The evolution of MMOs

I’ve been playing computer games at home since they’ve been available. All the way back to the ZX Spectrum 81, which took forever to load, crashed all the time, and was a spaceship of blocks shooting aliens made of other blocks. Not quite Pong, but not far off. Zoom forward a couple of decades and now the computer games industry is a multi-billion dollar global business. A really popular game, often as part of a big franchise like Halo, can easily make more money than some fairly big movies.

MMOs, or Massively Multiplayer Online games, are relatively new, and the first one I remember playing regularly is Everquest which came out in 1999. MMOs are giant (often fantasy-based) worlds where thousands of players interact with each other while doing quests, seeking treasure and exploring. Lots of magic and swords, epic history, sweeping gorgeous landscapes and amazing monsters. That’s putting it very simply but you get the idea. Everquest was basic in a lot of ways but incredibly advanced in others. It allowed me to play the game with several friends who were dotted around the country. Co-opt playing over the internet wasn’t possible before broadband when we all had dial-up. Some of you reading this are probably wondering what dial-up is! Anyway this was also the first time we had a chat channel open, Skype usually, and we talked to each other while questing and working together as a team. It was the closest we could get to being in the world without virtual reality. I’m still waiting for my VR helmet.

Since Everquest there have been dozens of other MMOs, with more advanced graphics, bigger worlds, more powerful game engines, but that’s the nature of the industry. It never stops changing and is always moving forward. Elder Scrolls is another franchise of fantasy based games, although this was always a one player game that wasn’t online, that embraced many of the aspects of an MMO. You could just wander off and explore if you wanted to and didn’t have to spend all day doing quests. You could craft your own objects, buy your own horses, a ship and even a house. These too grew more and more advanced until the most recent in the series, Skyrim, which by all accounts was an amazing game. Everyone I’ve spoken to has said how awesome it is and I have held off buying it as I know it would turn into a time suck and I’d become addicted very easily. I know I would enjoy it, and it would be 200-300 hours of play time until I reached the end, but right now I want to put that time into other stuff.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the biggest MMO, probably of all time, which is WarCraft. I started playing it pretty much from the start, then went away for a while, then came back and eventually got bored and left again. I’ve not played it in a few years now, but it is still very popular with millions of players around the world and they keep bringing out new content to keep it fresh.

I like to stay up to date with the news from the MMO gaming world and I know that an Elder Scrolls MMO is in development and is due out next year at some point. I was excited by it and I know several of my friends will start playing it the minute it is released. However, having now seen 30 minutes of game footage I’m less excited. In some ways Bethesda Studios have an advantage over some of their competitors because they’ve had several games in the Elder Scrolls franchise, all fantasy based, and each new game has been a dramatic improvement on the last. So their online game should be something amazing. From the footage I’ve seen so far, it looks nice, has great graphics, resembles Skyrim but of course is also online. So you can search for groups, teleport to dungeons and so on. So far everything looks the same as all of the other modern MMOs. I haven’t seen anything new that made me sit up and take notice. Don’t get me wrong, if I played it, the game would no doubt keep me engaged for 3-6 months, but once I’ve explored and done quite a few quests I would lose interest and drop it. I have no desire to grind for the next tier of equipment, or endlessly run through dungeons in larger and larger groups. Been there, done that half a dozen times already across as many games.

The other new MMO that has piqued my interest is from Sony Online Entertainment, the people behind Everquest. They are developing a new Everquest game. The original spawned a sequel in 2004, and amazingly both games are still going, although they are now on a free to play model, with extras which players pay for. This model has become increasingly popular in recent years as more traditional PC and console games companies try to retain players and hold their interest as more and more people move to playing games on their phones and tablet devices. Anyway, from what I’ve been reading this week, Sony went back to the drawing board and twice scrapped their plans before coming up with Everquest Next.

For all the shiny graphics the new games are promising with more realistic looking landscapes with grass flowing in the wind, and clouds moving across the sky, that part of the game interests me the least. The new character classes and fancy moves, combos and explosions are nice, but again, just shiny window dressing. If it’s the same game over and over again in a new skin, then why bother? Some players will get bored quickly and move on. I know I will.

With Everquest Next, Sony are promising something new and only a few days ago they released online several videos showing content, but more importantly, new ideas and a new approach to the game. They outlined several radical ideas, like AI that learns or adapts, so the orcs don’t always spawn at the same point in the road forever, but move depending on risk and reward to them. Towns and cities can be destroyed and affected by players and more importantly, new places can be built. Players can not only create and craft objects, but they can create homes and buildings. The world and ground you stand on can also be affected, so players could dig a hole at any point in the game and mine for minerals, or encounter underground monsters and secret cities and buried artefacts from thousands of years of history built into the layers of the world. So the landscape is constantly changing as events move through the world and you don’t have to wait for a new add-on expansion every two years to change a zone.

More info can be seen here and on Part1 of the video here. For me, the ability to create and build, and the ability to log into the game on Day 1 and then Day 200 and find a totally different world that is constantly changing, is far more interesting than better graphics and fancy moves. The ability to create an object or even the perfect house or boat, that will then be used by hundreds or thousands of others in the game and earn a commission every time is interesting to me. It sounds a bit like a cross between the old game Civilisation with an MMO, except this time you’re not controlling the entire world, just living in and having to cope with change.

I’m not just looking to run around with a sword in someone else’s imagination anymore. I’ve done that a lot already. I’ve been the warrior, the priest, the wizard, now I want to do more. I want to experience what the warrior does on his days off. I want to be the master brewer or alchemist or shipwright or chef. I want a fully rounded, more immersive experience. I want to experience all aspects (within reason) of the character’s life within the game, not just the fighting part. Some of this are already available but only a limited capacity. To create the perfect brewery in a border town and plan to settle down and focus on that, only for the whole town to be overrun and burned down by rampaging orcs, forcing you to pick up the sword again and go on the hunt. That is exciting. That is interesting. More importantly, that is NEW in the game.

Of course I remain a little sceptical, as quite often games companies promise a lot and then have to scale back and back until you don’t recognise what was delivered. But I’m also trying to be less cynical and remain optimistic and I’ve even signed up to the Beta for EQ Next Landmark. So we’ll see what happens but something needs to radically shake up the MMO industry as the games are becoming increasingly repetitive and just the same kind of game with a new skin and shinier graphics, over and over again.