The MMO is Not Just a Genre

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Published by Jim Sterling 6 years ago , last updated 1 month ago

(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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