Lost in Transformation
Despite its grossly incomplete state, I can't help but count down the days as this weekend rolls around and Landmark's next update is looming large on Monday. I've been in and out of the game since the very first days of Alpha, returning every time a new feature or system is added. I just can't help myself. As a fan of design and the history of the game industry, I can't help but appreciate what they're trying to do over there.
It isn't so much about the game itself, but the concept of it all. It's something that just resonates with me as an artist and a fan of everything that video-games are all about. I can still remember the first day I ever played a video game, way back when I was only a few years old. The first game I ever played was Combat on the original Atari, specifically the tanks game-mode. My brother, my friends, and myself just took turns going at it and trying to keep from having to forfit the stick in the typical "winner stays" format of turn-taking. I remember immediately grasping the strategy of the game - because hey, let's be honest... games were pretty simple back then.
We have gained much - but we have also lost much
It's actually pretty amazing to see the complexity they've established over the years, as technology has improved and developers ability to simulate environments has dramatically increased. Despite all the fancy bells and whistles, how intuitive the experience is has begun to suffer. No matter how complex you want your game to be, people still need to get it. Or they should at least be able to pick it up and learn without the use of any heavy guides or explanation. A player should be able to look at a keymap, pick up the game and have the ability to play right away.
The reason I've brought that up is because of the way games have changed over the years, particularly MMOs. They're just a difficult beast to wrap your head around, especially the more you've played. Veteran MMO players are by-far the most difficult crowd of people to please in the entire gaming universe. I should know, because I'm one of them. There is no gaming audience that demands more complexity, depth, and long-term progression than an MMO gamer. It wasn't until I became a part of the Landmark process that I started to understand how incredibly selfish my expectations are for games in this genre.
All the features I want and value in an MMO totally undermine the concept of intuitive gaming. All the depth and complex features I'm seeking have to be hell for a first-time MMO player and a nightmare for a first-time gamer. I know some people might take the stance that MMOs are meant to be niche, and they're a separate genre for a reason - but I think I'm finally beginning to experience a change of heart. If there is any category or genre of gaming that shouldn't be narrow and niche - the MMO should be that one. How are you going to have a "massive" multiplayer online game if you're not actually targeting the masses?
It makes a veteran EverQuest player like myself cringe to think about how many things Blizzard got right with World of Warcraft. Even though I have picked the game back up and am enjoying my return to Azeroth after nearly a decade of absence, it's still not Norrath to me. Despite Blizzard's numbers and the millions of people playing WoW, it just doesn't have the mechanics to fully take advantage of what being an MMO actually is. The game just isn't built to be enjoyed socially. In fact, playing WoW with other people you know is almost like an aside at this point - which is sad.
My greatest memories of gaming have always involved friends - always. Even my best solo memories pale in comparison to even my least entertaining nights with a friend or two. There is no better way to game. Some might call that an opinion, and that would be fair to say; but I honestly believe that's part of what makes an MMO different than other game genres. The ability to share the experience with a world of people that you're actually interacting with is priceless. Nothing else even comes close. Somehow, EverQuest once captured that nature. Like lightning in a bottle; and rom it, this entire genre was born.
However, somewhere along the line everything went wrong. I'm not going to get into that half of the story, as doing so would warrant (or demand) a whole other article and then some. What I want to point out though, is that there is an interesting enigma with the design of MMOs. A paradox really, which is:
How do you make a game as accessible as possible, while also providing enough depth and complexity to make players feel like they're experiencing a whole other world?
It's tricky. Blizzard has certainly streamlined just about everything you can possibly imagine when it comes to an MMO experience. There honestly isn't a more accessible MMO in the western world. Yet at the same time, they've lost what really matters - as my experiences back thus far have been fun, but entirely lacking.
World of Warcraft just doesn't capture the social magic that I feel was the real fabric of early MMOs.
Now I know there is probably a massive audience of fanboys that will hate me for saying that, but if they'd had the same MMO experience I had in the early days of EverQuest or Ultima Online, they'd totally understand where I'm coming from. It's just not the same. It's beautiful. It's intuitive. And hell, it's certainly got a hell of a lot of people playing it - but where are they and how do I play with them?
It's one thing to make a massive multiplayer world for players to enjoy, but it's a completely different feat entirely to create it in such a way that players get to share that experience with each other. I'm so tired of playing MMOs where I'm the star of the universe, totally isolated by billions and billions of miles from every other star. I want mechanics that put people right on top of each other - in each other's way even. I believe that kind of thing can be done without sacrificing too much accessibility, but it remains to be seen.
Landmark and EverQuest Next, you've got my attention; just don't hate me for skeptically keeping my fingers crossed (yes, I am looking at you EQ2).