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Star Wars: The Old Republic

MMOs are stagnating and need to stop relying on Pavlovian trickery

MMOs are stagnating

The modern MMO is a curious dichotomy. It’s a risky genre in flux: subscriptions are out, free-to-play with microtransactions is in, and the threat of declining player retention looms over the games like a giant blade waiting to fall. Yet MMOs struggle to do anything new. They go through the same song and dance, aping design and features from games covered in cobwebs. 

It’s a genre that should be so broad that few MMOs look alike, but barring a few exceptions like PlanetSide 2 and EVE Online, they all share so much DNA they could be the product of rutting cousins. When you fire up a new MMO, the sense of “been there, done that” is so pervasive that it begs the question: “why are we doing this again?”

I cannot be alone in thinking that we’re just going around and around rarely seeing anything fresh or inventive. I confess an element of projection, hoping that I’m not the only person who played The Elder Scrolls Online and simply couldn’t understand why anyone would play it. 

I’m picking on the new kid on the block before it even has its footing. That is maybe a tad unfair when The Elder Scrolls Online is merely continuing a grand tradition of wasting the potential of the genre like so many other MMOs before it. It’s a symptom of a greater problem, not a cause. And, hell, it’s far, far from the worst offender.

In the end, one does exactly what they would do in any other contemporary MMO. Better than some. Worse than others. Even the ostensibly flexible class builds and lack of kill X or Y quests is just a smokescreen; the end result still being creating builds that are “viable” for the narrow path players are afforded and traipsing around Tamriel senselessly killing things and gathering quests. 

Why does an MMO need to be a loot-driven, combat-laden romp around a fantasy land? That’s a question I keep coming back to. It’s a rule that I can’t remember being etched in stone, but it’s certainly been followed by the vast majority. What was once a brave frontier filled with opportunities for genuine, player-driven exploration and sandbox experiences has become one of the most formulaic, dreary genres in the industry. 

I keep going back, though. It’s psychological. Of course it is - MMOs are the crack rock of the gaming universe, perfectly designed to ensnare people and just not let go. I’m Pavlov’s stupid bloody dog, drooling like an idiot because I’m only a few minutes away from another level, another ability, another piece of sexy loot. And you know what? I do sort of still enjoy that sensation. Endorphins are rad. Until I feel like I’ve been had.

I’ve been playing a spot of Star Wars: The Old Republic again. I genuinely enjoy the narrative, and my love of Star Wars has been like a cozy blanket on those cold nights where I’m churning through the miserable quests that have bugger all to do with the overarching plot. But I’m probably going to stop soon. I keep thinking about Star Wars Galaxies. Before Sony Online Entertainment savagely tore apart the game and instituted the NGE update, it was something to behold. 

Entire towns were constructed and run by players, where there were hierarchies, celebrities, heroes and villains, all living out stories that were entirely controlled by the players themselves instead of caged into the narrow vision of a developer. A class wasn’t just a series of stats and abilities; it was a path, a career that nudged players in certain directions but never restricted them.

A medic wasn’t just a player who ran around healing party members, it could be a doctor with a surgery in a player-run village, who would watch as battered and bruised adventurers staggered through the doors and charge them an arm and a leg to fix them up. And becoming a Jedi was a trial that took months of hard work, with the rewards being becoming a target for credit hungry bounty hunters. 

It’s at this point where I want to shout “Where the hell did our imaginations go?” But I don’t think they went anywhere. People still love to roleplay, and most MMOs have roleplay servers, but players don’t have the tools to augment their creativity at the mechanical level. It’s the designers who lost something. 

If this was any other genre, I might suggest that we look to indie developers to fix this dearth of creativity, since big publishers are already risk averse when they aren’t fronting cash in a genre that’s unstable at best. But the massive investment of time and money makes this a supreme challenge for smaller teams with no financial backing. Kickstarter could offer some hope here, though.

Indeed, crowd-funding has already led to The Repopulation getting funded by 343 percent. Its design is inspired by the likes of Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, touted as a sandbox MMO where you can build, explore, fight or be a pacifist. If you want to shoot men in the face, that’s fine, but you can completely ignore that and just raise colourful animals. The developer was asking for a miniscule amount of cash, but had already run a successful Kickstarter prior to this. 

It would be unfair to dismiss larger AAA projects, however. SOE has Everquest Next with its destructible environments and dynamic, changing world that contains the promise of consequences and player-driven adventures. It’s been a long time since SOE destroyed Star Wars Galaxies. Maybe I’m ready to forgive them? Given the time I’ve spent playing PlanetSide 2, maybe it’s already happened. 

I don’t think the MMO bubble is primed to burst; I think it already has. We’re now in a tumultuous time. With F2P MMOs cropping up all over the place, competing with other F2P online games like Dota 2 and the swathe of MOBAs, something needs to give. 

No longer can developers look at World of Warcraft and build on that foundation. It’s time to look at the road the genre failed to go down in earnest, offering real freedom and choices that matter that aren’t mere stat changes, not measuring success in loot and PvP leaderboards.

I want to get back to games where I genuinely feel like I have a vast, untamed wilderness to explore, cities filled with hidden treasures and players going about their lives. I don’t want to be dragged around by developers anymore, salivating every time someone rings a stupid bell. 

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Gwathdring's picture
107

This was pretty much my feeling after the Wildstar beta.

I played it, enjoyed the basic action mechanics for a bit ... and then came to the conclusion that the fun, zany, world was just so much wallpaper over the same game I've always disliked. It's fine if other people enjoy that game, but for my part I just can't handle it. The standard MMO formula gives me no option but trying to be The Chosen Hero in a world where everyone else is doing the same and most of them are better at it already since I'm fresh to the party. And then there's the Grind.

The action mechanics overlayed a system less elegant and well thought out than Kingdoms of Amalur's while Kingdoms of Amalur put most MMOs to shame not just in moment-to-moment mechanics but in terms of story craft and allowing you to carve your own path.

And then there's the stilted, barren worlds. It's one thing if graphical niceties aren't the focus; I understand bandwidth is a concern as is cost. MMOs are a pricey business. But Beyond Good and Evil *still* looks fantastic in a way the should-have-been-so-much-prettier Wildstar doesn't. Even aged Guild Wars did a far better job taking it's art style and using not-so-demanding techniques to pretty up not just the characters and effects and background but the 3D sense of place and environment. Guild Wars contained excellent visual composition--something it shares with the yet more ancient World of Warcraft. There is a lifelessness to your SWOTORs and your Wildstars that seems unconscionable given how much money was poured into making those games lookers and how much love went into their art design.

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Fraser Brown's picture
397

I felt the same way about WildStar, but I confess that I'll probably pick it up because I absolutely adore the art direction and I enjoy simply looking at it.

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Gwathdring's picture
107

Fair enough. I loved the dev videos and I'm sure their hearts are all in the right place. The setting has style in spades and the art direction is lovely.

It's just a shame there isn't a better game under there. Even visually, though, I was disappointed. I'm sure that some of the environments further into the game make do on the visual promises the game has made over its hype-cycle, but again I was really disappointed with the 3D environment design, point-of-view composition and map design of the areas of the game I played. It wasn't as disheartening as SWTOR.

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Shriven's picture
1473

You have no idea what I would do for a Real-world Detective based MMO. I might even learn how to program to get one.

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Fraser Brown's picture
397

You have your first customer right here.

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Shriven's picture
1473

I have a lot of concept work done already. Its basically set in the world of The Wire and once a week, you get a crime to solve. Solve it or no, the next week another case appears.

Oh and you get to shout "Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit" a lot.

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Natsume Blizzardqueen's picture
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I see no issue with "sexy loot" personally, but the constant grind for that next level is a pain. That, and well... way too many fantasy MMOs out there.

To me, it's not a matter of too many MMOs using the same "grind, loot, kill, grind, loot, kill" model, it's too many MMOs using the "grind, loot, kill, fantasy" model.

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Gwathdring's picture
107

Really?

I don't find thematic genre to impact play very much. Grind is grind. Ranged attacks are ranged attacks. Swords are swords. What matter is it if it's magic or lasers?

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avatar
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I dunno. My best memories of an MMO was leveling up my first character in WoW. Then some excitement raiding for the first time in MC, then ... boredom and repetition for 7 years. MMO's are virtual worlds and exploring them is, and has to be, a big part of the game. Maybe that hasn't have to be tied to a leveling process, but then where's the carrot?

My point is that people see MMO's differently and play them for different reasons. Some rush to the max level and want "end level" content full of technically complex challenges, some just like to socialize and join in whatever their "friends" play, some want PvP and endlessly complain about "open world PvP" and how it is dead, some just want the best l00t to have something to brag about, some enjoy exploring and questing and finally, some strange folk, enjoy RP-ing.

An MMO is a very complex equation, but most people are only interested and vocal about just a few of its parts.

As far as I'm concerned, I kinda gave up on expecting spectacular innovation from MMO's. The genre has refined its formula already and everything is now up to a few gimmicks and mostly how well they executed the idea behind the game and the game mechanics.

Rambling aside, MMO's sort of need to adapt to the, fairly obvious imo, fact that there won't be a new WoW anytime soon. People come to a new game, play it a few months and then, most, leave it for another game or a F2P/B2P they can enjoy without any obligation and on their own terms.

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Dog Pants's picture
888

Albert Einstein apparently said "Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." MMO publishers would do well to heed this. As a player I've had diminishing returns from them. I started with City of Heroes and Eve, peaked with World of Warcraft, and from then on I realised sooner and sooner every time I played an MMORPG that I'd seen it all before. I played SWTOR for less than a month.

The first publisher to fund a MMORPG which dramatically changes the formula while remaining a good game will make a killing.

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Gwathdring's picture
107

It is most likely a mis-attribution and it's also quite frequently a terrible sentiment.

Examples of where doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the proper response: Anything that requires practice, Rock Paper Scissors, fishing, calling a busy line, reconnecting when your Internet connection drops out, dropping acid, and so forth. Of course, these depend on your definitions of "the same thing" and "different results" but if you're getting that persnickety, using broad adages is a mistake to begin with.

It fails as an analogy as well: the problem here is that *they want the same result, so they try to d the same thing.* They want to be successful in the MMO space so they ape what has been successful before. That's not doing the same thing over and over hoping for a new result! That's doing the same thing a second time in the hopes that you can replicate your findings!

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Dog Pants's picture
888

Thanks for the philosophy lesson, I feel like the full minute I spent researching that quote was a terrible waste of time now.

I still think it's a fair analogy though. The only results I could imagine any of these companies wanting to replicate is Word of Warcraft, and so far none have.

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[5punk]Anery's picture
9

Surely the statement stands as none of these companies hoping to copy the success of you-know-who by copying the model have actually succeeded.

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Gwathdring's picture
107

Hmm. Sort of? WoW continues to be successful. They're certainly learning from their mistakes, but they're desperately clinging to the idea that if they succeed in doing so, their MMO will succeed. The industry is making better and better attempts at recapturing what made WoW work for an audience that grows more and more tired of subscription based MMOs and indeed of even mighty WoW itself.

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Zeusington's picture
25

Oh goodness.

People with post counts who ALSO feel like Wildstar is the same old song and dance? No viral marketers telling us we're wrong?

Most surprisingly... People who would call devs to creativity?

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Gwathdring's picture
107

For my part, I've been expressing disappointment with Wildstar since I got my beta key. :P (For which I am nonetheless super grateful! Thanks PCGamesN!)

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yuurei's picture
6

I really hate the term "MOBA". Multiplayer Online Battle Arena. By that definition, Quake Live is a MOBA as well. Call of Duty, too, technically. And every other multiplayer game that happens in a "battle arena"

But I digress. Good article, I've had the same thoughts for a while. Might I ask if you've been influenced by MrBtongue's video? ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nvK8fua6O64 )

If not, maybe you should give it a watch, it's quite good :)

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Fraser Brown's picture
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I haven't watched it but I will endeavor to do so!

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corrosivechains's picture
6

I have felt much the same way since quitting WoW(first about 1/3rd through Wrath then again 1/3rd through Cataclysm), and I think ESO honestly deserves all the flak it gets and more. It was the perfect opportunity to break the mold with enough IP recognition to do so successfully. Instead they gave us the same old thing with superficial changes while talking the whole time about how "different" they were, how this wasn't the same old song and dance. All it really ended up being was Matt Firor stroking his "intellectual(term used loosely)" cock reliving his high school football days with DAOC. It didn't work when he tried doing it with Warhammer: Age of Reckoning (which is an infinitely more suitable IP for the design), so what led him and Zenimax to think it'd work this time around?

Though I really like the sound of Everquest next and am considering buying into Landmark since they put it up on Steam Early Access...I just don't have much faith because Sony as a company has been imploding and that makes me leery of getting emotionally invested in something that may or may not stick around. Even if the games are successful it doesn't mean the company wont collapse. Look at the success the Playstation 4 is having, yet Sony is already talking about it being their last console on the market.

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Bluegun93's picture
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I bought landmark a while back when it first came out in the early access and it is fantastic. I quit it after a few months because it was just a crafting game and it got a bit tiresome back then but I'll be going back soon with all the improvements they'd made. Developers seem VERY into your opinions to the point where a lot of the improvements have been decided by players. So yeah I'd definitely give it a look.

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SkaarjGuy's picture
44

I can down here to tout RuneScape as the game that broke the mold before I realized the only original part of that game is the way quests are handled. Everything else is the still far too familiar slow grind to whatever, whether the thing you're grinding is EXP or Gold.

That being said, you're far from the only one to think ESO is a waste of time and money, Fraser. The first time I got into the beta, I played it obsessively for a weekend. Then next several times I got sent a code, I found myself playing less and less before I finally forgot I even got a code in the first place. The game has the heart and soul of an Elder Scrolls game, but it wears the disgusting guise of an uninspired MMO. It's like some disturbing frankenstein's monster of a game; ugly on the outside, with good intentions and legitimate fancy on the inside. Honestly, playing it made me want to go back to Skyrim and wait patiently for Elder Scrolls 6.

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I really wanted to like w* but in the end it just came down to that the game offers nothing new and interesting in a mmo. It does what so many before it has already done. You'd be better off picking up an older mmo and experience that since it has a lot more content than w* will have in years to come.

I wouldn't have said anything if w* was entertaining to play but I just didn't get that vibe from it. They're trying too hard to be funny in the game and that just makes it feel silly and immature in the wrong way.

The game isn't f2p, at least not yet, it'll be your normal buy+subscription fee. I don't mind that at all, personally I prefer it that way. I'm sure they'll get a lot of players the first few months then it'll start to dwindle after half a year or more it'll have turned into a f2p most likely.

People have way too high expectations these days when it comes to mmos. The case with w* is the insane hype going around it. Have you already forgot Age of Conan? The hype that was around that game is quite similar to w*.

As for f2p games and micro-transactions, I hate them all. I gladly pay $15 a month just to not see your average f2p leech player and micro-transaction store. They add nothing to the game but bloating the numbers up. That's a personal opinion however.

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Harmon's picture
9

I agree with what a lot of what this article has said. I have found, after playing many different MMOs in a relatively small time frame, sandbox MMOs are more to my liking. I finally learned how to play Age of Wushu and I love it. I'm also looking forward to ArcheAge because it seems to be done in that same open format. It beats doing the same old grindy quests over and over again.

The future of MMOs? Look no further than Minecraft. With it's incredible success it has proven that devs need to turn the game over to their community and the possibilities are endless and new content will come by the truck loads. Games like Trove, Landmark, etc are building on the ground work laid down by Minecraft.

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Mctittles's picture
61

Rare to find a games site with the balls to actually have an opinion on something without fence riding the subject every time.

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Smaug's picture
1

Wurm Online?

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An incredibly poor article. Over-wordy and po faced. Try and steer away from The Purple Prose and just tell the story with a bit of colour. No need to try so hard, kiddo!

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