The real issue facing MMOs in 2012 and beyond

We’re getting ready to embark on our end-of-year journey with Massive Online Gamer, which means two big feature articles: the Year in Review and the Hot Games of [fill in next year] (working titles). Oh, and there’s some new MMO launching December 20 that I guess we should give some space to.

Like last year, I’ll be doing the Hot Games article while my colleague, Sean Kavanagh, does the Year in Review, so I’ll use this space to give my capsule review of 2011’s major theme. Last year, all the talk of the YiR was about everything going F2P and how that would continue in the future. While I think that’s still a valid topic, I think another, even bigger, topic for MMOs going forward is the general dissatisfaction with the in-game “business as usual” of leveling, raiding, and the overall grind.

As I alluded to in my TWIMMO #64 post-show post, I think Rift is a perfect example of the “good for what it does, but maybe not what we want” type of MMO that’s on the cusp of changing the genre but still clings a little too tightly to old conventions. I’ve seen a fair amount of dissatisfaction with the game of late, on message boards and news sites, and a lot of it revolves around the fact that, for all its innovative features, it’s still just another game where you spend most of your time doing instances, PvE and PvP, grinding out gear. (A recent episode of Gamebreaker.tv’s The Sanctum found that two of the three panelists hadn’t even closed a rift in months.) And it does a fabulous job of it, make no mistake — I just think that gamers are finally emerging from the haze and realizing that, deep down, that’s not what they really want.

Sure, some of them do, and some people will be happy repeating dungeons over and over and upgrading their gear until the end of time… right? Or have they just been conditioned by “the norms” of MMO gaming to believe that’s the only alternative? I’d find it hard to believe that any of those types of gamers wouldn’t love to play a game with infinitely unrepeated content and spectacular rewards that don’t take a month and a half to grind out. Sure, we’re not at that point, and maybe never will be, but games like Guild Wars 2 — if it lives up to its hype — are a nice first step.

The old-school “It took 30 minutes to walk to a dungeon in my day and we wiped 10 times and it took eight hours and we liked it” players will poo-poo players they see as “instant winners,” who just want the loot without putting sufficient effort (as they see it) into gaining it. But there’s a difference, I think, between beating content and repeating it over and over. If I beat the uber-boss, that’s a great accomplishment. I don’t need to beat him 30 more times to prove my manhood (or elfhood, or dwarfhood). Similarly, once I’ve found the dungeon once, am I made a better player if I have to ride to it every raid night? These are just timesinks, meant to keep us on the hamster wheel of grinding.

The only reason we repeat the same content over and over, and are happy to do it, is because companies want us to keep playing their games and, by extension, feeding them money. If there wasn’t a reason to repeat content, whether it be for gear, reputation, levels, etc., we likely wouldn’t keep playing. The move from subscriptions to F2P might mitigate this need somewhat, since it changes up the regular payment schedule and enables more players to (in theory) play for less money and allows for more flexibility in play time. But think about how long you’ve been playing for favorite MMO. For me, it’s 4 1/2 years. Is there any single-player game you’ve been playing for that long? The answer is probably “no,” and that’s because, even if it released regular DLC, you’d never have enough to do to occupy yourself that long in a single-player game. The thing is, you really don’t have that much to do over that span of time in an MMORPG, either — but you’re just now starting to realize it.

Blizzard gets it, sort of. Its efforts to release WoW content faster to appease a diminishing subscriber base, one that was largely dissatisfied with the “business as usual” approach to Cataclysm is a noble effort. But even if it could, Big Blizz can’t radically alter how WoW is played without running the risk of angering the current, still-significant, player base. That’ll be a job for Titan, possibly.

In fact, it might be too late for several MMOs in development, Titan included, to adjust to this new paradigm, and they might not have to. If Guild Wars 2 falls flat, then it’s back to business as usual. If it does succeed, however, dev teams will be scrambling to crack the code of its success and make game experiences in the same mold, but we probably won’t see the results for at least another two or three years. And in four years, we’ll might all be as tired of the “GW2 clones” as we are of the “WoW clones” as we were of the “EQ clones.”

I think we’ve all been fooled a little into thinking F2P is the big story to come out of the last couple of years, that it’s the biggest change that’s going to happen to MMOs. When we look back on these years (you know, in 2041, when we’re all playing Guild Wars 7), I think we’ll come to realize that the change in how we pay for MMOs will be dwarfed by the change in how we play MMOs.

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