Computer games can be said to have entered the mainstream. With revenue that rivals that of cinema receipts, computer games are serious business, no longer relegated to the sidelines.
The internet is often credited with driving the progression of gaming into the mainstream. Yet the MMORPG, which would not exist without the internet, is stuck firmly in the sidelines. Besides Japan and Korea, MMORPGs are barely noticed, and this is not surprising. The number of players is pitifully small when compared with the industry as a whole. Everquest, which is regarded as a success, has a little over 500,000 players around the world. This equates to some serious monthly revenue for Sony, but those half a million players represent only a tiny proportion of gamers.
In my opinion, the main cause of this niche performance can be put down to the fact that these games are simply not very compelling. You might be surprised at this statement, but the fact is that most games players aren?t interested in repeating the same task over and over again, for some incremental reward. The level treadmill, which is the central theme of the majority of these games, is something that the average gamer simply doesn?t “get”. The idea that you are useless at a game until you have put in the requisite number of hours on the treadmill is anathema to the idea of fun. The treadmill itself encourages a singular, introverted approach to gameplay. Rather than players banding together to face a hostile environment, players come together only when forced to, and then only to get the maximum benefit for themselves. New players can learn quickly that if their character choice is not considered optimal, they are not welcome in many groups.
Right now these games are only a niche because their game type appeals only to a niche- people with the time and inclination to spend hours in front of the computer engaged in a repetitive process (and pay a monthly fee for the privilege).
So what are the things I would like to see?
To make games more accessible, people need to be able to learn and improve as they go. Not improve by spending 20-odd hours on the repetitive grind of the level treadmill, but learning through just playing the game. This means that the environment, control interface, combat and so on, should be affected by the player?s tactical ability. Less emphasis on the level treadmill is the first things. I?m not violently opposed to the device, but I believe it should be in the background, if anywhere, not the point around which the game revolves. My preference is for advancement based on skills use, though this too can lead to a skill treadmill replacing a level treadmill. The treadmill is better suited to the single player CRPG in my opinion.
One of the most important things to do is to design a game around being massive- ie based around interactions with other human players. Players need to be both encouraged and rewarded for coming together to socialise and adventure. In fact the game environment should be such that players group as a consequence of the environment, so in spite of it, which often happens now. People who prefer to hone their skills alone can still be valuable to the groups, but in a support role. The game itself should be providing strong reasons for players to come together. NPCs should barely be present at all. While there is a temptation to have NPCs around to handle the “dull stuff” that presupposes some judgement as to what stuff in the game is dull. Group goals, rather than individual goals, should be the central theme of MMORPGs. Within this players can have a wide degree of freedom to go their own. Which brings me to my next point. way
MMORPGs need to emphasise freedom of action. Not consequence-free actions mind you, as in the initial release of Ultima Online. Actions should have logical consequences as much as is practicable, but players should find themselves able to do a wide variety of things in the game. This should not mean players have to do all of these things- over and over again until they become proficient enough to move on, but there should be a choice, and the chance for people to constantly discover new things to do as they play. If players aren?t doing unexpected, interesting things with the game within a few months of release, then the environment is too restrictive.
Next to freedom of action, comes a strongly defined purpose. This may appear to be a conflicting goal, but this is not true. This is because many games get one part right and not the other. Along with a defined purpose must come a compelling reason for players to follow that purpose. Asheron?s Call did very well in setting up the purpose- a world overrun by monsters, with players taking the role of heroes who have answered the call to come and liberate the world. Sounds good, but on the other side of that was a level treadmill and no way of actually completing that goal- no matter how well players worked together. Outside of the occasional organised event, there was little to no reason for players to work with each other- they were all too busy achieving their own goals on the treadmill. So any purpose must have an answer to the question: “to what end?”
The inevitable concluding paragraph
To really hit the mainstream, MMOGs need to get away from the focus on introverted play. This is proven by recent “mainstream” releases such as Star Wars Galaxies and the Sims Online, both of which have attracted audiences far below what you could expect from their mainstream status. Neither game differs much from the repetitive, introverted play seen in other games of the genre. For the genre to grow, this must change.
*notes on skill-based play: Let?s take a longbow as an example. To aim and fire this weapon takes the same kind of skills used in FPS games. Someone with a good aim can hit the monsters where it hurts to do more damage. A character with a good strength characteristic can draw the bow longer, adding range and damage. A character with a good longbow skill will do more damage per hit regardless of location, and additionally can load a new arrow faster. Skills improve with use, which here means using the bow to attack adversaries, not trees, rock, or the backside of your teammate. This being a fantasy game, there are better bows and enchanted arrows to be made/found/bought, but your ability to aim is your own.