MMORPGs: A biased history part 2, 2004-2013

If the clue wasn’t in the title, this article is the continuation from MMORPGs Part 1, which spanned the early years of the genre (1996 to 2003). Here I bring it home to where I pretty much dropped out of the hobby; real life commitments meant I didn’t feel I had enough spare time to be a useful member of an online community and without really being involved an MMO soon loses its lustre.

Do I miss it? I sometimes harken back to the good ol’ days when spending 36 hours of the weekend in my room really wasn’t an issue. But now I’m much more likely to be able to spend the odd hour in a game – so a solo game that comes with a deep story is far more appealing. So for now I’m going to stick with the mm-memories.

2004: Ryzom

RyzomMuch like Horizons before it, there was something about Ryzom that made it stand out from the crowd; and once again its uniqueness came from an evolving and dangerous environment that encouraged players to work together.

Another advantage was the lengths they’d gone to in creating a unique world; races weren’t your typical orcs and elves and there were no level one badgers to get bored killing. Instead it was a sci-fi landscape that really fired the imagination and better still, like Anarchy Online, it felt dangerous.

I remember an early experience in which I wanted to move from one area to another but it was too dangerous for us low level characters to go on our own. Instead we had to wait for a group of high levels to escort us across, protecting us (and some died trying) all the way. That’s a lot more special than walking through some ‘magic’ portal.

And you could just watch the world going on. Predatory creatures would stalk the edge of herds and kill weaker creatures while you watched, like some nature documentary. It was hugely ambitious and had me in awe – right up until I realised that the actual things to do weren’t really that interesting.

The world of Ryzom is still happily spinning today and it very much plays on its role-play and sandbox credentials to do so. It has regular interactive events with live NPCs, as well as an animation team in place to actively encourage people to create and write their own events. If my life hadn’t moved in a different direction, this would definitely be high on my list of MMOs to revisit.

  • Tried: City of Heroes (2004)
    As was so often the case in my MMO history, my path to Ryzom was a solo one as my friends opted for the villain-punching antics of City of Heroes. At launch it ‘featured’ empty streets, uninspired content and very little to hold the attention for non-comic fans, so I got out fast. Closed in 2012, but may return
  • Tried: Everquest 2 (2004)
    After missing out on the original Everquest experience, I did try EQ2 when it came along – but it didn’t live up to the hype. Original EQ fans were disappointed that the hardcore follow-up they’d hoped for was more of a linear, hand-holding WoW clone (see below). It was OK, just not what many fans wanted. Still going and free to try.

2004: World of Warcraft

World of WarcraftWhether you love or hate the cartoon graphic style, and despite its shonky launch, World of Warcraft easily holds the record for most MMO subscribers with over 10 million (Nov 2014).

And despite its detractors its easy to see why. Once Blizzard got its house in order the game was every bit as polished and smooth as you’d expect from a ‘Craft’ game. It was mostly linear, sadly repetitive and had boring/pointless crafting, but when it was this pretty, accessible and well written it was east to forgive it.

What World of Warcraft did so well was streamlining. It kept many of the fun bits of an MMO – the fighting, levelling and grouping – and stripped most else away. And once running smoothly it introduced fun PvP zones and endgame dungeons that required big groups to complete – just what most people wanted at the time.

I had a lot of fun with it initially and I’m certainly not a detractor – I hate people who get bored of something and then feel the need to go back and trash it. Personally, it simply became a drudge; when the thought of getting to the next level no longer excited me, I knew it was time to move on. This happened when they released the first expansion; I bought it, gave it a go, but the thought of doing another section for another pre-set 10 levels had lost its appeal; I was done.

  • Tried: Guild Wars (2005)
    Guild Wars took a very different approach to traditional MMOs, centring the action around small group ‘instances’ where you could group up with friends (or strangers) for short, violent little quests. While it was polished and very successful, and still going strong today, it didn’t suit my play style at all.
  • Passed: D&D Online (2006)
    This licence seemed perfect for an MMO and on first glance it looked great; but unfortunately it proved to be just another rush job with linear progression, a lack of content and no real staying power for most players. I don’t know anyone who stuck with it beyond a few weeks, but it still seems to be going.

2007: Lord of the Rings Online

lotroAfter several years of playing WoW it was going to take something special to challenge it; and that something turned out to be Tolkien.

It looked beautiful and promised a campaign running alongside the Fellowship’s journey, taking you to all those places in the books you’d always wanted to experience. Sold.

And for a long time it did exactly what it said on the tin. New areas opened up as you levelled up, revealing more beautifully rendered parts of Tolkien’s world – the elven lands being particularly stunning. And in each area your quests led you on a parallel path to the fellowship, meeting characters and doing quests that would clear a path for them, sort out problems etc. It was awesome.

Right up until it wasn’t. I really should’ve seen it coming, as exactly the same thing happened as it had with WoW. The first expansion came along, I started doing the next lot of ‘kill 10 orcs’ quests and lost the will to live: another expansion purchase wasted.

They have to keep creating content to keep the levelling brigade happy, but its just smoke and mirrors to cover the fact the true nature of these MMOs is the grind, not community – not building something together, as you did in Ryzom and Istaria. Here the challenge didn’t change – the colour scheme and numbers did, but little else.

I’m a lifetime member of the game, so may go back one day – it would be worth it to relive the storyline once more. And if you love Tolkien and computer games, you can play the game for free now – you’d be mad not to give it a go.

  • Passed: Age of Conan (2008)
    This had some neat ideas, with day and night essentially being different worlds and with an interesting combat system in place that felt epic, with you fighting several enemies at once on a regular basis. Unfortunately it was terrible at launch, being very light on content, and few stood by it. Now free.
  • Passed: Warhammer Online (2008)
    As it had to be with this licence, Warhammer was all about the PvP – which meant it held very little interest for me. It was never going to drag me away from LotRO, and the early reviews didn’t help its cause. It died a death in 2013.
  • Tried: Star Trek Online (2010)
    Another day, another woefully wasted licence. At launch it was almost unplayable, which saw me logging off in frustration after a few minutes each time I tried it. I’m not a fan of the show, but its such a good setting for a game – and it tried to do things differently, giving you NPC away teams to join you when solo. Free to play.
  • Tried: Star Wars – The Old Republic (2011)
    See if you recognise this story: great licence, rushed and almost unplayable game at launch. Yup, its probably the best summation of the MMO genre’s history. This again looked great in screenshots, again promised an interesting new take on combat, and again failed to deliver at launch. And again, it’s now free to play.
  • Tried: Rift (2011)
    With WoW and LotRO both having ended the same way, I was highly dubious about Rift. All it proved to be was somewhere for people bored of earlier MMOs to moved to, offering scant real difference beyond the ‘rifts’ themselves; pop up battle areas you could help defeat. Free trial and done for me – but it’s still going.

2012: The Secret World

The Secret World combatI wrote about my experiences with The Secret World at length already. After three months I still felt thoroughly immersed – but the astute amongst you will note I didn’t go no to write a ‘six months in’ follow up post.

As I’d feared character progression quickly ground to a halt and the second huge area, while challenging, really lacked the personality of the first. I saw little to no improvement in cabals and crafting, while the number of interesting quests (gaining knowledge, sneaking etc) seemed to really dry up.

What I was left with was a game which I wanted to explore the storyline of, and which has some interesting features, but that seemed wasted on an MMO. Everything interesting seemed solo, and having other players around didn’t seem to add to proceedings at all. One day I woke up and realised I hadn’t played it for two weeks, and didn’t care. So that was the end of that.

  • Passed: Guild Wars 2 (2012)
    Again, I passed over the second Guild Wars game as the play style didn’t suit mine and the crafting looks weak, but the more I hear about it the more I’d like to give it a go. The game seems to have done a lot to rid players of the tired MMO mechanisms that were really brought to their natural conclusion by World of Warcraft, with the action and storyline being closer to a solo RPG but with teaming for big battles – and apparently exploring is rewarded.

2013: Dragon’s Prophet

dragons-prophetFor a few months I found myself deeply immersed in the world of Dragon’s Prophet. It was new, free to play and, best of all, after about an hour you were riding around on a dragon – which would also fight for you in battles as a pet.

This was hugely entertaining for a while, especially as you can collect dragons and train them up, almost Pokemon style. They have very different characteristics to suit play style and you can switch them mid battle if you need a different ability set (perhaps extra healing, or more direct damage).

But unfortunately, once you’ve pulled this wool away from your eyes, you realise that underneath this (admittedly awesome) fluff is ‘just another MMO’ – do storyline plus UPS quests, get better items, move to next linear area, rinse and repeat. As soon as that initial shine had worn off, my interest was gone.

This is the end?

With Dragon’s Prophet long gone from my hard drive and nothing seriously tempting me to look at another game, this could well be the end of my love affair with the MMO genre. It’s been a wild ride but I just can’t help thinking that while I’ve moved on, it hasn’t.

When I think of what I want from a computer game nowadays, it isn’t the camaraderie – which should be an MMO’s biggest asset. And even if I was in the market, I think most modern games in the genre fail to deliver on the group/roleplaying experience in anything other than PvP combat.

For now I’m happy getting my social from board and card games, and my solo from computer games. But if the right game came along, all bets would be off…

One thought on “MMORPGs: A biased history part 2, 2004-2013

  1. Pingback: MMORPGs: A biased history part 1, 1996-2003 | Go Play Listen

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