[As an initial note, I chose this theme specifically because we may never ultimately discover our elusive grail; but it should be quite informative and entertaining along the way - unless you're a cat or a witch.]
The MMO genre is a mess these days, for a number of reasons.
Largely though, a lot of the problems fall directly on bad marketing and poor content clarity. MMO games today aren't revealing their true nature. Players are shown features, systems, and plenty of bells and whistles; but most games don't really talk a lot about their purpose or intended play style. Aside from showcasing the combat, crafting, and aesthetics - I would argue that game developers don't do nearly enough to help players understand what they're climbing into.
Maybe that doesn't even matter in today's market.
To Be or Not to Be
If I were to say that a long-term interconnected game community was at the bottom of the design list for present-day MMOs, there would probably be very few arguments to that - and even fewer that can provide examples to support a counter claim. It's sad but true, that the MMO audience today is very nomadic. We move from one game to another, perhaps following content schedules, maybe following friends, and still others of us just growing bored and trying to keep things fresh.
It's a long departure from the old days where MMO communities were very tight knit and games had passionate, loyal fans that extended far beyond just a small "core" community.
Rather than sit here and complain and try to explain where things went wrong (there really isn't a single point in time where everything drifted - it's been so gradual), I'd rather offer a temporary solution to this complex problem. Instead of waxing on about the "perfect MMO", I'd like to focus on the games that do exist and figure out what they're really all about. That way players everywhere have a more accurate snapshot of what current titles are actually offering.
Let's Try This
With dozens of popular MMOs currently out there, it would take all me all year to break down every single one of the games individually. That and the constant infusion of new innovations and mechanics from other genres means that it will be much more efficient to just break down several major categories and play styles that MMORPGs typically settle into.
The best part about going through the process this way is that you get to be the judge and jury too.
However, keep in mind that most games have a lot of these different play styles incorporated in them... It's a byproduct of trying to attract the largest return possible on a massive MMO investment. Still, it all boils down to the resulting emphasis - which, quite often, can differ radically from how a game gets advertised (and even designed - in the worst examples).
If you hadn't guessed yet from the main title, this will be a multi-part miniseries. Each day this week I'm going to focus on a major play-style, system, or mechanic (sometimes all three) that cater to a larger experience. This is far from a black and white examination, so the contrast may vary by game; but it's important to keep in mind that the majority of present MMORPGs are mostly grey (which may be part of the problem when it comes to differentiating themselves).
Just Trying to Make a Buck
Today's crop of MMOs is littered with games that struggle to establish a unique identity - or at least to communicate that unique identity to prospective players. Even early-game tutorials fall dramatically short as far as giving players a clear view of the game's scope and intent.
It's not entirely their fault either.
MMOs are massive undertakings with today's expectations. It only makes sense if there is some amount of disconnect between the design team, production team, and marketing team. Add to that the fact that there is always some amount of fluffing when it comes to trying to attract people to a new product - especially in an oversaturated market.
I'm of the belief that there definitely needs to be more clarity when it comes to product presentation. The MMO scene is just way too crowded and complex to slip up and miss out on potential customers - or even worse: luring them in and scaring them off when they find out that things aren't quite as advertised (whether their expectations were even legitimate or not). Social media is so powerful and prominent these days that word of mouth can make or break a good game. Live streaming gameplay and free-to-play models give just about everyone a chance to look under the hood before spending a dime - so developers better be damn sure that their product is comes off the shelf as-advertised.
Let The Adventure Begin
Rather than derail myself here with more ranting about marketing perils - I'll leave you all with a list of some of the topics I'm going to break down and analyze over the next several days.
User Generated Content
Real World Emulation
You may be reading some of that sample list and scratching your head - probably having seen all of the above advertised on one game or another. In reality, everything I listed above is a unique type of experience that typically requires multiple complex systems feeding into them. They all cater to various types of players and like me, you may realize that you enjoy many of those different experiences.
For you, the "perfect" MMO might only contain one of those things (or none of them), for others it might be a mixture of several.
I've ranted several times in the recent past about what makes MMOs unique from single-player, cooperative, and/or offline games - so keep some of that in mind as we move forward. When I say MMO I'm referring strictly to large-scale multiplayer games with a persistent shared world.
Keep your eyes peeled for tomorrow's first chapter in this series where we talk about Linear Narrative. In case you didn't recognize the theme, here's a clip from one of the world's most quotable movies of all time:
The Saga begins in Chapter One: The Perfect MMO, with Linear Narrative?
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