Part II The Early Years
As mentioned in the first part of this article, Everquest was my first “real” MMOrpg. I had spent some time trying out various MUDS but they never really captured my attention. One day I got a phone call from the my oldest and the most consistent gaming friend who asked me if I had heard of an online game called Everquest. I had not but after a few minutes talking about it, I went to our local game store that night with him and we each purchased a copy. I still remember our first night in Norrath with clarity. We spent hours trying to get our starting characters who were of different races and thus started in different areas together so we could play together. After several failed attempts we finally decided to simply reroll as the same race so that we could at least start in the same place.
At last, standing together in our newbie armor (it was of course not real armor it was cloth armor or what we civilians call clothing and the only thing cloth will protect you from is sunburn) with our starting weapons (they could only be called weapons because they were somewhat pointed on one end) we stood in the same starting area and tried to decide what to do next. After facing down a few vicious rats, Skip decided that based on what he had read we wanted to be in a different “zone” for the best selection of low level quests and adventures. Since I had read nothing to prepare me for the game and he had an entire afternoon of reading under his belt, I bowed to his apparent wisdom and we sat out with visions of riches and adventure (or at least some better armor, maybe some of that rusted chain mail we had eyed so enviously on another player) . Quite possibly there might be dragons that needed slaying and lovely damsels in need of a rescue or three. The world was our oyster!
As it turned out it would not be the last time I blithely followed Skip under equipped and under prepared into harm’s way in the dark. Looking back now I wonder why it took me so many years to stop following Skip into situations where I was sure to end up in a cook pot. It’s just that he always sounded so convincing when reassuring me that he had read an post on some forum somewhere, and he knew exactly where we were going and that it would be a cake walk with gold and beer and hot chicks at the end of the rainbow.
Well the short of it is that we spent most of the next 3 hours being repeatedly killed, eaten and digested by lions on the plains of Karana. Apparently a lion’s appetite for level zero noobs is infinite, if not they would eventually have let us go simply because they were too bloated to chase and eat us for the 23rd time. It turned out that brandishing and even swinging our “starter” weapons proved to be even less effective than hiking our skirts and running. Apparently the lions were not at all impressed that our “starter” weapons were slightly sharp on one end. In the end we both had to get to bed because of work the next morning and though we had made no progress at all and had probably set some record for most deaths to lions in one evening we vowed to meet online again the next night and give it another try. Why? Because it was fun.
A lot of those early MMO days were like that. An entire evening spent dyeing, trying to recover your last corpse before it rotted and you lost all your gear and dyeing again and making little to no progress but having fun all the same. That’s not to say we never got anything done. We had plenty of great times and did not even join a guild for a long time. We just wandered around, the two of us, completing quests, getting better than cloth armor and in general having fun.
Compared to the MMOs we have today the progress was painfully slow, the frustrations were high and the game mechanics crude at best. And yet we had a blast! Despite corpse runs, no voice chat, no maps, no markets or auction halls and a complete lack of mounts to ride, we had a blast. Why? Maybe it was the newness of it. We had nothing else to compare it to, or very little. The number of MMOs to choose from back then could be counted on one hand with fingers to spare and I never remember hearing anyone back then talk about jumping to another game much less back and forth. Most of us simply picked one and stuck with it. Often our choice was based on what our real life friends played.
Over the next several years my list of gaming friends grew to include dozens of people I met online and I we had a blast playing together. I did not even belong to a real guild for the first year or so that I played, I simply got online and sent tells to some of those friends and there was always something to do. We talked occasionally about other games and by then you needed two hands to count the main stream MMOs that were out there. Some left to try these other games and most came back soon thereafter telling us tails of how the “other game” had faired. Few of us saw a compelling reason to switch. We were simply happy where we were. Again I can’t say that there was a reason to stay, just no compelling reason to leave a game we liked and knew well and were comfortable in.
Personally I first began to see the seeds of unrest in 2004. Maybe it was there earlier, but that is when I began hearing rumors of this new game called World of Warcraft. In development by Blizzard who had a sterling reputation among gamers it promised to be better than anything else out there. It adopted many of the most popular features of other MMO of the day and was the first game I also can remember being “hyped”. There was a real sense of anticipation leading up to the release of WoW.
It was around this time that my game of choice Everquest seemed to for the first time start making several class changes, altering bit by bit the roles and abilities that many of our age old classes had been known for. With each new expansion we began to see abilities being adjusted and I began to see some players become upset enough at the changes to either leave or roll other classes mostly because they did not like the changes made to their existing characters. With the release of WoW we saw for the first time a dramatic drop off of friends who went to try this new game and never came back. Many did come back but a good percentage were back and forth and then eventually just gone from our Everquest community.
Feeling this sting of lose SOE seemed to adopt a policy of emulating some of the newer games to appeal to the people whom they were losing. In a policy of streamlining many parts of the game. Corpse runs had been gone for some time but now there were ways to get around the loss of experience we had always suffered as a death penalty we didn’t even need certain classes to help rez our dead anymore we could simply pay an NPC to do the same thing. Gone were the days of needing a teleporting class to help us cross vast distances, there was the equivalent of mass transportation in the form of portals that did the jobs that at one time made a few classes very desirable. In short the games were becoming easier. I’m not yet prepared to use the word dumbed down as many of the changes were defiantly for the best. Things like auction halls, and various player markets meant we could sell goods without being on line. Mass transit type systems meant that non teleporting classes were no longer at the mercy of those who used to charge a fee to move them from point A to point B, and we had maps. On the other hand many of us found that from expansion to expansion classes were being morphed in ways that made them more or less valuable to groups and guilds alike.
People playing classes which had never been the best at any one skill but who were pretty good at several found themselves begging for groups who no longer wanted or needed them because changes in their classes or other classes had made them undesirable. This added to companies wanting us to buy 2 and even 3 expansions a year at 30.00 each plus our 15.00 subscription fee left many feeling like they were no longer customers so much as cash cows.
This general unhappiness led to more and more players that I knew deciding to try game after game that came out until eventually I did not see them anymore.
We began to see every MMO adopt a seemingly desperate drive for players by offering them more stuff, faster and easier. In the span of a few years we seemed to have moved from games that challenged, to games that gave the biggest shiniest bobbles the fastest. I knew people that were hitting max level and playing “end game” content in new games in mere months if not weeks. This was inevitably followed by complaints that there was nothing left to do and players bouncing back and forth between whichever games had new content that they could rush through which led to game companies releasing more expansions trying to feed their players appetites for fast progression. It was like a firestorm, self-sustaining and burning up content until new expansions sometimes did not even seem to mesh with previous content in the game. Many of us shook our heads as we were forced to wade into new content that was neither interesting nor related to any previous story line in our games. Eventually even I moved on from my beloved Everqeust out of frustration. At the risk of being overly dramatic it was heartbreaking for me. I realized that I had not been enjoying the game for well over a year but I was very close to the people in my guild and as an officer I felt like I would be letting everyone down if I did not log on every night and help with raids and recruiting. I was very close to many of those other players and had been for years. But at some point I just could not stand by any longer and watch my game change in ways that made it un-enjoyable for me. And like so many others before me, I said my goodbyes and I moved on.
To some this may sound like my own personal MMO gaming journal, but I have talked to a lot of long time MMO gamers and with some variations many of their experiences parallel my own. In a short few years we seem to have moved from a MMO world of limited choices with great contentment to a MMO world of many choices and much discontent.
Today you can read through the forum threads about any of the many new MMOs in development or recently released and the crowd quickly breaks down into a fight as vicious as any I have ever seen over politics or religion. Inevitably there are the base of “fanboys” who swear by their mother’s beard that this game will be the defining moment in gaming history, humbling all previous games. They are countered by the neigh sayers who can’t stand anything about the game based on the trailers and developer interviews, they have already decided that the game is useless and so is anyone who is willing to try it. Not being content to just not try the game, they feel compelled to log into the forums daily and call the fanboys idiots and explain to them in great detail the depths of their idiocy. The third and largest group, are those who have had their hearts broken and their expectations dashed so many times over the last few years that they are simply skeptical of anything that anyone says. Oh they hope that the new game in question will live up to at least some of the expectations but they don’t believe it ever will.
So what is the problem with the MMO situation as it stands today?
So many of us have become hardcore skeptics when we read comments from game studios like “we will re-define what it means to be an MMO” and “our combat system is unique and will exceed our players expectations” or “we plan to do away with the grind aspect and offer an ever changing, ever challenging experience for our players unlike any MMO before”
We have just seen too many games release over the last few years that did not live up to their own hype (Much less the spontaneous hype created by an overly enthusiastic fan base)
In the next segment we will take a look at some of the situations that have made such skeptics of most of us and try to figure out how we got here and if there is a cure for what ails us. In the meantime please feel free to share your experiences or comment on this topic with us here or on the show Saturday.
Show segment as aired live 14 July 2012
(The Good, the Bad and the Nerfed)
I’ve been intentionally out of the MMO scene for the last 6 months. Broken games and broken promises and broken guilds finally led me to a point of frustration that I could not overcome. I simply reached a point where I would rather stomp repeatedly on a large rusty nail than log in to my then current game for 3 hours of figuring out how to play now that my character class had been radically changed and trying to find something to do in a guild that had become a ghost town because 75% of the other members had left for other games. I’m still looking for my “next game” and several are due to launch in the near future that look to have some promise. And yet it occurred to me, I’ve been through this cycle before more than I would like to remember. I’ve also watched countless gaming friends and acquaintances do so even more often. Thinking about it for a while, I suddenly realized it all seems like a scene from the movie Groundhog Day. That’s because it is. Too many of us seem to be caught in this cycle of pre-release expectancy, release day euphoria, new game scramble and new guild introductions. This in turn gives way to post launch disappointment, content inadequacy, class choice remorse, balancing patch rage and ultimately new game yearning. It’s a vicious and for many an emotional cycle and each one costs us hundreds of dollars and likely thousands of hours of our lives. At the end we have little to show for it but a deactivated account and a feeling of loss or maybe even betrayal. If we are lucky we have made a new friend or two along the way but even that may not last if they move on to another game, or decide to stay with the game where you met while you move on. It’s like staying in touch with people you knew in high school, you intend to stop by and chat regularly but when you lead different gaming lives you often have little to discuss besides the inevitable “you should come play this game with me” and them saying the same to you.
So how as gamers did we get here?
I’ve been playing MMOs since the early days of Everquest. A daily player of 1 – 6 hours a day in games like Everquest, Eve Online, Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, and Warhammer Age of Reckoning, to name a few. Like a lot of online gamers I got my start in the late 70’s with what is today referred to as PnP or pin and paper gaming in games like AD&D and Mechwarrior. But my gaming career if you will started much earlier.
(queue up the way back time machine sound effect)
I remember a time when I actually used to juggle work and a family in the 80s and 90s to manage getting together with friends around a table for a precious 4-6 hours of gaming one night per week with maps and books and graph paper. Eating handfuls of pizza and other takeout while trying (unsuccessfully) to keep the books and papers free of food stains. Some of the best times of my life were spent huddled around a table trying to puzzle out some riddle or negotiate with a powerful warlord or slay a flame spouting dragon at the kitchen table. When the time came that our gamming out grew the limits of my kitchen table and became too loud for my wife to tolerate, we were relegated to my workshop where we set about the same tasks with the same gusto despite the lack of heat or air conditioning and questionable lighting. But with more than one talented Game Master in the group we never lacked for fun and unique adventures that saw us matching wits with undead overlords, over-fed underlings and over eager henchmen. We traveled the various planes of existence, saved cities, discovered worlds, started and ended wars, avenged the innocent, made a nice profit and in general kicked ass in every imaginable way. We had adventures that we still talk about years later. Oh there was death on our part, injury to mind and body and humiliations abounded. But in the end none of us ever vowed while packing up our pens and papers and dice at the end of the night that we would never ever play this stupid game again. On the contrary we could not wait to get to the next game night and pick up where we had left off or start a new adventure that one of us had been carefully crafting for the last 3 months.
Several of the members of our gaming group were early PC users and even worked with or on them in our daily lives, and I can remember sitting around on more than one occasion dreaming of the day when we could computerize our gaming experience. It would be so great to automate dice rolls of NPCs and display maps on a screen! How cool it would be to track the health and saving throws of all those orcs and kobolds, rust monsters and henchmen and somehow we would have an entire campaign on a computer dazzling our fellow players with all the marvels of this new computer age! We were a little sketchy on how exactly this was going to be done but we had every confidence that as computers and software advanced it would be so. Oh we all played computer RPG games like Wizardry, Ultima and Pool of Radiance, Might and Magic and such, but it was all single player and was really just a time filler until we could get together on the weekends for “real gaming”.
The eventual discovery by us of our first MMO Everquest seemed a dream come true! Now we could game together without having to be together! We could now adventure any night after dinner and still be on hand if our spouses needed us. Brilliant! We were at the dawn of a new age, we could play our games any time of the day or night someone else worried about writing the adventures and all was right with the world! It was a heady time indeed.
Fast forward to today. There are more MMO games than you can shake a stick at, MMORPGs, MMOFPS, MMORTS, MMO anything you can imagine. Countless servers host countless games in, on and from every continent and millions of fellow gamers are available to join us online 24/7/365. It all sounds like gaming nirvana, a veritable promised land of milk and honey for gamers. And yet join any voice comm channel or watch any public chat channel in any MMO out there and a sizable portion of the discussion sounds like “this game sucks so bad!” “OMG they nerfed me again” “I hate this game and want my money back” and “I can’t wait till game XYZ launches, I will be gone to play that and never come back to this game again”. Dozens of new games are launching each year in every genre imaginable all to great fanfare and expectation fed by game publishers and hopeful gamers alike. And yet a six to twelve months after launch half of the people who tried it out, are gone sometimes more. Most of whom have either moved on to try the next game to release or gone grumbling back to a game they say sucks and swore they would never play again while mumbling about dealing with the devil they know.
Why do we seem to live in an age where so many games despite dazzling graphics, tantalizing lore, sophisticated skill trees and revolutionary combat systems seem to suck so bad? Is it the game studios lying to us about what to expect? Is it the reality of limited budgets and ruthless deadlines? Is it a dumbed down player base? Is it the limitations of our current technology? A player base with a short attention span? What has made us a population of dissatisfied, grumbling resentful, skeptical, unhappy players who move to another game every 6 months always getting our hopes up that this one will be THE game, the one that fulfills all our expectations.
Over the next several weeks we will be exploring these and other possibilities in an attempt to explain the general discontent felt by a majority of MMO gamers today. Along the way we welcome any and all input from our listeners and readers. Share your stories, insights and opinions with us and maybe, just maybe at the end we will have some answers. At the very least maybe we will have a clearer understanding of what the question is.
Our discussion as aired live 7 July 2012