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.