months. I appreciated the dynamic nature of their world. Rift invasions were like the Public Quests I enjoyed in WAR, only far more frequent. Unfortunately, the world itself felt fairly generic. I didn’t know why I should care about what I was doing or who I was interacting with. I just knew that sometimes my map lit up with green swirls and arrows that meant invasions were happening, and other times the swirls and arrows would be red, purple or blue instead. I enjoyed the ability to mix and match classes and create functional hybrids. It was a breath of fresh air after the cookie cutter build design that WoW has, but it soon became apparent than a lot of this freedom of choice was just an illusion.

In December of last year, I was giddy with anticipation over the release of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and with good reason. First off… Star Wars isn’t exactly an intellectual property that requires a lot of explanation. If you are even remotely interested in science fiction, chances are you know more about Star Wars than you do about actual nations on our planet. Secondarily, it’s BioWare. I’ve been BioWare’s loyal follower since the days of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale. More recently, the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games have only reinforced my faith in their abilities as a developer (aside from the Mass Effect 3 ending, which is a whole other post). When you add those two things together, you should end up with the single best combination since chocolate and peanut butter or Tango and Cash. Unfortunately, I (and many others) believe that Electronic Arts exerted a great deal of pressure to release the game by Christmas of 2011 before it was ready. The game just wasn’t as robust or polished as it should have been. In early April they’re releasing Patch 1.2 that contains a lot of content BioWare is on record as saying they wanted in the game at launch, but only time will tell if it is too little and too late.

Don’t get me wrong. What SW:TOR does well, it does very well. The voice acting and emphasis on personal story was amazing. I identified with my bounty hunter far more after only a few days than I did any of my WoW characters after several years. Unfortunately, a lot of the end game PvE was far too simplistic and buggy and the end game PvP was either completely broken (Ilum) or suffered from other issues such as terrible frame rates in warzones or the faction imbalance making for nights of endless Huttball matches. As a casual game, something to be enjoyed so far as leveling all of the classes on both factions goes, I think it is probably worth the price of admission and the subscription. I’m just skeptical about whether or not the next major content patch will be enough to breathe enough new life into the end game to make it sustainable. As it stands, raiding is just stale.

And come to think of it, perhaps that is the underlying problem to all of this… Raiding is stale.

I look on the horizon to Guild Wars 2 – a game I will pre-purchase in April, and it doesn’t have any end game raiding at all. None. There are world bosses and huge dynamic events that will require the cooperation of dozens or even hundreds of people, but you don’t need to form into smaller, rigid groups in order to experience them. In fact, you don’t really need to group up at all for most of the content. You just wander the world and get into adventures… like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu. If something catches your attention, you are free to explore it. If someone needs help, chances are you’ll know it without the need for a giant, yellow exclamation point floating over their head. If you come across a group of people fighting for their virtual lives against a group of bloodthirsty bandits, you can just wade into the fray and help them. You’ll get full credit for your efforts without needing to join their party beforehand. There are five man dungeons, and there is organized PvP, but there are no raids – and therefore no need to adhere to some preset raid schedule and predetermined raid roster. I don’t need to set aside 2-4 hours a few nights a week in order to bang my head against the same static content. I can just log in and play. I don’t need to worry about if enough tanks or healers will show up on a given night because there are no tanks or healers in Guild Wars 2. Traditional roles are interwoven into each and every class so that you can fully experience any and all content regardless who is participating or what their chosen profession (class) is. The whole experience really looks like the true next generation in MMO design, one that frees you from the traditional grinds and gives you more reasons to play than simply to raid so you can get better gear to use on the next tier of raids.

I’m still learning about all that Guild Wars 2 has to offer, though I know it will be a subject of future posts. I just know that I can’t go back to old, static MMO design. I’ve passed my trials, snatched the pebble from WoW’s hand, earned my kick ass arm brands, and now must leave the temple of those traditions behind me – never to return.