The world of online gaming is an ever evolving beast of gargantuan titles, competition and nearly religious consumer dedication. Just about every single gamer out there has some experience playing a game with other people over the internet, whether it’s the latest iteration of the Call of Duty franchise or the newest blockbuster MMORPG. Competitive and collaborative gaming has grown tremendously over the last decade. However, no genre is more controversial or misunderstood than the MMORPG.
An MMORPG is a massive online gaming environment where thousands of players log in to experience mass quantities of open-ended content. Typically, an MMO will start like any other game: a little video introduces the new player to the game world and offers a little bit of back story to grab the player’s interest. Once the video ends the player’s character is thrust into the starting environment, typically populated by low level enemies and non-player characters (NPC’s) who provide the player with tips, hints and initial tasks that help familiarize the player with how things are done. As a reward for completing these tasks, the player earns experience points (XP) that, in most MMO’s, are used to move the player into the next rank. Once the player finishes these introductory missions and is comfortable with how things work in the game, they are free to move on to other areas.
People play MMO’s for any number of different reasons. Some like the open-ended aspects of being able to play the game without worrying that the experience is going to be too short. In an MMO, you decide when and how you are going to complete a mission. I have spent several days simply exploring the environments and learning which areas are dangerous to my character.
Other people enjoy MMO’s for the social aspects of the game. With literally thousands of people playing the game at any given time, there is no shortage of other people to interact with. Many MMO’s offer group-only content that must be experienced with other people. This adds depth to the game by giving each player a unique responsibility to their group. Some players have traits that will keep their group alive when battling powerful enemies; other players bring power and offense to a group, unleashing untold amounts of damage on enemies. This aspect of an MMO is relatively unique to the genre; no other type of game offers this kind of a social experience.
MMO’s have a lot of great aspects that make the average subscription price tag of $14.99 per month an easy purchase, including the nearly unlimited amount of content that is constantly being updated to the extremely engaging and rewarding group experiences. However, there are a number of common weaknesses in the current generation of MMO’s. Because MMO’s are designed to keep players playing for months on end, many of the vast number of quests and objectives become repetitive. Indeed, many MMO’s actually require a player to complete the same quest multiple times in order to continue to earn XP (this is what players refer to as “the grind”). It is at this point that people begin to wonder whether or not they are actually having fun doing the same things over and over again. The best MMO’s work hard to disguise the fact that you are repeating the same quests, resulting in something that seems a little less stale, but declining subscriptions to even the biggest titles are showing that something needs to change in the industry.
Many MMO’s are experimenting with different elements to eliminate the grind or make the game more engaging to those who may not want to participate in the social aspects of the game. For example, Bioware is working hard on Star Wars: The Old Republic to create a brand new MMO experience. They have provided voices for all dialogue in the game; they have given players the ability to establish a group with non-player allies if they can’t find a real player to fill a role, or if they don’t feel like having to deal with the peculiarities of real people. Bioware has also boasted that each quest will be unique, hoping to reduce some of the grind that many players complain about in MMO’s.
The MMO genre offers a very unique style of play and attracts a specific type of gamer. The industry has much going for it, but is also plagued with a number of weaknesses. If the genre is to continue being as successful as it has been, it needs to evolve and explore new methods of delivering unique, engaging experiences.