Wednesday, July 04, 2007

MMOs - Why Me?

NB I have typed this up in Word first and have just hit 3 pages of Arial 12… I hope you have time for a bit of a read!

Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) seem to split the gaming community in three. You either love them, hate them or don’t understand them.

For those who fall into the latter category I thought I would have a stab at explaining what appeals so much about MMOs to me.

To address this I need to travel back in time to the 1980s and give you my perspective on the evolution of the MMO!

At school James and I both owned Atari STs and he introduced me to a game called Dungeon Master. Since the concept of multiplayer gaming didn’t really exist at that time (outside of sports/beat-em up games), we used to play together, with me on the mouse and him on the keyboard, in a kind of shared control co-op style! Hence the game took on a social aspect.

Around the same time a game called Gauntlet appeared in the arcades which was the first true multiplayer roleplaying computer game (in my eyes). Four people got to stand shoulder to shoulder playing a Wizard, Elf, Valkyrie and Warrior and if they didn’t cooperate they were going to waste their hard earned pennies! If you gave me the choice of one old style arcade game to have in my “Games Room” I would still pick a Gauntlet II machine (with Starblade a close second).

The concept of competitive multiplayer gaming (i.e. Death Match) on the PC appeared in the early 90s and really took off with Doom. Doom went on to be the baseline for all games of this ilk from Quake to Half Life to Battlefield 1942.

However in the background to all of this fragtastic revolution a silent group of computer nerds were mudding!

Multi User Dungeons (MUDs) were text based games which evolved out of the really old text based roleplaying games like “The Hobbit” that existed on the BBC Model B and similar platforms. They were the first persistent world games where people could interact either cooperatively or uncooperatively! I’ll never forget the first time that I killed a “Beastly Fido”! MUDs weren’t the first MMOs though, as they missed out on the first M (Massive). You played MUDs over a Unix based Telnet client which for me meant staring at a green screen dumb terminal in the basement of Appleton Tower. MUDding was good fun and if you could find like minded people who had similar free time to you then the social aspect was also there – Nick, Serena and I used to MUD on Tuesday nights and do AD&D roleplaying on Friday nights (to which James and Balint were also invited). The AD&D was still more fun than the MUDding though as the effort of reading the small text and typing to survive took the edge off the gaming experience.

Roll forward a few more years (we now have the Internet in a form that you might recognise) and Baldur’s Gate was released on the PC. This followed a game called Diablo which had started to get a cult following as being a possible “online RPG” but it was so badly hacked by cheaters that it was a waste of time in my book.

Baldur’s Gate was a simple principal - AD&D brought to a PC. You had a party of up to six characters and in theory you could either play all six yourself of hook up with a few friends and they could take command of some of your henchmen.

Those of you that remember Windows 95 may recall that it wasn’t exactly the king when it came to networking and so these multiplayer sessions usually turned into a bit of a mess as people disconnected and reconnected at regular intervals. Having said that, the greatest LAN party I ever threw saw six PCs setup around our living room with a different person controlling one character each. Pradeep was on hand by this stage to troubleshoot networking problems (he taught me a lot) and so we completed the spin off from BG “Tales of the Sword Coast” in one fun gaming session. Finally multiplayer gaming was approaching a level where it rivalled pen and paper roleplaying.

Now roll forward a few more months… Nick came to visit and brought round the install disks for a game called EverQuest (EQ). I let him install it as he had been going on about it for weeks on email… Unfortunately the game needed to patch itself after the install, which was a several megabyte download. We are still in the days of 28k modems, so that took most of the afternoon – we went to the cinema! That night he showed me round Qeynos and I was blown away by the 3D environments of this persistent world, full of strange likeminded gamers from round the planet.

Since Nick had two accounts he loaned me one and I played a bit of EQ over the next few weeks. I can’t say I got on very well with the game – it was almost too complicated – you couldn’t save (something alien to most RPG gamers – but it really makes you care about your character in the same way that we really cared about our AD&D characters) and by myself this meant that it was just no fun.

Nick and I agreed to meet up online and we played together – suddenly things were fun again. I didn’t feel lost as I had someone more experience there to help out and we could chat about other things whilst we casually thinned out the Gnoll population in Blackburrow.

Roll forward again. I had just upgraded my 56k modem to a ½ meg broadband connection and the speed was just ridiculously fast. Pradeep was living with us and also playing EQ. Soon Alex also joined us in EQ (James came and went) and along with Bob and Jackie (two Americans Nick had met online) the six of us would spend long weekends glued to our monitors and slowly ridding the world of Norrath of evil.

That was both the high point and low point of MMOs for me. When you get six likeminded people together in a group in an MMO and have time to play both regularly and for at least a couple of hours straight each time then the game is extremely rewarding. Of course that is where the downside comes in – that reward is very addictive. Nick was clearly hooked and both Pradeep and I became addicted too. This was not good – all three of us suffered because of this addiction and it took Pradeep and I a long time to realise and beat it.

Roll forward again. Serena and I are married, we have been to Australia, Pradeep and I are pretty much “clean” in that our addiction to EQ is under control (the need has gone) and the second generation of MMOs start to appear. Star Wars Galaxies comes and after reservations about a Sci-Fi MMO both Serena and I are spellbound by it – EQ is forgotten (almost). Over time SWG is seriously killed off by Lucasarts and EQ2 appears – we all jump ship and to be honest feel let down by EQ2 – some of the magic is gone.

At this stage Serena and I decided that MMOs were just too demanding on our lives, so we cancelled all our subscriptions and returned to doing other things. We still played games together – that was a habit that was too hard to break. BG had been followed by BG2 and a pair of Icewind Dale games, straight from the same mold. They were dutifully dispatched to the “Done” tray as Serena and I Duo’d them (and occasionally Trio’d with Pradeep). Next was Neverwinter Nights (NWN), which took the BG game and threw vastly improved graphics at it – again that got the LAN party treatment and was assigned a big “Done”.

Now this is where I hit a problem. Serena was generally more busy than me (she also sleeps a lot more than me), so I was often left to entertain myself. EQ had spoiled me – I missed the social interaction that went along with the gaming experience. Sure games like Morrowind and Oblivion were astoundingly pretty and had the style of gameplay I liked, but I was still playing alone. I would occasionally jump online with whatever online shooter was flavour of the month, but again there was no real connection with my team mates, as a game lasted no more than 10 – 15 minutes.

Hence I was seduced into World of Warcraft (WoW). Alex was already there and so I knew a fair amount about the game and finally I felt like I had come home. WoW is much more straight forward than EQ ever was (EQ had a massive learning curve that put most people off) and is structured in such a way that both hard core and casual gamers can get gratification from it at a level that keeps them interested. Graphically WoW is also a bit different from the other MMOs. Blizzard haven’t tried to be high end on the pretty, pretty front and in doing so have allowed gamers with less than top whack PCs to still get the most out of their systems and enjoy the full WoW experience.

WoW isn’t perfect though. If you have time to play regularly then you can find a good guild and the social aspect is there for you on a plate. If your playing times are more irregular then you are stuck with the companionship of strangers whose short term goals happen to match yours. As you would expect this can be a real hit and miss affair. You could get a 12 year old with no social skills or a 40 year old with no social skills! (Yes there are plenty of 30 somethings with social skills out there too).

So what now? WoW is fun, but the slightly cartoony graphics have prevented me getting too emotive with the game. I reckon LOTRO looks much nicer (which comes at a price as far as your PCs specs are concerned) and from my brief introduction I am already getting drawn into the storyline a lot more and care for my local community! I still miss the social aspects of MMOs from the old days – it is just not feasible for me to commit the time needed to play regularly with anybody though, so I am stuck with the companionship of strangers.

If you analyse the cost of an MMO (as most people object to paying a monthly subscription) I reckon Serena and I together spend about £300 a year on them – that covers off two subscriptions and two copies of an expansion pack or new game. Apart from a few highlights there aren’t really many other games that we buy, so at the most out collective spend is about £200 each on games. I reckon that compared to console games that works out pretty good value for money!

So why do I still do it? MMOs are designed to provide variety – I can play with Serena, I can play with Strangers, I can play by myself, I can fight, I can craft, I can explore, I can sit and chat, I can fight against the computer or I can pit my wits / “leet skills” against other players! – all in one game. OK so I can’t leap into my spaceship to check on my Spacefuel factories (but that is whole different genre) and I both understand and accept that! I can’t keep buying the latest game and play it through anymore. I just haven’t got the time (I only finished Half Life 2 a couple of months ago). I would rather invest my time (and money) into one game that keeps growing and evolving.

A Challenge. (Not really!)
Gareth – describe what you want to get out of a computer game and how much time you have to get that and I’ll try and tell you whether you will get that from an MMO or another type of game.


GK said...

Believe it or not, I found this post quite interesting. I used to love the old games such as the Hobbit etc but always used to just play on my own and struggle along trying to get to the next stage. I even used to buy the PC magazines at the time to get the tips to get through the screens (I had an MSX PC and my sister had the Sony Hitbit). I probably wouldn't have the time to get into the games now or organise to get lots of people online at the same time but still think I would enjoy it. This was a long post tho Jason!

GF said...

You think this is big? Try reading it on a BlackBerry!! :)

GK you surprised me, but very pleasantly. I knew you played the Hobbit but didn't really link it, what with you hating Lord of the Rings (or should I say refusing to read or watch it).

Jase said...

Yes this is a long post. When taken by the moment I can write in great depth! Especially on topics so close to my heart.
A few years back I was bored and wrote some fan fiction for a game I was playing. I emailed it to my friends and one of those passed it to his friends. Two weeks later the publisher of that game asked if they could reproduce my fan fiction in their E-zine. Hence , webwise I am a published author!
Ironically Serena has also written articals on Female gamers and the computer mags lap those up, so she has been published in a few mainstream magazines (which is more than I can claim)!

PS Gareth - If your response is long, do you want to email it to me and I'll give your response it's own blog entry?

GF said...

Nah I doubt it'll be long mate, just got to think it through that's all.

Maybe the reason Serena is published and you're not is that she can spell article! :-p

GF said...

Ok here goes...and it's probably a bit of a let down for you.

Part of me has to admit as just being jealous as I seem to be missing out on something I just don't understand so I want to understand it.

But also, I know that the type of game with wizards, elves and generally fantasy really grab my interest too. Am I interested in being stuck to a PC and having to play as a group of random people I don't know on the interweb? No, not really. I can see a co-op game with mates as being good, though happy to play alone.

I don't know what I'm looking for, I just want to understand and become immersed in a role-playing game rather than racing around a track or fragging the shit out of somebody for however long. You know, something different, something challenging, something you have to think and be cautious as well as simply running in guns blazing.

Jase said...

Don't be daft! Of course it isn't a let down.
From what you describe I think you should try The Elder Scrolls IV - "Oblivion". My only concern would be whether your PC is upto it graphically. TES III - "Morrowind" is a similar game and you can probably get it very cheaply now. Just watch out for the "Cliff Racers" (Very annoying flying creatures that piss you off when you are low level).
I pick these games because they are a lot less linear than any of the others. You are free to wander round the world if you so desire doing a few quests here or there (everything scales to your level) or you can focus on one goal (taking over the Mages guild, becoming an assassin etc). The game can also be quite tough if you over-estimate your abilities and pick too hard a fight!

As for other games already mentioned:

Neverwinter Nights (1 and 2) are very much along the same lines as Star Wars - Knights of the Old Republic (1 and 2). Just swap Lightsabers and the Force for Swords and Magic. I think you will find them too linear and boring at the lower levels.

Dungeon Seige (1 and 2) are extremely linear and fairly plotless. They are purely about killing monsters as efficiently as possible. They are as close to a "shooter" as RPGs get.

MMOs are probably not for you. You would enjoy them but the MM side of things would probably end up frustrating you... i.e. What do you mean I can't finish my quest because you want to kill the Orc Leader first?

Jase said...

Oblivion is suddenly very cheap - £18 at the most!
Morrowind (Game of the Year Edition) which comes with 2 add on packs can be had for £10.

Taz said...

3 categories about people??? Beg to differ.

1) Love
2) Hate
3) Don't understand (taa for the insult :P lol)

4) Don't care - which, let's be honest, is the category I fall into. I enjoy a periodic session in front of the PC beating up pixels, but don't feel the urge to play any MMOGs.


GF said...

I'm liking this last comment!! :)

For me I may feel the urge, but only if I understood them. I'm beginning to think that I do understand them, just that in my mind they were a greater thing than what they actually are...or again, maybe I don't understand!