Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORPG) are notorious for attempting to appeal to as many different types of customers as possible. World of Warcraft, for example, was and is as wildly successful as it is because it can be played in a myriad of different ways, meaning that everyone could potentially pick it up and find something they like about it. The problem that arises from this business practice is that when resources become available to create what could be described as a buffet of video entertainment, players gradually appreciate the little things less and less. Prepare yourself for an old-beyond-his-age-cranky-old Tom rant.
When I was a child (somewhere between the ages of 10 and 14), I began playing MMORPG’s. My first experience in a virtual fantasy world was The Fourth Prophecy, which was what I vaguely remember as being a North American re-branding of a 2D French MMO that attempted to grab a piece of the Ultima Online pie in 1999. It was a simple game, with quests, loot, NPCs and a very small but quite closely knit community of gamers. I distinctly remember my character being a mish-mash of character archetypes (He self-identified as a monk, even though there were no strict definitions of class or role back then), as he swung a sword, yet wore a robe and cast divine incantations. Fun was easier then. I knew exactly what I wanted out of T4P and it delivered in every regard. I explored dungeons full of scary monsters, fought in arena-style combat, pursued criminal players through the streets of cities, etc. Now I’m twenty three years old and still playing games like T4P, except the relationship has changed. It feels very much like going from shopping at a hole-in-the-wall mom-and-pop’s grocery store to shopping exclusively at Walmart.
We live in an age where MMORPG’s need to appeal to the masses to even begin to make back some of the money they spent after their 5 year development period. Gamers want every aspect of an MMORPG catered to them on a silver platter. Players are no longer encouraged to explore or discover, but rather instead insist that the game lead them by the hand directly to the next batch of non-player characters that are in a need of a good clicking. One game, however, reminded me how it felt to be thirteen years younger. I was casually playing my favorite MMORPG, Rift, on one of my several alternative characters (ALT) and ran into a very interesting quest chain that I’ve never done, even after playing since Beta. It involved my cleric going back in time and witnessing the creation of an ancient dwarven library under the hills of the Moonshade Highlands. The quests were simple. I slayed ravenous tree-folk and water elementals, gathered reading material throughout the library and spoke with an over sized corgi.
What stood out to me was just how much fun I was having being a goofy looking level 18 Cleric with a Satyr companion, bashing in the heads of plant monsters. While each individual piece of the experience wasn’t anything to write an article about, the quest chain as a whole was very entertaining, partly because I was completely immersed in the adventure. This rarely happens to me anymore, especially since I now understand how MMORPG’s work and have played way more than I am comfortable to admit.
One of the most beautiful aspects of artwork is that the artist’s intentions have no power over how his or her audience will interpret the work. MMORPG’s, on the other hand, often suffer because of this fact. A MMO development team may spend years working on a truly immerse fantasy experience, but that won’t stop players from logging in and then complaining that they don’t know where to go or can’t access instanced PvP (player versus player combat). Rift’s library quest chain is not a rare phenomenon; the game I wanted to play was always right in front of me, I just didn’t know how to get back into a mindset with which I could play it the way it was meant to be played. I should read more quest text. I should take the time to travel around more, instead of just teleporting from region to region. I should go back and play through quest chains I missed in my initially questing experience. I should teach myself how to make my own fun again.