MMO’s: Beyond Horizons

Beyond Horizons

There’s a whole world out there!

This week saw my troubled relationship with World of Warcraft come to quite likely its final end.

I like World of Warcraft and I have enjoyed the Mists of Pandaria expansion. It’s interesting that the whole deal with Pandaria took the game from years of dark storytelling and injected some much-needed colour and humour into what was becoming an awfully generic MMORPG, and I feel hook line and sinker for my Pandaren. Well animated, well built and well balanced, the Pandaren slotted into a void that seemed to be very absent from the series. But six months of raiding, dungeons and attempting to redo everything on my new Monk – from faction reputation to old-world raids for interesting new costume looks – eventually ended up taking off that shine and I’m once again left with the stark reality that I’m grinding in a game which has very little left to offer me; there is no end-game to work towards, no conclusion to satisfy my need for closure. Everything carries on and everything resets on a weekly basis, so we can do the same thing all over again.

More to the point though, with everything being released of late – Ni No Kuni, Tomb Raider, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance and catching up with Demon’s Souls in the tail-end of the PS3’s lifespan – I’m simply realising that World of Warcraft is designed to waste time, with relatively little payoff. Ni No Kuni is massive – grindy in spots, wonderful in others – and it’s giving me more pleasure than Blizzard’s behemoth of the online market has in some time. Demon’s Souls is another revelation to me; a game that seemingly tells a huge narrative without ever having to say much at all. You walk through a ruined castle fortification and you know, from the lighting to the dragon swooping overhead, that bad things happened here. You don’t need endless chatter; a well-designed game can tell a satisfying story through its visuals and world design alone. I’ve had fun with Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, silly and shallow as it is there is something wonderful and engaging about the spectacle and just cutting your way through a problem in the video game market. I’m still playing The Legend of Grimrock, very soon to be another game I’ll have 100% finished after finally finding all of the treasures. There are lots more games coming to enjoy and indulge in – Tomb Raider is the next on my hitlist, and I’m waiting to see if it is the beginning of the “Curse of the Three”; Tomb Raider has been especially guilty in the past of batches of three games where one is really good, one is alright and the other is… well… blergh.

Perhaps it’s not a shock I’ve burned out of MMORPGs in recent months; I went back to Final Fantasy XI for a little while and trust me when I say it’s more relevant as an MMORPG today than it has ever been. It’s a wonderful, bewitching and beguiling blend of scenery and atmosphere that has slowly been made more user-friendly and engaging. But in the process, some of the content is locked off as people forget about it, meaning doing said content is hard. And it’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore in most MMOs these days – from Final Fantasy XI to World of Warcraft and Champions Online and others besides – that you spend more time moping around on your own, or going ‘AFK’ in the towns and cities, then engaging in the adventure. In the down moments, I’ve got something else on the go; all it does really is unnecessarily clutter my monitor up with a big windowed box that I check every ten to fifteen minutes to see if something is happening that people need, want or are interested in. Metal Gear: Revengeance was almost entirely played during these down moments. That’s not to say I dislike a time out now and again, but MMOs are becoming increasingly barren for me, with a void between the end-game raiding and exploration in groups and the lonely introductions of a fresh new alt. Waiting around on others to get the most out of a game is ANNOYING. Because you invariably wait ages for something to happen and when something does happen, sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t and everyone gets super-frustrated.

“I think the notion of a single-player experience has to go away,” Crytek CEO Cevat Yerli said last week. The problem I find about multiplayer – especially in an MMO of any kind – is that multiplayer is inherently unreliable as a measure for enjoyment. Part of this is that to keep it engaging, you need variety and a lot of time and man-hours into maintaining it and keeping it fresh, fun and exciting. The other part of this is, frankly, that people aren’t always reliable. Life isn’t reliable, a phone rings, a knock at the door, the baby crying the house down – all things that need to be dealt with, but it often means the person asks you to stop and wait for ages, or they disconnect to inevitably throw you back to square one with someone else. Some days I love the social engagement of an MMO, and some days… I just don’t want to log in. I don’t want to deal with other people. Sometimes I’d quite like my alone time and I can put on an old game, or a new one, and just let myself be lost in it. My spine, the bank being a dick (when are bankers ever not dicks though?), trying to find a new place to live which is more accessible. Time is precious, and life is unpredictable. We all change on a day to day basis – some of us more than others, it must be said – and some days we may just not be up for that raid, or that dungeon grind. We’re not being antisocial; we’re being human beings. It’s complicated without having to throw in the added pressure of up to twenty-four other people bearing down and judging you because you had to accompany your nephew to hospital. The multiplayer experience that hinges on everyone having nothing else going on at all isn’t important. There are other games. There is life. There are movies that I’m watching and enjoying more now than ever before.

I also now have this blog; and that means I cannot be tied down to the MMO. To enjoy games is to enjoy the broad spectrum, every little nuance and component. So much happens and spending hours bored in an MMO can really get you down. I think for some time I tried to convince myself that this was my fault; a problem that I needed to overcome. I thought everyone else was coping alright. Turns out – I was wrong. In World of Warcraft, we’ve cancelled raids because our tank and healer’s newborn baby is crying. When life happens, the game has to stop. We log on less and less, usually only to raid, often leaving us behind others who have spent hours doing the LFR for gear upgrades, or the new factions for access to valor epics, and then we’re judged because we’re not “up to scratch”. A video game like that should not end up a chore, and people should not be overly punished for you know, having human lives and children and disabilities and jobs. I think as some push for World of Warcraft to go back to its hardcore roots, it may find that some of us in the last nine years have grown up. People are pushing for new raids to be locked out to those not raiding older areas (thereby reviving the raider-black market where people would pay obscene gold amounts to players to have them defect to their guild to replace someone who has left or been suspended), for more grindy factions, for more monthly chains where you do something every single day.

The expectation for an MMO these days is that, “This IS Your Life!” And as time goes on, more and more of us are finding it just doesn’t fit into our day to day lives. Sometimes we just want to turn on Dark Souls or Demon’s Souls, hit offline mode and enjoy the experience. Sometimes we may want to have some social fun but pushing anything into anything isn’t going to work; this isn’t a case of one is better than the other. But what works one day for someone may not work the next. With a push into ever-increasingly online consoles, there’s a tension in the gaming industry to continue to push to integrate multiplayer into everything because clearly, that’s what is needed right? Except multiplayer modes and MMOs are very expensive time sinks, and cost a fortune to maintain and manage. If you leave them go, you end up with Dark Souls; better offline, because the online component is dominated by cheats, hackers and those exploiting loopholes and glitches.

So as I leave World of Warcraft, I am not sad. I’ll keep in touch with my raiders. We’ve become friends. There’s no need to totally burn perfectly serviceable bridges. But I am not sad about it either. We all change, lives change and doing a blog most days of the week has just ended up with me realising how much time I spend inside these huge worlds doing… well, nothing. I already exist in a huge world where I can do very little without help and assistance. Perhaps that’s the irony. My life and the lives of my in-game avatars have begun to mirror each other. I review a game a week now – and the diversity that is bringing me is enjoyable. I’m alert, focused and engaged in video games again. Like when I was younger, you played a game to destruction as much as you could and then you got a new one. You enjoy games again – the different stuff coming out, even when it’s as naff as Aliens: Colonial Marines, I enjoyed writing that review.

And I also get time to myself; I can have an hour-long soak in the tub. I can cook a meal from scratch rather than scramble with something from a packet because you’re holding people up. Multiplayer and MMO titles, for me, just complicate life. I already have time deadlines; at the regional hospital for 11am, then back to meet the physio at my local hospital for 2:30pm. If I need food, it takes a while to move over and get it, then come back. People don’t tend to like waiting. We all want stuff now, on demand, without questions being asked like, “Are you ready?”

There’s a whole world of games out there and I’m even finally catching up on some that I’ve missed. Games I wish I’d experienced first-time around. I can manage gaming around my life; not my life around gaming. No deadlines, no pressures, no expectations for me to somehow be awesome as a tank when we’ve got a new healer in fresh blue gear in Heart of Fear. Gaming on my terms; rather than gaming with terms and conditions.

It’s time to make a break for it. I will defend World of Warcraft as an experience – it is one – but it shouldn’t be indefinite. You can become trapped in the cycle, conditioned to not want to explore beyond the seas because of the fatigue counter. You huddle in with others, becoming jaded and bored at the trade and general channels full of their inane spam and vulgarity that no-one seems to be able to stop no matter how hard Blizzard want them to. You try to convince yourself this is social gaming; when you feel totally alienated by it.

Rather than stare blindly at the horizon, it’s time to do what Liu Lang did; grab a turtle and set sail for the horizon, to see what new lands I can find and charter. If I end up back at these shores, then so be it. We can talk about the wonderful places we’ve been and spend a little time before heading back out there, maybe with others in tow, as Shen-zin Su grows maybe others will follow. Eventually MMO’s and the market will shrink as the conceit is exposed; but it doesn’t make them bad. Some people will never be adventurous. They will be happy on the shores of Pandaria, waving as another friend sets sail for what lies beyond that horizon.

I, for one, won’t be looking back.

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