When I think MMO, I think of an open minimally instanced virtual world where players co-exist with infinite opportunities to interact with each other while carrying out game objectives. Everyone that is on the same server, and in the same zone, is in the ONLY version of that zone. And while existing within that world, the primary use of transitions (load screens) is for changing zones or entering into dungeons for group content. This is what I consider the best case scenario. I’ve only played three MMOs that came close to this ideal - Asheron’s Call 2, EVE Online and World of Warcraft.
I’ve come to accept other divides in virtual content that require the immersion wrecking load-screens, such as, the way EQ2 zones you into the different sections of a city, crafting workshops and instanced player housing. Other games zone you into structures they expect may be heavily populated. I can live with these sub-divisions of content. But make no mistake, I’m never entertained while watching load screens.
Instead of games reaching for a more seamless design, which in my mind creates a more immersive virtual world experience, we have increased frequency of games spawning copies of populated zones (AOC, ROM, and Aion). On top of which, we have games slashing up their landscapes like a Monopoly grid gone mad. Crossing through a gate is a zone, entering every building is a zone and rooms within rooms are zones – AOC, LOTRO and POTBS. All combat and nearly all quest objectives, occur inside instanced copies of content – Free Realms, POTBS and STO. Instead of a virtual world, it's a virtual jigsaw puzzle, where your character hops from activity to activity like Frogger.
I play MMORPGs to be immersed in a new world
While games designed around heavy partitioning of content aren't inherently bad, for me they feel more like console games with coop-mode, than MMO. A zone needs to support more than 5, 7, 40 or 100 players for me to attach the tag massive. If the design prohibits large numbers of players from existing in the same area, then I can’t even “see” that many players, much less engage with them in any type of massive multi-player event.
I’ve become jaded about MMORPGs
There was a time when I wouldn’t consider playing these lesser-mortal MMOs. My options for having fantastical adventures in a virtual fantasy world were varied and deep. These days my time and interest have run aground. I’ve tried all the AAA fantasy MMO titles and nothing stuck post my agape adoration of AC2 and love-hate affair with WOW. I've played good games and had interesting adventures but nothing has lasted past a few months.
If I can’t have immersion I want instantly accessible entertainment
Tipa from West Karana has re-subscribed to WOW because of the new Looking For Group tool (LFG). She obviously likes the instanced Blizzard content but is not particularly interested in doing the overland quests as a progression track. I feel EXACTLY the same about EQ2. I loved everything about that game except the questing system. I don’t know if EQ2 possesses enough instanced content to support that as a primary leveling method. If it did and it had the LFG tool, I’d be subscribed. Why? I could do what I enjoyed most – harvesting, crafting, playing merchant and roving photographer, while waiting to be whisked away to do content that will give me XP to level, so that I can harvest in the next zone, in order to craft the next tier and keep my shop supplied with goods. That would keep me more than happy in EQ2 and I’d be willing to pay a monthly fee to have it.
I applaud Blizzard for having the foresight to include the new LFG tool in WOW. Not for the reasons I’d want one in EQ2. Older games like EQ2 and WOW are top heavy. The vast majority of players are in the higher levels. This makes it extremely difficult for new players to see the lower content. They’ve paid for original WOW and want to see all of original WOW, not just the overland quests. And no, guilds aren’t the answer. Guild members get tired of being humped with requests to run new players through content or hop on alts at the particular moment some other player wants to do Scarlet Monastery. Veteran players have high level characters that can get them great gear with little effort. It’s more advantageous for them to simply power level through quests they already know so well and have seen dozens of times.
Ten years into playing MMOs and we're no closer to bridging the gap in between the original release plus years of expansions. Veterans are at the top doing end game. New players want to see all of the content they've paid for in the vanilla game AND each expansion as they level. If a whisk-you-away to a just-in-time group is the best that can be done, so be it.Star Trek Online takes instancing to the next level
STO, the newest entrant into the MMO space utilizes a highly instanced and segmented content design that fast portals you here, there and everywhere. The game’s design exemplifies the Monopoly-grid approach. The first time I entered Sector Space I thought I was seeing was a bug. I kept trying to fix the view by looking for a map or graphics setting. It’s not a bug, this is how it works. This is the lobby by which I can decide what gird of instanced content I want to enter next.
At first I was all, “WTF is this!?!”
As I continued to play, jumping here and there to complete quests while being automatically joined to open groups, I saw how easy it was to traverse the content and get things done. In over 20 hours of play, no one has spoken – not even ONCE, while joined to these open groups. We go in, complete the quest objectives then scatter like rats. Having been invited to a very chatty Fleet, I had plenty of conversation going, just none of it with the players in my party. It felt very strange at first. Then I shrugged my shoulders and got over it. I imagine this is what Xbox Live game play is like. Lots of chat in the open channels, play with or against strangers you care little about and may never encounter again, then it’s off to do the next “thing”.
There’s nothing RPG-level immersive about this style of MMO gaming. Nor does it feel like a virtual world. However, that’s not to say that it wasn’t fun. It was extremely entertaining. Several of the missions contain multiple objectives. I zipped around doing a few objectives at a time before returning to my real life quests. When I was ready to play some more, I resumed for the rinse and repeat. It was easy and accessible, ever present and ever constant entertainment but it's not what I call a virtual world or true MMO experience. Yet it was enough fun that I will be purchasing STO.
Where is the MMORPG genre going?
What I want is my definition of MMORPG. Quite frankly, I expected to be playing in a completely seamless, virtual world by now, which possessed seasonal weather, inspired overland questing and scalable instanced content. That’s not what I have and the newer games don’t seem to be striving for that type of design. Van Hemlock is wondering where this is taking our beloved genre too. I know what I want but I find myself willing to settle for the instant fun as an alternative. I love lobster. When I can’t have that for whatever reason, McDonald’s is okay too. There is no comparison in the level of substance or satisfaction gained, when I consider lobster versus McDs. It’s just a palatable alternative when the other is absolutely not on the menu.