Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, August 26, 2020
MMORPG without the MMO part

I've been watching High Score on Netflix, a documentary series on the history of video games. And one thing that becomes clear when you look at all those games from decades of video game history is that due to technical limitations those games were frequently quite limited in scope. You did just one thing in that game, e.g. shooting space invaders. Most of the stories in High Score are about the early days, in the previous millennium. But the games I am playing now are very different from those early games. They haven't just acquired prettier graphics, but also have much grown in scope. And that is especially true for MMORPGs and "open world" games.

I just started playing Assassin's Creed Odyssey, after finishing Horizon Zero Dawn, following a recommendation from a reader. For me, this type of game scratches the itch that is left from me basically abandoning the MMORPG genre. I explore a world, level up a character, manage loot and resources, craft, do quests, battle monsters, visit dungeons, and all that jazz. My gameplay experience is basically indistinguishable from playing a MMORPG in solo mode. Come to think of it, the "MMO" part of MMORPGs frequently just caused more problems than it was worth, from overloaded servers to guild drama to gankers. I don't miss it much!

I don't claim that this will apply to all previous MMORPG players. It basically depends on your player type. As I always tended to be mostly an explorer, the switch to offline games has advantages for me. I can play Horizon Zero Dawn for 60 hours, then decide that I've seen everything I wanted to see, and move on to the next open world to explore. If your player type is socializer or killer, the part that interested you in a MMORPG can't be filled by an offline game. Nevertheless, the killers also moved on, to MOBA and Battle Royale games. I don't know where the socializers hang out these days, maybe Facebook and Twitter and not in a game at all anymore.

It makes me wonder whether the promise of MMORPGs, to be all things to all player types, was untenable, just an illusion. Have MMORPGs been a peak, the widest scope offered in a single game ever, and we have moved on to games with narrower scopes since?

I watched an episode of Lucifer from the latest season on Netflix yesterday. One of the suspects' alibis was that he was leading a raid on the Lich King in Northrend at the time of the murder. Kudos for the writers having done their research, the character was quite believable and didn't spout any nonsense about MMORPGs. But in 2020 it wasn't just the WoW expansion that was all wrong, but the whole idea that this was how gamers spent their evenings these days felt outdated.

I think it's the idea that you can define an entire demographic with the catch-all term "gamers" that's outdated. It might have worked once, in the way "pop fans" worked in the very early 1960s, but we're all "gamers" now. You have to be a bit more specific than that.
Bhagpuss is right about the gaming market being so diverse and so mainstream now that the term gamer is almost redundant. You may as well say "human". However we shouldn't forget that there was diversity before the rise of mmorpgs too. Back in the early 2000's gamers who played shooters didn't really talk to gamers who played rpgs who didn't talk to gamers who played sim games. One astonishing thing about mmorpgs in general and WoW in particular is that for one glorious moment in gaming history all of these different types of gamers came together to play in the one virtual world. I remember a forum founded by Quake players back in the day where people pretending to be elves in fantasy games were a topic of derision. Then early in 2005 five something weird happened and all of these hard core shooter fans were talking about Wow and Guilds and raiding.

You may or may not be aware that AC Odyssey is an example of what is called the "Ubisoft Open World formula" and it has been used by many many modern games made by Ubisoft and others (Assasins Creed, Far Cry 3, 4, 5 ..., Batman Arkham, Shadow of Mordor, Watch dogs, Just Cause etc..). It is a great type of game to lose yourself in for a few days or a few weeks because there is always some new quest to do or some new corner to explore. However the formula gets repetitive when every game does it and there is a growing backlash against that style of game. An interesting next step might be games like Destiny 2 or The Division which are online games with drop in co-op. They are like a half way house between mmorpgs and single player games.
I can't stress enough how much you will love read dead...and I am looking for to the posts....
A lot of other games have integrated social elements. In Fortnite, for instance, not only can you socialize in an open lobby while waiting for a match, there are actually non-combat maps where you can just hang out with other people, chat, watch a movie... there really aren't walls between different genres like there once were.

I'm a social gamer, but I just hang out, as you said, in Twitter and Discord chatting with people. It works for me. Sometimes I game :-)
I don't think the "promise" of MMOs was broken or even that it is untenable conceptually.

Simply put, WE collectively moved on. In the heyday of WoW, there was no widespread Facebook. Forums and IRC and AOL chatrooms were a thing, but for many people these early MMOs were their first experience with being able to interact with people remotely, in a unique virtual space. That we could cooperate to achieve something difficult from thousands of miles away was novel. And don't forget that in those days (in the US at least), it was still extremely uncool to let anyone know you even played videogames. So there was excitement in even talking about games while inside a game.

It's 2020 now, though. I don't know many people who even like social media anymore. The MMOs have not really changed at all - they are still fulfilling the same "promise" they had 15+ years ago. It just is no longer what we are looking for.
You might want to try Watch Dogs 2 as well. It is easily my favorite Ubisoft title, and luckily one I got to thoroughly enjoy due to its moments where it breaks the Ubisoft mold. I've been an Ubisoft fan long enough to have hit critical burnout. AC Origins is a game I wish could love, but because I've played every single AC prior it all I can see is Ubisoft's cynical design scheme behind the emerald curtain. That's a great genre, Ubisoft just needs to try and move it in new and interesting directions, and they tend to do this in very slow, methodical steps over time, sticking as closely to what they already know works rather than risk anything. See, for example, the Far Cry series, where you get to play the same game over and over again in slightly different graphical variations.
I'm one of those socializer player types. I played my MMO's for the role playing. The last year and a half I have played daily Conan Exiles on a dedicated role playing server. That game gives me all the building blocks to live out a virtual life like no MMO has been able to do. Since I got hooked I haven't played anything else. Of course the social aspect about it makes that I want, but also should, log in daily. Life rolls on. People depend me. etc.
Maybe I'm an exception, but I think quite a few socializer MMO players went to survival games that are not so much about pure survival, but more about building a life.
"I don't know where the socializers hang out these days, maybe Facebook and Twitter and not in a game at all anymore."

I can answer that: we're still around. For people like us, where friends matter more than which game exactly we play, it's not that important to move on. (*1)

Just to look how i spent the evenings of the last week:
- Friday my wife and me did missions in ESO, along with some chatter. Late at night i spent some time with a friend in Deep Rock Galactic. (*2)
- Saturday I spent the evening (till very late night, actually) with friends playing a pen and paper RPG. (*3)
- Sunday i filled in a gap in the trial group of my ESO guild. (*4)
- Monday we (my wife and me) spent most of the evening with my ESO guild, re-decorating the guild hall.
- Tuesday was another Deep Rock Galactic evening.
- Wednesday ESO with my wife again.

It's really the question of what you want from your game. For me the social aspect matters more than the game, even when i spend an evening filling in gap in a trial group or even leading a guild event group, i don't do that for the "awesome loot", but for the fun of hanging around with people.

Based on that i can also say: i have no idea if the mentioned Lich King in Northrend still is content people do. I stopped playing that game over 15 years ago. (So you can calculate how long it managed to keep my interest. ) But the mere thing of leading a raid is still happening. Considering that our guild over the last 18 months grew from having one normal difficulty tour every week and a veteran one once a while to having three organized trial tours of different difficulty per week, along with other guild events, shows me that either our guild is the absolute unique snowflake, or people are still interested in this kind of content and in guild activities.

So at least for me, the described activity per se does not seem outdated at all. It's what people still do. It is you who has moved on, for good reason. The whole "playing an MMO all solo" always was a bit of internal contradiction. I always found that when i wanted to play alone, other games offered me a better experience than any MMO. But for those who really like to play on the social side, the MMO still is the best option. While the game of choice and the most up to date content of the game can change in the run of time, the basic idea of playing together stays the same.
*1: We still take a look at other games. But indeed, once we settled and found our community, we migrate much slower than other kinds of players. Even when looking at other games, it's often just a split of time, dabbling around here and there at off-times, but returning to the traditional game at the prime time, when the friends are around. Actually switching the game is a lot of effort and doesn't happen often. (FunCom had to work really hard to make us leave TSW and move to ESO. ) so you usually still find us in those games where we formed our community.

*2: Not an MMO, but an awesome COOP game. If you have any friends who like just sometimes play coop games, check it out! The setting is whacky (dwarves in space, mining on a rock planet, using all tools, from pickaxe over flamethrower to plasma launcher to fend off hostile flora and fauna), the gameplay is fine when playing along and utter fun when playing with friends. I very much recommend it to anybody sometimes playing online with friends.

*3: Due to Covid 19, we now play over Roll20 and TeamSpeak. It's not the same as everybody being at the table, but it's better than nothing.

*4: Trials are ESOs equivalent of the WoW raid. In the given case it was our guilds Sunday event, where we go for normal difficulty, giving new members the chance to learn in an easier environment. Those who are interested can then also join our guilds veteran and hard mode trial tours, but we have plenty of people who are more than happy to play trials in normal difficulty and never sign up for anything above that. Hardcore WoW raiders might go like "but it's only 12 people instead of 40". But it's 12 people i actually know and like, instead of 40 people, some of which i don't really know and/or just arrange with to get through the content.
I feel like streaming has really opened the door for the socializers. Sure there is some pretty toxic big name streamers with the toxic chats to go with them, but I am amazed at the conversations I can have watching streamers with just a few viewers but playing the games I am interested in. I've had more meaningful conversations in streamer chats on Twitch in the last couple of years than I have had in any game I can remember. There is something to be said about watching someone else play a game and having a conversation about that game/genre.
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