Shawn Schuster’s recent article on Massively got me thinking about why so many people who ostensibly claim to love MMOs seem to hate every single one of them. He hits upon many points in his piece, but I think he doesn’t quite go deep enough, down to the fundamental core of why there’s so much MMO hate out there – I mean besides the “I can’t understand why you like something I don’t” attitude of the Internet.
Shawn says: “I imagine that most non-MMO-playing gamers who read this site do so because they once loved an MMO and are looking for a replacement experience, or they’re intrigued by the thought of living in a virtual world with hundreds or thousands of other real people but just haven’t found the one that’s best for them.”
That comes close to the point, but I think you have to go further back than just people’s first MMO. I think the issue stems from our experiences with tabletop role-playing games and, to a lesser extent, other games. I’d guess that just about everyone over the age of 25 or so who played MMOs played Dungeons & Dragons or some other RPG at one time or another. You might have enjoyed your play group, composed of roughly three to eight people, and if someone had pitched to you the notion of doing the same thing, but in a fully 3-D computer world, with the potential to interact with thousands of people from around the globe, you’d have gladly cut off a leg to do it. (Not an arm – you need both to work the keyboard and mouse.)
As Helmuth von Moltke the Elder once (almost) said: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Or, to put it more plainly, no plan survives contact with actual human beings.
On their most basic level, I think everybody loves the concept of an MMO: running around a vast, open world, fighting epic monsters (and sometimes other players), amassing treasure, and generally getting to be a fully realized, beautifully rendered fantasy/sci-fi/gunslinging badass.
Once you get beyond that basic ideal, however, everyone’s tastes diverge and nobody is ever fully satisfied with the final product. Whether it’s the PvP, or the questing, or the dugeons/raids, or even the basic feel of the combat or the aesthetics of the world, there’s going to be something you don’t like, even in an MMO you play a lot.
This is where the comparison with the tabletop RPG breaks down. You don’t like something in your D&D group? Ask the DM to change it. The rules say dwarves can’t be wizards? No big deal, you can probably work something out. Your campaign seems too light-hearted? OK, add some drama or a big war or some other form of “darkness.” Tired of campaigning in the same area? March across the continent and start up new adventures somewhere else.
The last time I ran an RPG – GURPS, for the record – I’d end each session by asking my players, in general terms, what they wanted to do next week. If they said something like, “hunt down the evil wizard,” I’d prepare next week’s session – or next month’s bunch of sessions, if I thought it would be a long hunt – around searching for clues, dealing with the wizard’s henchmen, or maybe putting together a stronghold where the wizard was holed up.
Sure, it’s not perfect, and you’re still going to have personality conflicts, rules bickering, and other issues, but an RPG is still much more personal, and you have a much greater impact over what form it takes. An MMO isn’t like that. Yes, players have some input, but resolution is typically slow, when it comes at all, and all too often the response to the notion that the devs aren’t giving you what you want is that they’re “clueless” or just “don’t care.” The devs aren’t making a game to satisfy three to eight players; instead, they might be trying to satisfy three to eight hundred thousand players or more. And we all know how that tends to go.
What it comes down to is that Shawn’s right when he says “If you hate the idea of an MMO, can’t stand the people who play MMOs, and spend most of your free time putting down every new MMO on the market, you might actually not like MMOs.” And the anger and frustration comes down to the notion that most people who are in that situation don’t understand why they don’t like them. They’re tabletop RPGs come to life, and you love the concept, but you just don’t like the execution.
Yes, there are some unquestionably bad MMOs out there; I’m not saying that every one of them is just fine, and you’re the problem. We could also go on for hours about how MMOs were good “back when I first started playing them,” and everything that comes out today is crap, but that’s a different conversation.
Let’s go back to your D&D group. What if it was really like an MMO? What would it be like?
- In addition to your dungeon master, you have five players. The week you’re planning to raid the orc lair, one player can’t make it. So you find a random guy on the street, invite him into your house, put up with him for a few hours, and play the game. Because you need five people for tonight, see?
- What about content? Your DM says, “Sorry guys, I don’t have anything new this week. We’ll have do the same thing we did last week.” And you do it every week for three or four months.
- Your characters are all level 10. One of them dies. The replacement character must start at level 1 and be vastly inferior to everyone else for months.
- Your group wants to visit a far-off city. The DM says, “Nope, and because it’s so far away, I won’t be able to come up with content for it for at least three years.”
You would never do any of these in a D&D game, and you don’t have to because it’s custom-tailored for you and your group, But you deal with it in an MMO. And some folks who expect that personal, custom-tailored D&D-style experience absolutely cannot stand it.
That, I think, is what gets to the heart of why so many people hate so many MMOs – they’re simply not the experience they’re looking for. They want a smaller, more personal game, something they have more control over, than the large, sprawling, hundreds-of-other-people-ruining-my-fun games that many MMOs are.
Sandbox-style games arguably do a better job of simulating a wide-open, personally tailored world experience than theme parks, but even they have limits, imposed by computer code and seemingly impassionate devs. Soloers are similar; if they can eliminate the difficulties of dealing with random people, like in my first bullet point above, that at least removes one downside of the medium.
I said a while back that MMORPGs are not tabletop RPGs, in regards to how developers should approach them, but that also holds true for players. Sure, there are some dogs out there, but I think part of why we get hyped up over upcoming games is because we think and hope they’ll be like our old D&D-style experiences and then are shockingly disappointed when they’re not, every time. Our expectations are simply not in line with what it’s actually possible to deliver. There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations, and game companies will often try to pass off their upcoming product as the greatest thing ever, but a little reservation about what we can realistically expect should go hand-in-hand with our excitement.