Yesterday, Azuriel wrote an excellent post in which he responded to some of the current backlash going on regarding soling and solo-centric content in MMOs. It’s an interesting argument, especially the “show and tell” element, and I encourage you to read it.
As with all good posts, it got me thinking on a tangent — specifically, how utterly lackluster modern single-player RPGs are in regards to their combat and character building systems. Azuriel made the point that they don’t really have to be as deep as MMOs, because the time spent in the game will be quite limited in comparison.
Several of the newer RPGs I’ve played in the past year felt extremely basic in comparison to what I’m used to in an MMO. Dragon Age II, Mass Effect 3, Skyrim, even Diablo III — all have some measure of character-building, but it feels like a token effort in comparison to the legacy of the single-player RPG genre that came before. The stats are swept under the rug, the choices are made with BIG BOXES AND SIMPLE NUMBERS that convey the message that you’re not to be trusted with complex decisions, and the talent trees or class paths are a mere handful of steps from beginning to end. Mass Effect 3, in particular, could have just chucked the entire character-building system and been just fine (and in fact the game does allow you to play in a mode that doesn’t require any combat).
They’re great games, for the most part. They tell wonderful stories, have engaging cinematics, and are action-heavy. And yet one of the most enjoyable parts of any RPG — online or offline — has been dumbed down to such a basic level that it’s no longer enjoyable to spend any time building up my character. The system feels like a vestigial tail that’s there to justify the “RPG” moniker, instead of dropping it and revealing itself to be an action-shooter-platformer like these games apparently want to be.
I love, love, love building up a good RPG character. It’s always been one of the greatest attractions that the genre’s ever had for me. I used to pour over RPG sourcebooks just to look at all of the character-building options and imagine what I’d make. When 1988’s Wasteland came out, I agonized for hours how I wanted to build my team and what skills I would take. Likewise with Baldur’s Gate II, Fallout 2, Arcanum, and scores of others. Even my Final Fantasy journeys were made more exciting because of the depth of the character building systems. Engaging in this builds a connection between you and your character — you’re a vital part of their development and choices.
Yet somewhere along the line, the complexity and detail of character building was inherited by MMOs and forsaken by single-player titles, which is why I vastly prefer MMOs (not the only reason, but one of). I’m not just building up characters for a short 50-hour stint; I’m building them up for an epic journey spanning months and even years. There’s always so much to attain, to pursue, and to choose when it comes to my character’s growth that I’m rarely bored.
I vividly while not proudly remember spending many walks back in 2004 and 2005 planning out the lives of my World of Warcraft characters (this was back when hitting 40 was a huge game-changing event for you that included your first mount and first 31-point talent). City of Heroes’ main draw to me was always the powerset choices to be made and how my character would gradually grow in abilities and strength. And while I might bemoan how top-heavy LOTRO’s features have become, I’ll still take that complexity over Commander Shepherd trying to decide between shotguns and pistols while puzzling over tying her shoes.
It’s this complexity and depth that makes sticking with a character for a long journey fun and rewarding. It’s why these characters often feel more alive to us than those of long-dead games that existed for a brief flash. It’s why any time a new game is announced, the first thing I want to know is just how much I can customize and tweak when it comes to my character.
So while some may elect to lavish praise upon single-player titles, keep in mind that there are plenty of reasons to be praising MMOs for different reasons.