A Personal History Of MMORPGs, dissillusionment with the genre and why Star Wars: The Old Republic brought me back

Do you think the expectations for The Old Republic are high? Do you worry about yourself or others being disappointed after such a long, long wait? This is a common phenomenon with anything one waits a long time for; anticipation builds to a level that no realistic product could ever deliver upon. Massively multiplayer games are just one of the products you see this happen with; long development times combined with developer hype and the player base’s strong desire for something new leads to a community willing to listen to investor phone calls for any tidbit about the game, the release date, when the beta will be. People check their inboxes over and over many times a day, hoping that this time that beta invite will be there. A misspoken word by a community rep leads to a flurry of misinformation that travels through the community seemingly instantaneously. But none of this compares to the expectations for Ultima Online before it came out. I’ve been following MMORPGs from pretty much the beginning. I played MUDs back in high school, primitive, text-based multiplayer environments usually inspired, often ripped off whole-sale from D&D. Many of the modern games in the genre are direct lineal descendents from this type of game. Meridian 59, arguably the first MMORPG, was basically a graphical MUD, and Everquest was simply a further evolution of this game design, which then led to World of Warcraft, and all of the other class-based, level-based games. But Ultima Online was different. More than just a game, it was touted as a complete virtual world. It would have a real economy, a real ecology, to the extent that the if prey animals were over-hunted, the predators, including dragons, would be forced to forage further for food, possibly attacking towns. No game had ever tried to do anything remotely like UO was trying to accomplish, and the player-base, the first of the MMORPG followers, eagerly ate up what we were told and built a game in our imagination that could never be achievable. Could we capture other players and keep them as slaves? Sail the high seas , acting out pirate fantasies? Utilize the fully functioning economy to build realistic businesses? Craft everything, including houses, practically from the brick and board up? These were all seriously debated in those early days, and expectations reached the moon. I was so excited and followed the game so closely I was the first to announce the beta on the ultima usenet group Unfortunately, not only was the technology nowhere close to being able to build what we wanted, the designers made some serious missteps, some I consider their own fault, some based on things they couldn’t foresee. The economy was a joke, easily exploitable. It was possible to buy raw ingredients from a merchant (who had a realistically limited supply in the beginning) and instantly convert them into products you could sell, often to the same merchant, for a profit. The consequence was merchants chronically out of basic supplies. This type of problem was pointed out over and over to them in the early forums we posted in (By the way, does anyone out there remember that early forum? I remember a poster who went by the name of Bearsbane, who wrote wonderful posts, many about the economy and these future problems which were seemingly completely ignored). They apparently had no one with even a cursory knowledge of economics on the development team. Other problems were due to them over-promising the impossible. That ecology never emerged-it would be difficult to do something like that now, 15 years later. The server would have to track every creature, have realistic AI behavior for all of them, including breeding, feeding, life cycle, hunting, etc. The game did have a limited amount of fauna, but this just led to the next problem, a lack of understanding of how the player base of games like these would act. Would a player, knowing that an animal could be overhunted, therefore not kill an animal? Of course not. Players killed everything they could, leaving barren worlds. A lot of this was due to a misunderstanding of incentives, and how they differ in games and real life. In real life if you overhunt prey, you may not eat next year. And yet humans still overhunt. In a game, expecting players to act responsibly was rather insane. UO was also the first game that allowed completely open PvP, anybody could attack anybody at any time. It was also the last game that allowed this. The idea is that players would police themselves. Pretty hard to do when a “P-Killer” (an early, somewhat derogatory term for PvP player, one who usually killed anyone they could) could log off at any time. Kind of hard to form a posse under those circumstances. P-killers and other “griefers” (this game made both those terms necessary) would also engage in seemingly insane behavior in order to ruin the fun of other players. They wouldn’t just kill you once and loot your corpse. They’d wait at your spawn point and kill you over and over again, until you quit in frustration. They’d wait right outside the town limits (while you could attack in towns, nearly invincible guards would then attack the aggressor) and kill anyone who came out, especially the newest of players. The players engaged in this behavior fiercely fought against any change, often under the grounds of “realism”. This type of behavior led Lum the Mad (an early writer on MMORPGs, his site was an early hub for the community, until he was hired by Mythic) to declare “People are broken”. It turns out you can’t develop your game under the assumption that people are rational, just want to have fun without ruining other’s fun. A subset of players will use any freedom given to them to make the game Hell for everybody else. In designing MMORPGs, some of the most complex software in existence, you have to take human behavior into account and keep in mind that people will exploit, abuse and misuse any freedom or tool you give them if they can. Besides these problems, the game when finally released, was incredibly buggy. One of my primary goals in all my fantasizing about the game in the interminable period waiting for release was to become a grandmaster animal tamer. When I finally played it took clicking on three animals to achieve this goal, due to bugs. (Its likely that I wasn’t actually a grandmaster anything, but rather the bug mislabeled my level of experience; regardless it took away a large goal of mine). UO was perhaps the ultimate sandbox game, and arguably still the best that has ever been achieved in this area. Raph Koster, the lead developer, is a very smart man. You only have to read his articles to see this; but he was operating in uncharted waters, and the technology simply wasn’t there to achieve his vision. This is not to say I didn’t have fun playing. One of my most memorable moments playing MMORPGs came from UO’s first days. I had died somehow and found my way back to my corpse to try to retrieve my items. I saw my corpse surrounded my other players and found it mostly picked clean. I asked a nearby player if he knew what had happened and he said he didn’t know. I examined him and looking at his equipment noticed that he was wearing a particularly ugly helmet that I had found. I told him he had my helmet, he laughed and immediately gave it back to me. This an experience that would have been impossible to replicate in any other future game. The freedom of UO was enormous; sadly people abused that freedom to such an extent that removing that freedom is really the only way to make a profitable MMORPG.

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So I had followed UO for about 3 years of development, probably spending hundreds of hours in its forums. I think I played it for about 5 hours. This became a cycle that would repeat itself several times. I’d find a game that promised a lot, get really excited about it, read everything I could about it, then intensely read the forum for months or years. The game would release, be nothing like what was it was said to be in the beginning of the development cycle and I’d be bitterly disappointed. Or, as time went on, I’d see this process happening and jump ship before the game came out or just lose interest. I’ve played quite a few MMORPGs, but almost none of them for longer than 6 weeks, and few that long. I have however, spent the last 15 years thinking and reading about these games. Star Wars Galaxies, also designed by Raph Koster, almost got me to keep playing, especially due to its great crafting system. However to get to the really cool crafting parts I needed to grind out hundreds and hundreds of low quality pieces of crap that I would end up destroying just to skill-up enough. That, the bugs, and overly free-form style of game play made it easy to quit (some people love the free-form, sandbox type of game-I do too in theory, in practice I’ve found that I need more structure to keep me playing) The only exception to the above cycle was World of Warcraft, which I played to the level cap soon after it came out. World of Warcraft was hardly innovative in any way. It took the formula Everquest used, made it much, much easier to appeal to a more casual audience, streamlined many things, added quests, simplistic as most are, as a way to guide your leveling experience and released a fairly stable, bug-free game (relatively speaking). This made them a lot of money. I enjoyed the group combat enough (especially when I re-rolled as a priest so I was constantly in demand) to keep playing, made friends (one of whom was a “hard-core” player, the best “tank” I’ve ever played with and who got me into his hard-core guild) and got to the current at the time max level. Since I’d managed to join a relatively strong guild (my only brush with the hard-core, elitist branch of the MMORPG experience) I then started raiding. Molten Core was the main raid site at the time; in my first run I was lucky enough to get two drops, almost unheard of. (Molten Core raids were done with 40 players, each boss dropped 2-4 pieces of equipment. Our guild only managed, I believe, to beat the first two bosses while I was playing, so that was a max of 8, I think it was closer to 4, pieces of equipment for 40 players). I raided Molten Core once or twice after that. One of the times we wiped completely and accomplished nothing. Keep in mind that raids take a long time-organizing 40 people in itself is a challenge, getting them all to the right place, then spending several hours for the raid itself is a significant undertaking. Ultimately, the skinner box that all of WoW really is was all too obvious at the end-game, and I didn’t want to do the same raid dozens of times to gear up our whole guild, so we could do the next raid to gear up for the next raid to…ad infinitum. My hard-core friend also quit the game due to some guild drama I didn’t fully understand, my real-life friend who had played had already quit so leaving wasn’t that hard. I don’t regret playing WoW, the game was a lot of fun, especially from levels 40-60, the end game model just couldn’t hold me. Still, the game held me for about 6 months, so they made a good amount of money from me. After WoW I looked at a few of the other up and coming games. All of them either seemed to offer nothing appreciably different from WoW or I didn’t believe the hype. I finally came to the conclusion that until the technology increased to the level that the game I thought Ultima Online would be could finally be made, a sand-box game that generated content well enough to seem like a theme-park game, these games just didn’t have anything to offer me. Star Wars: The Old Republic is the first game since then to change my mind and give me that old feeling of excitement back. 10 years ago I may have thought of their approach as cheating, but at this point I’ll take what I can get. Many people, ignorantly in my opinion, call TOR just another WoW clone (ironic given how much WoW used to be called EQlite and originated almost nothing itself). They downplay the key difference of TOR, which, if they are successful, will make the feel of the game entirely different. That difference is story. Story, story, story. If you’ve read about TOR at all you’ll know how hard they push that feature, but it deserves to be pushed. Other MMORPGs really have no story, except maybe an over-arching world story that you have no real connection with or ability to alter. Each class in TOR has a unique 200 hour story. There are 8 classes. This is in addition to the rest of the content, the world quests, flashpoints, etc. etc. This story allows you to make decisions which will effect what content you access, to an extent not yet fully known. You can play the story from a dark, light or grey point of view (from a “force” perspective). So while there are two factions, one nominally “good”, one nominally “evil”, you can play your character as a “good/light-side” sith, or as a dark side jedi. In addition and interacting with the story is the companion system. You pick up a variety of companions during gameplay, that can do crafting for you, taking a lot of the tedium that often exists in those types of systems, as well as have them perform missions, ranging from diplomacy to archaeology (there is not a lot of info on what this actually entails). More importantly you can bring one companion out with you to play and fight with, especially helpful if you want to play solo, or you’re a group member short. These companions will be part of your story, opening up new quests depending on dialogue choices you make with them, and you will even be given the option of “romancing” your companion. There are quite a few other features TOR has that I’m interested in, but the story aspect is what sold me. Too often in MMORPGs you are killing for the sake of killing, or to complete a mindless quest that you got that requires you to kill 8 orcs, or collect 12 raccoon penis bones or whatever, for little discernable reason, and what reason is given on the “quest” is usually ignored by most players. The fact that you make meaningful decisions in a fully-voiced, cinematic presentation, crafted to perfection makes all the difference. That Bioware is the company making this game, until now known for some of the best single player RPGs on the market, from the recent Dragon Age games, to the older Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, to Knights of the Old Republic which this game is something of a sequel to, is reason to expect the best. A combination of the best of single player games and MMORPGs is one of the only things that could get me excited about this genre again, and until my perfect virtual world, sand-box game is finally made, it will just have to do.

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As far as I can tell with a quick perusal they only work with TV's, but I bet a master of intrawebs could get them to work with computers as well, and then of course you can play TOR with no one being the wiser! Buy and the darkside will give you cookies!