Are Modern “MMOs” really MMOs?

My experiment with Final Fantasy XIV came to an abrupt halt when Rhiss and I tried it together. The whole idea was to get a game we could both play, as we have played MMOs as a duo since we met in Goldshire eons ago. So the plan was simple: group up, do some stuff for an evening, and see how it feels. Simple, right?

Well, no. Trial accounts can’t group with each other, so we couldn’t do it. Rhiss promptly lost interest and that was that. I liked the game and maybe one day when the timing is good I’ll just buy a couple copies and try again. I understand that restriction is probably just collateral damage from trial accounts not being able to form groups with paid accounts (to limit spam abuse), but still.

Is It Still A MMO If You Never Interact With Other People?

Earlier this week, the Aggronaut was talking about maintenance gaming (aka: logging in just to do chores to pay maintenance), and happened to mention that nobody ever leaves their garrisons in Warlords of Draenor. That prompted me to ask a simple question: “If nobody leaves their garrisons to play with other people, is it really a MMO?”

Turns out, the MMO Gypsy addressed the general issue back in 2011. Has anything changed since then?

Not really.

Single Player Game With Some Group Content

Themepark MMORPGs in particular are largely designed to be primarily single player affairs these days. Elder Scrolls Online essentially marks you as the “chosen one” in the intro zone, and you’re following a single player storyline doing single player quests for most of the game, and don’t really have a reason to interact with anybody at all, until you hit some group content. If you turned every other person you see in the outside world in ESO into a bot, would anybody notice?

Wildstar is the same thing, only you don’t start off as a chosen one. But still, the plot quests are all designed for single player play. The game’s outdoor content is so designed around it that if you quest in a group (as I always did), most of the combat is mind numbingly boring. I was playing an engineer tank and Rhiss was an esper healer, and we would just pull 7 or 8 things at a time so we’d have to stay awake, and that was in our DPS specs. In our actual tank & healer setups, we duoed most of the outdoor group content without difficulty. I’d throw out zone messages telling other people we were doing it in case some soloers needed to get the quest done, but we didn’t need them for anything.

The worst part was the story quests that were forced single player. Yes, this is marketed as an MMORPG, and the game flat out disallowed grouping for these quests. We then proceeded to do the exact same thing alone that we could have done together, and then had to figure out how to reconcile how the hell this narrative makes any kind of sense at all to a pair of roleplayers.

So, we’re playing a game where the first two letters are “Massively Multiplayer” and the last three are “Role Playing Game”, and we have a situation where it’s impossible to play multiplayer, and roleplaying the actual events doesn’t make sense because we somehow both became the “chosen one” and both did major story elements that are written in the singular, simultaneously, with the same NPCs.

Does that make sense to anybody at all?

Functionally speaking, you can play Wildstar exactly the same way you play Mass Effect 3: entirely singleplayer until you feel like doing some of the group content. That lasts right up until endgame, where suddenly it’s a totally different game that is entirely about instanced group play (so still not massive, but at least one of the Ms is true).

A Series of Unfortunate Evolutions

This goes on and on, but it really goes back to WoW, which perfected it. Over the years decisions were made that made the game more single player friendly, and other games in the genre followed suit.

Individually, those decisions all made sense. I played through a lot of them, and they were trying to solve real problems that players were having at the time. In the small picture, they were the right thing to do.

But in the big picture, the sum total of all those decisions together has turned your average MMO today into something where only the O is actually true. Consider:

  1. You play almost entirely alone. For levelling quest content in particular, other people are primarily in the way. Grouping rarely helps you. In fact, grouping lowers the difficulty so much that any kind of skill or even attention required to win fights goes away.
  2. Nothing anybody does really impacts anybody else long term. Sure, another player (who happens to be in the same area, on the same server/instance/phase) could mess with you in various ways, but that’s it. Whatever they do to the world state doesn’t impact your world state long term, and nothing you do to the world state impacts theirs. Especially with phasing and instancing, you’re playing in your own copy of the game world and not a single world.
  3. There’s a superficial economy that is kind of player driven but not really overly functional. The commodity exchange is how I mostly interacted with other people to do business in Wildstar, and again if you replaced the other people with AI I would not have noticed any difference.

You know what game I could have just been describing? Diablo 3, back when it had an auction house. It’s not a MMO, but only in the sense that the other people simply aren’t visible at all and thus can’t get in your way.  Otherwise, it’s actually better at encouraging group play than the levelling content in most MMOs these days, as grouping makes the game harder (unless someone vastly outgears everyone else) and the rewards better. There is more reason to group in Diablo than there is in these supposed “MMO” games. Let alone what passes for a “MMO” on Facebook and iOS, where the term is used for anything that has other players that you might fight at some point.

Genre Decline

It’s not exactly a secret that the MMO genre is not doing overly well. Successful launches have been few and far between for years, with a lot of disappointments and failures. New game launches are slowing down significantly, and the playerbase is stagnating. There’s lots of reasons for that, and I’m not sure the problem of most MMOs not actually being MMOs is even one of them. If that’s what people wanted, they’d probably be playing a game that’s closer to it (like Eve) rather than the “single player except on raid night” Warlords of Draenor. So maybe it’s not a problem.

Or maybe it is, and people just don’t realize it. I have a choice tonight of playing a MMO and continuing to level and do the quest content. I also have the choice of playing Dragon Age: Inquisition. Both of them are offering me the same thing: single player storyline, combat, crafting, and quests. One of them is far, far better at delivering that. There’s even a multiplayer mode if I want to try my hand at it.

In that comparison, no MMO can possibly win. Bioware made an RPG of the year winner at what it does, competing on it’s home turf is not a winning strategy for a genre that’s meant to excel at something else. And that’s the whole problem – the strength of a MMO that should let it compete is those two Ms, but they’ve been neutered into nothingness in an attempt to make the game single player friendly.

I wonder how many other people out there are like me – wanting to play a real MMO, and not something that’s pretending to be a single player game?