Playing Among is not Playing With

I've never been lonelier...

I’ve never been lonelier…

“What is an MMO?”  As more and more games get announced with the MMO tag, I’ve found myself questioning its definition more and more.  In the present wave of MMOs, arguably with Guild Wars 2 leading the charge, the industry seems to be pushing the concept of the Dynamic Event – a public event that occurs “randomly” in order to provide immersion.  After all, the “Massively” in MMO surely requires a large, expansive and immersive world, right?

However, the story of the Dynamic Event doesn’t stop there.  No, if it was just random public quests, it wouldn’t really be an issue on its own.  At most it would just be a Daily Quest turned sideways; perhaps not innovative but unlikely to cause harm.  The real issue lies with all the systems that were imposed in order to facilitate the usage of random events.

The core issue is that of credit – how does the developer design the system such that people who come across the event can get a proportionate amount of credit for participating in the event?  An example of a convention that needs to get broken is Mob Credit.  Traditionally, the reward for killing a monster was reserved for the person who either hit the creature first, hit the creature last, or dealt the most damage to the creature, with groups sharing that credit among their members.  Problem is, when you have a whole bunch of random people rushing an event, you can’t really grant individual credit, because there are far too many situations where someone with lots of area damage (first hit), repeated burst damage (last hit), or better gear and levels (highest damage) could yank all the credit, leaving all other participants destitute.  So, the solution shared by many games is to just grant credit to anybody who deals damage to a given monster.  And for the most part, the system rewards everyone fairly.  So what’s the issue?

It’s not the mechanics of reward, it’s the mechanics of sociability…which oddly enough is best illustrated by griefing mechanics.  Say there’s a boss monster that you want to kill, and someone else also wants to kill that monster.  In a traditional MMO, due to the way mob credit works, only one of you is going to get the Exp, Loot and possibly quest credit for that monster.  Therefore, there’s a decision to be made here: you either try to fight over the credit via just hitting the monster, or you can send a party invite and take the monster together.  Naturally, the other player needs to make this decision as well, and the result of both players making their decisions decides not only the game credit, but also the outcome of the social interaction.  Many an MMO player can recall times when they tried to take a monster, but some jerk nabbed the credit, forcing him or her to wait for the monster to respawn…or in some cases wait for weeks before another spawn even showed up.  The pure, unbridled anger.  Real emotions from real social interactions.

That idea curls up and dies in a corner when everyone gets credit.  When the system makes the choice for you, there is no real reason to interact with other people.  And if there’s no reason to interact, then the path of least resistance is to not bother to type anything, especially since your keyboard may be preoccupied with the mashing of buttons.  It’s called Multiplayer by definition because you’re online among other players, but it’s not really multiplayer in spirit.

The result is pretty darn apparent if you’ve played Guild Wars 2, or even stumbled across a FATE in FFXIV A Realm Reborn.  Nobody is talking.  Sure you’re surrounded by dozens of players all doing something in your immediate proximity, but nobody really seems to care that there are people around.  And why should they?  It doesn’t actually matter if people are around you – you don’t really lose anything either way, and any balanced system is going to prevent rewards from being skewed via participation numbers or the lack thereof.  Players are in the same space together, but their value to an individual, solo player is no different from that of a swarm of NPCs.

Maybe that’s why, after all these years, I’ve eventually gravitated towards Eve Online.  The systems are archaic, the combat is dull, mining is worse than watching paint dry and quite frankly you can play the game using nothing but a set of spreadsheets.  Mechanically, I think Eve is terrible, cumbersome, and frequently counter-intuitive.  But the community is there.  I care if someone is on the same grid as myself.  I care if someone is in the same system or even if they just logged on.  I care because even that guy hanging outside a highsec station is fully capable of ruining or enriching my day, through a variety of means.  It doesn’t always happen, but the potential is still there.  And it’s still there in not just Eve, but virtually every MMO that was released before 2005.  Ultima, Ragnarok, Everquest, heck even Runescape. The classics.

Moreso than any other genre, the MMO was built around social interaction, yet year after year the genre moves further and further away from encouraging it.  The most extreme example is The Old Republic, with their fully fleshed out singleplayer story, and that game imploded in record time.  It could be argued that World of Warcraft truly started declining after Cataclysm…which so happened to implement singleplayer, phased, and isolated storylines in every single leveling zone – that mass phasing completely mutilated the idea of random player encounters.  Even looking to the future, games like Wildstar have their crowning feature as content that is bound to the player, with incidental grouping.  Admittedly, spamming the hundredth WoW or RO clone wasn’t particularly good either, but this direction is not an MMO – it’s an always-online CORPG at best.

Can developers please cut the story crap and give us real, social content?  I’d even argue that the likes of Dungeons and Raids completely lost their social value as soon as Looking For Dungeon tools were implemented; I can recall several LFD runs where the group just barreled ahead, with no words spoken, targets marked, or even advice given.  Please, give me a reason to walk into the world and actually do stuff WITH people.  Standing next to them while smacking the same enemy isn’t enough.

I dunno, maybe Everquest Next won’t botch the idea.  We’ll have to see.

– Vsin

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