Playing Magic: The Gathering Online (MTGO), I have learned one surprising thing about myself. I am prepared to pay to play a game online. That really was a surprising thing. I have never found any MMORPG sufficiently tempting as to be worth the price of a game, plus a monthly fee. If I feel like a RPG session, I have games such as Wasteland, Baldur?s Gate and Planescape: Torment to keep me occupied, and let?s not forget Diablo II.

    I have frequently been interested in forthcoming MMORPG titles, but my interest tends to wane once they are released. I?ve never been interested enough to actually try one out. Right now both Worlds of Warcraft and Everquest 2 look interesting, but whether that holds after their release is something I wouldn?t put money on. They look good, both of them, but are they worth paying for, month in, month out?

    Magic has been, so far at least. With Magic Online, I?ve been able to play as I never could offline. I?m not a time-rich individual, and leaving the house for three to four hours to play a draft is not feasible. Leaving for six hours and more to play sealed deck is totally out. Online, I can play at a more stately pace, instead of having to play all my games in a day, I can play them over four weeks. I don?t have to stay on for hours at a time; an hour every evening or two is all I need. If I don?t get round to playing for a month, I don?t pay, or I can just play casual game, also free.

    Magic played online has suited me in a way the actual card game never could. The digital version is simply better, because it?s a version I can play. The online version offers me more than offline ever could, so the price becomes worth it. While there?s no monthly fee as such to play Magic Online, I mostly buy new cards every four weeks, so it works out that way for me.

    So for the last seven months I?ve been paying a monthly fee to play a game online. It?s just not an MMORPG.

    The MMORPG doesn?t offer anything the offline versions can?t deliver. Gameplay is often slow, with long wait times between any actual playing experience. ?Massive? can often mean ?crowded? as players pile into the interesting areas, leaving many parts of the game unused, and others lag-inducingly busy. Players often have time to ruminate of Sartre?s saying that ?hell is other people?* as their best laid plans, or their casual gaming intentions, can be easily ruined by the actions of others.

    Diablo II, while not generally classed as an MMORPG, manages to avoid many of that genre?s problems. There?s no crowding, since everyone is playing in their own version of Hell. The Bloody Foothills may be a popular location, but you don?t have to run through two hundred other players to get there, or turn up once a week when the monsters respawn, fight for ten minutes, then go back to waiting. You don?t have to spend 30 minutes in the game traveling to get there either. Grief play, while it exists (and will, as long as there are other people in these games), is limited. It?s easy enough to start another game, or password protect your own so only you and some buddies can play. Doing this doesn?t spoil someone else?s experience either. With enclosed adventuring areas and no waiting times to actually start playing, Diablo II is showing the kind of longevity you would expect of an MMORPG, without quite being classed as one. And without charging a monthly fee either. If asked why I?ve never played a MMORPG, ?Diablo II? is high on my list of answers.

    Some of the more recent MMORPGs seem to have learned from Diablo II. City of Heroes, for example, copies adventuring areas, so that different teams can enter a building, but never encounter one another, and so each team can complete their own quest. This allows people to interact with the game as well as others, and gives people more options of doing so. The signs are that more of the upcoming MMORPGs will follow this formula, and also look at ways of minimising downtime.

    This will be good when it happens, but on top of that, they have to be so much better than Diablo II, that they are worth paying for. No MMORPG has done that for me so far. Many industry commentators have wondered why the genre is so limited—500,000 players for Everquest is just a drop in the ocean of gamers out there. Maybe they should look at what Diablo II does so well, and for free.

    I don?t expect to be buying a MMORPG this year, but if that should happen, you?ll be the first to know.

    * The saying is uttered by a character in Sartre?s play No Exit. The original quote, for the Francophiles, is ?L?enfer, c?est les autres?.

    The Ninth Circle was written from 2002-2006, by David Kay, and with 58 installments it was the longest running column in Diabloii.net’s history. The Ninth Circle covered computer gaming, RPGs, fantasy novels, the gamer’s life, and other related issues. Opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Diii.net.

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