Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, June 15, 2021
Massively Multiplayer as a Downside

My observation of massively multiplayer online RPGs over many years has allowed me to learn certain fundamental similarities of massively multiplayer games in general. The attraction of these games is the interaction with other real people; basically other people end up being "content" for your gameplay experience. The consequence of that is games in which the developers have very little control over the quality and quantity of this "content".

The number of players of a massively multiplayer game follows predictable patterns. There is an early rush, followed by a decline. Some games manage to bring out a steady stream of updates and expansions, keeping up player numbers for years. But there are very few games in which there aren't some problems at first caused by too many players rushing in (servers overloaded, login queues), and later there are other problems with there being not enough players around.

There is also some sort of curve describing the "quality" of any given player over time. Players start out as curious n00bs, and then over time get better at the game, plus they accumulate whatever power progression the game offers over time. But then at some point they get bored of the game, which results in them not caring about consequences anymore, which can result in some quite bad behavior.

While players generally *want* games in which they have some impact on the open world, both the fact that players leave the game, and the fact that they might behave badly when bored, forces developers to limit the impact of players. Ironically developers need to limit positive impact of players on the experience of other players, in order to limit negative impact. We can't have player run cities full of life, because they turn into ghost towns over time. We can't have unlimited PvP, because that turns into ganking.

As much as AI and NPC have their limitations, the quantity and quality of them can be constant. In the end, a bazaar full of NPC merchants ends up being more fun over time than a player-run version. PvE gives a more reliable combat experience than PvP. For the player as a customer, a massively multiplayer game is a risk, and a limitation: It is unwise to join such a game much later in its life cycle, because being a n00b in a game full of grizzled veterans frequently isn't all that great. Personally, seeing that a game relies on other players as content these days is a turnoff for me. I prefer single-player games, because they tend to improve over time with patches and additions, while multi-player games frequently get worse over time.

I've never cared about the "social" aspect of these games. To me, a MMO is just an "online" single player game where I occasionally need to group with some random player to keep progressing (example: questline dungeons). Contrary to the vast majority of gamers I love the "online" feature. I don't play video games when I travel so I don't need to be always online. I like the fact that I can't "cheat" my progress/achievements and I am forced to keep playing (and/or getting better at the game) if I want to reach a certain goal (more money, more xp, more loot, more achievements, etc).

Not being able to cheat lets me enjoy the game for a longer time. I occasionally reinstall Diablo III or Path of Exile to play for a few days, until I get bored (usually when I hit a wall and I can't stand wasting my life on endless grind). If I had the option to cheat I am sure I'd never play them again. That's what happened last week with Grim Dawn: I hit a wall, so I cheated my way to victory. At that point, the incentive to keep going on was gone. Forever. And I uninstalled the game with zero desire to go back to it.

Every single time I started cheating in a game (Cheat Engine) I ruined it forever. And there is no turning back, in my opinion. Sooner or later you will start cutting corners to get a "better experience". So, in the end, the "online only" limit is a good thing for my playstyle.
I think most online games these days have hit upon a more reasonable compromise as more and more people tire of the massively aspect, having exhausted the novelty and having been exposed to the negative downsides at least a few times more than they'd prefer.

That is, providing options. Solo singleplayer is possible, as well as being able to multiplayer with either a chosen set of players - likely already friends or acquaintances outside of the game - or a random set of players.

The only thing really lost is the ability to organically develop friendships and relationships with random strangers over time, because of the loss of world persistence/constancy where such people keep bumping into each other frequently over the course of some time.

But since most people already have digital social networks outside the games these days, there is correspondingly less intrinsic interest in-game to develop those random stranger relationships. So instead the likelihood of hostile not-my-tribe interactions increases. Random bumping into strangers then becomes a less desired occurrence than before, and may even be designed out as a result.

One could still add in some pressure in the game to encourage said random stranger relationships - usually because they are required for progress in some game system or another - but players have gotten savvy to the artificiality of such constructs these days too. A decent amount of shallow or workaround behavior can surface, alongside the desired stranger-to-friend relationship scenario.

Ultimately, I think a lot of games have wondered whether all this effort to massage random stranger social connections is really necessary at all or worth the amount of time invested. Far easier to just define it as not an important criteria and let players play with the already known people they want to play with instead.
Eve online is not for everyone but I guess it remains the poster child for long running player created content. It certainly experiences some of the issues you describe and the game even encourages ganking but it has bucked the trend in terms of player populated cities declining. I suspect that is due to the richness of Eve's player driven economy which for many is the real heart of the game.
Jeromai said: "a more reasonable compromise is... providing options". But that isn't a compromise, really. It's more giving up the concept of an actual MMORPG in which persistent characters mattered.

That may be the way the market has gone. At least I was there when MMORPGs existed.
There's truth to the notion that MMOs once provided a means of building communities, but now those communities are more easily built and found outside the game, and then they pick the games they want to pursue collectively instead (at least, that's what my wife's online experience seems to be; and most of her long time friends initially met in WoW even though none of them play it anymore).

Meanwhile, my experience is that I still play Destiny because it mostly lets me play a multiplayer game as a solo experience (mostly). I'm Gen X whereas my wife is an early Millennial so while she grew up seeing online friendships as a normal thing, I do not, and never have, so those games which can diversify their content enough to give me what I want without being forced to play content designed for other types of players will keep me and thus make more of my money.
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