The importance of MMO history, and why developer hand-holding is killing it
Every MMO player has their story. No matter what game they play, every person who has played MMOs for an appreciable amount of time has a tale of emergent gameplay, those moments when the rules of the game broke down and the personality of its players was laid bare.
These moments happen in every MMO, not just EVE Online, but they may be dying out and, ironically, it's because MMOs are getting too “good.”
The Crossroads is a small city on the Horde side of World of Warcraft's world that is easily accessible to Alliance players, as it shares a border with a neutral territory. In years past, it was a popular target for Alliance players looking for a fight; the NPC guards in the town weren't nearly strong enough to stop a few level-capped characters.
Andrews told me about the day when, just a month after release, half a dozen max-level characters showed up to shut down the entire zone.
“At the time, this meant that people could no longer level in the Crossroads,” said Andrews. The Crossroads was the main hub of the area where players would get quests, and the Alliance players had killed all the NPCs that gave those out.
“The towns were not defended by NPCs remotely as well as they are now,” he said. “So the Alliance could literally occupy towns for hours at a time. And it was this key leveling area and the Alliance knew they could basically just shut down half of the entire server leveling.”
For a time, these Alliance characters were successful in griefing the Horde, but it wouldn't last.
“We all banded together. Dozens and dozens of level 20 characters showed up and battled these 6-7 max-level characters and we could barely make a dent in them, but more and more people kept showing up until 50, 60, a hundred people were there all trying to get these Alliance characters out of our town so we can go back to leveling. Eventually there were enough of us that we basically drove them into the sea in this pitched battle at [the city of] Ratchet as they sprinted down the dock to catch the boat as it was pulling away,” said Andrews with a hearty laugh, still cherishing the memory nearly ten years later.
It's moments like these that made WoW great. It established a hatred between the Alliance and the Horde which still exists today, and built the mythology and culture of the world.
Stories like this are extraordinary, if not uncommon. In the older days of MMOs, player experimentation was high, and there were lots of opportunities for excited players to experiment with the game. The Crossroads, for instance, may never have been intended to be able to be shut down by Alliance players, but the geography of the game world combined with the inevitability of the human desire to screw with each other in such a way that it was inevitable.
These are the moments that truly make the MMO experience exceptional. It's not about the long level grinds or the weekly raids. The true magic of the MMO is when the rules break down and the players create their own game.
No more explorers
“It's really hard for those things to happen in the game anymore, people are pretty jaded,” said Andrews. “There isn't that same excitement about just playing and seeing what happens. The sort of organic nature of players seeing what can happen in the game is just less prevalent. And now the way MMOs are designed is to keep you flowing from one place to the next with no gaps.”
In many ways it's boredom that coerces people into experimenting. It's probably no coincidence that the Alliance characters who raided Andrews' city were level-capped. They were probably bored and looking for someone to screw with to pass the time.
These days, MMOs are designed so that nobody ever gets bored and it may be siphoning the creativity and passion from the player base.
“When WoW was in its infancy, MMOs were brand new to so many people,” said Andrews. “For so many people WoW was their first MMO, and their first experience where there were a lot of people online. Now it takes something special to get people excited again.”
In a weird quirk, it may be the sloppiness and poor design of earlier MMOs like WoW which helped band people together. There are no shortage of in-jokes and great stories in WoW which extend from terrible voice acting or bugs.
The famous Blood Plague Incident, for instance all stemmed from a silly coding bug. It was one of the most famous and fondly remembered events in WoW's history and it wouldn't have been possible if the game was better made. Instead, it became an event which tied the community together and gave the WoW culture yet another common thread to hold together the community quilt.
“A lot of these games have a tendancy to hold your hand too much, and they lose that sense of adventure and exploration and cooperating with other people because you're in a dangerous environment,” Andrews said. “A lot of the early MMOs had that and I'd like to see that come back.”
History in the making
The neverending attempts by developers to streamline their MMOs, to keep players on a steady progression track, may actually be killing the common bond that the community has by removing opportunities for history to be made.
“If nothing ever happens that's remarkable then has history actually happened,” asked Andrews. “Or is it just a bunch of people going about routine things? When you look at human history, the moments that stick out in your mind are remarkable events, whether good or bad. You can always study what the average person lived like in the year 1000, but it's not history unless something remarkable happens. And these MMO memes always spring up around something remarkable. The subculture depends very much on these individual incidents.”
MMOs are still the most fascinating genre in video gaming. They represent the first time in human history where we started living portions of our lives, forming social bonds, in virtual spaces. But without the ability to make history they're not living spaces, just theme parks. Which has dire consequences for both the health of the genre, its communities, and the beauty of online worlds.
In 100 years, nobody will care about the games we played in these theme park worlds, but they will care about the moments when humanity expressed itself in online worlds for the first time.
The chance to play in a theme park is boring. The chance to make history, on the other hand, is exciting.