Rewind the Grind: 4 Massively Multiplayer Online Games worth getting excited about

Shaun recommends stepping out beyond World of Warcraft...

MMORPGs are perhaps the most deservedly excoriated genre in gaming. They’re reviled because many of their common conventions and mechanics are so mind-shatteringly dull. In fairness these mechanics have their fans. For most gamers, though, the obsessive-compulsive approach to incremental loot and stat boosts is just a guilty pleasure to be indulged in moderation.

If you disagree with these statements I’d suggest skipping the rest of this article and going straight to the comment threads to insult me. Or, better, we can agree that we have different approaches to playing games and both get on with our lives. My previous writing about MMOs has invited some charming abuse, so I figured I’d best get this little disclaimer out of the way early. For the record I’m not insulting anyone who plays these games, just the games they choose to play. Not the same thing.

Getting back to my point, you only have to look at some of what’s being peddled to get a feel for the overwhelming majority of MMORPGs on the market. They have or had their fans but the Everquests and RF Onlines, the Auto Assaults and Archlords of this world are not games that most people would consider fun. Whether it’s due to the tedious grind that seems to constitute the entirety of the game or crippling bugs that destroy any semblance of an enjoyable gaming experience, many players would rather eat their own feet than make it to level 15, socks and all. And even the successes of the genre often seem to offer little that is genuinely new – Lord of the Rings Online, by all accounts a polished experience as MMORPGs go, is a fine example of this sort of glacial change from what has come before.

And yet developers continue to fling themselves wholeheartedly into the MMO market, each hoping to achieve the level of success Blizzard enjoy. It’s no surprise, really: at the last count World of Warcraft boasted 10 million subscribers. This is the high point. Following that up are Lineage II – an extremely popular grindfest in Korea – with one million and the web-based Runescape with the same. Relative newcomer Age of Conan has claimed 700,000 subscribers in its first few months (of course, this figure will include players enjoying free trial accounts, and may yet decide not to subscribe), and long-lived space-based MMO EVE Online has about 250,000 active accounts. Yet in today’s competitive environment most MMOs crumble and fade into obscurity reasonably quickly, developers and publishers retracting support once it becomes obvious that the game isn’t going to prove a golden goose.

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Many of us have gone through a very intense relationship with one MMORPG or another. Statistics make it clear that for the bulk of us it was World of Warcraft, whilst others found City of Heroes/Villains provided their poison of choice (I count myself among this number), or perhaps Dark Age of Camelot, Guild Wars and Anarchy Online offered some hours of fun. The wise and grey may have been around for the heyday of Ultima Online, Everquest or even Meridian 59. The really unfortunate have ended up miserably trudging around the likes of Final Fantasy XI, games either cripplingly repetitive or just crippled by design.

What most of these games have in common is that they stick to a broad formula. The levelling systems in the aforementioned games are very similar, with most sticking to a WoW-style levelling system, or to a more skill-based system like Anarchy Online and Guild Wars. EVE Online is the obvious exception to this rule but it has always been a bit of a black sheep in the MMO family, offering an incredibly rich and diverse experience of corporate espionage, warfare and political manoeuvring to some, and an unspeakably dull and meandering trudge through the void to others. 

I digress: let’s get back to the MMORPG formula. Typically the player can be expected to spend a very large amount of time doing remarkably similar things. “Fetch me ten pains-in-the-arse,” many a local druid has demanded, and what choice has the roving hero but to obey? Sometimes the mission might instead be an off-hand “kill twenty suspiciously-similar squawking critters,” and off you go to maim and slaughter some endlessly respawning identikit baddies. Yawn. Even the NPCs seem bored. No surprise there: they’ve made the same demands hundreds of thousands of times.

So many gamers are now so vocal about how they’re bored with MMOs that it’s a common marketing line to promise something new. Okay, in terms of people who actually play MMOs they’re probably a minority, but they’re a sizable and vocal one, and clearly developers and publishers are picking up on this. Besides, quite a lot of gamers are lapsed MMORPGamers of some allegiance or another. Who wouldn’t want to draw this ready-made market back in?

So, for example, Richard Garriot’s Tabula Rasa made a big deal about how innovative and original it was, promising territory that changed hands between factions and a game experience that was structured like an MMO but played like a shooter. The latter sounded nice enough – I like some skill alongside my stats – but it was the former that captured my imagination. I imagined a constant battleground torn asunder by shifting front lines; daring incursions into enemy territory; and life-or-death battles for control of essential strategic points. I was obviously disappointed when I instead encountered small, hapless enemy squads that steadily respawned in isolated pockets and the same tedious collecting missions that became a running joke several years ago. Come on now, this is space – I have a laser rifle and psychic powers! I don’t want to collect herbs for your magic fucking potions.

So, with my feelings on the state of the MMO front and centre in your mind, and the hardcore MMORPG fans already determined I’m a clueless fool who just doesn’t get it, here are some MMOs that I think it’s worth keeping an eye on – because they’re promising something different, and they might actually deliver.

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Love (aka For The Love Of Game Development)

Love is an exploration-based MMOG. Almost everything about it is totally unique in the convention-strangled genre of the massively multiplayer online game. For a start, Love isn’t really designed for huge numbers of players; its creator, Eskil Steenberg, has even said that money isn’t that relevant to the project and he only needs about 200 subscribers to make it self-sustaining. It’s also being coded entirely by just one man using open source tools.

The game universe is mostly procedurally generated, which obviously helps when you’re working on a project alone, but which also lends an organic, naturalistic aesthetic to the game. The visuals are also gorgeous, looking for all the world like an impressionistic watercolour painting of an expansive dreamland. The bulk of Love’s content is to be user-driven, with player’s actions and experiences affecting the procedurally generated game content for all players. You’ll find no solo instances here.

Since Love is quite an obscure title I’ve collected a few links in case you want to read more. There’s an interview with the developer, an unfortunately jerky video, and some screenshots on Steenberg’s blog. Enjoy!

APB (aka All Points Bulletin)

APB is a new project from Realtime Worlds, new darlings of the Scottish videogame industry, who are primarily known for their only previous release, Crackdown. Crackdown saw you adopting the role of an elite cyborg agent who had to take down the crimelords of a gang-infested city. In APB players will be able to play on either side of the law. With the designer of the original Grand Theft Auto onboard, hopes that the urban battlegrounds over which Enforcers and Criminals will struggle for dominance have some solid foundations.

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On top of this the game promises continual, 24-hour conflict over territory, varied mission types to allow character growth (Criminals rob banks, Enforcers seek to prevent them; both classes are united by the need to fund their weaponry, vehicles and appearance, all of which change how they interact with the game) and automatic ‘matchmaking’ (so that players are matched against a group of roughly equal skill – which might mean two higher-level Enforcers against six medium-level Criminals, which will demand effective teamwork and tactics from both sides). The core gameplay is closer to action-oriented genres than traditional MMORPG stat-grinding, allowing players to focus on the ways in which they interact with the world and other users.

APB will be released on PC, PS3 and 360 sometime in 2008 – I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it delivers on its substantial promise, and that the cross-platform release won’t hamper it.

Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning

Out of all the MMOGs I’ve listed here Warhammer Online is the most traditional. For some time after it was first announced it promised great things, including – most impressively – doing away with traditional levelling structures altogether. Unfortunately a lot of these early promises have turned out to be a bit Peter Molyneux (an industry euphemism meaning “to talk shit about your forthcoming game”, and also “to ensure that your game suffers unfairly from all the hype you generated”), but the game remains intriguing. It’s set in the ludicrously over-the-top Warhammer universe, which has always skilfully maintained a fine balance between the grim portentousness of its epic wars and tales of heroism, and the pure tongue-in-cheek glee of its bizarre inventions and high fantasy pastiche.

Large-scale battles that change the game world are promised to players from the get-go, allowing participants to fight alongside their racial kin against traditional enemies, with the ultimate aim of invading and sacking the opponent’s capital. I assume that I’m not alone among Den of Geek’s readers and contributors in having devoted many years of my youth to Games Workshop titles, and thanks to the residual traces of that inner fanboy I’m desperately clinging to my optimism about this title.

To keep me amused until the game’s release I have the wonderfully daft creative director Paul Barnett to keep me hopeful. At least one man at Mythic Entertainment clearly gets the Warhammer universe – and beneath the silly gags and cheap shots there’s a keen, insightful mind. Read a few interviews with the man to see what I mean.

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Metaplace is, in many ways, the next logical stage of evolution for both social networking and the MMORPG. This isn’t really as odd an assertion as it sounds: social networking sites are all about presenting an image of ourselves to the world and, from that cultivated self-image, communicating with others. Don’t pretend you never tried to make yourself look cool on your profile, by picking out a particularly good photo or name-dropping some hip bands. We’ve all been there. Similarly, an MMO demands that players adopt a role informed by their own preferred style of play – their personality – and then allows them to interact with other people who are also playing similarly-informed roles. With both social networking and MMORPGs people are interacting through virtual personas in digital environments. It’s just that until now, one has been much closer to reality and the other some distance into fantasy.

At any rate, that’s the idea here. A lot of people just play games and chat online, right?

Anyway, Metaplace looks like it intends to take the ideas developed during Second Life’s lifetime and bend them to new purposes. Basically it’s about providing users with their own tools and allowing them to do their own thing, building the world they’d like to explore and play in. Metaplace is the infrastructure, the umbrella environment – and users make games within this.

By taking this route Metaplace also dodges the twin bullets of astronomical development costs and the innovation-stifling conservatism that goes hand-in-hand with huge budgets. It’s clearly aimed at the vast modding scenes that surround many PC games as well as the enthusiastic entrepreneurs and 3D modellers who seem to constitute the majority of Second Life’s population (there are also the people who like to fly around on giant phalluses, but I guess they’ll be catered for too).

In terms of pedigree it’s worth noting that the team behind Metaplace includes Raph Koster, one of the creative minds behind Ultima Online. Whatever your feelings about the game itself might be it should be remembered that that was the first really big MMORPG hit.

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If you’d like to read more about Metaplace then there’s an extensive interview with Koster to be found here.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

Just kidding guys – I bet it’ll be the same old crap.

Let the two minutes’ hate begin!

Shaun Green blogs intermittently at Nostalgia For Infinity, where he writes about books, games, criticism, short stories, music, and whatever else takes his fancy.