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The MMORPG Bug Bites Again

Up until recently, I was playing DC Universe Online and Planetside 2.  But neither of them are exactly Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) for different reasons.
  • DC Universe Online offers a comparatively lighter, casual experience where you're encouraged to play for just three days, getting a character to the maximum level, whereupon you can just drop everything and start another character because there's really not a whole lot to do in the end game.   So it's really more of an action game with some MMORPG trappings.
  • Planetside 2 never claimed to be an MMORPG, it's a MMO First Person Shooter, and in practice it's basically just a slightly-kludgier Battlefield 3 with futuristic technology instead of contemporary weapons and a potential for a huge three way battle that numbers in the thousands of players (which is a lot more than I can shoot at once).
In other words, I don't go to DC Universe Online to play an MMORPG, I go there to play a superhero action game.  I don't go to Planetside 2 to play an MMOFPS, I go there to play my preferred Battlefield 3 flavor.  These are quick, visceral, casual-friendly games.
An MMORPG is something way different.  An MMORPG is a serious commitment.
  • True MMORPGs are games where you roll up a character fully with the expectation that it will be 300 hours of your life down the tubes before you see the end game.  That's ten hours a day for a month if you have absolutely no life... and most of us have bills to pay, so expect that to take somewhere around six months, at least.  
  • Then we get into problems with starting alternate characters because we bore of our existing characters.  How many more hours is that?  For some of us, it never ends, the "alt-o-holicism" robs us of ever seeing the end game.  This is usually where I'm at.
  • Lets say we get to the actual "end game," or the activities player characters at maximum level do.   Those are going to make up a potentially unlimited time investment as we compete with other players (in player versus player activities) or attempt to tackle the biggest monsters in the game ("raiding" in player versus environment activities) or "daily" activities (activities you can only do once a day for rewards).  These are essentially holding patterns for the developers to introduce more content for the players who have played long enough to exhaust all content but, if those players really enjoy that game, that's fine.
To a great extent, I can't do this.  I can't do this because my first MMORPG was EverQuest (to say nothing of text-based MUDs before) and I played nearly every single Western MMORPG that came out ever since, and it's just been more EverQuest.  World of Warcraft made a better EverQuest, it enticed ten times the players (and simple math will tell you that most of those players must have been completely new to MMORPGs) and then nearly every single Western MMORPG was more World of Warcraft.  In short, I have every reason to be sick of this type of game, even World of Warcraft was "old hat" for me, to the point where I could not enjoy it more than 4 weeks.

So what happened?  Why am I once again falling back into the brink of massively-multiplayer commitment?

Just this: I saw MMOG Grinder's video of Age Of Wushu.
Unfortunately, what follows is not a love story for this imported Chinese game.  Frankly, I found myself largely turned off by Age of Wushu's poor-quality dialogue translations, strange decision to allow NPC animations to mirror each other for no reason, and hacked-together GUI that seems to throw together a ton of different mechanics haphazardly while making each unnecessarily difficult to master due to the shoddy port job.  It does not help that they can't seem to keep their accounts from being breached by hackers, either.

Nevertheless, Age of Wushu excited me for the MMORPG genre by doing the following:
  • It's a sandbox game, not a theme park, because you are not driven from quest hub to quest hub as has been standard ever since World of Warcraft made a big splash.  Instead, you have a short introductory quest sequence, and from there you can complete a number of tasks a day, most of which do not have a set place but rather you seek them out anywhere in the world.
  • A complete player-driven economy.   Honestly, I've seen it done better than Age of Wushu - Final Fantasy XIV (for all its fault) had an extremely hardcore player-driven economy.  Here, it technically exists, but it's just trade skills plus the ability to set up your own stalls to sell things - pretty standard in virtually any Eastern MMORPG.  Still, throw "complete, player-driven economy" into the mix, and it's a nice addition.
  • Fairly deep combat mechanic.  There are players who have played this game for months and still have not mastered the combat mechanic.  Though the combat execution is somewhat "hotkey-based, but no auto-attack" - not nearly as visceral as the likes of Tera or DC Universe Online - there's nonetheless a ton of moves to learn and consider putting into your attack chain, and that creates depth.
  • An open-PvP mechanic, with full PK repercussions, and a school/guild war end game. 

    Now, let me just say I'm a care bear, a derogatory term hardcore PvP players assign to players who don't like being player killed (PK) or even PK in general.  (If you're not, that's your business, but this is my blog and I'm talking about the kinds of games I prefer.)  How could I, a care bear, possibly like a game with open-PvP?  Well, it's because of the reason why I'm a care bear: I don't mind the idea that player characters can kill each other, I just want it to be fair.  Yes, life's not always fair, but I expect my games to be

    Games like early (pre-Felicia and Trammel) Ultima Online, EVE Online, and Darkfall don't seem fair to me because there's an uneven playing field where:
    • Anyone - including those much more powerful than me - can kill my character. 
    • Not even on a battlefield where I expect to be killed but anywhere in the game, even when I'm minding my own business.
    • There may not be a damn thing I could do about it because they ambushed me somewhere I may not have had foreknowledge to avoid them.
    • I can lose a significant amount of progress for being killed.  (In fact, in early Ultima Online, you could actually take someone's house or boat, and those were not easy to earn!)
    • There's no karmic backlash for my killers, they either get away scott free or the repercussions for their actions is far less an inconvenience for them than what they got for killing me, resulting in a positive player incentive to PK wherever they think they can get away with it.
    A fair society does not work that way, why should an online game that claims to be fair be any different?  Well, these games often don't claim to be fair, that's part of their appeal to their niche of players.  However, I think that most players want a fair game, and this is why those games have a hard time retaining a very large playerbase, "all the sheep leave, only the wolves remain."  (Granted, EVE Online has a fairly large playerbase...that's actually pretty complicated because a lot of EVE Online players don't so much play the game as they speculate, and they only risk what they can afford to lose, and you can technically play the game never leaving the space with NPC protection against PKers.)

    In Age Of Wushu, you can kill almost anyone (very new players are immune) anywhere.  However, PKing indiscriminately (outside of having a valid reason like a school of guild war) builds up "infamy."   Build up enough infamy, you will be jailed upon being killed by another player, which is a game in itself that you will have to do in order to serve actual in-game time to be freed again.  How's that for justice?  (I used to get in arguments with people on forums about how terrible it would be to jail PKs, but I guess the joke's on them, because as of today being jailed for gratuitous, illegitimate PK is a system that has been successfully tested in many MMORPGs, and it may actually be a common fixture in many Eastern MMORPGs now, because it is in Conquer Online, Zero Online, Myth Wars 2,  and many more.)

    On top of all this, being PK'd won't cause you to lose a whole lot of progress, it's more of a slap on the wrist where you respawn with a little less money.  Consequently, it's hard to feel all that badly affected by it, it's just an annoyance.

    Of course, legitimate causes for PK are supported in Age of Wushu, and I like that, because otherwise what's the point of adding open-PvP in the first place?  In Age of Wushu's case, there are wars between guilds and schools in which you can PK if you want without incurring infamy. On top of that, could always collect a little infamy without it being a problem, so if you want to let that loudmouth in town know how much you dislike him, you can... granted, he'll probably just respawn, but he'll get dinged a little bit of cash every time he dies to somebody he offends, so in the long run the jerks do get what's coming to them.

    So there's my justice and fairness in open-world PK: people who kill my character for no damn reason are actually going to face ramifications for it.  Just like real life, except of course the ramifications are less because dying in a game is just a minor setback.  My whole point here is that, believe it or not, there does exist open-PvP mechanics that even care bears can accept
Put them all together, and Age of Wushu's game concept excited me enough that I really wanted to be a part of it... right up until I ran into those issues with it being a cheaply-executed import.

The game is also a bit of an unapologetic grind, and I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing, because its method of grinding has less to do with having to engage in repetitive activities and more to do with simply turning your character's "cultivation" mode on and waiting.  So, sure, it's a time investment, but at least they don't make you engage in monotonous player versus environment monster slaying (PvE)... in fact, there's barely any PvE at all, I think it only really needs to be done to complete instances, certain quests, or as a part of the "hunter" trade skill.

Despite Age of Wushu not working out well for me, that initial burst of hope was enough to get my hopes up for the state of MMORPGs today.  Here's what my current plan is:
  • Investigate Tera some more.  I hear the combat mechanic is rather good (although some may disagree), and the central gameplay mechanic of any game is the most important thing to me.  Personally, I'm not very impressed with it, but I barely scratched the surface, so I'm hardly in position to judge - maybe the combat mechanic is actually pretty deep, around level 35 or so?
  • Give The Secret World another spin.  Surprisingly, it's scored at #1 on MMORPG.COM released-game hype meter ratings right now (technically, it's tied with Guild Wars 2, a game that scored several times greater that TSW in terms of unique hits on the website).  My previous experience with The Secret World was that the story was great but the central gameplay mechanic became boring when I was unable to find a satisfactory character to max-and-match across the skill system to because the individual weapon categories (which make up your primary attack skills) were not distinct enough from each other.
  • Give Star Wars: The Old Republic another spin.  The gameplay here is relatively fun, but I think I stopped playing it mostly because the altoholicism had spun out of control, which is usually a sign of lingering dissatisfaction with the game that I believe was probably caused by the monotony of all those "daily" quests to do, but I also may have been torn between being a Jedi Councilor or a Smuggler, two classes with the same role in a party but slightly different ways of going about it.
  • Investigate whether to give Fallen Earth another spin.  This is probably the most virtual world-ish MMORPG I've ever played, with a fairly loose theme park approach and an absolutely balls-to-the-wall hardcore player crafting system.  The main reason I was loathe to buy it at release is because the combat mechanic was so rudimentary, but they may have improved that.  I understand that there's an open-PvP end game, and that may well be a deal breaker if all they did was turn on the "you can kill anyone you want" flag and left the players to sort it out like an overoptimistic anarchist.
Ugh, I'm back to throwing in my lot with theme park style games: there's just not enough virtual worlds out there.
Of course, if you lower your standards enough, there's plenty of sandbox MMOs out there... I'm more finicky than that.

However, there are a couple of good "sandbox" MMORPGs to consider that are almost released:
  • ArcheAge looks like it's potentially great, it even has the ability to build castles and siege them, as well as the aforementioned jail for PKs.  The combat I have seen in the videos looks no more advanced than EverQuest, but maybe I'm missing something?
  • Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is basically a second attempt to get Final Fantasy XIV to be up and not sucking eggs.  I know FFXIV had an incredibly robust player economy, but was far too lacking on the "adventure" front, which is a real problem when all crafting essentially did was make tools for crafting or adventuring.  A Realm Reborn may fix that and, if so, I can see no reason why not to sink infinite hours into it... but a monthly subscription is a very outdated thing to have.
But both games face the same challenge: yes, they may be virtual worlds more than theme parks, but I want their central gameplay mechanic to feel entertaining to me.  This is mostly going to be accomplished via depth.  Even Final Fantasy XI could pull this depth with some really kludgy mechanics, so it's going to come down to how well designed these games are.

So where does that leave me now?

There's a certain question as to why I don't play Guild Wars 2.  I really don't know.  Maybe it's because the ability to travel anywhere with a click is too immersion-breaking to me, but Guild Wars 2 just does not feel as epic as an MMORPG should, despite being a fantastic game with perhaps the best stereographic support of any PC game out there.

As I write this, Star Wars: The Old Republic is downloading.  I'm probably wasting my time: a theme park game that operates within World of Warcraft's central gameplay mechanic is not going to do it for me, and the main way SWTOR deviates from Blizzard's infamous prodigy that with that Star Wars trapping.

Tera might have a chance wholly because the gameplay mechanic is so very different, visceral, while potentially deep... but is it really, and what of the end game activity?  That's going to be a clincher.  I do know the game is drop-dead gorgeous (sometimes distractingly so) and I consequently can't say I'll mind the journey while it lasts.

The Secret World finished downloading yesterday and it definitely has gameplay the differs from World of Warcraft... TSW actually shares a lot in common with Guild Wars 2 and Tera, but is slightly kludgier than both.  (I've certainly used that word a lot this blog entry.)  I get the feeling TSW's end game is not really there, and this is instead a game to pick up and play whenever I exhaust the content but, with content this good, it's probably worth my time anyway.

Overall, my prospects aren't looking great, and I'm considering if I may have punched out of using BYOND too soon: if online environments excite me that much, but I have such fickle aspirations, making my own might be the only way out of this.

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