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The MMO-Istation of Everything

There was a time, about ten years ago, when the MMO was the interest of a select few. It could hardly be called a mainstream gaming activity. It didn’t feature on consoles and even the PC gaming community had those people who spent hours playing Everquest and Star Wars Galaxies pinned as a bit odd. Then World of Warcraft was released and everything changed. That was the MMO that had communities of first person shooters moving over to play it and raid.

The MMO, or more specifically Warcraft, became one of the most mainstream gaming activities to undertake. The MMO, as implemented by Blizzard, based on the experience of its predecessors, became a language almost every gamer understood.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that I realise a lot of this has to do with gamification and the rise of RPG-like gaming features generally, rather than MMO-istation specifically, but Warcraft certainly represented a transition point. Hence the snappy title.

MMO-Isation Of The Shooter

Let’s take First Person Shooters, there was a time when such games didn’t feature any sort of level progression at all. The Halo games, for example, didn’t see your character getting more powerful as the game went on. Neither did he have to earn any sort of currency to unlock weapons. This had distinct advantages in PvP as it meant everyone was the same but for personal ability. Now levelling and grinding has infected the FPS genre like a plague. Even if a game resists level progression for your character, you’ll earn a currency to unlock weapons or make them better. This impacts PvP the most as it suddenly has to account for progression of one sort or another in the balance of PvP matches. The Call of Duty games of this world aren’t a genre I get involved with much but the degree of RPG mechanics in them these days is madness. This comes around full circle with games like Destiny and The Division which actually turns FPS games into an actual MMO.

Destiny isn’t an MMO? Yeah, right, keep drinking that strange cool aid.

MMO-Isation Of The RPG, Ironically

Even role-playing games have been impacted by MMO-isation. How many role-playing games before Warcraft had crafting systems built into their DNA? The Bioware games didn’t have one. The extent of craftng in Baldurs Gate was taking your dragon scales to the Smith. Now, in no small part due to the fact Warcraft had one, every PC role-playing game has a crafting system in it. You only have to look at games like Divinity: Original Sin and Dragon Age: Inquisition to see how things have changed. Crafting is a big part of those games. Finding recipes of one kind or another, collecting ingredients and components and, in some cases, even figuring out via extensive trial and error what ingredients can be matched with what. They’re an annoying distraction as far as I’m concerned but some people love these systems.

Permission to fill games with ‘busy work’ content. There used to be quite an easy distinction to make: an MMO had a lot of grind and busy work, while other games did not. The MMO had these busy work features because people were paying monthly and you had to ensure they always had something to do. Hence the focus on what would become gamification-type mechanics which are recognised to be quite addictive. Now busy work appears everywhere. You’re asked to do repeatable, largely vacuous tasks to earn a currency to buy or ‘earn’ stuff and progress. Dragon Age: Inquisition is a key game in this regard, it’s by and large a single-player game stuffed with MMO-isation and, while I’m in a minority on this, it’s a sad travesty as a result.

The complete and utter fascination with an open world over a designed experience. I’m not a big fan of open worlds. I can suffer them, if the game still has a designed experience that can be found and played and the open world elements don’t impact on it too much. I don’t want a sandbox to muck around in. I don’t want a vast landscape that is designed for me to discover stuff I can do. I freely admit this all comes down to my very narrative focused view of my entertainment (and my world view generally, but that’s another topic). A game that strips out narrative and replaces it with a sandbox and ‘do and discover shit’ just isn’t for me. While this isn’t entirely driven by MMO-isation, the combination of an open world (or at least landscape), progression mechanics, crafting and ‘busy work’ all thrown in together certainly results in games feeling like an MMO. This is especially true when those open worlds take on online characteristics, just look at Grand Theft Auto V?

The trouble is, these features in a videogame are undoubtedly much easier than crafting an overall experience that merges story, game, environment, etc, all together into something awesome. If you’re lucky, you get both, if you’re even more lucky you can ignore the MMO-isation as much as possible. The trouble is, the pressure to integrate the MMO-isation throughout the rest of the game to extend the ‘play experience’ is huge. Gamers want longer games? Right? Because they are so ‘short’ these days. The trouble is, if longer just means busy work I question the whole point of it all.

It’s not that I don’t like games with these elements in them. Ironic, right? Well, sort off. I like some games that are designed around these elements as their reason to exist. This is why I like Destiny. Yes it has repeatability and grinding, challenging raids and the like. That is what it is designed to do. What I don’t like is those principles infecting other playing experiences so things become a bit homogenized. Arkham Asylum was a better experience than Arkham City because it was more focused and had yet to fall into the bigger, open plan world full of busy work model. Yes, I could, and did, ignore all that open world stuff and followed the narrative – but that open world and its ‘content’ cost money? It diverted resources and makes you think about what could have been.

MMO-isation Turns Me Off

This MMO-isation is really turning me off gaming. I’ve got Grand Theft Auto V, but it sits next to my PS4 rarely getting put in the drive. Why? Every time I put it in I’m just presented with this fast city but with no sense of what to actually do! I understand there is a narrative weaved in it across three different characters but I wish it would hurry up and start already. I want my Grand Theft Auto V experience to be a grand drama like Heat, not some ‘wonder around and do stupid shit’ experience. I’m looking forward to Arkham Knight but each successive release has been more and more like a Batman-ised Grand Theft Auto. Hell, this new one even has the Batmobile so you can bet they have race routes throughout the city. Yawn.

The single-player, highly MMO-ised Dragon Age: Inquisition was a real turn off and the fear is the Mass Effect series will inherit some of its design principles. It’s easy to see why they might do that, as everyone loves Inquisition, game of the year and all that. I didn’t realise they gave you Game of the Year for filling your game with mindless minutia, apparently they do these days. When there are interviews about Mass Effect they use Inquisition language. You’re in a distant part of space that needs exploring and discovering. Check. There is every chance you’ll be sending people on your crew on missions. Check. It better not be full of busy work. The whole point of the Mass Effect series is it took a very narrative focused view of an RPG, dropping a lot of traditional RPG baggage. A return to the negatives elements of role-playing games, often not appearing in tabletop games but magnified in their computer cousins, would be a real set backwards.

So, the MMO-istation of everything is a bit of a pain.

About Ian O'Rourke

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