Saturday, March 30, 2013

What Happened to MMORPG Design?

Asheron's Call got me excited for MMORPGs for the first time.
I've been a huge fan of MMORPGs since I was 13 years old, back in the days when having a 56k modem made me the envy of all my nerdy friends. Since then I've played a number of MMOs, most recently culminating in my experiences with SWTOR, which I've written about several times. Recently, a friend and I have started playing the first MMORPG I ever played, Asheron's Call. Released in 1999, this game is actually still running, and has a robust population on its most popular servers.

The experience of playing Asheron's Call again has awakened something in me that I forgot existed: the pure joy of playing with others in a virtual world. The slow evolution of the genre had numbed me to the numerous failings of modern MMO design, and playing this gem has revealed gaping disconnects between modern MMOs and the fundamental concept of an open, virtual world.

These days, playing SWTOR (and almost any modern MMO) feels more exclusive than inclusive, more antagonistic than friendly. Modern endgames are designed to encourage people to treat each other with disdain and disrespect, and other players have become expendable at all levels of the game. Forced class roles and the requirements that every player be perfect in every way have made raids and group quests tense and hostile. PVP groups must be perfect in every way, and anyone who plays less than 8 hours a day is summarily booted from any high-level groups.  People who are slightly under-geared are kicked out of groups as if they don't matter, and silence has actually become a rule in raid voice chat.

I'd like to repeat that last sentence -- silence has actually become a rule in raid voice chat. When did the MMORPG experience become as tense and important as heart surgery? When was the sense of exploration and camaraderie designed out of the genre entirely? When did completing high level raids become about angrily insulting someone for being 1-hit, or having hostile arguments about aggro or healing? And when in the wide world of eSports did silence become a rule in raid voice chat!?

I don't want this post to be an advertisement about Asheron's Call (although I highly recommend it as a once-in-a-lifetime gem of MMO design), but let's contrast the way that this game from '99 works to the way that SWTOR works.

In Asheron's Call (AC), any player can train any skill at any time. No one is forced to play any role. Every character can handle tanking, dealing damage and healing to certain extents. This means that groups can consist of as few or as many players as desired, and there is no incentive to exclude people simply because their role has already been filled.

In AC, players are rewarded generously for taking new players under their wings, whereas in SWTOR the answer to every noob question is "Google it, you idiot," followed by "Shut up, troll," followed by "Ignored and reported."

In AC's high-level dungeons, any player can die and return at any time without halting the group's progress. This prevents the necessity that every player be perfect in every way. In SWTOR, if your healer dies, all progress stops, meaning that any casual healers will be insulted and eventually booted from groups.

In AC, everyone's armor is different, and the sky is the limit to the possibilities. In SWTOR, you must have the exact gear that the designers intend for you to have to even participate in a group raid. SWTOR's group finder allows players to que for raids that they are not geared for, in which case the other group members will kick the player immediately. In SWTOR, group members check each other's gear immediately to determine who they have to kick out; in AC, group members check each other's gear out of curiosity and a sense of discovery.

I could go on for days about the huge shortcomings in modern MMO design that I'm discovering by playing one of the originals in the genre. The bottom line is that the first MMO's were designed as virtual worlds to explore, and in which to adventure with friends met along the way. Modern MMO's are designed to exclude people in every way possible, and to force players into following prescribed paths in every area, whether leveling, crafting or gearing up. Modern MMOs are designed to force silence to be a rule in raid voice chat (I know I've said it three times, but it's just insane to me). It has created a cynical elitist culture that excludes anyone who does not wish to spend hours each day grinding through the same boring things just to be able to try and fail at a high level raid several times in a row.

Who has the courage to design an MMO that brings people together in a spirit of adventure? Whoever can achieve that will find my money shoved in their wallet! Until then, I'm going to be on a quest of my own, to discover whether any MMORPGs on the market today are designed to be fun. I'll keep you posted on what I find!


  1. Great article! You hit it right on the money. Kudos!

  2. asheron's call, best mmo i've ever played to date.

  3. Other than design, MMORPGs became popular because of its nature of being interactive. When I used a business broadband in Australia, I also got hooked to playing MMORPGs.

  4. Wow happened. And a bunch of spineless greedy developers that caved to the children and ruined an entire genre over it.
    The only gratification you get is knowing blizzard went on record and admitted they messed up.

    Now all the console kids and people introduced to faux mmorpgs weild more power than the people who know what the genre is about and stands for.

    They wouldn't even know what to do in a sandbox environment. It's all about convenience and instant gratification now.

    I could go on and on but unless pantheon lives up to it's ideals - you might as well consider the genre dead. In it's current state it isn't an mmorpg it's simply an action adventure game with a chat component.

    Ultimately a cod lobby on xbox live in different wrapping.

    Instead of moving into something more palatable the kiddies and folks with excuses and short attention spans used their superior numbers to essentially control the direction of all games since vanilla wow.

    Anyhow - yea. Let me know when auction houses; instant travel; and instancing are gone. That will be a start.

  5. ROBLOX is driven by a growing player base of more than 300,000 creator players who generate an infinite variety of highly immersive experiences.

    These experiences range from 3D games and contests, to interactive adventures where players can take on new personas to imagine what it would be like to be a dinosaur, a miner in a quarry or an astronaut on a space exploration.

  6. I have to agree that Asheron's Call is the best MMO I've played but I think you downplayed how it was in the early days. You still had to play an insane amount of hours to even be considered entry into the bigger guilds. But to this date no game has come close to feeling like an adventure with peril at every turn. I could even handle the dead spaces in the game. I loved the sheer terror of running along and hearing (not seeing) a high level whirling blades spell explode near you out of nowhere.