The following editorial contains views that are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Allakhazam.com
Playing an MMORPG is a lot like living in Canada or the USA. While you may vote, the fact remains that your government has probably done a lot of things that you’re not particularly fond of (I’m looking at you, University tuition). There also remains the fact that there is very little you can do, aside from joining those hilariously drunk student gatherings where everyone rents a bus and goes ‘somewhere’ in order to demonstrate that they have no money to pay for school. In reality, this is about the same when it comes to our own MMORPGs. While it is true that there are very hard working developers who are constantly trawling the communities for ideas to bring back to their caves, chances are, the most significant changes that are added into an MMO are implemented according to the will of the parent company. I really can’t recall a time when I was asked “Would you like us to raise the level cap to 80?” in World of Warcraft. On the other hand, while I would be fairly flattered if I was asked this question, basing key development ideas off of my coin-toss decision making abilities is a great way to anger your fan base.
Take, for example, Star Wars Galaxies and the New Game Enhancements, or Everquest II and the addition of Station Cash, or Final Fantasy XI and the Mog Bonanza, or even World of Warcraft and the addition of Badges of Justice. With all of these changes, despite them being implemented “in the best interests of the community” (as most companies would say), there remain the disenchanted bunch; the groupies who are groupies no longer because their game has changed irrevocably in confusing ways that they do not enjoy. As well, there is the final fact that this ‘no-longer-groupie’ player base can’t do much outside of either yelling a lot (and still have ideas go through), crashing servers (and getting banned), cancelling accounts (and then missing their Mog Bonanza winnings!), or, finally, they can continue to play. And pay. Like me and my angry relationship with University.
But despite our sometimes violent reactions to change (THIS GREEN WILL NOT REPLACE MY PURPLE SO HELP ME GOD), could it be that our MMOs are moving away from the classical sense of the word ‘MMORPG,’ and into a newer, perhaps better vision of themselves? In this regard, perhaps the two most interesting cases of MMOs evolving to become more player friendly are Final Fantasy XI and World of Warcraft.
Starting with Final Fantasy XI, it’s obvious that many additions made over the past few years have definitely been angled towards a more casual play style. I played near the North American launch, and when I quit / came back about half a year ago, I was astonished to see how much easier the game had gotten. I don’t mean this in the sense that mechanics were simplified, but there was definitely a less ‘grindy’ feeling to the game (2handed weapons became stronger, Weapon skills became more accurate, a lot of jobs got new abilities, Sanction and Signet both give nice bonuses, the addition of very squishy leveling mobs in ToAU areas to name a few additions). Not only this, but a lot of the new endgame content was timed and limited to near 30 minutes (Salvage, Nyzul, Einherjar), not like Dynamis or camping HNMs; both of which can take 2-4 hours of your undivided attention.
What does this suggest? While FFXI is definitely moving towards a more casual playstyle, it is definitely interesting to see that they aren’t sacrificing their original vision of the game to do so. There are still additional HNMs that were added in the latest expansions, and really, the new endgame additions merely supplement an already full endgame schedule - not replace it. It’s surprising to hear people say that they don’t have enough time to “do all of endgame,” even when they play up to 8 hours a day.
Ultimately, however, we must consider this. When an individual can play an MMORPG for 8+ hours a day, every day, but still not find time to do it all; is this what we consider to be an ideal MMO? There are many MMOs out there that reward players who can dedicate up to six hours per session, as opposed to the very few MMOs that allow their player base to make equivalent gains in a smaller amount of time. One of those very few MMOs is World of Warcraft.
Way back before the Burning Crusade was released, World of Warcraft had an endgame system that was very much like your average MMO; it had a very linear path of escalating difficulty, and working up that path of progression often took a great deal of luck. In this particular case, you were either lucky enough to join a guild that was farming MC and BWL (so that they could easily farm and gear you up), or you were lucky enough to join enough lesser guilds and get enough loot to hop and skip your way up the progression ranks. I grinded my way to 60 just as Naxxramas was being released, and during that entire time before The Burning Crusade was released, I can tell you that it was incredibly difficult to crack the endgame scene. Not only that, but if I really wanted to sport something beyond T1 Cenarion, I’d either be forced to progress very slowly with a new guild (Razorgore was such a painful, painful experience), or I’d have to lay down some more ‘serious’ raiding hours to join a higher end guild that could farm the content I wanted, but also demanded a level of dedication I could not maintain (although for two weeks when my girlfriend went away, I was totally living the raiding dream). In short, Pre-TBC, Pre-WotLK World of Warcraft rewarded only the player who could devote a chunk of his time every day to bettering his toon. I briefly considered PVPing in lieu of endgame, but any High Warlord or Field Marshall will tell you that getting to that rank required perhaps more dedication than solid raiding.
For those who play World of Warcraft now, can they see just how different the game has become? PVPing is such a remarkably different beast than the olden times of endless grinding; even raiding in itself can be ‘completed’ with the toss-in of a few hours every few days. Arena gear offers superior items that can allow individuals to rocket into the endgame scene, and the existence of Emblems means that anyone can become equivalently endgame geared without even touching a single 25-man raid. Looking at all of these changes, I haven’t even begun to talk about how super-fast flying mounts (insert reference to my extra fast Gladiator Mount here if you’d like), summoning stones and Warlock summons have really ‘sped’ up this game.
I have to say, however, that even though World of Warcraft has become extremely streamlined in nature, I cannot really bring myself to be as attached to it as much as I’ve been attached to other MMOs I’ve played. I’ll confess, I’m a massive sucker for small rewards and lots of work; for some reason, I enjoy those moments of achievement much more than when I raid and pick up two pieces of gear in a single night while also getting enough emblems to get a third piece. On the other hand, I will definitely say that I’m a dying breed of gamer; even though I could never put in the time and dedication to be one of those super-geeks that everyone loves (at least when I’m in your party!), I just adore having a game where I can play for years, but still not be able to accomplish all that I want to accomplish. With World of Warcraft, what ultimately wound up happening about half a year before the release of Wrath of the Lich King was that I ended up operating like a robot. I would log in on a specific date, complete my 10-20 arena games (there was no point in playing any more than that, because we were in the 2300 range, and nobody wants to risk their ratings getting tanked), and then, twice a week, I would log in to frolic in Black Temple with my guild. After that, there really wasn’t much left to do. It was around this time that I realized that I had basically beaten the game in terms of big goals that I wanted to achieve. Don’t get me wrong, I loved raiding with my guild (hello Indifference!), but at the same time, once I knew that I could achieve everything if I really pushed... I just stopped pushing. I’m weird like that.
Glancing back at all of these drastic changes to both games, it is interesting to see how both have managed to retain their player base even through such revolutionary additions. While other MMOs have not been so lucky (Hello Jedi Starter class!), is this indicative of brand loyalty, or, as a gaming population, are we truly seeking to break away from the 'second life' stereotype of video gaming? Ask your average non-MMO gamer why he doesn’t play MMOs, and, chances are, he’ll tell you that it’s because the time commitments are way too big. Yet, looking at the direction that our biggest MMORPGs are going in, will this truly be the case 5 years down the line? Ultimately, this is definitely an exciting time to be playing an MMO, especially for our players who do not want to sit at their computers from 8 am to 8 pm (to catch all those pop windows, obviously!). For those of you who are zealously guarding your Relic Weapon or your Orange Staff of level 60 (GET RID OF IT ALREADY), wouldn’t it be nice if you could wake up a little bit later, and go to sleep a little bit earlier while still having that Orange Bow of Awesomeness?
Too bad. You can crash servers if you want.
Christopher "Pwyff" Tom