Friday, January 29, 2010

The Allure of the Modern MMO

empty-wallet I’ve never played an MMO.  I’ve never paid monthly for an account.  Never joined a guild or gone on a raid.  Never made a corpse run or spec’d my character for DPS.  I consider myself a fairly serious gamer, but I’ve never taken part in what has overtaken D&D as the true sign of nerddom. 

But I’m fascinated by them.  I can remember weekends in my middle school years, trolling the local mall, killing time at EB Games reading the back of the Everquest box.  The idea of going online and teaming up with other people to do things I’d only done solo in Squaresoft RPGs over stimulated my adolescent brain to an extreme from which a sugar high would be a relief.  Thankfully (for my mom’s credit card), I never made the leap.  But I had friends who did, and I always secretly envied them.

While the “Buy my virtual couches with your virtual-but-real money” world of Second Life gives me the heebie-jeebies, the sociological implications of these virtual spaces excite me much as the allure of cooperative adventuring excited a younger, slightly more pimpled me.  Are the online bonds established between guildmates any less valid than those formed by varsity teammates in high school?  How might the dog-eat-dog universe of EVE Online reveal potential pitfalls in a real rampantly capitalist society?  These worlds have their own customs, their own lingo.  “Slash Dance” means nothing in the club scene.  But “/dance” is usually a lighthearted invitation to MMO good times.

High-brow questions aside, I’m incredibly scared of any MMO’s potential to disrupt my life and devour my bank account monthly chunk by monthly chunk.  But that doesn’t stop me from getting excited by them.  Three major MMO releases glimmer on the horizon, each one more tantalizing then the next.  So much promise, so many reasons to give my wallet to a friend and say, “Don’t give this to me unless I am starving.” 

Boldly Going Where No MMO Has Gone Before (Sort Of)

After two developers and countless years of work, Star Trek Online launches next week.  Cryptic Studios, the folks behind City of Heroes and the critically-underwhelming Champions Online, acquired the license and finally brought the potential cash cow to market.  Lucky for STO, most of us are still reeling from J.J. Abrams’ excellent franchise reboot.  Hell, Zachary Quinto recorded some narration for the MMO. That’s a lot of good will on which to capitalize.

I’ve been watching GiantBomb’s hilarious coverage of the open beta, and I must say I’m intrigued by STO.  On a very basic level, the game mixes up the common MMO formula by offering both ground (“Away Team” missions) and ship combat.  Sometimes you’ll roll around with a party of officers, others you’ll be engaging in space combat with a distinctly naval feel.  On the surface, this doesn’t sound special.  Of course a Star Trek MMO would let you do both.  But I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of two largely different gameplay types occurring in a successful, large-scale MMO (the three Star Wars: Galaxies fans out there should feel free to correct me). 

Cryptic’s M.O. for MMOs is heavy amounts of instancing.  This means most missions are sectioned off from the world around them, allowing only a slice of participating players at time.  500 people might be saving Vulcan from invading Klingons, but the game will partition them into groups of 15 or 20.  Rare are times when you’ll see scores of other people running through the world.  Some might argue this undercuts the “massively” part of Massively Multiplayer Online games.  And they’d be right, to an extent. But the flipside, as Philadelphia writer Daniel Nations puts it, is that instances “provide an area that dynamically reacts to the player's actions.”  This allows for more story-driven, episodic content.  Something fans of Star Trek will probably enjoy.

Gaming’s Best Storytellers Tackle an Online Republic

The promise of a focused, story-driven experience certainly makes Star Trek Online promising.  But few have advanced far enough in the game to encounter the more complicated material, so there’s still scant word on how that content actually functions.  Meanwhile, BioWare isn’t being shy about its lofty goals for their upcoming MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic. In 1998, if you’d asked me which would be better, three new Star Wars movies courtesy of George Lucas or a completely made up Star Wars fiction from the folks behind Baldur’s Gate, I’d have laughed and bought your movie tickets.  Little did I know that BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic would stand the test of time far better than any of Lucas’ godawful prequel trilogy.  So when BioWare said they’d figured out a way to bring their robust storytelling abilities to bear on an MMO set in the Old Republic universe (and delivered a slick trailer, to boot), my ears naturally perked up. 

Preview coverage implies that players in parties will get to make tough moral decisions together, advancing story in a way poor old The Matrix Online could’ve only dreamed of.  It’s not like MMOs have never had stories, but plot’s always played fourth fiddle to loot, level caps, and PvP.  For five years now, the MMO landscape’s been dominated by World of Warcraft, a game so relentless and well-crafted that the only way anyone’s going to capture more than a small slice of the market will be by reinventing the wheel.  Making a story that matters wouldn’t be a bad place to start.

One Game to Rule Them All

What started as an online spinoff of a popular real-time strategy series has now become as public a face of gaming as Mario or Grand Theft Auto.  I’ve mentioned before that WoW’s grown large enough to warrant a South Park parody.  And Sam Raimi’s decided not to make Spider-Man 4 because he’s too busy earning billions of Blizzard bucks.

Typical wow craziness. WoW built upon the success EverQuest had after it pounded Ultima Online into submission.  So what if it’s largely ripped from Lord of the Rings and other fantasy lore?  You can play a wide variety of races and classes, equip your character with a myriad of useful (or useless) decorative crap, and piss off your friends who spent a week coordinating everyone’s schedules so you could spend three hours raiding in the hopes of getting even more decorative crap.  Plus, it’s all been streamlined to the nth degree, making it accessible to even the most casual of gamers – and why every pretender to the throne (Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Warhammer, Aion, etc.) eventually rescinds from the public eye, tail between its legs.

But it’s not WoW’s preposterous pedigree that has me chomping at the bit.  I’m blown away by Blizzard’s plans for the next expansion, Cataclysm.  When Cataclysm goes live, even low-level areas of the game will be ravaged when a giant dragon bursts out from underground or some such crazy shit.  People who buy the expansion pack will be able to access new areas and races, but even those with the base product will see significant changes to the world.  If that’s not an incentive to roll a new character in a five-year-old RPG, I don’t know what is.  By creating a living, breathing online world and then completely reinventing it, Blizzard raises the bar yet again for post-release MMO support.  They may have just raised it entirely out of reach.

The Trickle Down, Down, Down Effect

As many gamers as there are who play MMOs, there are just as many (if not more) that don’t.  But that doesn’t mean they aren’t subject to the trends of this immensely popular genre.  The console wars now take place online, and persistence is the hot ticket.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is just one popular online shooter with levels and unlocks not unlike an MMO.  In Demon’s Souls, players inhabit a world filled with the ghosts of other fallen players and can team up with them to tackle particularly hard enemies.  Even the simple act of playing games on Xbox Live earns you what are essentially experience points.

MMOs are becoming increasingly harder to ignore.  And with such high profile releases on the way, I just hope I can continue to ignore the burning desire to spend money on them.  If not, Andrew, will you hold my wallet?