When I graduated college and got a job that offered a decent amount of disposable income (this was before children, of course), my gaming habit exploded. In 2000, I was buying multiple PC titles and PS2 titles every week, and always on the hunt for more.
I ate up games. I was starving for titles — usually RPGs — that would last for weeks instead of days. But my ability to buy more meant that I became less patient and less willing to stick with subpar gameplay. Still, back in those days my video game library was rather more diverse — FPSes, RTSes, racing games, fighting games, RPGs, adventures, and in a fit of delusion, one sports title.
This all changed around 2003 when I got both cable internet (vs dial-up) and City of Heroes. Suddenly, I found myself transformed into a monogamous gamer who spent all of my time in just one game (CoH, then WoW, then LOTRO). My interest in other games dropped like a rock (but didn’t disappear entirely, mind you). So what happened? How did MMOs kill my interest in single games? I know there are a lot of people out there who play both regularly, but other than the rare title or iPhone game, I’ve pretty much been solo-MMO for years now.
It’s not as if the gameplay is that much better than single-player games — in many cases, it’s usually a degree or two less. Single-player titles may boast better visuals and no lag (due to not having to connect to a server and render many additional player characters), have better combat with fancier effects (like slo-mo), and use storytelling devices above and beyond a mere quest text box. This, of course, is not new. This was all true back in 1999 with EverQuest — there were tons of games that had much better visuals, better stories, better combat. But EQ (and other MMOs) offered something that these other games didn’t, and — for me — I think I’ve narrowed it down to two simple factors.
#1 – A Persistent World
One of my biggest frustrations with 30, 40, 80, 100-hour single-player RPGs was that I would sink tons and tons of time and effort into these characters and their story — but it would end. The character I dumped all of this effort into building up and outfitting and caring about had an expiration date.
This changes in a persistent world. My character continues indefinitely (or, more accurately, with the illusion of indefinite life until the game was canceled or I chose to stop playing or deleted that character). My efforts last. Mostly, I continue to go forward and not backwards.
These worlds usually kept expanding as well, with updates and patches and expansions, offering the promise of future adventures (something that was a lot less frequent with single-player games, if ever).
The days of the “Game Over” screen are waning fast, and our success in game is rewarded with an extension of life, not death. Because of this reason, I have difficulties playing a game that I know will end at some point, because I’ve tasted the fruits off the other side of that valley, and found it good.
#2 – Social Contact
I’ve established already that I’m primarily a solo player in MMOs, but I still group, I still participate in guild chat and events, and I really like seeing people play around me and know that they’re there. I liken it to going to a coffeeshop — you see a lot of people going to Starbucks to sit by themselves, do their own thing, and possibly never talk to anyone except the barista. If they can make that coffee at home, why go? Because there’s something about human nature that we want to be near others so we don’t feel isolated and alone, even if we don’t engage with those other folks.
So social contact is really important to me. How we interact with other players is a matter of preferences and degrees, but to me it’s just great they’re present. Connection to other folks is what makes MMOs so special, and it’s why we’re seeing a lot more of that in formerly single-player games — people want multiplayer, people want the connection of Xbox Live or other types of chat, people want to form persistent groups.
Happily, these two broad genres are starting to merge together after long years in separate spheres. It’s why we have a lot more non-traditional MMOs coming out these days (and why everyone’s bickering about what constitutes a proper MMO or not), because people do like persistent and expanding worlds as well as that social contact. In a recent interview I did with 38 Studios, Curt Schilling talked about how they might even have guilds in their upcoming single-player RPG. The lines are becoming blurred.
But it might be too late for me. Years ago, I was a total RTS nut; today, I’m not even tempted with Starcraft II. I’ve been spoiled — but I’m not complaining.