Yes, they are better. Or not. Does it matter?

As the resident older MMO columnist at Massively, I have a healthy respect for pre-2004 MMORPGs.  I really do.  They did a lot of (for then) cutting-edge innovation, they contributed a lot to the formation of this still-developing genre, and they raised the first generation of 3D MMO gamers.  A lot of people had a blast with these games, and in some cases, they still do.

I don’t have a single problem with this.  But it has started to really irk me how there’s a movement among some bloggers to elevate these games and this time period on an infallible pedestal by throwing out sweeping statements like “These older games were better, the newer ones are rubbish, aren’t fun, and people aren’t playing the games/systems they should in order to be real gamers.”

Again, you may like these older titles and how the way things were done.  That’s fine.  But here’s the thing: You don’t speak for me.  It’s heady to make widespread generalizations about the entire MMO playerbase, but it’s folly to do so.  MMO gamers are incredibly diverse, they want different things, they enjoy different things, and there are no perfect games that are all things to all people.

Asking the question of whether older MMOs were “better” is an extremely relative question, no matter how much one might try to dress it up.  What I’m sensing is that there are players who are restless and disgruntled with MMOs right now and are engaging in heavy-duty nostalgia back to a time where they didn’t feel this way.  They look at systems that have been phased out over time or types of gameplay that have become obsolete, and they try to connect their current malaise with these missing factors.  It very well may be for them, but I think this is just how life goes sometime.

What annoys me is that I really don’t  like to be told that the games I’m enjoying right now — and I *am* enjoying them — are inferior just because they’re not the ones someone else used to play back in the day.  Have we lost some features and types of gaming mentalities that did make the genre richer?  I don’t doubt that we have.  But have we gained a lot as well?  From my perspective, definitely.  I take so much for granted these days in MMOs that I would’ve given so much to have back in 2002.  I sincerely do not miss forced grouping, overly harsh death penalties, and the feeling of being completely lost in a game world.

Of course, it’s not like these things are forever gone — many of these older games exist still, and several newer MMOs have implemented features from the good ol’ days.  It’s interesting to see that many of the games that do try to recapture older MMO formats inevitably become a small niche game — Darkfall, Mortal Online, Vanguard, even (yes, I’ll be fair here) Fallen Earth.  There’s demand out there for those games and those features, but it’s being eclipsed by players who genuinely like several ways the genre’s developed.

Hobbies are extremely relativistic.  You can be a car fanatic and love the old muscle cars of the 60′s or the newer designs and features that we see today.  Your preference and perspective does not make one or the other “better” for everyone.  It’s just that we like to have the crowd agree with our viewpoint, so sometimes there’s temptation to take a few extra steps across the line and try to quantify factors that can’t easily be defined.  Was it better to have XP loss upon death in MMOs?  Depends on what you’re looking for in a game, what you first experienced, and how you might think it would affect your gameplay in a positive way (make you more cautious, increase the sense of danger, etc.).

For example, I’ve been tooling around in Anarchy Online this month, revising my first MMO stomping grounds.  It doesn’t seem like much has changed to the core game — it’s still a pretty hardcore, no-hand-holding experience.  There’s some fun to it, sure, but a lot of frustration as well.  I keep having to go to the web to research where places are and how to do even the most basic things, like training up new skills.  Likewise, FF14 is getting a lot of “no hand holding” testimonies, which some players appreciate and some very much do not.

I think there’s a balance that has to be carefully maintained as MMOs progress, evolve and develop.  If you do too much to simplify game mechanics and do away with all difficulties, you end up with a cakewalk that lacks challenge and long-term appeal; if you stubbornly stick with mechanics that don’t work or just appeal to a very small segment, you risk alienating most players.  I get the feeling that this industry is still in the infancy stage — perhaps toddlerhood — and we’re a long way off from full-fledged growth and maturity.  It’s been a fun ride so far, but as for me and mine, I’m looking at the road ahead for inspiration instead of wistfully holding on to days long gone.

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18 thoughts on “Yes, they are better. Or not. Does it matter?

  1. I have fond memories of the Elder Games…but man, I CANNOT go back! I tried UO, AO, and other pre-2004 titles and I was flabbergasted at my inability to deal with them, personally. Yeah, it sounds like I’ve gotten spoiled by the ease of use of modern MMOs. I’m not a masochist; I gravitate towards maximum enjoyment for minimum effort.

    Nostaliga wise, pre 2004, UO, EQ, AO, etc., were all that we had. They blazed trails because there WERE no trails. They could be bold in their design choices because there was no successful template to copy from like there is today (your success may vary).

    I think maybe subconsciously, when people pine for “the old days” of MMOs, they REALLY want to see someone not just deviate from the path, but really go off-roading like they did in the old days. Sadly, publishers won’t take those chances, and with so many MMO choices, getting too far from the beaten path may push it too far into the niche market for real success.

  2. Funny enough, I made a similar experience when spending some time playing and enjoying AoC a few months ago – only there it was WoW players bashing the regular AoC player base in public chat. It was the first time I felt ashamed of being a WoW gamer. yeah, so right now there’s probably a lot more WoW-gamers trying out other MMOs to kill time until cataclysm; but spending your time telling their communities that you’re just here to wait for cata and how inferior AoC really is and how stupid they are not to play WoW instead etc. makes me cringe with disgust.
    It happened every single time I was online, so after the first 3 days or so I did what I do in WoW too: disable general chat.

  3. I agree with what you’re saying. People think games like Everquest offer more of a challenge but in all reality it was just a group based game.

    I still play EQ, I am currently, but at times I often grow bored because lack of direction and goals. While there is plenty to do and the game is far easier than it once was it’s still a very time consuming game in some aspects. Not everyone can play along with that. Sure it’s not even close to how time consuming it once was but doing missions or quest lines, it can be.

    Variety is the spice of life! We have so much more today, back then we had so little to choose from. I have many, many great memories but I still have some horrible flashbacks!! I enjoy new and old games, I suppose it’s the gamer in me, I like so many different types of MMO games.

  4. I’m curious, which part of Fallen Earth is throw-back or recapturing an older format? I ask because my first MMO was Guild Wars (good game, but somewhat unique in the genre), then WAR, a bit of WoW, and now Fallen Earth. In other words, I don’t have any of these older games to really compare to. I’m wondering what older game or system my current favorite is similar to.

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  6. It always seems like the EQ players who are really fanatical about how EQ was the best ever experience and we will never know its like again.

    I mean, I loved DaoC, but I don’t obsess about it like that.

  7. I think that if there’s a recent groundswell of sentiment for the older games, it’s a direct result of the fact that many MMO gamers, and bloggers, are just sitting waiting right now. They’re waiting for WoW’s Cataclysm, they’re waiting for SWTOR, or FFXIV. It’s a natural tendancy to look back at games you once had fun in, and it’s human nature to look into the past with rose-coloured glasses firmly in place.

  8. Great post, Syp!

    @Maladorn: The primary “throw-back” for Fallen Earth was the lack of Fast Travel (I think they’ve added some limited versions now). In the “old days” you used to have to climb uphill both ways in the snow to get anywhere. I’m thinking back to my own experiences in FFXI, mainly, and – holy cow – traveling was a pain.

  9. People miss the experiences they had in those older games, but make the mistake of thinking that the games were better.

    I was a hardcore MUD player for years, and sometimes I think MUDs were better because people needed to read and spell in order to play, and couldn’t talk on general channels until level 5. Many MUDS had better storytelling than today’s MMOs. But in reality, there’s no way I’d trade my gorgeous, graphical MMOs to go back to typing commands and having my character look like “*” on an ASCII map.

  10. I think people hold the older games in such high regard because of the emotional high that came with them — related to the whole “trailblazing” thing. The older MMOs were fresh and new and exploring unkown territory. When you’re living “inside” a game like that, it’s exciting and memorable whether or not the game was actually any fun to play. I still remember my first foray into everquest. I was stumbling around in the dark being killed by things I could barely see. I wouldn’t call it fun, objectively. But it was memorable, and exciting.

    There is simply no way for a modern game to recapture that feeling of adventure. The MMO trail is now well worn, and even if an MMO veers off the trail it’s quite obvious it’s merely veering, not truly blazing a new path. Those days are gone, and we old farts need to get over it. MMOs weren’t “better” back in the day, but they were more exciting, more memorable, due to their uniqueness and small, relatively intimate communities.

    Also, just an aside, I think modern MMOs need to strike a better balance between teaching you how to play (good intro quests, tutorials) and playing the game for you (instant travel, dungeon queues, forced specs, etc.). Older games tended to lack any of those things, newer games have too much (unless they’re “old school” in which case they have very little).

  11. ” It’s interesting to see that many of the games that do try to recapture older MMO formats inevitably become a small niche game — Darkfall, Mortal Online, Vanguard, even (yes, I’ll be fair here) Fallen Earth.”

    Just because a smaller group likes something doesn’t make it inferior. People talk about WOW as if it were the best due to subscriptions. If everyone likes it, then it must be the best. Best is a relative term.

    You don’t like being told your game isn’t as good because its easier? I have the same sentiments when newbies come into Lotro or eq2 and whine because it isn’t the same as wow. If you want to play wow, then go play wow and leave us to our “inferior” product.

  12. It’s 99% nostalgia, imho.

    It’s not that old games were better than new ones, it’s simply that playing an MMO for the first time ever is more exciting than playing your tenth one.

    Ironically, given some of the disasters of the last few years, you could make a strong case that there IS one old game which is better than the new ones, and that’s WoW, often cast as the villain of the piece. Hey! It’s nearly six years old now! That’s an eternity in gaming!

  13. Are you going to post about your time back in AO? I spent a good amount of time in Rubi-ka myself but I could never get any of my MMO playing friends to join me. I’d be interested in what you thought revisiting it. I could see myself going back to that one.

    I tried an EQ1 promotion where they gave anyone a level 50+ character with decent gear and I just could not get back into it. I think we overlooked alot because there were only a couple of games around back then.

  14. I don’t know if I’d agree that FFXIV is a return to an older MMO design style. We’ve seen how Square designs that kind of game, and it’s called FFXI. People frequently focus on the aspects that haven’t really changed and ignore the ones that have, several of which are pretty big changes.

    Then again, I remember when I was playing FFXI and hated forced grouping and arcane crafting… but I sure appreciated crafters, didn’t feel like I had to craft, and knew a LOT more people than I do in modern games. Sometimes, the things we didn’t like and don’t miss did have some positives.

    @PeterD – there’s a great essay by Dave Van Domelen on that very subject, albeit talking about toys rather than games. It’s the same idea, though – if you find something at the right age and the right time, it winds up being so integral to your thought process that you lionize it as being the BEST EVER and justify any flaws as positives.

    http://www.eyrie.org/~dvandom/BW/Fanfic/Toyhacks

  15. I agree that we need market segmentation in the MMO market.

    However, most people who complain about todays MMOs complain about WoW. (Because WoW has the most players).

    They usually complain about a lack of immersion and community and I feel their pain. WoW not only evolved, but evolved in a certain direction that not everybody likes.

    The best way to argue that other directions work as well, seams to be to point to games that were different, yet successful. Unfortunately these games are often past games and thus you run danger to be called nostalgic.

  16. I think Carson nailed for me with this statement:

    “It’s 99% nostalgia, imho.

    It’s not that old games were better than new ones, it’s simply that playing an MMO for the first time ever is more exciting than playing your tenth one.”

    It’s so true. You just can’t capture that “first time” feeling of wonder and the unknown.

  17. “If you do too much to simplify game mechanics and do away with all difficulties, you end up with a cakewalk that lacks challenge and long-term appeal”

    You’re falling into the trap there, Syp. Some people *want* a cakewalk. More power to ‘em, especially if they pay for it. On top of that, “challenge” is a hugely variable thing.

    Oh, and Scopique? I’d love to see some devs go off-roading… but into new terrain, not back to the old homestead. ;)

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