Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sunday Sidebar: MMO Fatigue: Is it affecting you?

If I had to choose one particular genre that made leaps and bounds in recent years, it would be that of Massively Multiplayer Online games. If the ’80s were the epoch of the arcade, the ’90s a realm of first-person shooters, I would argue that in the here and now, the post-broadband era of the games industry has been defined by the rise of multiplayer online gaming, and no genre better unifies this concept than that of the MMO. For many players, the excitement and social buzz of playing a game simultaneously alongside hundreds, if not thousands, of other people is irresistibly engaging. For every scare story of babies dying due to parental MMO addiction, there is another of those who meet in-game, fall in love, and live (at least so far) happily ever after.

Too many people spoils my gaming broth.
For outsiders (myself included), the juxtaposition of intense social interaction and gaming can seem jarring. Depending on your gaming background, the idea of sharing a world with a cavalcade of other people can seem unappealing and invasive. It can even feel like it’s not a ‘true game’. In some respects, this holds true. My issue with the MMO genre is that they are games that cannot be won. There is little to no sense of outright competition inherent to their playstyle. Of course, this begs the question of what defines a game? Fans of the genre can easily offer a rebuttal through concepts such as PvP servers, or the co-operative modes exemplified in raids and instances, but these are mere elements of the whole.

It’s safe to say that the vast majority of Western MMO players have been introduced to the concept through the medium of World of Warcraft. You simply cannot discuss the topic of MMOs without addressing the huge and wide-ranging influence that this game has had not just on MMO culture, but on gaming culture as an entirety. Frequently, it inducts new members to the gaming community; including those who perhaps might not have been otherwise inclined to dip their toes in such treacherous waters. For years now, WoW has been the game to beat. It is outstanding in its field – the MMO by which all others are judged, both for better and for worse. By and large, it has swatted its competitors with relative ease. That was, until last month, when BioWare and EA finally launched their highly anticipated entry to the MMO world – Star Wars: The Old Republic.

SWTOR had a rich lore built around it, and
a financial dream of a franchise to base itself on
Those who weren’t sold on the MMO concept could feel tempted by the Star Wars franchise, while those who had little interest in Star Wars (raise your hands) were coaxed through the presence of BioWare – still one of the industry’s most respected developers, and the cream of the crop in terms of RPGs. In short: SWTOR had something for almost everyone. Most notable to me, however, were the amount of people who were seeing SWTOR, and starting to actively consider emigration from Azeroth – WoW players.

Yet of almost every person I have heard speak of playing SWTOR, the song remains the same: Pre-release, everyone was super-excited. It was as if SWTOR was offering escape: an emancipation from the slave-traders at Blizzard. The Internet was buzzing with video trailers, and the extolled virtues of an MMO experience replete with in-game voice-acting. BioWare had taken the Apple approach. They saw what WoW had created, and now they were working on creating something even better; something that would blow WoW out of the water. The mass emigration, it’s fair to say, is indicative that they succeeded. At least to begin with. For the first two or so weeks, players were squeeing at the novelty of this whole new world, and relishing the [PARAGON-RENEGADE DYNAMIC] and its affects on player agency. Now, just only a month into its life, there are widespread complaints regarding various aspects of its gameplay. The two I find most pertinent are SWTOR being too much like an MMO, and even some sources criticizing the voice acting – in particular for repetition. Complaining about a game for being the genre that it is, and then complaining about the new – and much demanded – elements that it brings to the table signifies something to me: maybe we’re tired of MMOs.

No modern World of Warcraft article is complete without a Pandaren monk.

For all of its clunkiness, and more-recent tendency to make fun of itself (Kung Fu Pandas, anyone?), WoW got one thing right that SWTOR is lacking: quantifiable interaction with other players. BioWare excel in creating single-player RPGs, and at the start, there were those who praised SWTOR for leaving players to find the game themselves. But as a result, there was less cause to interact with others, except brief teaming-up for Flashpoints (SWTOR’s answer to instances). The trouble is, an MMO exists on one thing and one thing alone: players. Unlike many other genres, MMOs by their nature demand a essential loyalty from their fans. After all, an MMO without players ceases to be an MMO. By handing too much initial independence to players, SWTOR has severed the artery of in-game social relationships, and now runs the risk of bleeding subscribers as a result.

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