To MMORPG Or Not To MMORPG, That Is The Question: Commandment 1

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To MMO or Not

Saying you’re thinking about trying out a MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) is akin to saying, “I think I’ll start a crack addiction today.” Well, maybe its not all that bad. Certainly the media has overblown the woes of ex-Everquesters and WOW (World of Warcraft) fanatics who flushed their jobs or marriages down the toilet for more “raid time,” but there are a few things to consider before getting knee deep in all the virtual hack ‘n slash fun.

Being an ex-WOW addict, an ex-Everquest 2 addict, an ex-Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) addict, and a casual user of a myriad of other MMORPG’s has instilled in me certain commandments that should always be followed before shelling out that monthly fee…

.: The MMORPG Commandments :.

Commandment 1. Know Thy Parent Company and Its Track Record…

I don’t care how flashy the graphics are, or how much “phat lootz” may be attainable, if you don’t read up on the company that is producing the MMO, you are doing yourself a major disservice. Case and point: Star Wars Galaxies.

What started out as a wonderful rock solid “sandbox” type MMO became an uber turd fest within three years of its initial launch. Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) realized it couldn’t support the innovative character classes, and instead of doing something logical (like hiring more designers and developers) they simply ditched half of their professions. Instead of listening to the growing tide of criticisms for this move on their official message boards they deleted and locked posts. As expansion packs were added, more and more bugs crept into the basic game play, many of which are still unresolved, and then right after their last major expansion, The Trials of Obi-Wan, they reworked the entire combat system and nerfed the remaining classes. These nerfs were given official names like “Combat Upgrade” and “New Game Enhancements.” When asked about these changes, Jon Smedley (henceforth known as Satan) simply replied, “We went for more iconic and Star-Warsy game play and characters.” Nowadays SWG is a wasteland only occasionally frequented by level 1 Jedis and retarded Wookies.

I’m not saying SOE is the worst online gaming company in the world but their less than stellar customer service and short term vision for games (i.e. little to no work being done on any IP except Everquest) has lost them many a customer. Reading up on the forums can save you a headache later on. Try, for fairly unbiased reviews.

Continue to Commandment 2

YMMO? (Part 6)

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So, here it is the end. I have finally reached the point of wrapping up. For those of you who may have forgotten, or maybe the wily among you who like to read the end first, let me sum up my points as I tried to make them. First, I challenged the claims of MMOs as ‘social’ games claiming that their included instant messengers make them no more social than Pong was, and suggesting that all games are intended to be social. Next, I addressed claims of community within MMOs, claiming that if it is there it only exists because those in the community extend their relationships beyond the MMO. Third, I sent my guns against the games themselves, claiming that one could find better more thoroughly developed game elements in almost any single player game. Finally, I established the evils of the way MMOs charge both money and time, demonstrating how MMO pricing ideas are beginning to erode even the single player games I prefer.

After this chain of articles, I would hope that you could understand why I do not play these games, and shall continue not playing them in the future. Then again maybe not, I often have no idea how people actually understand the things I say. I am sure that some of you who have read this feel the need to tall me exactly where I went wrong or why and how my opinion is “the sux”. Maybe a few of you actually agree whole-heartedly, or think I was not harsh enough. It is even conceivable, though rare in cases of internet, that a one or two of you want to attempt further discussion on my ideas and see just how weird I really am. Whatever your cause or concern, you can feel free to comment below.

YMMO? (Part 5)

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So, at long last we reach what many consider the most obvious negative of MMOs, the pricing scheme. Seriously, who wants to pay $15 a month for a game roughly on par with one I pay $60 for once, get a years worth of distributed entertainment out of, but am “limited” to playing as a single player? Yep, that about does it for this argument, at least if someone else were arguing, I on the other hand see this pricing scheme quite differently.

Here’s the drip, if MMO pricing schemes were simply “pay me $15 a month for my game” it really wouldn’t be such a big deal, the suckers could pay and I would live in my happy little single player world, end of story. Alas, this is not how things truly are. You see MMOs are not all priced in this simple and straight forward way, the actual methods of pricing vary quite handily, with almost as many pricing solutions as MMOs (or MMO producers anyway…), but they all have one simple thing in common: fractional, or partial, content delivery. “Oh pish” you say, “I am playing a free MMO right now.” It is here that I point to that little “Shop!” icon hidden in the left hand corner where they expect you to go pay them somewhere between $5 and $60 dollars a month, or a year or whatever, to make your character look cool, or to give you that weapon that stands a chance of beating that boss, or whatever else they can convince you you need to fully enjoy the game. See, you don’t get the whole thing unless you pay. Now before you WoW-heads all go “But my MMO doesn’t do that.” I point to little things like the Burning Crusade and the fact that if you quit paying for a month, you do not play until you start paying again. Tricksy that. See the point here is, all MMOs are about handing you fractional content, whether it is asking you to pay for the cool accessories, or having you pay to keep playing from month to month, the idea of only giving you part of a game is the whole point. Many of you must be thinking “So what?” right now, am I right? Here’s what, the single player people have been looking at MMOs going “Those sly dogs, why didn’t we think of that?” and I will probably never be able to buy a complete game ever again. That’s right, your dirty pricing schemes are getting all over my single player games, and its all because MMOs made actual tangible amounts of money by selling you half a game. If you do not believe me, take a look at what most of the stuff on the Xbox Live store thing are, or the number of new single player games that are “episodic”, or even the much anticipated Spore which recently released a version of their Creature Creator as a demo, which you have to pay $10 for if you want it to have all the content unlocked. In my opinion, this pricing scheme is a scourge, a curse of the worst caliber, and due to Joe Schmoes inability to understand or care we will almost certainly never be rid of it.

Here I should end, but honestly if I ever actually listened to the voice in my head that tells me what I should do, I would probably not even be writing this so lets keep going shall we? After all, MMO pricing schemes hardly stop at money. That’s right, these buggers steal your time as well. I know what your thinking, “Its no more than any other video game.” Well guess what, you are wrong. Let me do this as “scientifically” as possible. An average modern game is somewhere between 20 and 60 hours, depending on how you play and what kind of game you play that varies a bit, and I like older games which stretches that range somewhat, but that is a decent average range. I tend to play on the slow end, and also tend to give up early unless I like the game, which means my single play average is maybe 40 hours per game. If I like a game, I usually finish twice, or maybe three times, meaning approximately 120 hours spent on the one game. If I really like it, the game may get a fourth or even fifth trip, for an approximate total of say 160 hours, or maybe 240 for a really long game. So all told, if I really like a game and its a bit long, it gets approximately a week and a half of my life. Conversely, my friend, who I will admit was a bit obsessed (but then so are most MMO players), was telling me about 6 months after he started playing WoW, or maybe a little less, that he had over a month of in game time. That is somewhere in the neighbor hood of 720 hours. On one game. And he was not even level 60 yet (this was before Burning Crusade…). Seriously, I could play like 3 games in there, 4 times each. What the crap, how am I supposed to play other games, have a social life, work a job, and still fit an MMO addiction in on the side? Here’s the secret, you are not. The MMOs want all your time. That’s really wrong in my opinion.

To demonstrate why this is wrong, lets make a simple ascertation: games are meant to be a brief escape from reality, a temporary entertainment. Now, lets examine 720 hours of playing one game, assuming that said game had been played for around 6 months, that’s approximately 24 weeks of playing the game. Now lets see, 720 divide by 24 makes for 30 hours a week of gameplay, on one game. Now lets assume that my friend was employed full time (he was not, but he was a full time student.), that would mean he is working 40 hours a week. Take out the realistic figure of 6 hours a sleep a night, or 42 hours a week, add it all together and you get 112 hours a week. Considering that a given week can only have 168, and that meals are taking around 2.5 to 3 hours a day, a total of 35 hours are left for doing anything else.

That is anything else, which means laundry, showering, brushing teeth, hanging with friends, anything at all would eat into that 35 hours. Heck, most of it was probably spent reading up on what he should be doing while he is logged into his MMO drug of choice. You see my point yet? The game literally became his life, and that was for a relatively low 30 hours per week. He got a whole lot worse before getting better here too, which means he was eventually spending almost 60 hours a week in game. That was more than a full time job. That really is a total inversion of the initial assertion, the game stopped being a brief escape somewhere around 20 hours a week, by the time he hit 60 hours a week the game was no longer a distraction, life was.

That, in a nutshell, is where my biggest problems with MMOs lie. There is nothing wrong with wanting escape, and even wanting it with friends, but when the escape takes over, financially and temporally, there are big problems. What is more, the way MMOs treat their players, with fractional content and cold shoulders, is starting to bleed into the games I wish to play and might find enjoyable, if it were not for the fact they are now only half a game.

Continue to Part 6

YMMO (Part 4)

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My previous articles addressed issues I have with the supposed ‘social’ nature of MMOs, now I want to go down a slightly different track. From my view of MMOs they offer no single feature which is unique to the genre. Everything that they do offer can be found somewhere else, where it is usually done better. The single exception to this I can see, and even then only certain MMOs meet this exception, is the specific combination of their mediocre features that they present.

This idea may seem odd, even confusing, but to demonstrate I am going to go back, way back, to the earliest examples of MMO type games: Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). MUDs were an early attempt to produce an environment in which users could interact in a game like setting, they were similar to large multiplayer text adventure games. In fact, they are large multiplayer text adventure games, but with less humor, none of the great stories, and a load of obnoxious other people constantly bothering you for help or killing your monster for you. In essence, they took all of the more boring elements of text adventure games and added the nuisance of having to play with annoying people.

In much the same way, the MMOs of today draw many of their best game elements from other, single player role-playing games which did a far better job of implementing those elements. One fairly simple and easy to demonstrate example of this is the leveling systems used by MMOs. You can literally pick up any single player RPG from the last 15 years and see examples of leveling that are better thought out than most systems used in MMOs today. If you insist on talking about some of the better MMOs, then I say simply look at newer higher-end single player RPGs and again you will find better leveling systems. Similarly, the quest systems from MMOs reflect largely the systems that single player RPGs had been using for some time. The postal quest, the kill a certain number of enemies quests, even the run to the end of the dungeon quests are all as old as NetHack itself, and have much better thought out and detailed examples littered through out games in general than any of the quests found in MMOs. And then the story, for me the reason to play a game is its story, and here MMOs are somewhat lacking. I say somewhat lacking, I mean they hide it behind pointless events, annoying special quests, and occasional updates or sequels. Even Guild Wars, one of the best at actually containing and presenting story to its audience, more or less used the story as an excuse to say “Quick! Go to the next region full of monsters now and forever 5 levels higher than you!”

But wait you say, they can’t have all those in amazing uniqueness because they have to incorporate the ‘social’ elements. Fie I say. Again they are essentially implementing systems that have been in existance for a long long time here, Usenet I think it was called. Every single one of the social elements in the game, with a few small exceptions (the characters appearing next to each other on screen and maybe character emotes…), have been around since dirt. Or the internet, either way. The party is essentially a chat room. Guilds, basically a mailing list. Friends lists, instant messaging if ever I saw it. Heck the towns are basically Battle.net but with extra pretty pictures. These are especially true in instanced ‘MMOs’ such as Guild Wars where the only time you can run into someone not in your party is in the towns.

So there you have it, I am unimpressed with these features and see that the way they are implemented I could find more enjoyment from playing the single player games they derive from. Admittedly MMOs are the only place I can find all of these things together in one program (by ‘all of these things’ I mean limited RPG systems and stunted social systems…), but I would rather run say two or even three programs to get this functionality than be limited by what the MMO creators decided they had time for while squeezing other almost functional systems into their games.

Continue to Part 5

YMMO? (Part 3)

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My previous article dealt with the claims of MMOs as ‘social’ games, and for this article I would like to look at a similar claim. Many MMOs have long claimed that they have a great community of players, and I have often wondered how true this is. I am not trying to argue that they do not have a community element to them, any group of people with similar interests can be considered a community. I doubt, however, this interpretation of community is what is intended by those who mention the community facet of MMO gameplay. For the next few paragraphs I will be inspecting MMOs in terms of community, how they function as communities, what they lack, where they go wrong, and -if I am feeling nice- where they go right.

Before we look at MMO communities in general, a few things need to be established. First is that I, admittedly, am an outsider looking in to the MMO phenomenon. I have very limited personal experience with MMO worlds, and that experience I do have is limited to hanging out with my real life friends for a few hours in a virtual setting. Next is something I attempted to establish near the end of the previous piece, any virtual social interaction is necessarily limited by the nature of the medium. Finally, something that is often forgotten about communities built around MMOs, at least when they are referenced in real life, they are focused around a game and deal primarily with the things of that game. With those few points out of the way, I am ready to continue.

Now for my big question about MMO community: is there really any? I will freely admit there is plenty of community in the sense that any fan group is a community, but what I am asking is this: Is there really a thriving functioning social community in game? Do these games actually support community in something like the same way a town or small city does? I have seen many descriptions of the nuance and subtlety of guild relations and inter-party speech which seem to imply this type of community does exist within these games, but these descriptions belonged to what I often observe to be a minority within the MMO environments. From my vantage point, on the outside looking in, I see a few small groups of people that get along in a way that resembles a real community, at least with respect to game things, and much larger collection of people that simply want handouts or someone to beat the monster for them or someone to drag them to where they can quickly gain levels worth of experience. What results is less a community and more a collection of players trying to exploit each other toward the same end. This system simply cannot meet or fill the same emotional and mental role of an actual community, it fails by being to narrow and focused on the game and by leaving real concerns or issues untouched. It is also telling that those who form the small community like groups tend to extend their interaction to things and modes outside the game, they were friends to begin with, or they use e-mail or instant messengers to talk about things other than the game when not playing. Essentially, these groups form community by using the game as a spring board to further, and different, interaction. For them the game is not the end of their community, it is merely a part of it.

There is one other problem I have with the MMO approach to community, a problem which I admit is a bit odd considering the ‘social’ premise of these games. It has always bothered me how difficult MMOs make it for someone who attempts to play without engaging in their little community of mutual exploiters. If I wished to play the game on my own for a few hours, I would be very limited in my choice of quests, enemies, and even character types. I admit that these games were intended to be social and that by forcing some degree of interaction they are better able to accomplish this goal, but sometimes you just need to be alone and these environments make for very immersive and enjoyable places to be alone, if you didn’t have to drag a party with you to find anything interesting to fight. On a slightly more social note, this particular limitation also makes getting your characters to a level where you can effectively interact with your high level friends during gameplay far more of a chore by forcing you to grind low level ineffective enemies, simply because you are playing alone for a while.

Again, what I seem to be saying here is that the answer to the question is determined largely by how you chose to approach the game. If you are using the game as a meeting ground, something to bring you together long enough to find other things to relate and talk about, then community is possible from an MMO. If, however, you take what appears to me to be the more common route of viewing the game as essentially social and not using it as merely a starting point, then you will find it to be lacking in the community aspects for which you are looking.

Continue to Part 4

YMMO? (Part 2)

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(Continued from YMMO? (Part 1) )

Confusion at Premise as “Social Games”:

The most stated reason for playing an MMO, both by the manufactures and the fans, is the social experience. Its claimed that these games take what is often a reclusive hobby and magically turn it into something social that can be played with friends. This line of reasoning has a few problems really that need addressing before we simply let that excuse slide.

For starters the “I play them because they are social” approach to the understanding of MMOs fundamentally mis-represents the remaining portions of the distributed body of information that is video games. This understanding implies through its reasoning that other games are in fact not social, that some how because I choose to play a game that only one person may control, or in the very least fewer than several hundred others, I am choosing not to be social with my games. If that were the case then why would I play games at all? I (and, from my experience, the distributed gaming public) play games so that I may be more social. The idea being: because my friends and I have faced the same challenges and have experienced the same stories, because we have followed the same characters through the same events, we have more in common and are able to better relate to one another. Games, weather single player, multiplayer, or massively multiplayer are intended as social engines. They are designed to convey people toward more in-depth social exchanges through shared experience. Basically what I am trying to say is, like all other forms of entertainment media, games are intended to be social.

Another problem with the premise that MMOs are more social is the question of what exactly makes them more social? Is it the ability to undertake the exact same actions your buddies do in the exact same places, while your buddies are? Or maybe it is the idea you have to work together in order to solve the puzzles and problems of the game? Or is it really just a fancy way of saying “I can talk to my friends while I play”? After several years of watching my friends play these kind of games I can definitively say there is no right answer, at least not 100% of the time. If I were too declare which of those alternative answers is the most right the most often however it would be “I can talk to my buddies while I play”. Whenever I would ask my friends why they play, that would be the most immediate response from all of them. Somehow they perceived the act of slinging lines of text back and forth across cyberspace as a very social occurrence. In a way I guess they were right, but honestly what are they really talking about? Can you really get to know a person between asking them for quest help and grinding those low level monsters to try and get that item you need. At some point the conversation always focuses on the game and what you are doing within it. I know, I know, I just spent how long convincing you that games in general are social, so talk about a game in a game must be social right? Well kinda… See games are intended not just to be social in and of themselves but to encourage further social engagement by being a sort of common meeting place to come back to, but not necessarily to dwell in. Since the conversations of MMOs are almost necessarily limited and directed to in-game concerns they tend to limit the social interaction, not further it as is often claimed.

Finally there is one simple very fundamental rebuttal to this idea of ‘social’ gaming, being social just works better in real life. I mean how well can you really get to know a person if there are no facial expressions or body language, or worse, the facial expressions and body language you do have are false. With these cues missing or being spoofed toward unknown ends, the person you meet online could be entirely different from the same person in real life. This is a long known problem with the online system of meeting people I admit, but still a ‘social’ game is essentially limited in how functional and authentic any social interaction within it is by these simple problems. If you are that desperate to hang out with someone, then go make some friends instead of simply hanging out with virtual ones. In fact, if you prefer hanging out with your ‘friends’ from an MMO to hanging out with real people, then you could quite effectively be argued to be anti-social, but its ‘ok’ it’s a ‘social’ game, right?

Being a little more specific here, I have several friends, who for about a year there scheduled everything they did around their raid times in WoW. After even a little bit of investigation I discovered through means of that glorious overflow of useless information, the Internet, that they were not only not unique in this, but that it was common practice at the time for players of the game. Further, these same friends were more apt to talk to each other in game than face to face and when they were interacting face to face, though they had plenty to discuss before every starting to play WoW, would always focus primarily on the events that had recently transpired in the game. It became quite difficult to even hang around them, not because they were talking about something I could not relate to, but because they were focusing exclusively on that topic and refused to discuss it in such a way that their friends who did not play the game could relate. They effectively were using the game for the reverse of its intended and advertised purpose of being a social game.

I guess what I am trying to say is, playing a ‘social’ game is fine, as long as you understand the game is not inherently social simply because it contains an internal instant messenger. What makes a game social has nothing to do with the game itself, but instead the way you approach the experience and how you use it to relate to others. With this understanding, the oldest most pixilated games for the Commodore 64 or the Atari (Pong any one? or maybe Asteroids?) can be just as social as visually stunning online games like EverQuest 2 or WoW.

Continue to Part 3

MMO BOOT CAMP: DAY 1

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MMO Boot Camp: Social

Welcome to boot soldier/ warrior/ mage! Below you will find a list of basic social terms and abbreviations found in most MMO games. Study them. Familiarize yourself with them. There will be a test following the ten mile hike. DISMISSED!

Basics 1

Continue to Day 2

* Terms and abbreviations may vary from game to game.

** This is by no means a definitive list of MMO terms and abbreviations. Got something to add? Comment below!