Mobhunter: Are Massive Online Games Getting Worse?

One day in the city of Erudin, a young cleric of Quellious had a dream. He wanted to travel from his homeland of Odus to the faraway dwarven lands of Kaladim. It would be a long journey, one filled with unimaginable dangers. He had no way to teleport, no magic stones that shifted him from city to city with a touch, not even a reliable method to bind in the cities along his journey. With nothing but a few spells and a cracked staff, the cleric Ciric spent a week traveling across two oceans, the plains of Karana, the forest of Kithicor, and through the cities of Qeynos, High Keep, Rivervale, and Freeport. It seemed as though he had a lioness on his arse the whole way yet he survived his journey and to this day I still share his tale.

I will warn you ahead of time. This article will likely spawn more questions than answers. You won't learn where to get all of the shiniest treasures held within the Serpent's Spine. You won't learn what powerful dangers lurk in Ashengate. Today we're going to step back for a moment and consider the history and future of Massive Online Games.

Long ago I read an article entitled "Voice Chat in MMOGs? Not Yet, You Fools!" by Richard Bartle, the designer of the first multi-user dungeon back in 1978. The article was my first glimpse at some theories that new technologies and new advances in MMOs, in this case voice chat, might actually be more harmful to a game than helpful.

More recently, Bartle wrote another article entitled "Why Virtual Worlds are Designed By Newbies". Again I raised an eyebrow at some of the statements made. The article implies that many of the more recent improvements to MMOs might actually do more harm to the long-term benefit of the game than it will to help. Examples include instancing, death recovery, and instant travel.

I don't agree with everything in the article and I'm not sure the theory that short-term improvements to massive online games have done harm, but it did bring up some interesting questions.

When we look at recent games like World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, and the recent revisions of Everquest, we see a game with many improvements over first generation massive online games. We have teleportation stones, griffin rides, LFG windows, instanced dungeons, corpse summoning, PVP restrictions, no-drop loot, and many other features that have streamlined these games to widen the audience. Many of the rough edges are gone but perhaps it was those rough edges that made the game exciting in the first place.

No, I'm not waving the "SOE is dumbing down the game!" flag. Many of these improvements have made the game a lot more enjoyable to a lot more people. I can't imagine playing EQ without the corpse summoner, knowledge stones, or instanced dungeons. I like those features. Yes, a lot of players jumped over to the Progression servers to see EQ back the way it was back in the old days, and many of them came running back to the game we have today.

No improvement comes without cost, however. There is something lost for the ease of griffin travel in World of Warcraft. Unlike EQ's Knowledge Stones, a player must at least travel to a griffin master by foot before gaining the ability to fly on griffinback, but how much different would the world be if travel took far longer in Azeroth than it does today? How would we view the scope of the world? Would the game's slower pace result in stronger social ties between players in a group? Would travel itself be the primary source of adventure instead of the destination?

What of instancing? The convenience of a spawned world built for one specific group is strong enough that all three of the top fantasy MMOs in the U.S. include it. Yet what price do we pay for these conveniences? It is hard to find a feature that does more to break the metaphysical nature of the game than instancing. How clumsy do we feel when we try to explain instances using examples from real life? And what of the lost social opportunities? How many friends did you miss meeting simply because you never occupied the same dungeon?

The Everquest design team has moved away from instances with the past three expansions. In Prophecy of Ro, the result was all but completely disastrous. Static and instance zones alike see little use. Overland zones in Prophecy, Depths of Darkhollow, and Dragons of Norrath, were little more than travel conduits to the instances of these expansions.

The Serpent's Spine broke away from instances almost completely and with much more success. Well designed overland zones now host as many as three dozen players in each of the expansion's thirteen zones. The popularity of the zones sometimes results in complaints that Everquest is returning to its former overcrowded state, but how do such complains sound to SOE? Perhaps they sound like success.

Richard Bartle talks about the memories formed from massive online games and the catalysts for these memories. Players don't remember playing through scripted events nearly as well as they remember interactions with other players, especially the unpredictable ones. It is the sharp-edged rubbing of a MMO's population that creates the most dynamic and unique situations. When you remove those sharp edges and stick those players in smooth, clean instances where no one bumps elbows and no one gets hurt, that's when the life is removed from a MMO.

I say these words only as one theory. I'm not sure I believe them. The numbers for World of Warcraft subscribers prove them wrong. I don't know how many people played Richard Bartle's MUD but I'm guessing it wasn't ten million. I've spoken out against soloing as a basis for progression in a MMO, it would seem contradictory to the purpose of a MMO in the first place, but again the numbers prove me wrong. I enjoy WOW as much as the next guy and a lot of it has to do with the convenience afforded by soloing.

A few days ago Blizzard announced a new LFG tool for World of Warcraft to help players find groups and groups to find players. On the surface it appears to be a clone of the LFG window SOE added to Everquest a few years back.

I can't help but wonder if this tool is the right answer. Do we really need another widget? Will another UI box help us? Couldn't Blizzard have come up with something new or found a better way to direct players into groups and into content? SOE found a new way to get groups together in Everquest, they did it with good solid huntable and rewarding content. I'm guessing the Burning Crusade will have lots of that as well, I only wish they could have been a bit more creative about getting groups together than another UI box full of drop-down menus and tabs.

Every feature added to a MMO also takes something away. The smoother the world gets, the more common our experiences will be. Maybe this is what happened to EQ over the past few years. The game got smoothed out and streamlined and now everyone does monster missions until they join the high-end raiding game. What will a new window or a new portal stone do to the long-term future of a MMO? It isn't known, but we do know that nothing is free.

One day as a young paladin on a forgotten server, I stumbled into the dungeon of Befallen. I cut down a few skeletons, explored some broken rooms in a shattered temple, and soon I spotted a well. I peeked down the well. My footing slipped. Seconds later I found myself broken and ripped apart by ghouls twice as powerful than I was. A powerful cleric of Tunare, one of the unimaginable thirty second level, came to my rescue. He looted my broken corpse, cut down a troll shadowknight, and returned to the entrance of the dungeon with my banded mail and bronze mace. That encounter changed my whole view of Norrath for the rest of time.

What stories will the new adventurers of Norrath share?

Loral Ciriclight
17 October 2006