Thursday, March 31, 2005


EQ2, the MMO Whipping Boy

A lot of the criticisms I have about EQ2 are true of most/all other MMOs, too. I'm picking on EQ2 because:
1) It has the best technical foundation
2) SOE has more money/resources with which to improve it
3) SOE is "losing" right now, which means they will probably be more willing to try new things. Blizzard, on the other hand, has adopted the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mentality, which means that WoW will probably remain a stale EQ-Diablo hybrid that offers nothing new to the genre.
4) It's the only MMO I still play, so it's easier for me to comment on it

I think the main problem with MMOs is that the core gameplay is based on an increasingly obsolete genre.

Adventure games have a similar problem: fifteen years ago, click-on-every-pixel gameplay--found in titles like King's Quest--was standard fare. There wasn't anything out there that offered the same features (good graphics, good story) and was significantly more compelling in terms of gameplay mechanics. Nowadays, good graphics and a good story are found in titles across all genres, leaving the adventure genre with only niche appeal because its core gameplay is not inherently fun to most people.

EQ2 and nearly all other MMOs have their roots in CRPGs and MUDs. The basic gameplay mechanic in these genres is: push a button, and see the result of combat. It is about 10% strategy, 20% luck, and 70% foregone conclusion.

It is the last element that is most damning. In EQ2 and other games of its ilk, you almost always know the result of the upcoming battle ahead of time. The game encourages you, through faster experience rewards and the threat of penalties for dying, to fight only monsters you know you will beat. This design flaw leads to the phenomenon known as "grinding". Players will repeat the same boring actions for hours at time (sometimes over a period of months/years) because they want to improve their character quickly.

What makes the gameplay in the MMO genre increasingly niche is that it, like the CRPGs and MUDs it came from, relies almost solely on the appeal of character advancement, in the same way that the adventure genre relied on good story and graphics. It's still using the old roll-a-die-and-win-because-your-stats-are-good mechanic, which your average casual gamer doesn't find particularly appealing. Character advancement and persistent characters are still very appealing to the large majority of gamers; however, other genres have adopted the character advancement aspect of the game and have paired it with more popular game mechanics. For example, Deus Ex's character advancement system gives your character advantages, but the results of enemy encounters are not a foregone conclusion because success is largely dependent on user skill. Inevitably, there will be an online game that offers both skill-based gameplay (rather than stats-based) and persistent character advancement. (I've written up a concept for one, and I hope to make it someday.)

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