Saturday, September 13, 2008

On MMO Fun.

I've been playing around in the Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning beta and I must say...bit disappointed. Is it like WoW? Well, sure, pretty much any MMORPG from now on will be in some way. And it is interesting...the new skills, the new game mechanics, the new all goes to proclaim that though it is like WoW, it's still its own beast. I personally love the atmosphere. There are no gay-looking elves dancing around giant cow-creatures here. Things are always on fire, screams can constantly be heard bellowing across the seared landscape, and the bad guys really like to watch blood flow like ravenous rivers. One thing this game doesn't lack is tone.

But is it fun? Well, it's still an MMORPG, so, whether you think those are fun will heavily bias your opinion. The quests are all still massive grind fests, albeit with a little more flare. But one thing I noticed in my 5+ hours with the game so far is the extreme lack of human interaction. Now, later in the game I'm sure this will be more rampant, but even at the lower levels I expected to see
some kind of otherly human presence. The chat airwaves are virtually vacant, and even in towns no one is asking for groups, help, directions -- nothing. No one is selling low-level gear. No one sees that you're doing the same quest as they are and offers help. Once, one time, during a public quest someone decided to make an open group for it. And it was cool and all, but everyone was still stark silent -- like an 8th grade dance where everybody is too awkward to talk to each other.

Will this change with the game's official release? Hopefully, yes. I found it a little disheartening that the public quests -- the new MMORPG additions meant to
bring people together -- had little to no effect on doing such a thing outside of slaughtering monsters and waiting for loot. Yes, instances in WoW in can be the same way, but people will at least talk to each other throughout the endeavor. I view MMO's as a different tier of human interaction -- after all, that's essentially what you're paying for with that monthly fee. Sure, the game is kinda fun and all, but really there are other ones out there that offer you more, better, faster, and better-looking rewards for less money. The human interaction is what makes the MMO. Now, this may be somewhat of an "O RLY?!" kind of thing, so just bear with me for a second. Take that same tier, and apply it to other, non-MMO games, and think about which ones are more fun.

Team Fortress 2
, with it's team-based gameplay and diverse array of characters (each with a fantastically developed personality) offers one of the best social-rich planes to interact in. Counterstrike is the same way because death is more than a stat penalty -- it (though temporarily) ends the game. Games that offer the slightest bit of originality to the player will often receive the benefit of being the most fun. Which is almost a shame, because games that, mechanic-wise, are really fun can spiral into nothingness because of this lack of diversity and interaction. Warhawk, for the PS3, suffers with this. I think the game is extremely fun. But, again, you're playing with a whole mess of people with no actual interaction there, and, aside from the paint-job of your Warhawk or clothes, everyone really seems the same. Unless everyone has microphones, of course, but that is rarely the case.

I guess, then, if you're going to make a game based around thousands of people being in the same gamespace at the same time, only to have the people not talk to each other, it's going to be somewhat of a problem. But going a step beyond that bit of obviousness, something that makes this interaction even more important is the MMO's lack of player-importance. Let me clarify what that means. In WAR (or WoW, or any number of games like those), you accept a quest to destroy an enemy camp, and rid a friendly city/town of constant murders, rapes, and desecration. You do this, get some XP (maybe an item) and move along. But, if you were to stick around for 4 more minutes, you would watch all of the enemies you just slain respawn and gear up for the next "hero" to come, save the day, and gain the same rewards. Kinda stupid (and exasperating), isn't it?

Now, many would argue that there is no way to overcome this stupidity because so many people play that same game, and, well, how else are they supposed to level up? How else is the story of the game world supposed to unfurl? Okay, those are valid points. But! If you, the player, are forced to accomplish the same extraordinary tasks that thousands before you have just completed, despite the (misleading) veil of worth being placed on such tasks, what, exactly, makes any of this worth the time? Other people. Doing such monotonous crap over and over by yourself borders the realm self-defamation, because ultimately you're unimportant. But with people, it's having a good time. It's socializing. It's accomplishing something as a team. And again, it's this interaction that you pay that monthly fee for.

I think WAR is trying some new ways to push this sense of worth further. The constant sense of war and forever good/evil changing battlefields certainly makes things feel important. And the public quests, in theory, are a great way to bring people together in order to achieve a common goal. But until people step away from that 8th grade awkwardness, help each other, and talk to strangers, these mechanics aren't going to do much. I remember back when I first played WoW (I don't play it anymore), even at a low level people were offering to help me, extending group invites and pointing me it the right directions. These feelings of interaction, although virtual, speak worlds for these games. It's no surprise that games like TF2 manage to tap into this sense of personal teamwork and succeed so well.

People in these respective gamespaces know each other even if they don't, and that's the kind of stuff that games should be known for. Years from now, most people will remember Warhawk for it being a good time, but not so much as being a social bridge. WoW, despite its soul-capturing abilities, will be mostly known as a social continent. I think so, anyway. Hopefully WAR is fun enough to do the same. We'll see.

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