Before I begin, let me admit that I am a bit jaded, and have played most major MMO release from 2003-2014. During my current bout of playing FFXIV, which I've played on and off since 2016, I've been reflecting on why modern MMORPGs seem to differ so greatly from the games of the pre-WoW era, and why it is quite a shame that we don't truly have one of these older games during these isolating times when it is dangerous to go out into the real world.
After much deliberation I've come to two major aspects that I find largely missing from current MMORPGs:
Organic player interactions.
A living world.
Lets take current WoW and FFXIV for example, two of the titans of the genre at the moment. You can easily level form 1-cap without talking to another player. In ffxiv you can do all but the most elite of content at the endgame the same way. For both you just queue into dungeon finder, go your class's job, get XP/loot, and leave. You can do the solo quests all the way to cap as well. Both of these games require absolutely no cooperation to journey through their worlds (their leveling content), and you will never need to ask for help to overcome a challenge, as anything below the current level cap has been rendered so easy that failure is exceptionally rare.
Both of these games have a crafting system, and FFXIV's is actually quite robust and fleshed out. However, you don't really need or want that gear for most content. Looted items will generally be better, and quest rewards will let you glide through leveling most of the time. Even the market and selling is quite removed from actual human interaction. You list items, and they are sold. It is simple and streamlined, but there is no human element.
There is no adversity in these games, and so no need to work together. Death is meaningless, and a mere slap on the wrist.
This leads into the next point, the worlds of these games feel hollow. They are massive with curated zones, but none of these places feel like they are actually alive. The big cities are full, but that is about it. Outside of doing the quest content these is no reason to go back to these zones. They have created a rich land that is visually spectacular but meaningless. Awe inspiring sights that offer no wonder.
Even worse, when I play these games I do not feel like I am apart of this world, I feel like I am being taken on a heavily guided tour of it like everyone else. There is really only one way to play these games. You level up, do the endgame, wait for the next content patch. Repeat.
I contrast this with games that encourage a living world through player interaction. I have tried several times to play EvE online, and if its moment to moment gameplay was actually interesting I would probably have been playing it for over a decade now. However it isn't afraid to let the players interact with each other in a multitude of ways, small and large. You buy a ship its from a player. Sell resources, for a player. Buy low in one system to sell high in another, from and to players. Killed by a pirate its a player. And so on. Just about every interaction outside of the NPC missions is with another player.
Another example is the world of Everquest 2 at launch. In many ways it is quite similar to WoW, but after the first 20 or so levels, the zones became deadly and difficult such that they all but required a group of likeminded adventurers to go through and complete their associated quests. Keep in mid these were not instanced dungeons, though those existed as well. While obviously more inconvenient, it created a drive to interact with your fellow players to overcome a challenge to great to do on your own. Death also had a penalty associated with it, in the form of a certain amount of slowed XP after a death. While such penalties are controversial and, of course, inconvenient it does increase the stakes, and make working together a more natural option. Everquest 2 also had a lovely crafting system which FFXIV basically copy and pasted as well.
Lastly one aspect of a living world is having many interacting systems which players can specialize in. Old Star Wars Galaxies for all its (many many!) faults had a plethora of systems for players to engage and interact in. Even if you were focused on the combat content you were forced by the nature of the game's design to interact with other people.
For example if you were going to a dangerous planet to get XP you first needed a group. To increase your stats you got buffs from a doctor. The weapons and armor you used were made by a crafter. When out you got some very great loot, materials to be used by those same crafters that supplied your gear. If you died you had to go to the player entertainers to get rid of the wounds, which blocked out your three health stats (it was a… clunky game guys).
While all of these systems in these games had their flaws, strange choices, and issues, they all focused on encouraging player interactions. So it is no surprise to me that as these games stripped away their many interconnected systems, made the world less alive, and less of a threat, they began to die. They radically altered themselves to try and appeal to WoW's massive audience. The changed their design philosophy away from that of providing a world to explore to creating curated content to experience and grind (usually at the endgame).
EvE has survived because it hasn't done away with such systems. Everquest 1 is seeing a bit of a resurgence with their TLP servers. Old school Runescape as well. Even WoW classic is stable. While WoW classic did start this whole ball rolling with its streamlining and focus on the endgame rather than the journey its original form was still better about encouraging player interactions.
We as players demanded convenience and ease, forgetting that MMORPGs have never been, and never will be, fundamentally "good" games in terms of gameplay. We enjoy MMORPGs for the worlds, for the people, for the friends and enemies we make while exploring a virtual frontier. Think of your favorite memories from any MMORPG, and I bet most of them will involve another person in one fashion or another.
MMORPGs have lost that spark for so many of us because the vast majority of current ones have forgotten that its all about the personal interactions, not the spectacle of content. I never really did combat in Star Wars Galaxies. I spent my time crafting things and decorating houses for other people. The game was perfectly content to allow that. In Final Fantasy 14 you need to level a combat class to cap to be able to properly craft and gather beyond level 50.
That is what we've lost. I wish that in this year of social isolation I had a current modern MMORPG that gave me a world to actually explore. That encouraged and fostered player interactions. Sadly all we have are a few old school versions of games like Runescape and WoW. And EvE, but either you like EvE or just can't get into it.
It is no accident that Among Us, a game that is 100 percent about social Interactions, got so big during 2020. It's a damn shame we don't have an MMORPG that does the same.
Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.
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