As you boot up an MMORPG for the first time, you are always excited. “What kind of character will I play? What class will I be? If I’m this and my friend is that, we will make a kick ass team! I can’t wait to get to this area! My character is going to be so bad ass!” For me, this feeling of excitement lasts for about 20 levels, if I’m lucky. I’ve played more than my fair share of MMO’s, but I think I’m done for good now. My interest in the genre has severely dropped since I started playing text based MMO’s (I can’t believe that game has a Wikipedia article) when they were called MUD’s. There are some huge flaws in the genre that no one game has been able to resolve. No, not even WoW in its infinite glory has perfected everything.
One of the biggest draws to these games is loot. Everyone wants cool armor. They want to look unique and bad ass. The problem with this is twofold. In most cases, it takes a very long time to get your character to look the least bit cool. Since WoW is the gold standard for MMO’s these days, I’ll use it as a touchstone. In WoW, my none of my characters looked well put together until at least level 30, if not later. The second part of this problem is that gear is also integral to character stats and abilities (in most games), so the coolest looking thing isn’t necessarily the most useful thing. This leads to everyone wearing the same thing because it is statistically the best, thus sucking all of the uniqueness out of your character. It’s not really fun to play a game for days of your life just to know you’ll end up looking like everyone else of your class in the end.
The best solution for this I’ve seen so far is in City of Heroes (or City of Villains). During character creation, you make your dude look as bad ass and unique as you want. Stats are tied to “enhancements” that you drop into individual skills and have no cosmetic effect at all. They still award you for leveling with things like capes. While these have to statistical bonus, you’re a superhero, so obviously you want a cool cape waving in the wind behind you as you jump or fly around the city. With the enormous amount of customization options that you have from the very beginning, you get to feel like a full-fledged super hero from the moment you start, rather than wearing ugly armor for hours of your character’s life.
So you have some cool armor and you’re ready to meet up with some friends in the game to take on a dungeon or instance. But wait, your friends are unemployed and play all day long. They are level 50 and you’re only 35! Tough shit! Have fun collecting pelts while they are taking out a huge instance boss. Level discrepancy is one of the biggest problems I’ve had in most MMO’s. Inevitably, someone has more time than the rest of the group. Either they stay at your level and start an alt (more on alts later) that becomes their main character because it’s a higher level, or they fly ahead on their main character and don’t really care to help you level that much.
Again I have to point to City of Heroes/Villains for a pretty good solution to this issue. They have a sidekick system in place so your high level friend can bump you up to close to their level. It doesn’t give you the new powers or skills you’d have at that level, but your current powers are almost as strong they will be in the future. I haven’t played it (due to high system requirements), but apparently Age of Conan has a similar system in place. Why more MMO’s haven’t adapted this concept is beyond me. These are supposed to be community and friend-centric games, but if your friend is ahead/behind you in leveling, the most interaction you end up having with him/her is exchanging PM’s from entirely different zones.
But, holy shit! Your friend is now 55! Imagine what your character will be like at 55! You’ll have all these skills and those abilities! You’ll be able to fight these mobs and that boss! You can wear this helm and use that axe! Now after thinking about all of that cool stuff, try going back to killing rats so you can use some crappy dagger. Rough, isn’t it? Looking ahead in these games may inspire some to keep going and strive for that level, but for me it just kills the experience. When I start playing an MMO, I try very hard to hold off on it, but my time-to-guide is very low. And once I see what I will be if I spend hours and hours of my life playing, I find it very hard to go back to being low level. Very few of these games let you feel like your character is worthwhile at low levels, prompting you to gaze longingly at the distant future.
There are a few ways to solve this problem that some games have used. The first is to make your character feel powerful, even if it really isn’t, from the very start. Again, I haven’t played it, but Age of Conan seems like it does this. The combat system looks quick and more reliant on your imput. While in WoW you just press one key and attack at a certain interval automatically, in Conan you always have to be on your toes and attack from different directions. The combat is also a great deal more violent and interesting to watch. You actually look like you’re hitting the enemies instead of making a sword swinging motion near them. I hate to keep going back to it, but City of Heroes has accomplished this as well. At level 1 you were still a super hero who could knock enemies back several feet with a single punch.
The other way to solve the former problem ties in with my next problem. Congrats, you’re level 35! Oh wait, you’re halfway to max level. But not really, since the last 35 levels take even longer than the first. Lower the damn level caps in these games. If it didn’t take so long to get to a level you could actually have fun and feel useful; it would be a lot easier to keep playing. All I ever hear about these games is how awesome the “end game” is. They need to make that content easier to get to. If it really is as good as people say it is, let more of the community into the club. I would say far under 50% of WoW players ever get to experience one of these fabled level 70 raids. That kind of stuff sounds fun– it really does– but I don’t want to spend so many hours of my life not having much fun in order to have fun in your game. Mass Effect was rough for 3 or 4 hours and that was nearly too much unfun to justify the great ending. I hit 60 in WoW once. By that point I was far too burnt out on the game to care about the elusive end game. I quit playing a week or two later. Guild Wars gets the win here with its very reasonable level cap of 20. You could do that in a week or two and then get on to the best parts of the game.
You finally did it, level 70! You hit the cap! Oh no! That other class has this really cool skill you’d like to try! And honestly, you’re pretty bored with your current class. Time to start over! Alting derails me in MMO’s more than anything else. Maybe I’m just too damn curious, but when I see a character who looks neat or has a nifty skill, I want to try it. Unfortunately, in almost every game, that means starting back at the beginning. At least in some games (Guild Wars), it won’t take long to get back to the top with my new character. Tabula Rasa (although I haven’t played that one either due to school networking problems) has a cool solution. They have a cloning system in place that lets you clone yourself right before important character progression decisions. Other games give you the ability to respec but that only lets you change your character within the chosen class and usually become cost-prohibitive after a while.
I realize that most of these problems are there to keep you playing longer because, except for Guild Wars and Mythos, you’re paying a monthly fee to play these games. They need to keep you playing as long as possible. The longer it takes you to get to the max level and the more distracted you get by making new characters the better. The only way paying monthly for these is a good deal is if it’s the only game you play and you play a lot. I buy far more games than I should, and it gets expensive, but I like having new and different experiences instead of constantly playing the same one. If I’m going to pay for something monthly, it’s going to be a GameFly account (which I just signed up for) or a GameTap account where I can sample a ton of different content.
I like to be exposed to different game types, genres, mechanics, stories, etc. With an MMO it’s just the same thing day in and day out. Even when I was enjoying playing WoW, afterwards I would feel like I hadn’t really done anything. If there’s no true end to a game, you can’t really accomplish anything. Yes, that is also partially true for something like GTA or Halo multiplayer. They don’t have a true ending, but matches and rounds end. Someone wins and someone loses. In an MMO, I can’t help but feel like everyone loses.
Skipping the nit picky, more personal quips with these games (no more fantasy settings please), I’m at the end of my tirade. All of this being said, every once in a while I get a weird need to play one. This is the part I can’t explain no matter how hard I try. Sometimes I just want to level a character, grind for pelts, get ganked in low level areas and be part of a strange and mostly terrible community. When I get this feeling, I have to close my eyes tightly and repeat over and over, “They just want your money. Nothing good can come of this.” Usually, it works. Or at least it will until the day they fix these problems and suck me back in.