In the Trenches: The Competitive Edge

Competition has always been a part of my life. Growing up with two younger brothers, there was always a sense of urgency in everything I

Competition has always been a part of my life. Growing up with two younger brothers, there was always a sense of urgency in everything I did. From eating all of my dinner the fastest so I could get the biggest piece of cake to trying to win in our game of basketball so I wouldn’t have to rake the leaves in the yard, the pressure of winning was placed firmly on my shoulders. Even in my small hometown, I was always expected to be “the best” at what I did: school, athletics or the dating game. Don’t get me wrong, I failed at a large portion of the things that I tried, but the need to compete was instilled into my very blood.

Staying competitive in EverQuest was a chore.

So when I eventually found myself playing massively multiplayer online games, I was caught between a rock and a hard place. In the earliest MMOs, trying to “win” meant that you were the hardest of the hardcore. To win at an MMO like EverQuest or Ultima Online or Final Fantasy XI, you might need to raid fifteen hours a day, go to work to pay your rent and/or subscription fees, get an hour of sleep, then be at it again. Between my family, social, and job-related activities, I’ve never had an extremely open schedule, so being an elite member of the MMO community was never an option. Ultimately, my competitive spirit was quashed by the very nature of MMO design.

At least that was the case until a number of smart MMO developers decided to integrate e-sports options in their MMOGs. On top of that, a hefty number of development studios are seriously considering building sports-based massively multiplayer games. Even the most PvE oriented MMORPGs are now hosting regular fight nights where players actively compete to see who can out muscle their competition. The flame of competition is burning bright again, and it’s not merely focused on gamers who spend their lives glued to a computer chair.

Guild Wars' GvG battles are a thrill to be a part of.

With this in mind, I bring you the first edition of “In the Trenches” a weekly commentary on the state of competition in MMOGs. I hope to bring you the highlights of competitive MMO gaming, from World of Warcraft Arena competitions to GvG battles in Guild Wars to epic RvR sieges in Warhammer Online to track and field events in Empire of Sports. I’ll even dabble in online games that pretend to be MMOGs, titles like NHL ’09 (which features a character creation system and persistent characters for players to use) and Call of Duty 4 to see what kind of MMO elements have snuck into those heavily competitive games.

And those six games I listed are only the tip of the iceberg. Over the next year, gamers will see a variety of titles – released, upcoming and some that aren’t even fully announced – begin to really push the MMO genre and really begin to define how gamers compete with each other. Forms of indirect competition experienced significant gains over the last year with the integration of achievement systems in World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online, not to mention the previously developed system for Lord of the Rings Online. Driven by the success of the Xbox Live achievements, MMO developers found a natural way to give players bragging rights without necessarily always focusing on those gamers that can raid every night of the week.

But 2008 was certainly the year of the PvP gamer. Although past titles had given gamers the option to have a genuine interest in player versus player combat, sales of Age of Conan and Warhammer Online were driven by PvP features. Even if some of those PvP features weren’t fully fleshed out when both games released, the fact that players showed a true desire to have PvP in their games really caught the attention of developers across the world. For the first time in years, we’re seeing a number of MMO studios working on MMOs that have PvP at their core, including Darkfall Online and Mortal Online.

Empire of Sports may not be the best MMO, but its one of the only sports MMOs.

But perhaps the biggest unknown of 2009 is how sports-based MMOs will fall into the popularity mix. Last year, we saw the announcement of several sports and/or soccer based MMOs, and as those teams ramp up in 2009 it will intriguing to gauge the interest that gamers have in this particular area of our genre. Although sports-based games are certainly popular on consoles, will an MMO truly gain the sort of foothold that console games have held for decades?

I won’t give the previous question a definitive answer until we’ve traveled a bit further into our current year, but I do think there’s a vast depth of potential for sports MMOs that really has yet to be exploited. Even current sports MMOs like Empire of Sports don’t feature the sort of sports-based gameplay that those type of players would really enjoy. I’ve just touched the surface of Empire of Sports, and even though it is entertaining at times, I can already tell that problem areas lie ahead. Keep checking back in with Ten Ton Hammer to see my eventual review of this MMO sports title.

In next week’s column, I’m going to take my first look at World of Warcraft’s upcoming Arena season, which promises to be an entertaining venture. If you have an idea for a column or would like to see a particular team or game featured on In the Trenches, shoot me an email. Until next time, keep your competitive spirits high and don’t be afraid to get dirty In the Trenches.

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