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…

MMORPGs: A biased history part 1, 1996-2003

Back in 1998 I got my first home PC – I still can’t quite believe I got through my degree on an Amiga, but there you go. Once I’d got it set up, and online, pretty much before I did anything else I got immersed in the time-sapping world of ‘massively multi-player online role playing games’, or MMORPGs (or MMOs).

I’ve had a love-love relationship with them ever since, although in recent times the thrill has gone. Few of my friends still play and where once players stuck to a game for years, now there seems to be much more transience and cynicism; it becomes hard to keep believing in another new community only to see it fade just as fast.

I may return to them (in fact I may do it this afternoon – so fickle), but for now the long affair is over – so what better to do than mull of the good times with a tear in the corner of my eye, while boring anyone in internet-shot to death?

1996 (1998 for me): The Realm

Skye, GrowL and me kickin' some ass. Such realism...

Skye, GrowL and me kickin’ some ass, January 2001. Such realism…

The first game I got into was The Realm, which was already well established by the time I arrived.

None of my friends were interested, as even back then the graphics were terrible, but I found a thriving and friendly community of players and immediately fell in love with the MMO concept.

While it didn’t look the best The Realm managed to pack in a bit of tension on occasion, while having 300 levels to grind through certainly made it a game you had to stick at; and those levels didn’t come easy either – there was none of this, “Well done, you’ve completed the tutorial and are now level 10” nonsense.

I was happy in The Realm for five years and I’m thrilled to see it’s still going strong today. Better still, it has a monthly charge of about £5. Nice to see a game from 1996 can still go with a subs model and only a one-week free trial, while every man and his dog is being forced to go free with in-game micro payments. I really should give the free trial a go…

  • Passed: Meridian 59 (1996)
    As the first real MMO it was very tempting to give this a go instead of The Realm, but it was very much combat oriented – especially PvP, which wasn’t really what I was looking for. The game did die, but it’s back and free to play.
  • Passed: Ultima Online (1997)
    This was the first properly massive multiplayer online game, being the first to reach 100,000 subscribers. I also shied away from UO because of the game’s strong focus on PvP, but it is still going strong today.
  • Tried: Everquest (1999) Unfortunately I was a year into The Realm when EQ came along and was still loving it. EQ’s bog standard fantasy setting and graphics didn’t inspire me enough to move; but I kind of wish it had, as friends had such a great time with it. I did take a look at it later, when I was losing faith with the AO beta (see below), but by then the graphics had gone from uninspiring to laughable and the end game content had become all about raiding (which didn’t interest me).
  • Tried: RuneScape (2001)
    This was a breath of fresh air when it arrived: free to play, browser based and with lots of content. But the first two plus points seemed to attract every 12-year-old numpty on the planet and a short trial ended in frustration. But guess what – it’s still doing really well, with a HTML 5 version released in 2013, and is still free to play.

2001: Anarchy Online

Posing outside Wine, late 2001. I swear that armour was cool back then...

Posing outside Wine, late 2001. I swear that armour was cool back then…

Having turned down many a graphically superior game already, it took the promise of a beautiful and original sci-fi world to finally lure me away.

I got into the late beta testing of Anarchy Online (AO) and, despite the bugs, totally fell in love with the world they’d created.

And ‘bugs’ is really an understatement – the game could barely stand on its own two feet at launch, but many of us saw enough potential to stick around; and if anything this helped us bond as a community. We rather ridiculously wore that ‘we suffered through the pain’ badge with pride, but looking back now I’m glad I did.

Even today (AO is very much alive), while the graphics are clearly dated, the unique world, creatures and mix of ranged and melee, sci-fi and fantasy, still hold it up as an exemplar of what is achievable with the right imagination. Not an elf in sight. I spent a couple of very happy years with AO (you can get a feel for what playing it is like with an old diary of mine here) and it is my second most played MMO (in hours spent). I still revisit on occasion and am still amazed at the awesome complexity of character development.

Unfortunately while the game started out as a fascinating blend of exploration, storytelling, crafting and combat the most vocal part of the community – as always – was the PvP one. Crafting went almost totally by the wayside despite having an amazing system in place, while expansions focused on guild battles and grouping for battles. All I was really left with was a level grind, so I started to look elsewhere.

  • Tried: Dark Age of Camelot (2001)
    Another game that friends went to and that I had a very short dabble with. Again the focus was on PvP which immediately put me off, but worse was the incredible lack of scope; every time I tried to explore I ran into an invisible wall – utterly frustrating compared to the wide open spaces of AO. As for the generic fantasy world…

2002: Asheron’s Call 2

AC2 lugian

Couldn’t find a mudball screenshot 🙁

Some friends in other MMOs had joined the beta of Asheron’s Call 2 and once it went live encouraged me to join them. As I was in an AO rut I decided to check it out.

What I found was a slightly less generic fantasy settings: I got to be a ‘Lugian Raider’, which was a big grey thing that chucked massive balls of mud at people…

But the graphics were nice enough, the gameplay pretty smooth and overall I quite got into it – until my friends left for pastures new shortly afterwards as its lack of deeper content became apparent.

And the game certainly had its problems behind the scenes, with talk of its failure seemingly hanging over it from the beginning. Publishing wrangles between Turbine, Microsoft and Sony were pretty ominous from the start, with US and EU servers being run by different companies – rarely a recipe for happy endings.

It also didn’t help that Asheron’s Call 2 came out while a lot of big name games were in production and getting a lot of buzz, which encouraged many to stay where they were until some of the expected big guns hit the market (see below). It was a time of very stiff competition and AC2 simply didn’t have enough to stand out from the crowd.

The game finally died in 2005 but – you guessed it – is coming back again, along with its predecessor. there will be a one-time fee, after which it’ll be free to play – but you’re going to have to set up the servers yourselves as Turbine will no longer be supporting the games directly. It is hoped this will be up and running in 2015 and if someone gets it stable, it will be pretty tempting to give my mud-slinging arm another work out.

  • Tried: Eve Online (2003)
    There’s no doubt what an amazing achievement EVE Online is, making a truly epic space combat and trading game really come to life, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually any fun for the casual player. This game works best with dedication and skill, but more importantly when you’re putting everything you’ve worked for on the line in ‘winner takes all’ space battles. As a crafter, it was totally not for me!
  • Tried: Star Wars Galaxies (2003)
    I remember the first time I saw screen shots of SWG – it was Star Wars and I couldn’t wait. Even some friend who hadn’t played MMOs before committed to it so I had to give it a go. Unfortunately Sony completely dropped the ball with it – and just when it looked like they’d picked it up, they kicked it over the fence of that neighbour with the rabid dog wandering the garden. It’s hard to believe how much this stank on release, but even harder to understand the choices they made later in completely overhauling it just when they were getting it playable and on-track – it was is if they were trying to get it canned. It was put out of its misery in 2011.

2003: Horizons (now Istaria)

Me, working on my Istaria plot as recently as January 2012

Working on my Istaria plot, January 2012

Despite some stiff competition, I’ve ploughed more hours into the world of Istaria than any other – and I wouldn’t rule out returning either. It was buggy as hell on launch (a common MMO story), and its history was fraught with disaster, but it had the same key ingredient that had hooked me with Anarchy Online: originality.

But this time, not the setting: it is bog standard fantasy world with just a few different races added to the mix. You could be a dwarf or an elf – or a lizard or a cat – but most importantly for many people you could be a dragon. Better still for me, things you did to the landscape actually changed the game. Yeah, Minecraft didn’t invent that concept (and has worse graphics).

You could get together as a community and rebuild a bridge – which would then open up a whole new island for everyone. Or buy a plot of land near a forest and build a saw mill on it, so people could bring local logs to your workshop and craft them into items.

Well, you can now – and that was the theory in the beginning. Unfortunately at launch half the features didn’t work: a group of us spent weeks building a communal building, only to finish it and wait for it to appear – and nothing happening. At that point all of my friends quit – except me. Who can blame them?

I’m glad I stuck with it though, as no other game I’ve played has created such an amazing spirit directly through its own game systems, rather than relying on the players to use their imaginations. In the end the only thing that stopped me playing were protracted takeover wrangles. Servers merged, ownership changed and it looked inevitable it would fold. I got out before having that awful experience of trying to login one day to a blank screen.

But somehow it’s still alive. I did go back and had another couple of happy years progressing my old character again. I’d still be there today, but in the end the high level grind was just too boring and the guild I was in imploded. If I could play a day or two per month for free, or pay per hour, I’d have kept it going – but for the amount I wanted to play I couldn’t justify the cost. Bring on that lottery win!

  • Tried: A tale in the Desert (2003)
    A fully crafting oriented MMO set in ancient Egypt you say? I’m in! Unfortunately it was very basic graphically and simply wasn’t fun enough to stick with. Just crafting is fine, but just grind? That’s too hardcore for me. It does also have a government system, which appeals to many but didn’t do it for me. The current version of the game is A Tale in the Desert 3 – well worth checking out if you like your games without the bloodshed (and don’t need tip-top graphics).
  • Tried: Entropia (2003)
    Now retitled Entropia Universe, this is another game I might revisit if I won the lottery. Entropia stood out because it was pretty much pay to play via in-game purchases rather than monthly fees – common now, but deemed a rip off by most back then. You could eke out a free existence and hope to get a lucky kill (critters all gave a random value of in-game currency, so a lucky hit could give you a massive payout – which could then be ‘cashed out’ for real money). I got bored of the grind pretty quickly, but it looks very good now. Bring on retirement!

2004-2013: In part 2

The things I’ve taken from those early years in MMOs are the friendships I made and communities I was part of. I’ve made real-life friends from those days, some I’ve met in person (hello Ireland, hello Sweden!) as well as others I’m still in contact with on Facebook (hello Scotland, hello America!) who I’m sure I’ll meet up with sooner or later. I’ve made more long-lasting friends from MMOs than I did in three years living in Nottingham…

In part 2 I’ll move onto 2004, which saw the introduction of of a somewhat popular title named World of Warcraft, and later Lord of the Rings Online, amongst others.

Read more: MMORPGs: A biased history part 2, 2004-2013

Anarchy Online: Looking back on a walk on the Wine side, 2001

NOTE: I wrote this back in 2001, when I was at the height of my obsession with the MMORPG Anarchy Online. I found it in an old docs folder, having posted it before on a long dead website. I feel it really captures what was so magical about MMOs back then – there was very little hand-holding and you really felt there might be something unexplored somewhere out there in the world. Hopefully a few older gamers will get a kick out of it…

Weird chirropIn days long since past, a young Algenon (lvl39 at the time) and a slightly older Jayhawk were just chattin’ when I mentioned the rumours about a place called Wine.

It was meant to be way south of Tir, but no one I’d ever spoken to had been there.  As we both had a bit of time to kill, we decided a little expedition was in order.

While neither of us had Yalms my reet and speed buffs made us confident we could avoid the hardier foes, so we set off on a trip of a lifetime.

AO Lucky escapeAfter a fairly uneventful wander south from Newland and a scary stroll around Stret we followed a large river east into uncharted territory.

After a very lucky escape for me and seeing some truly odd beasties (see above) we started to follow the river south toward where wine was rumoured to be (far east on the map).

Here things were far less hostile, but strange and very, very big – I didn’t see anything but reds all trip. Also, we entered some zone names that were truly worrying. After many hours travel, I was beginning to lose hope, but then we saw buildings up ahead…

It was a tranquil place with a beautiful waterfall, a bar, shops and save/mission terminals, plus some very scary looking guns – and it was clan! Maybe it wasn’t the place; how were we to know?

But for us, for that moment, it was Wine. A mayhem area in the wilderness with some of the biggest clan guards you’re ever likely to come across. There were no other players in sight. In fact, we didn’t see a soul the whole trip.

Content, we headed south. Walking back would take forever, so we decided to go out Bonnie and Clyde style after a little more snooping around. On our travels south we found a place we think was called Twin Falls, a cool tree house and some even more bizarre and scary bad guys.

As we neared Omni country, it was either let ourselves be taken down by the enemy or try our hand at cutting back the local wildlife. There was something near us, but we couldn’t see it – even when it was within attack range. Jayhawk built a pet and sent it off to hunt; when it found its prey, my eyes nearly popped out of my head.

AO the endIf you’ve never seen a Desert Eremite, you want to try to keep it that way – never have I been made to feel so feeble.

From nowhere it rose from the ground, dealing huge damage while our attacks bounced off of it. Our journey’s end was how we had expected it – brutal, and quick.

So in all, it was a highly successful trip. I would advise anyone to head out that way as there are some truly amazing sights to be seen. I will end by thanking Jayhawk, who was such a good companion on this adventure. May we team up again, and soon.

CLOSING NOTE: ‘Jayhawk’ was in fact a guy from Sweden called Janne. We stayed friends in game and in 2002 I went to Goteborg to meet him. More than 10 years later we are still firm friends, seeing each other (on average) about once a year. I didn’t make it over last year; hopefully this reminder will make sure I do this.