Over the years I have played MMOs here and there, but I've found myself very bothered by core elements of most of them. It's clear that most people dont have the same issue.
The only MMO I've played that has maintained my interest seems to be WoW classic. I played "vanilla" for a year and a half or so in 2005 and then left it behind mostly because I didnt like the direction the content was going in. When classic came out last year I thought that dipping my toes in would just be a trip down nostalgia lane, but I found myself shocked by how much I genuinely enjoyed the actual design of the game itself.
I should pause here and clarify that I'm not talking about end game content. I could not care less about 40 man raids. I find them boring and more akin to volunteer organizing than anything that resembles a game I'd like to play. The main reason stopped playing before Burning Crusade was released is because it was very clear that the only content updates the game was getting catered to people that wanted to do massive instanced PVE raids, and players either had to get on board or have their gear massively outclassed.
So, to be clear, what I like about the game is everything OUTSIDE of that. I like that there are clear limitations of what I can or cant do by myself, and my playstyle has to adapt in accordance to the difficulty of what quests I'm doing. I like that I have situational abilities and a singular "rotation" isnt the optimal approach to all of the content. I like that there are certain parts of the game that require cooperation with other players; if I wanted a single player experience I wouldnt be playing an MMO. I like that my role in groups isnt 100% defined by my class, and there are situations, depending on the dungeon or the makeup of the party, where I will have to adapt my approach. I like that the series of quests are vignettes, and finishing a hub means wrapping up a story thread. I like that the world is big and you cant just teleport anywhere in an instant because it deepens the significance of locales. I like that gear has a noticeable impact when you upgrade it. I like that from the beginning there is no gatekeeping and I am free to go wherever I please provided I can survive. I like passing by strangers and waving, or giving them a buff, or occasionally grouping up to complete a quest (I cannot stress how wildly different incidental interactions between players seems to be between different games). I like that the standard questing content poses enough of a threat that even though I dont NEED to group up, having a group is safer and faster.
And that's just gameplay, but the other thing I like is the storytelling. I'll freely admit that I have a soft spot for Warcraft lore, but the reason I think it works so well is because of the *framing*. In most MMOs I have played, right off the bat the story wants to convince me that I am some sort of special "chosen one" or singular hero that has been selected by some supernatural entity to do great things…. in a world where I will interact with hundreds or even thousands of players that are in *exactly* the same situation. The story will constantly have me engage in world altering events…. in a world that never actually seems to change. I dont know how to look past that dissonance. In World of Warcraft Vanilla/Classic/Whateveryouwanttocallit, I am a peon. I am a singular, insignificant individual in a vast world that doesnt hinge on my existence. Some parts of the world are lively and exciting, others are lonely and solemn. The story doesnt happen because of me, it happens around me, and that, in and of itself, makes it infinitely more immersive than a game that tries to convince me that most of the world's population is the main character of an epic fantasy tale about saving the universe.
Since I'm a fan of Final Fantasy, I figured that FFXIV would probably be a good bet for me (and to be clear, it's obviously doing something right given its popularity). But I sunk a LOT of hours into it, got all the way through the first expansion, and it became apparent that it just wasnt a game I would ever really enjoy. And not in a "meh" sort of way. I clearly have some REALLY significant gripes with the design philosophy.
I dont feel like the game gives me agency as a player, because I can only unlock content SPECIFICALLY by doing THE singular "main story". When I started playing with my friend, the first thing we did was explore the big city we were dumped in. We bought some clothing dyes from a vendor, only to find out that…. you cant use clothing dyes until you've done some level 22 quest that only unlocks when you're at a certain point in the main story. Just… why? Why have content available if the messaging to me as a player is more or less "dont bother exploring you probably cant do whatever you come across until you've unlocked it through the main story."
And maybe that wouldnt be TOO big of a deal if the main story quests were more enjoyable to me. Most of the objectives involve simply talking to NPCs (but like, 5 in a row) or "interacting" with a sparkle, and while I'm feeling mildly insulted that the game is wasting my time with something that doesnt even engage with the actual mechanics of the game, the writers are making jokes about how they're sending me right back to the place I *just* was to talk to ANOTHER NPC. I c.a.n.n.o.t. tolerate that. I could be discovering one thing or another, fighting something…. but instead I need to follow the marker on my map and click on the thing to progress the main quest. Also can we pause for a moment and acknowledge the fact that FFXIV is an MMO but you CANNOT do the main quest events with other players? I'm having trouble letting that one go. Anyway, while playing FFXIV, I heard the same singular utterance over and over…. "it gets better, trust me."
Well… one thing did get better. The story got better. The plot of the first expansion was worlds better than the tedium of ARR, but…. that's a small part of the pie. The actual events might have been more interesting, but the game didnt stop wasting my time with busy work because god forbid it show me a cutscene without making me chase after quest markers on my map for 20 minutes first.
Based on that, I think it might be fair to conclude that I just….. dont want a "main" quest line in an MMO. It's a wide open world, I dont want to be funneled into a series of hundreds of quests that I *must* do in order to unlock other content. Perhaps more importantly, if I'm going to be doing lots of quests, I need them to be…. I dont know how to say this without sounding petty, but… engaging? I'm not above doing fetch quests, but like, maybe just frame them with some variance? Or have some of the quests begin in a manner that isnt just talking to an NPC who has a favor to ask of you, who you then have to return to in order to complete the quest? I feel like quest design in open world games has come quite a long ways, but some games dont even try to disguise the repetitive nature of the content.
Moving beyond that, I started as a white mage and was somewhat horrified when I realized that questing meant quite literally casting the same spell *and nothing else* for the first 40 levels. Again, just…. why? Surely there has to be a way to make basic combat more interesting than that. I tried other classes, which were somewhat more interesting, but I found that nothing posed a threat, and consequently I couldnt bring myself to care about what I was doing. Why give any thought to the content if none of the decisions I make impact the outcome of combat?
Dungeons, while more interesting, didnt really alleviate the issue for me. The dungeon finder feature is convenient, sure, but I dont think I had a single interesting encounter outside of one situation where we were trying to clear a dungeon with only 3 players after our tank dropped out. Every single dungeon I did consisted of a tank running through at break neck speed gathering up as many enemies as possible that the group would then AoE down before sprinting further into the dungeon. This did not change from dungeon to dungeon, it was simply the standard. There was no talk, no strategizing, no teaching, no learning, no resource management. I dont find that fulfilling.
Well, I've probably talked enough about not enjoying FFXIV. To be clear, I dont think it's a bad game, but I do think it's interesting how it can hit all the right buttons for so many people when I find it so poignantly unsatisfying. I dont think my taste in games is particularly unique, so my hope was that I could find more MMOs that appeal to me, but I'm kind of at a loss at this point.
I played a bit of ESO a few years ago. The combat didnt wow me, but I dont recall specifics.
Guild Wars 2 seemed promising, but the prospect of a more action oriented combat system isnt something I want to have to use a mouse and keyboard for. I can see myself going back to it.
I recently sunk a few hours into LOTRO. One of the things I look for in an MMO is whether it can establish some semblance of a difficulty curve within the first few hours. What enemies can I fight and which ones are too tough? I watched an enemy attack me for 30 seconds straight while I did nothing and my health never dropped below 90%, so… not a good sign. I decided to read up on when I'd be able to participate in a dungeon, and read that the game is being tailored to be more of a single player experience, which doesnt appeal to me at all.
And then over the last week I played some Runescape, which honestly was quite delightful. I like that the game gives me resources to learn things but the freedom to engage with the content as I please. I like that the quests are written to be entertaining and make me think about how to engage with the world. I like a lot of things about the game, but…. I really just cant relax with the control scheme. Needing to click just to move turned out to be a deal breaker.
So… for those of you who found my wall of text interesting enough to read, I'm curious about your take on my experience and what the genre has to offer.
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