Friday, August 20, 2010

MMOs have forgotten their value on exploration

 Who doesn't want to ride a ship? In a game of course.
MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) are an abundant machine. Since it’s been discovered that they have the potential to make exorbitant amounts of profit in both subscription based and free to play models, they’ve sprung up like the proverbial weed. Whether you’re into steampunk elven ninjas, elemental combat, or are just intrigued by the perpetual grind that comes bundled with it all, there’s something for everyone buried within the genre. Sure, one out of ten are of actual quality, but there’s a recurring theme I’ve found to be troubling in the contemporary MMO; they’ve lost their focus on exploration and are simply too fast.


The topic arose upon discussing a few of the most anticipated MMOs with a friend of mine. He declared that he was sick of being forced toward the end game. It wasn’t about eventually getting there; he just was perplexed as to why developers endorsed this bum-rush leveling attitude instead of taking the player through the world they’ve created. Could the content be that embarrassing and/or dated to warrant blasting through to get to the real meat of the game… at the end of it? Yeah, that makes sense.


 Moseying about the galaxy was actually really cool... for a while. Certainly not every MMO pushes you through the lower levels with undignified glory, but it’d be ignorant to say that they don’t care about their players reaching the end game. To me, emphasis on exploration and taking your time with the surroundings are what make the MMO an immersive and compelling experience. This way, when finally working your way up and reaching that zenith every game incorporates, it feels rewarding and just damned good. Earth and Beyond, a sci-fi, space-based MMO which is now defunct, had a defined Explorer class that felt right. They wanted you to roam about the galaxy, collecting rare materials, seeing the sights, all while experiencing the rest of the game. Unfortunately, the game ran out of content far too soon, but E&B had the right idea that, I feel, far too many developers now overlook.


 Definitely just looking at the background. Isn't it cold? Guild Wars 2 is touting a “fast xp” system that I’m still uncertain about. The first Guild Wars maxed out at 20 levels that came far too quickly and I’m wondering if in some way its successor will follow suit. Reaching the end game may have added benefits, but if you’re in such a rush to get everyone there, then why bother having levels? Do something unconventional and allow them to gather and maybe customize gear on a ridiculously intricate and broad scale. Give your players reason to traverse the environments and experience the world you’ve created. Not only is it ominous to enter a dilapidated fortress covered in the skin of your allies, it’s also fun. Well, it should be.


I think World of Warcraft is one of the games I can most related to when discussing acceleration. WoW is a tremendously accessible game that almost anyone can get into. It has enough content to keep hardcore and casual players busy for years, but like every game, it eventually runs out of content if you keep at it. To combat this, Blizzard released expansions to critical acclaim. However, with more places to see that meant a bigger world and a longer trek to reach the new content. Blizzard decided to actually double the experience earned in the “old world” to get players into the new content.


 Exploring the vibrant landscapes in WoW was fantastic.It sounds good, but by doing this it effectively voided out half of the places you would have visited if the experience boost wasn’t incorporated. Many of the neater dungeons and parts of the world would be entirely skipped by players. Not to mention, larger dungeons like Zul’Gurub would no longer serve a purpose. And it begged a question; why bother doing the old end game dungeons when you can go to the newer areas and get better stuff off a boar? Really it was too bad that the more creative side of the older content was being neglected due to not being relevant, but at least Blizzard seems to be addressing this in Cataclysm.


Perhaps the best anecdote I can give on exploration is with a title some older gamers might remember, Asheron’s Call. AC was my first MMO experience and I fondly remember exploring areas I really shouldn’t have been near. For example, in a little town called Eastham I was going about my monster killing business as per the norm, when suddenly some high-level dude manifested and casted a spell which placed a swirling vortex of energy some would call a portal in the middle of town. Having a distinct level of curiosity, I inspected the portal to find the destination listed as “???” Still, keeping my curiosity in check was no easy feat and I entered the portal.


See that grey circle on the southwestern part of the continent? Yeah, I totally got warped there.


Upon exiting, I was alone in what could only be described as an obsidian desert. I looked into the distance and observed creatures I’d never seen before and on my map I was on the other side of the world. I was only level 15 or so and these things were in the upper echelon of the hundreds. Inevitably, a creature known as a Tusker rammed right into me and promptly murdered my ass (I also lost a few items upon death). I was cast violently back to my Lifestone in Eastham and for the next 15 minutes I was shouting for help to find out where I’d been. Thankfully, the guy who cast that spell got a laugh out of my misfortune and helped me recover my body. It’s a tale of woe, but man was that one of the most exhilarating moments I’d ever had exploring.


My point through all of this is that exploring a world is important to the overall experience of a game. What comes at the end of a MMO is important, but the earlier portion of the title shouldn’t suffer for it and the same goes for conventional games. What would Gears of War or Halo be without a story mode? Marcus Fenix would just be an extremely thick dude with a chainsaw gun and the Master Chief would be known as captain space robot man. Don’t be shy developers; introduce your world to us players and the game will be all the better for it.


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2 comments:

  1. Captain Space Robot Man. Hahaha. I'm gonna call him that from now on.

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  2. ...really? It's the same reason why in all rpgs you get the greatest of abilities skills weapons etc.... 2 minutes right before the game ends. Or in that matter ANY adventure type video game.

    They could make more an emphasis on exploration, but lets face it MMO, and gaming in general, has leaned towards the casual crowd. You have to go where the money is, and appealing to a niche crowd will not generate you tons of money.

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