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Where have MMORPGs come from, and where are they going?

Where have MMORPGs come from, and where are they going?

by William HarmonJanuary 30, 2012

Continuing my discussion of The Old Republic, I think it’s important to take a look at this game with the intent of acknowledging where the MMO genre has come from, what has changed to get us to this point, and where I think we might be likely to go from here. TOR is the MMO of the moment in the eyes of most people, and it exemplifies some of the directional shifts in MMO design that we’ve been seeing for a long time now.

Some major changes have occurred in MMOs over the last 12 years. What I namely want to focus on is:

  • Narrative Presentation.
  • World Construction
  • Combat
  • Rewards and Penalties
  • Access to Content

Narrative Presentation:

First and foremost, the narrative structure in TOR is, as well as being a staple for how Bioware makes most of their games, a progression of something we’ve seen since “questing” became the generally agreed upon method of character progression.

As some of you know, questing used to not, really, be a thing in MMOs. When I began with EverQuest, I had missions that would see me courier letters from NPC to NPC and that was all fine and good, and they had their tangible rewards (Items or Gold), but they weren’t the focus of the leveling process. This was done through camping. Players would find a location in a zone, and pull enemies to it, where they would fight and gain experience.

This looks like as good a spot as any. Now where are those monsters?

This, however, isn’t the case any longer. Western MMOs are almost entirely and without exception quest-centric now. A player will receive a series of quests from their starting town, that will lead them around their immediate vicinity. Eventually these take them to the next town, and this continues until they’re explored the entire game world.

A designer could easily dictate that killing enemies grants more experience than the quests, as it was once done, and the mechanical advantages would disappear. The only real difference is a presentation in narrative. When an MMO presents you with quests as your primary leveling tool, the designers are scripting a narrative for you. If you read the quest text, you got a full story, full of characters and history. If you didn’t, you were, at the least, being told where to go, when to go there, and in what order you would encounter certain things.

A player is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he meant to.

In TOR, you don’t have to “read the quest text”, but it’s done so much better than in any other quest-centric / strict-narrative MMO that it would be a shame if you didn’t. What does this all mean though? What changed from what we had with older MMOs, and what might we expect from MMOs in the future?

Well, we lose the sense of personal adventure. We’re no longer forging our own stories, choosing where to go and when to go there. We don’t get harrowing tails from our friends, about adventures in a dungeon no one knew was there, because you and all your friends hit the same spots, in the same order.

What we’ve gained is a very detailed story. There is no fading to black, or scene skips when you play an MMO. In a traditional single player game, you may get abbreviated scenes, where in an MMO you really get to see everything. The designers are able of telling you a tremendously large story from start to finish.

I’m not sure where this will go in the future. I think the recent trend of heavily revolving every MMO around quests has more to do with the mechanics of leveling than it does with narrative style. Both styles are viable and interesting for different reasons, and I think as soon as we start seeing methods of progressing your character that have the benefits of questing, but not the narrative limitations, we’ll start seeing a return to the very open-ended, high agency, game worlds.

World Construction:

The way worlds are constructed in MMOs has changed in some subtle ways. On a macro scale, we’ve seen a lot of refinement in zone placement. Most modern MMOs have zones laid out so that as soon as you become too strong for one, the very next adjacent zone is just right for you. This is a luxury older MMOs didn’t always posses.

Make one wrong turn, and this asshole is there to ruin your night.

To use an example, everyone who played FFXI remembers their first walk to Jeuno. You hit level ~19 and all of the sudden, you’ve got to trek through 4 zones of monsters that would tear you apart in order to reach the game’s neutral city, and the most viable early 20s area. As opposed to World of Warcraft, which saw Night Elves go from Teldrassil, to Dark Shore, to Ashenvale. All in one big line.

There is a bit of a trade off here as well. In the older style, we see players presented with a moment of choice. They hit a wall and think: “Well damn, what the hell am I supposed to do now…” As we all know, there (sadly I have to use the past tense) used to be multiple zones in the same level range. So you saw players trying to adventure in areas that, in retrospect, were ridiculous. I leveled up my Wood Elf Druid (EverQuest) through my high 20s by soloing Gearheart… just Gearheart. It ended up being one of those stories you told around the proverbial campfire, and you and your friends all had a good laugh.

I fuckin' hate gnomes... and robots...

In my current playthrough of TOR, I have gone the exact same route everyone else in my faction has. From Balmorra, to Tatooine, to Hoth and beyond. This has its advantages too though. Players that find themselves overwhelmed by situations where they are unsure of where to go, or that get frustrated when they make an inevitable wrong choice, and seem themselves die horribly, will never had to deal with those situations. Their time in game will always be efficient. They’ll go from one quest hub to another, and their experience bar will always be going up, and they’ll have that very visual representation of progress. What they’ve gained isn’t some ethereal concept like a “campfire story”, it will be something real. That experience bar is 10% more full than it was 10 minutes ago. That sits well with a lot of modern players.

Yeeessssssss, it's going up!

World construction has also changed on a micro scale as well, and in my opinion, entirely for the better. MMOs in the past have had a nasty habit of spawning mobs in a zone, and having them path randomly. This may work on occasion, for animals and what not, but as soon as you start having sentient creatures walk around in random loops, you start to lose a sense of immersion.

These days, designers have put a lot of effort in to meticulously placing NPCs. After all, they know you’re going to see them (they’re guiding you with quests), and they know you’re going to expect them to be doing something (the quests told you about them). What you get out of that, is to come across a camp of thieves, and see them laughing around a campfire, or cooking, standing watch at a hilltop with their hand to their brow. This is absolutely fantastic, and is one of the things that, in my opinion, TOR does better than any MMO before. Literally every trooper, or smuggler, or rebel I have come across (as I’m empire), is either taking cover, working on a computer, or talking in to a radio.

Back in the good old days. This guy could be randomly pathing around a field or something. Sucks to be him.

In the future, I expect both of these trends to continue. I begrudgingly accept the first one, and as soon as we see alternatives to quests and an allowance for open world unscripted games, I hope to see a return to having to stop and think: “Well… what now… I guess… this way?”, but I don’t know if that would be acceptable given the current population of MMO players. We’ve grown accustomed to convenience. The Micro changes I don’t think will ever go away. Any MMO that wishes to stand out will incorporate this, as they should. It’s objectively better. As time goes on, I think the micromanagement of NPC spawns and appearance will only get more detailed.


Combat has undergone some changes in and of itself, and it has also seen some adjustments based on how MMOs present classes. Combat has also been a part of MMOs, but has gone in and out of the spotlight, in my opinion, depending on which one’s you’re looking at. Some MMOs have focused more on discovery and dungeon crawling, while other have focused on how and when you’re going to be killing what.

In the general sense, we see that combat has sped up over the years. Not only are individual confrontations shorter, but players are doing more. As I mentioned before, I spent a good deal of my mid 20s in EverQuest soloing one named mobs. This involved snaring him, kiting, nuking, kiting some more, and then meditating in combat to get some mana back. It was a 3 or 4 minute fight every time.

In FFXI, it felt much the same. Spell cast times could be as high as 19 seconds and combat often involved resting while the group fought, or while you put a mob to sleep. Even weapon delay could be in the realm of ~3 seconds per swing.

Watch out guys. In about 6 seconds here, I'm gonna unload.

WoW rolled around, and numbers are flying off the screen. You don’t even know how much damage you’re doing, those big prominent crits aside. In TOR, we see this taken even further. TOR has gotten rid of your auto-attacks and made your standard weapon use a skill that you “cast”.

The shift we see here is away from the importance of an individual action. Both sets of combat can be very tense, but in older MMOs you could specifically say “If this attack doesn’t land, we’re in trouble”. Now it’s more along the lines of “Guys, he’s not dying fast enough. Do something harder to make sure he starts dying faster”. The sense of tension is simply more vague.

However, what we get to replace that is that the very nature of constant action makes it so that nothing ever feels routine. During a close call, that slow paced combat is a boon, letting you savior every action. During an encounter you know you’re going to win, it can feel mundane and repetitive. Older MMOs were generally more difficult, so it was less of an issue, but the bottom line is, that in a good group, you were killing every thing that came your way. The fast paced MMOs of today make this type of situation much more engaging than their predecessors.

Pictured: Higher APM than an entire old school raid dungeon. Also lasers.

In addition to general combat feel, class realization has also affected combat in large ways over the last several years. You no longer see classes that specialize in specific areas. Classes in modern MMOs, TOR included, are malleable. Players are able to make a character that is capable of fulfilling several, if not every, niche role.

TOR has eased off this in one regard, in that there is no class that can both heal and tank. However, there are no permanent choices (anything can be undone), and the classes are much more narrow than previous MMOs. Class innovation hasn’t necessarily stagnated, Warhammer Online had some very interesting healing and tank classes, while Rift had some nifty mage classes (and one of the only games in recent memory that gave a nod to the dying breed of support classes. RIP poor Bard). By and large though, you will see “Tanks, Healers, and Damage Dealers” as your only options. These classes will have very specific ways they are meant to be played, and that’s the way you’ll play them.

This has narrowed the way players can approach combat. You don’t see much emergent gameplay. Players doing things that designers never thought of. I hope that, in the future, we see less of this. I think that we’ll reach a state where things will get so simple, that people will start demanding more complex classes that fill more niche roles. TOR really exemplifies how simple I think an MMO can get away with making its classes.

"Pet class" didn't use to mean one specific thing.

Rewards and Penalties:

TOR is very much in line with today’s standards with rewards and penalties. You get credits and gear for doing quests or killing important NPCs, and the penalties for failing in some aspect ofthe game is pretty much that there aren’t any. This is to say that in todays MMOs, your rewards are monetary, and you’re not penalized for playing poorly.

Don't worry about that dying thing. The Medical Probe can bring you back on the spot. We wouldn't want being awful to inconvenience you.

This is the one category where I think today’s MMO players are least connected to their MMO roots. 10 years ago, MMOs would give you little in the way of tangible rewards. Doing quests wouldn’t really give you that much money. Would rarely give you items. Gear that did drop off special NPCs would drop only a small percentage of the time, and these NPCs would have long respawn timers (instances were not yet a thing). In addition to this, the game would penalize players for dying with either lost experience (and levels), or lost gear. In Ever Quest, you could even loot gear from another play whom you had killed in PvP (can you imagine the amount of crying Blizzard or Bioware or NC Soft would hear if they implemented that type of feature in their MMOs now?)

About ready to do that corpse run, bro? All your gear that you left on your dead body isn't going to fetch itself.

Now, a lot of people tend to demonize penalties, saying: “My games are supposed to be FUN, and getting killed and losing two hours worth of experience, or gear, or whatever, isn’t FUN!”. What they fail to understand is that penalties serve a purpose, and were integral to the type of reward system that older MMOs had. You didn’t get gear, but you got experiences. Not a number on your UI, but a story to tell your friends.

That one time, you and a friend got ambushed by 4 skeletons, and you had to snare them and run away, dodging all the other enemies in the zone until you reached the exit? Sure that’s probably happened in WoW, or TOR, or any modern MMO. But no one cares. So what if you die? Use a mediprobe and just come right back. But if that death would have cost you 2 hours of your level, sending you back to town that’s another hour’s run away, AND costing you a shot at claiming the rare spawn that’s only up once a day? That’s a much more thrilling tail, and everyone knows it. You’re all playing the same ruthless game, and everyone appreciates the challenges you go through.

You got more "grats" in guild chat the first time you reached Norg than you did when you leveled up.

This is, perhaps, the greatest loss in MMOs today. Losing that sense of worth. Those intrinsic rewards. 10 minutes on an official MMO forum, and you’ll read all about how people “want more gear” or “have nothing to do because they got their gear”. They should be players sharing harrowing tales about “This one time I…” followed by a series of “Holy shit man, well done. I myself…”

I can only hope this goes away in the future. I am worried that it won’t because of the psychological grip that such design holds over people. It’s a thing known as Operant Conditioning, and it’s awful game design. I don’t mean that it’s ineffective, or that it won’t make money, or generate and maintain subscriptions. I mean that it’s deceitful and dishonest. The game string players along with the promise that this time they may get some gear, instead of providing them with satisfying experiences.

Access to Content:

The last thing that comes to mind that has changed from the Pre-TOR area, to now, is access to content. Specifically, the ease of access. MMOs now are, pretty unquestionably, easier than they were 10 years ago. With the exception of boss mechanics, which have seen notable improvements in their mechanics and execution, the vast majority of an MMO can be explored unhindered. A player can waltz through dungeons and fields, mountains and deserts, and go where they like.

Sure. try it. I dare you.

All of these features that I’ve discussed, I think, are related to each other in some sense. Almost nothing in a game’s design is completely isolated from other features. This specifically though, ties pretty deeply in to the other facets. Would an MMO be so easy if the player’s were still hyper-specialized? What is the effect that these games are now based upon questing, a primarily solo activity? There’s no doubt, however, that the ability for everyone to experience everything is a conscious decision.

This is also probably the change that players are most aware of. If you’re locked out of content because of skill, or time investment, you’re very aware of the players that are a few steps ahead of you. The part that is strange to me though, is the difference in how people approach this now. People look at those who have accomplished more than them with contempt rather than reverence.

Look up Angwe from early WoW, or Stanislav from FFXI. These were people that everyone knew, because they changed the face of the game within their respective servers. People obtained notoriety and it was a good thing, but they were only able to stand out because the access to content was restrictive.

Seriously. There are still websites dedicated to hating this Angwe guy. And trust me, it was well earned.

TOR is just as guilty of this shift as any other modern day MMO. The leveling process is quicker and less strenuous than any MMO I’ve played to date. My gear is all neatly packaged for me in related and simple quests as soon as I reach a new planet. I’m never in want for anything. Even crafting seems to level up quicker and with less focus than ever before. There is nothing to differentiate me from anyone else my level (as we all wear the same quest rewards, have walked down the exact same paths, and have heard the same diaglog).

At level 50, I’m sure I’ll be “just another Bounty Hunter” playing solely because boss mechanics are interesting, and not for any other sense of fulfillment.

Pretty much the reason we're all still here.

I think this is going to both get better, and worse, as MMOs get older. Mechanics are going to become more complex and interactive, and combat is going to get more refined, and as such, we risk seeing an ever increasing emphasis placed on it. But I also think that some MMOs will break away from this mold, and go back towards the player agency and discovery.

In Conclusion:

It all comes down to MMOs these days being less satisfying, but more convenient. They’re influenced just as much as any other genre is by the same zeitgeist that has given rise to mobile app games as one of the industries most popular genres. They’re intended to be played in shorter bouts, with more obvious rewards, and with as little stress as possible. They’re the “quickie” version of their predecessors.

However, I’m still excited. MMOs, I think, will reach a point where we can’t refer to them as a single genre anymore. We’re going to see action MMOs (like Tera Online, FireFall, or Raiderz) that are all about the combat and competitive PvP scenes that will crop up. We’re going to see your Narrative-centric, Light MMOs (TOR, WoW, Rift) that about casually progressing along a story while killing some pretty interesting bosses and showing our friends we have a better sword than they do. And I think we’ll see a resurgence of your open, sprawling, table-top style Immersive MMOs (FFXI, EverQuest, DAoC, Wakfu) that are going to be about really letting the players take control of their world, and live in it in an almost D&D type fashion. MMOs have a bright future, for everyone, and it’s going to get to the point where we actually have choices. People won’t be looking at every new MMO as a “WoW killer” because it’ll be like asking if The Last Guardian is going to be the “Angry Birds killer”. It simply won’t make sense to do so.

At the end of the day, there is nothing quite as cool as a god-damned laser sword.

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About The Author
William Harmon
William Harmon
William started gaming with Super Mario on the NES, and hasn't stopped since. He has experience playing almost all genres, across almost every platform, but today does most of his gaming on the PS3 and PC. William believes that the best games get you completely lost in them, where you play for the experience of being immersed in another world.