In different game genres there are features that, once they appear in one game, quickly become a staple of that genre. For example, WASD + Mouse in first person shooters or alternative fire in the same genre. Unfortunately not all features which should spread like wildfire, do. This is especially true in the niche of Massively Multiplayer On-Line Games or MMO, MMOGs or MMORPGs depending on how verbose you want to be. This is a first in a series of posting about MMO features that have shown up in one game, should be in all games but are not.
I began playing MMOs in the days of the big three. Ultima Online (UO), Everquest (EQ) and Asheron’s Call (AC). My game de joir was Asheron’s Call. Asheron’s Call was a 3-D, zoneless MMO. It was possible to run from one end of the continent to the other and it would take quite a while to do so. Since there were no zones the scenery changed from one form to the next. Sometimes rather abruptly but most of the time it was a gradual change. You didn’t go from a “forest zone” to a “snow zone” then to a “jungle zone”. In AC you ran from the low-land swamps through the plains, into the forest, up mountains into the snow. AC also did not have isntances. This was both a bane and a blessing. Over all, however AC really felt massive.
This feeling stemmed from two things. First the landmass was huge and seamless. For the explorer type MMO player AC was a dream. It was possible to be in a bustling city with dozens of other players one moment and be utterly alone in the wilds just a few minutes later. Loads of nooks and crannies to explore. Vistas to find. Out of the way buildings and underground areas with very little repetition. This is something that is missing in modern MMOs. The player is lead from one “zone” to another. Even though some are seamless the player still generally is confined to a single zone that is level appropriate until they have advanced a few levels and move to the next zone. Exploration is greatly diminished. This is true in that most interior locations are cookie-cutter copies of one another. The same layout in different shades of color. Even if the modern MMO landmasses might be larger (which I am doubtful) they don’t feel massive like AC did.
The other item was the fact that there were no instances. Granted this was sometimes frustrating when the dungeon the player wanted to explore was filled to bursting with other players. But, of course, wasn’t that the point? Look at the first two words of the genre. Massively Multiplayer. I truely feel this has been forgotten in this day of highly regimented, highly instanced MMOs. Instances serve a purpose both from a technological as well as a lore perspective. Having an area designed for 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, 24 people which is challenging and advances some story is excellent. However, too many of these instances and the core game becomes nothing more than a glorified server browser. IE, if the point of MMOs is to wander around town until you meet up with the requisite number of people and then pop into a private instance then FPSes since Quake onward are MMOs because one browses a list of servers (private instances) and picks to join one with the requisite number of people.
MMO developers have constantly shrunk the genre instead of expanding it. We get interaction with a smaller number of players in smaller areas with less exploration. The idea is MASSIVE, not just multiplayer. “Wasted” areas of land aren’t to be gotten rid of, they should be included. They provide a ready made areas to expand into which allows the players to experience change. Open, non-instanced, dungeons should be abundant. Places where people can meet others. Places where teamwork is needed to see it all but a team isn’t needed to enter. Finally the rigid structure of +/-3 levels is worthy of xp and loot needs to go. It confines the players to taking on mobs 1-2, maybe 3 at a time. 20-30 -8 mobs can take down a player; there should be some reward for taking on that challenge. More freedom, not less, is the path to the massively in MMOs.