The MMO is Not Just a Genre


(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

Ever since World of Warcraft, the term “MMO” has carried with it a certain  set of expectations. In fact, when we talk about MMOs these days, World of Warcraft is indeed the first game we think of, and often the only game we think of. Many MMOs have released since Blizzard’s unparalleled success in the market, but few have stayed the distance and none have toppled the giant. The problem is, the world of MMOs post-Warcraft isn’t quite the same world it was before Warcraft, when the term “MMO” meant more than, “Plays just like World of Warcraft.” Nowadays, as developers have tried to beat the market leader by being the market leader, the industry has turned MMO into a very standard genre, as opposed to a delivery method. This, I feel, is the entire problem with the MMO market.

When you look at the most successful post-WoW MMOs, you may notice that they all look and play the same way. Nowadays, MMO as a term isn’t used to describe a massively open world full of people living out all kinds of fantastical lives. Nowadays it means, “A role-playing game with other people playing a role-playing game in the digital vicinity.” It’s all about taking quests from a guy surrounded by twenty other players, collecting five Dusk Fangs from the Shadow Pigs, and occasionally teaming up to beat some kind of gigantic boss. And that’s all it’s about. Ostensibly, in games like The Secret World and Star Wars: The Old Republic, you’re not playing a “massive” open RPG. You’re not exisiting in a living,  breathing world where you can live out any crazy fantasy. You’re playing what could easily have amounted to a single-player game with separate multiplayer components, and you’re expected to pay for it. And really, if you’ve played one modern MMO, you’ve played them all. Secret World feels just like The Old Republic, but with a different paint job. Both of them feel just like Rift. It’s all the same to me, because MMOs are no longer about huge worlds that boast different experiences — they’re about linear RPGs with other players hanging out in the background.

I have a friend who was big into Star Wars Galaxies during its glory days. Only recently he was regaling me with tales of his adventures — none of which ever involved combat. This man was no rebel fighter, no imperial soldier, no bounty hunter. At first, his entire life was that of a merchant. He’d set up his own store on Tattooine and became the premier salesman of low-level items for starting players. This made him some good cash for a while, before more players outgrew his wares and a purveyor of higher quality goods took all of his business. Sitting on a fat pile of cash with no idea what to do next, he sought instead the life of a dancer. Entertainers in SWG could earn cash by dancing for other players to raise their energy levels. However, he wasn’t content to just dance. He wanted to be the best. So it was that he arranged, with a group of other players, to form Star Wars Galaxies’ first boy band — complete with coordinated dance routines. After becoming quite well known, incredibly rich, and addicted to drugs, the band eventually split. It was one Hell of a ride, and it was all done without combat. It was just a life in the Star Wars universe.

Compare that story to Star Wars: The Old Republic, where players are tied to one of six combat-focused classes and pretty much have to follow a very standard role-playing game storyline in order to get anywhere. In the modern MMO world, you don’t get stories like my friend’s Star Wars Galaxies biography. The freedom to engage with a world at multiple levels, from great leaders of players to humble shopkeeps, is something that has become totally lost in a market of cookie-cutter MMOs that stripped away so much life from their worlds in order to provide the same experiences. The ambition feels like it’s been missing for a long time, the sense of being able to live a life, to do anything, is something we don’t even have the illusion of anymore. When I’m a Sith inquisitor, standing around an imperial soldier who’s fixed in place and surrounded by twenty other Sith inquisitors, I don’t feel like I’m in a living open world. I know they’re all there, experiencing the exact same thing I’m experiencing, performing the same dreary tasks I’m performing. If anything, the inclusion of other players doing the exact same stuff I’m doing makes the world feel more artificial and game-like than any single-player RPG. That should defeat the entire creative purpose of an MMO (though obviously not the financial purpose which, let’s face it, is what these studios are in it for).

Recently, Zenimax Online announced the long-rumored Elder Scrolls MMO that fans had been expecting (and partially dreading) for years. It promised a traditional Elder Scrolls experience, a true game in the same mold as Oblivion or Skyrim, but with other players populating the world of Tamriel … and is that what we’re getting? Is. It. Fuck.

I saw The Elder Scrolls Online in action during E3 and — lo n’ behold — it looked exactly like every other MMO in the market. Third-person, with an art style that didn’t resemble The Elder Scrolls at all, the game could easily have been mistaken for a less colorful World of Warcraft. The exact same type of combat system is in, far removed from what we’re used to in Elder Scrolls games, there are the same quest layouts, the same multiplayer interactions, the same everything we’ve seen a dozen times before from other MMOs. This is the game that truly typified the problem with the MMO genre — it’s being regarded as a genre now. The belief that being an MMO means you have to adhere to a specific template is what’s dried the market of all fresh experiences. When Zenimax Online promises a true TES experience and bold-facedly presents something that looks just like WoW, it’s clear that developers regard MMOs not as simply massive open worlds, but as very specific RPGs with a very specific set of rules.

There’s no reason why The Elder Scrolls Online can’t be first-person. There is no reason why combat can’t be fully real-time. There’s no reason why it can’t look like Skyrim, but with other humans populating the world, living as blacksmiths, settling down with wives, and being part of the universe. The only barrier to this kind of game exists fully in the heads of the developers.When you say MMO to anybody now, they think only of it as a genre, not as a foundation, not as a delivery method. They see it as a blueprint that must be followed to the letter.

More developers need to embrace the idea that MMOs can be more than that. The Elder Scrolls Online shouldn’t just be World of Warcraft with cosmetic TES flavors. The Old Republic shouldn’t be World of Warcraft with lightsabers. We should have more attempts at First-person MMOs, real-time MMOs, MMOs where people can live whole lives without ever having to pick up a sword or a gun. Actual worlds, with all sorts of things to do, rather than linear single-player campaigns with nothing to do but wait for expansion packs when you’re finished. MMOs used to have the potential to become self-sustaining environments, fueled by player interactions. Now they expand only at the whim of the developer. There’s no room to evolve anymore, because everything follows a set routine.

The MMO is not just a genre, and we’d have some far better games to choose from if developers embraced that notion.

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10 Comments on The MMO is Not Just a Genre

David

On August 10, 2012 at 10:16 am

Well said, Jim!

Ingvar

On August 10, 2012 at 11:57 am

Hear, Hear!!

ChupacaBro

On August 10, 2012 at 12:11 pm

From your lips to Odin’s beard.

Thomas Sunderland

On August 10, 2012 at 12:37 pm

To be honest, I always wanted to play on Galaxies but when it was popular, I was only young and didn’t have much money to play with. Now that I do, I regret not nagging my parents to pay for a subscription. Galaxies really is the type of game that I expect MMOs to be.

xeserox

On August 10, 2012 at 12:40 pm

This is one of the many reasons why i played Eve-Online for 7 of the 10 years it’s been around. It’s an open world sandbox game that you can do just about anything in. I started off as a miner for one corporation, cutting asteroids and hauling millions worth of ore and minerals. Then i turned my eyes to being in small roving gangs of frigate pilots, looking to see who was foolish enough to come into our sector of space. From there, an industry mogul selling weapons and ships to the opposing sides of the same war, bilking them out of billions… and then finally a full fledged mercenary, killing who ever needed to be killed, for the highest possible price.

I enjoyed every minute of it, but it’s sad that games like this are long gone. Ultima Online is celebrating 15 years this year, and they are one of the few that has stuck to what they started 15 years ago, just like what Eve-Online started a little under 10.

Freakydemon

On August 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm

Well the MMO space is diversifying of lately, Planetside 2 MMOFPS, End of Nations MMORTS and you got the older space sim EVE. So I think the next generation MMO’s will be more than just a big RPG, hopefully. GW2 and the like are of a dying breed.

Zach

On August 10, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Three things:

1. I am completely and utterly sick of people using MMO to mean MMORPG. It creates a stigma that makes people think that no other type of MMO can exist. We will not get MMO-First-Person-Shooters or MMO-Action-Adventures or MMO-Puzzle-Platformers until people stop immediately associating with having MMO mean Role-Play-Game.

2. My own person experience of Star Wars Galaxies was also non-combat. My father having played as a smuggler decided to bring me into the fold as a legitimate in-game business partner. We made money as a small shipping company. He would purchase and transport items to other players between planets and I was a planet side courier on a speeder bike who would brave the dune-sea of Tatooine or the like to transport goods from one major city to a player across the world map.

3. For anyone interested Star Wars Galaxies is still running on a series of private servers with almost 50 thousand people still playing it and it’s completely free. An added bonus is that it’s before the terrible game breaking patch that allowed you to select Jedi as a starter occupation. Located at http://www.swgemu.com

Almier

On August 10, 2012 at 1:44 pm

Agreed, this Elder Scrolls MMO is ridiculous.

Leo

On August 10, 2012 at 3:54 pm

Been saying exactly the same as this for ages now. MMORPG developers just don’t bother innovating any more – they just copy and paste WoW and hope for the best. Logistically, this makes so little sense; why, as a longterm WoW player with years of invested gametime, would I jump ship to another game that is already 2 years of patches away from even coming close to what WoW already offers?

And your comments on SW:OR are right on the money – the game is basically a single-player game with added MMORPG , and it just doesn’t work. They should’ve made KotOR III instead, which is, like, what everyone wanted. Did anyone ask for KotOR to go online? Nah.

And yeah, TES Online will just be another one that goes F2P within a year, but whatever. It will take a very bold and courageous developer to make a MMORPG that innovates and *improves* on the formula of WoW before things change… but I honestly don’t know if/when that’ll happen.

beema

On August 14, 2012 at 11:25 am

Excellent article. This highlights one of the reasons I don’t have much interest in MMO’s. I don’t want to play a subscription based generic RPG where I just grind and go on raids and neverending cookie cutter quests. If there was something more like what you described of your friend — well that sounds insanely interesting. Then the only hump I would have to get over is my fear of it consuming my entire life.