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As
gamers, many of us have a
distinct tendency to look towards the
future for the "next big thing" in hopes that one
of the many titles on a rapidly expanding list of announced projects
will provide us with our next great MMOG experience. We have come to
expect that a certain measurable degree of advancement will be made
with each new link in the creative chain. Often times this leads to
disappointment when our personal expectations for a new title exceed
the relatively slow progress in an industry that's already
fallen prey to not only the whims of mass marketing machines at the
corporate level, but also has largely abandoned the original concept of
a persistent yet evolving online space in favor of a more streamlined,
linear form of virtual advancement.

I like to call this the Mario
Effect, as the bulk
of newly released console titles still cling to the gaming template
established as an industry norm by the pop culture phenomenon of style="font-style: italic;">Super
Mario Bros. in the late 80s.
That's not to say that
there’s anything wrong with the concept of a clearly
definable end goal that can be marked on a progress bar. Be it a
percentile amount towards game completion, a list of specific 
game achievements or the RPG concept of an XP bar, there's a
certain a degree of satisfaction that can be gained by being able to
boldly proclaim that you’ve reached a specific goal. After
all, gaming in general tends to be close cousins of novels and film
where your main goal is to steer a virtual protagonist towards a final,
climactic chapter or scene.

MMOGs, however, were founded
upon the notion of a potentially infinite
expandability and the evolution of a main cast of characters over a
much longer timeline more commonly witnessed in long running television
series. Yet while console titles still cling to the tired concept of
getting past the mushroom men to square off against the Giant Mushroom
Man of Doom, so too have MMOGs become much more narrowly focused on
defeating thousands upon thousands of trash mobs to reach a final
showdown against Raid Boss X.

While the MMOG industry in
particular is still in its relative infancy
we’ve already come to a crossroads where many newly released
titles no longer have the staying power of the industry's
progenitors. Titles such as href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/38"> style="font-style: italic;">EverQuest
and href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/154"> style="font-style: italic;">Ultima Online
still have a
dedicated and active community over ten years beyond their initial
launch, yet as the commercial opportunities and exposure for the
industry has been on a steady upswing throughout that period,
relatively few titles have managed to capture the hearts and minds of a
generation of gamers with that same level of interest. The rate at
which new titles are purchased and then summarily shelved in quick
succession has reached an alarming state.

It's entirely possible that
we’ve come to this
point due to the nature of the larger gaming industry as a whole, where
we as gamers are primarily conditioned by the consumable nature of the
console market. Hundreds of new console games are released each year,
while only a handful could ever claim to be commercially successful.
MMOGs have gone this same route more often than not over the last few
years, where even high profile titles experience an initial surge in
box sales yet fail to retain a massive subscriber base in the following
months.

Have we simply become more
selective now that there are more options to
choose from? Or are MMOGs simply losing site of the original concept in
favor of a template that's proven to be commercially
successful in at least one instance, the hope being that it can be
repeated so long as that template is strictly adhered to?

Sometimes, before we can boldly move forward we need to analyze
elements of the past to avoid making the same mistakes twice. To better
understand where we can expect to see the MMOG industry headed in the
future, let’s take a closer look at the the major eras of the
industry that have lead us to the crossroads where we now stand.
Can MMOGs avoid falling prey to
their own progress trap? Read on and
find out.

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Discovery and Progress

Progress:
1. A Movement toward a goal or to a further or higher stage.
2. Advancement in general. 3. To grow or develop, as in complexity,
scope or severity; advance.

The roots of the MMOG industry
stretch as far back as the early 1970s
when a little game called style="font-style: italic;">Mazewar
earned itself a place in the gaming
history books by introducing the first graphical virtual world. While
relatively stumpy, as were most video games of that era in comparison
to today’s standards, style="font-style: italic;">Mazewar
not only allowed multiple
gamers to share the same virtual space, but also eventually did so via
ARPAnet, the precursor to the modern internet.

What followed was a period of
slow, incremental progress throughout the
80s and early 90s which was only restricted by the boundaries set by
the available technology of the time. It’s interesting to
note that during this period, the entire basis of persistent virtual
online worlds was built upon the notion of taking that existing tech
and using it in new ways, or ways that were not its originally intended
use. More often than not, it’s that kind of forward thinking
that leads to discoveries that help define us culturally, but there is
also the potential for it to steer us directly into what's
become known as a "progress trap"

The concept of a progress trap
was introduced to help define distinct
periods of history in which society essentially set itself up for
failure. Sometimes we crave advancement to such a high degree that we
fail to recognize the fact that we’re essentially painting
ourselves into a corner by adopting new concepts without thinking
things through to their logical conclusion. Examples of this might
include things like introducing new medicines to society as a solution
to an immediate issue without taking the time to analyze any potential
long term health risks they might cause from prolonged use.

Certain parallels can be made
within the macrocosm of the MMOG
industry, as by and large new titles are being created using an
initial, base template that may have started off with the notion of
infinite expandability, though quickly devolved into a series of
capsulated experiences based on definable goals.

My own journey into the realm
of MMOGs began with the original
EverQuest.
While that particular game featured a distinct progression
that could be marked in the form of the almighty XP bar, the world
itself offered players the kind of freedom that only a true virtual
world can provide as opposed to the linear nature of single-player
RPGs. Along with Ultima Online,
EverQuest
helped establish many of the
gameplay mechanics and activities we now take for granted as belonging
in any new title in the genre. Be it combat, classes or crafting, we
still look to that original template to help define what an MMOG even
is. In other words, whenever a new title is announced, we immediately
assume that specific conventions will be adhered to while we
simultaneously desire something altogether new.

If I were to put any kind of
timestamp on the first major era of MMOGs
as we currently know them, it would begin in the late 90s with the
establishment of that core gameplay template and continue right up to
2004, when the industry exploded into a cultural phenomenon thanks to
Blizzard Entertainment's massive success with href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/wow">World
of
Warcraft
.

That initial era saw a rapid
succession of innovative additions to the
base MMOG template. Funcom's href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/40">Anarchy
Online

popularized the
concept of instancing, establishing a means of creating a more
personalized experience within the larger scope of a shared virtual
space. CCP's href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/eve">EVE
Online

showed us that it's not
always a bad thing to grant players more direct control over the
destiny of their characters. Mythic Entertainment's href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/39">Dark
Age
of Camelot

gave us our first
taste of large scale player vs. player
combat. Cryptic Studios' href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/140">City
of Heroes

not only broke new
ground by proving that fantasy isn't the only setting worthy
of attention, but also established the beginnings of what would
eventually become an expected degree of character customization.

The
list could easily continue on to include any number of minor
mechanics and tweaks to the original design
concept, as each new title
released during this period seemingly brought something new MMOG party.
Continue
reading to discover how the path of progress inadvertently
paved the way for an eventual period of success quickly followed by one
of stagnation.

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Success
Leads to Stagnation

Stagnation:
To stop developing, growing, progressing or advancing.

The
following era ultimately took up a much shorter slice of the
overall MMOG timeline. While the first era of MMOGs could be most
clearly defined as one of progress,
what followed in 2004 and 2005 was
a period of massive success in the massively multiplayer online market.
While earlier titles had experienced a relatively high degree of
success, those numbers were shattered by two titles that went on to
help define the modern concept of MMOG success, and with that, a new
template for virtual world gaming for better or worse.

When
World of Warcraft
came roaring into existence, many preexisting
MMO gamers expected that it would be successful, but even they
weren’t prepared for the cultural phenomenon that followed.
Of the millions of subscribers that WoW would ultimately introduce to
the concept of persistent virtual worlds, relatively few of them had
ever even heard of the titles that provided its gameplay foundations.
EverCrack became WarCrack for the masses, and the next thing you knew
everyone and their neighbor's cousin's uncle were
playing the game.

On
the surface, this was an awesome thing for the industry, but digging
a bit deeper what many failed to realize at the time is that along the
way the bonds of gameplay and socialization were somewhat severed, with
WoW players more often than not getting their social fix by milling
about in Ironforge and Orgrimmar rather than needing to group with one
another to experience the bulk of gameplay. This more casual, solo
friendly mindset was clearly infectious, as it has since gone on to
become the de facto standard of MMOG gameplay.

Meanwhile,
the EverQuest
IP was reincarnated in the form of href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/eq2">EverQuest
II
,
a game that initially built
upon the notion of linking gameplay
mechanics to socialization established by its predecessor, but
ultimately buckled under the pressure of needing to provide a more solo
friendly experience to remain competitive in the market. While some
might argue that the launch version of EQ II was nowhere near as solid
as what it would eventually evolve into, I still see those first months
as the last bastion of true multiplayer online gaming. To accomplish
most tasks in game you were dependant on other players for more than
someone to chat with when you were online in other words. While end
game raiding and instanced zones might still rely on group dynamics, by
and large the bulk of socialization in MMOGs occurs in global chat
channels while individuals venture forth into a largely
less-than-dangerous gaming environment on their own. It’s
only when players need to band together as a last recourse for
advancement that they typically do so, which is a concept twice removed
from the original basis of MMOGs.

Just
around the corner in the spring of 2005, the href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/47">Guild
Wars

series
turned the established subscription model on its head and traded vast
landscapes for more of a "virtual lobby" that
allowed players to venture forth into capsulated gameplay experiences,
notably being a more distinctly linear overall package than its
predecessors in the industry for the sake of being able to focus more
directly on personal story. However, what's most interesting
about the Guild Wars
series, or at least what I find to be its biggest success,
is that it also introduced us to more of a "moving
target" as a major goal of gameplay ala the player vs. player
leaderboard
and tournaments. While not an entirely new concept, it remains one of
the only titles to keep a solid focus that moving target without
forcing it into the restrictive bonds of standard PvE progression. In
other words it’s a game that focuses on player skill rather
than the dangling carrots of better gear as a means of being more
effective in combat.

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Ultimately
though, this brief period
of massive success stories paved
the way for a period of stagnation as the original concepts that
initially made MMOGs such a compelling form of entertainment to begin
with gave way to a massive scramble to become the newest success story
on the block.

While
a number of titles were released in the period immediately
following the post-WoW era, it wasn’t until 2007 and the
launch of href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/vanguard"> style="font-style: italic;">Vanguard
that the current era truly began. While many
consider that title’s rush to release in an incomplete state
as its lasting legacy, it also marks the beginning of a period most
notable for major launches where there might be an initial massive
surge in box sales, but rapidly diminishing subscription retention.
Vanguard
was also one of the last
titles geared towards a much more
hardcore gaming experience and many people look to its relative failure
as a cautionary tale about what can happen if you stray too far from
the more casual friendly approach of World
of Warcraft
.

Since
then, we've seen very little overall progress in the
MMOG space in terms of gameplay altering mechanics. While nearly every
title that’s been released over the last few years has
brought something new to the table, none of those things proved to be
enough to sate gamers’ appetites for something truly new in
their MMOG diet. Be it href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/aoc">Age
of
Conan
's
active approach to
combat, or even href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/war">Warhammer
Online
's
excellent
implementation
of public questing, none of it was quite enough to capture the same
degree of success witnessed in the proceeding era. This period also saw
a higher percent of titles with a shorter lifespan than was originally
intended, as games like href="http://www.tentonhammer.com/taxonomy/term/32">Tabula
Rasa

among others failed to
capture a
large enough audience to stay afloat.

The
end result is that development of most MMOGs has taken a much more
cautionary approach, leading to a much more stagnant overall market
where players are less inclined to pick up a new title for fear of it
being too similar to what's come before to offer any new
entertainment value.

Are
we witnessing the beginnings of the MMOG equivalent of a progress
trap? By adhering to strictly to base gameplay conventions and
attempting to capitalize on past success has the industry painted
itself into a corner? Sometimes you need to tear down in order to
rebuild, and that’s the exact crossroads at which we now
stand.

The
End of Virtual Worlds as We Know Them, and I Feel Fine

Regression:
The act of going back to a previous place or state; return
or reversion.

If
the MMOG industry hopes to see any further progress, it may be
necessary to go back to its roots. Perhaps not so much as a means of
revisiting the exact same gameplay conventions that have since become
the expected norms, but more so to analyze whether or not those norms
need to be shaken up and reconfigured. Minor gameplay enhancements are
always a welcome thing, though by and large we as gamers continue to
look towards that magical point in the future when progress will once
again be marked by widespread innovations rather than smaller,
incremental iterations.

That's
not to say that the base concepts behind MMOG gameplay
are inherently flawed, but more so that, now that we have a much
greater set of tools to work with, we can only hope that developers
will pick them up and find new ways of using them, yet in doing so
looking further into the future to avoid another potential progress
trap.


To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Tabula Rasa Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 29, 2016

About The Author

Sardu 1
Reuben "Sardu" Waters has been writing professionally about the MMOG industry for eight years, and is the current Editor-in-Chief and Director of Development for Ten Ton Hammer.

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