Rails and memories
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 February 2014, 3:09 am
I played a perfectly good new MMORPG in beta this weekend. But after trying 4 classes with 4 races and 4 paths in 2 factions, I was already bored with the game. Like in nearly every other MMORPG released in the last decade, everything was on rails: You get a quest right after character creation, and then its quest, quest, quest, until you reach the next zone, where it all starts over again. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Or presumably ad raideam, which isn't much better.

And it struck me that when I think back on all the MMORPGs I played, that my memories are never about those stories on rails. The things I remember are rather those moments of emergent gameplay, the kindness of strangers, doing stuff you aren't supposed to do at that level, and all that. The canned quest stories are most of the time trite and not very memorable. People remember Mankrik's wife not because of the quest story, but because of the effect it had on Barren's chat.

What I find even worse is that modern MMORPGs appear to be designed to minimize social interaction. Every class is completely independent and needs nobody until the level cap. In fact over the weekend I was sometimes annoyed to see other players, because there were challenges that required you to kill a certain number of monsters within a time limit, and those only worked well if you were alone without other players killing "your" spawns. That independence does funny stuff to class balance: As your ability to level pretty much depends solely on your damage output, a healer or tank these days has the same damage output as a dps class, making the latter somewhat nonsensical.

While the game I played was perfectly crafted and well executed, I believe that like most modern MMORPGs this playing on rails contains the seeds of its own destruction. Even if you add side-activities like crafting, housing, or jumping mini-games to the MMORPG, there are only so many quests a person can do before becoming bored. And it isn't as if there was a huge difference between doing quests in one game or another, there is just a handful of quest types, most of them involving killing X mobs or clicking on Y glowing spots. Even if the game is new, the combat system is somewhat different, and the game looks different, you find yourself in the same old sequence of running around and killing mobs day after day after day. The large majority of players will be bored with any of the new games that work like that after 3 months. And then the shrinkage of player numbers creates a negative network effect and economic problems. A while later the game goes Free2Play, then you hear of layoffs a few years later, and ultimately the game closes down.

While I learned not to trust too much in Smed when it comes to actual delivery, I do believe that he is right when he says that the future of MMORPGs is in sandbox games with more emergent gameplay. In the end, that is what memories are made of. The rails will be forgotten.
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