Why have MMO developers taken the multi-player out of the Massively Multi-player Online Experience?

I have been a gamer for nearly 30 years now, and in that time I have seen games that run the gambit from little more than single player interactive text based adventures to the massively multi-player online experiences that many of the new generation of gamers grew up with. In their struggle for new and fresh ideas, developers often seem to miss the point of games, not just in terms of what is fun, but also in the grand scheme of what it’s all about.

MMOs are just new Social Games

Take for instance the realm of MMO’s that has really blossomed over the last 15 years. Prior to hits like Ultima Online there were MUDs, and prior to that there were table top RPG’s. Prior to the table top RPG’s people would sit around and tell stories to each other or play make believe together. Whether we are talking about Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers, Dungeons and Dragons, Whitewolf, Ardvark, Lusternia, Discworld MUD, Everquest, or any other game in the genre, the core attraction to these games has always been the same: Socialization.

Human beings are social creatures, as evidenced by the fact that we always huddle together in our cities, gather in public at bars and social events, and gather together online on Facebook or Google+. This is no secret, and no doubt is something that every MMO developer is definitely aware of.

How, then, are they missing the mark in modern MMOs?

The Dawn of the MMO

To understand that, let’s go back in time about 16 years to the dawn of the MMO genre. By today’s standards, those early games were brutal, punishing events that relentlessly smacked down players by being too difficult and unfair. But were they?

And if so, was it a bad thing?

If they were too difficult, why did they become so massively popular and addictive? More important to the scope of this article, what was it about their make up that made them such a strong community builder?

The answer, surprisingly, cannot be found directly in the archives of a game designer, nor even in the history of games. The answer is not about game design, it is about human nature, human psychology, and human history. The answer lies far back in the dim recesses of prehistory, prior to written language, societies, and all of the trappings of civilization. We have to look all the way back to when people first started banding together to form social groups, and understand why they did so in the first place.

Most articles you will find will agree in whole or part with the basic view points outlined in the articles below.

For those that gave it the TLDR, here is the meat and potatoes of it:

"…staying alive is a personal quest for any animal. It is personal survival that allows it to continue its genetic line…However, an animal doesn’t necessarily have to survive on its own. Another aspect of personal survival is the forming of social groups within a species. When staying alive is not just the responsibility of the individual, but other members of the species help the individual to survive, and vice versa, all members’ chances are enhanced…Social groups come in all levels, from couples to herds, from two to thousands. The purpose of a social group and the level it takes is often dictated by how well it serves to promote the survival of the members."

Survival is the Key

Those early games, in all their brutal punishment and so-called ‘abuse’ of the players actually gave the players something that instinctively motivated them to form the foundation of a strong societal framework within the confines of the game world. In layman’s terms: those rats handing you your ass just outside the Freeport city gates actually made you actively seek out other players for protection. You would form groups for adventuring because the world was just to tough without them, and the cost of death was too high.

Knowledge is Power

Another aspect that was mentioned repeatedly was the sharing of knowledge and materials. This roles in both the early and late development of civilization, and was crucial as both the means to help us develop and the reason for us to destroy each other. In terms of game design, the passing on of knowledge about the game and its environment is still one of the crucial aspects of forming a close-knit community. Redistribution is often another reason. For those of you that have played, or can remember Everquest when it was first released, you would recall that acquiring resources was very difficult, but that one acquired they could be shared. These resources didn’t just come in the form of in game items though but also in terms of skills and abilities that were rare or unique.

Leaving Modern Players High and Dry

So why is it that I say more modern MMO’s have gotten it wrong? Because for the most part, they do not meet any of these basic needs for forming strong communities. It is not that they lack players, but rather in their rush to please everyone they have eliminated the one thing guaranteed to create a strong community. They have eliminated the challenge of survival. They have eliminated the need to band together in order to conquer the environment. Sure, you have raids and other such end game events that have ‘mandatory’ participation levels, but that no more means you have a community than having 1500 Facebook friends means you are well liked.

Having a good community has to start early, in the first stages of the game. If you wait until your players are 25%of the way through your content, your opportunity is lost. What happens at that point is that the 25% becomes 50%, then only the top 5% or less. What does that mean though? How can community building start straight out of the gate?

Fear Leads to Bonding

The first that has to happen is the game has to be dangerous for the player’s character. No one should be able to go it alone unless they are damned clever, very lucky, or simply a closet sado-masochist. This doesn’t mean that there cannot be solo content, but generally speaking, if it is combat oriented or takes you outside of the safety of your city walls, you had better have a friend with you.

Why is this so critical?

Let’s look at a few of the more popular MMO’s out right now. Out of:

  • Tera
  • Rift
  • The Secret World
  • Guild Wars 2
  • EverQuest 2
  • Final FantasyXIV (pre-shutdown)
  • and World of Warcraft

I would challenge you to name a single one of those where you actually needed a group to make your way to level 20.

From experience, I can tell you that it is not necessary for any of them. The problem is, if it is not necessary it won’t happen because there is no motivation for anyone to do it. If I, as a novice player, was struggling and decided to look for a group, there would be few if any other players looking for a group at the same time and in the same area.

As players level and are better able to kit out their low level characters with better gear, the problem is exacerbated and the level needed to find a group raises. Needing a group for dungeon content only doesn’t help either, as that becomes the only content people are actively seeking groups for. At that point, grouping becomes an act of charity or goodwill, which while noble when it happens, is generally not enough motivation to inspire a strong community.

In order for these two to have any meaning whatsoever in the game world in terms of community building, they both must be hard to come by. They must be scarce to be of any value. Similarly, anything that you wish to have value in your game world must have a correlating scarcity. If you want your teleport spells to be worth striving for, then traveling around the world should be difficult and challenging, so that the associated relief gained by being able to teleport has an inherent value. If you want your crafting items to be worth something, then the items need to be in some way comparable to looted items, and the difficulty or cost to acquire the materials must be fairly equivalent.

MMOs are not Games

If you are building a single player game, your goals can be for a cinematic experience that caters to whatever your target demographic is, with multiple difficulty levels and whatnot. But, MMOs are not games, they are digital worlds, and as such we need to stop treating them as if they were single player games.

Let’s make our worlds challenging as hell so that when a few insignificant adventurers step out of their home cities to face the world, they do so as a group, knowing that doing it alone is a surefire path to an early grave. Give them a reason to fear the cold dark passageways of forgotten peoples. Make them bite their lips and scoot closer to the edge of their seat as the watch the giants troop by, hoping to not be spotted.

Put the MM back in MMORPG.