I’ve never had a deep desire to jump into an MMO, for a number of reasons: disagreement with the concept of a monthly subscription, a general lack of interest in the themes and settings in the more popular titles, and a rather irrational fear of becoming ‘addicted’ to any one game in the genre. Having said that, certain aspects of the genre are very appealing: having a singular, and persistent world inhabited by physical players, time and location based events, and the potential for a single player to have an impact in a larger world.
When DC Universe Online (DCUO) changed to a free-to-play model, I figured it was high time to actually try an MMO. While I can’t say I’m a particularly large fan of the universe, I am a fan of Batman, and the DC Universe is a more interesting setting for me than that of World of Warcraft or EVE Online. After a lengthy download, I was in: here’s the journey that followed. While some of it may seem like criticism of DC Universe Online, it is intended simply to highlight my experience within an MMO, and potentially outline problems that other MMOs may (or may not) have.
Why should their introduction to this game be a very unfriendly login screen?
Upon launching the game, I was greeted with an account creation screen. While I am aware of the necessity to create an account in order for servers to properly recognise the player, why is this the first step? No doubt there might be technical reasons behind such a move, but let me highlight a scenario that I imagine has occurred fairly often since DCUO went free-to-play. There have been probably been thousands of people who have dived into the game, as either fans of the DC Universe, or wanting to try an established MMO without having to fork over a monthly fee. Why should their introduction to this game be a very unfriendly login screen? Furthermore, getting past this produces a screen that allows the user to select a server (either US or EU), which subsequently begins a download process as assets for the given server are sent to the player’s machine.
Scoff at you will at these new players, but it’s an incredibly poor introduction to the genre. It highlights, front and centre, the more complicated aspects of the MMO genre, rather than allowing the player to experience, straight away, the merits of it instead. Why not begin the game instantly at the character creation screen? Wouldn’t it make more sense for the player to create their avatar and then be led through an offline tutorial area, explaining the level system, the loot system, the quest and trading system, and so on?
While I’ve not invested a great deal of time into the game yet (I’ve hit level 14 or 15), I’m still finding various aspects of the genre to be poorly explained. Yes, there are tropes that are consistent to anyone who’s had experience with MMOs before, but for everyone else, it’s a rather steep learning curve. From the small research I’ve done into other MMOs, it seems to be the case all around.
MMOs are rich, and can be deeply rewarding. My time with DCUO, despite the confusion, has been relatively decent: it’s a great pleasure to go soaring through Gotham and Metropolis, being instructed by heroes like Batman and Superman (Batman in particular being voiced by perennial favourite, Kevin Conroy, and the Joker by the unbeatable Mark Hammil). This is not a plea to create a ‘noobs’ MMO: it’s simply one to remind developers to consider their entire audience.
Certainly not somebody qualified, that’s for sure. And I think that even if there was some sort of time-spending-dictator qualification, and I had it, nobody would listen to me anyway. But what I can do is dictate how I spend my own time. And for me, MMOs seem like a great big waste of it. Why? They have weak storylines, they’re repetitive, they’re addictive, and they’re never-ending.
In an attempt to ward off the rage of the MMO-players (thank god we don’t have many readers), let me try to justify myself. When I play a game, I want to experience a story – something with a clear start, middle, and end. You know, like a book, or a movie. Except longer. And interactive. An MMO doesn’t allow me to experience this.
In the current definition of the genre, an MMO cannot end. If it did, the subscription fees would stop rolling in! And that just seems like bad business. So, what you get is a game with a clear start, and then a never-ending middle period. Because of this, the player will always end up playing "missions" that are simply computer-generated. Randomly generated content for the sole purpose of stretching out the game and getting the player to stay "one more month".
"One more month" is exactly the state of mind that the developers and publishers want you to be in. Whether it be a subscription based MMO or a micro-transaction based one, the longer you play the game, the more money they can get out of you. This is especially true in subscription games, but it’s quite easy to see how it happens in micro-transaction games – which are almost always "pay to win", where free players are never able to get very far into the game until they open their wallet.
In this way, the games are intentionally designed to be as addictive as possible. The start of the game is free (a 14 day demo, for example), full of interesting content, fun, and not repetitive at all. Once you start paying for the game, they know they’ve got you hooked. The rest of the game can start degrading in quality until the player doesn’t even realise that the game they’re playing is a watered down version of the game they started with. By that point, they’re so economically and socially invested in the game, they don’t want to stop playing it.
I’ll finish with a concrete example. A friend of mine plays EVE Online. It has a very clever and insidious way of making players want to play longer, and continue their subscriptions – all the upgrades are time-based, as opposed to skill-based. This means that to upgrade one skill, you might be waiting anywhere up to 30 days or possibly more. I’ve been told that to upgrade all the skills to maximum, it would be 83 years, so it’s not like you’ll ever run out. The issue here is that the more time you put into upgrading these skills (they continue to run even if you’re offline, not playing the game), the more you feel that you’ve invested into the game itself, and the more you want to continue playing it. It’s a cycle that I don’t approve of in any style of game, and is also why I’m not a fan of the majority of Facebook/iPhone games that also follow this tactic.
Now, one could argue that the important part of any MMO is that you’re playing with friends, and that is a good point. In fact, as watered-down as the stories are, there’s far more worthwhile content in an MMO than in, say, a multiplayer shooter. And shooters can be just as addictive as an MMO – just look at all the people who play the latest Call of Duty all day, stopping only to buy the new one for the year and play that instead. I find that MMOs go over that line just a little bit more because they charge by the month, while most other multiplayer games charge once up-front. Of course, that’s changing with the free-to-play model getting more popular outside the MMO space, as well as the abuse of the DLC model by publishers these days.
Anyway, I’m just one person who’s probably a bit stuck in the past. I don’t like repetitive multiplayer games (whether they be shooters, RPGs, or anything in-between), I don’t like watered-down plot experiences, and I certainly don’t like micro-transactions and subscription fees. I want my game to come to an end, and I want to be satisfied with that ending, and I want to put the game on my game shelf and not touch it again (unless I want to replay it!). I fully expect most people to disagree with me on at least one of these points, but that’s why these games exist in the first place. If everybody had the same opinion, we would lose the variety that makes the games industry so interesting and engaging. I don’t really want people to stop making or playing MMOs if that’s what they like playing, but at the same time, I certainly don’t want to play them myself.