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.