Years ago I discovered Morrowind – my first sandbox RPG game. Possibly the best game I have ever played. I was blown away by its expansive world inhabited by hundreds of named NPC’s, dozens of factions (each with its own quest chain) and the open ended game play. I immediately burned a copy for my brother and we sat there, in the same room, both absolutely enthralled by the same game. We compared notes, gave each other tips and yelled out things like “Holly crap, did you visit the Ghost Gate yet? It’s awesome!”. During that time we actually mused how awesome would it be if Morrowind could be played in a co-op mode. We could team up, exchange items, share quests and etc… This was long before any of us actually played an MMO of any sort – we just thought that the idea of exploring an open-ended sandbox world alongside other human players was awesome. We didn’t realize that making Morrowind into a multi-player game would kill all the things that made it so awesome in the first place.
You see, Morrowind is one of the finest sandbox RPG ever made because of the unprecedented freedom if offers to the players. The game allows you to do absolutely anything you want. Every door in the game can be opened and every NPC can be killed. Every single one. Shop keepers, quest givers, trainers, faction leaders, rulers and demi-gods. You are free to break the game and make it un-winnable if you wish. You will be warned that you just broke something, but you can continue playing. Hell, if you want you can make it your mission to slaughter every living NPC in the whole world and the game will go with it. And there is no Karma/Reputation meter – no one judges your actions. You do what you want to do. They don’t make games like that anymore – it’s a pity.
When you are playing an MMO, or even a co-op multiplayer game such freedom is impossible. Why? Because people are assholes. You can’t just allow players to break the game on a whim because one bored asshole will ruin things for other players. Hell, you can’t even allow players to have long lasting impact on the game world either. For example, if you kill the evil necromancer terrorizing the local village, he and all of his minions will respawn in few minutes and resume their evil doing. Why? Because other players want to kill that guy too. In fact, there is always a line in front of his lair.
The problem with MMO’s is that they are not immersive. When I play a game, I want to lose myself in the fantasy. I want to be a fierce warrior, a skillful thief, a star-ship captain. Now, in theory you would think that there would be nothing more immersive than playing with other people. After all computer controlled NPC’s usually have a very limited set of behaviors and responses. Humans on the other hand are inventive and adaptive by nature. They could easily role-play any situation. In theory an MMO should be like a tabletop RPG, but with many, many people and over the internet. But that’s not how it works.
Your average MMO is all about meta-gaming. If you listen to in-game conversations most of them revolve around game mechanics. Players talk about DPS, about best kiting strategies for this or that raid, about epic gear and etc. They don’t actually talk about game-world based current-events because there are usually none to talk about (save for some seasonal stuff or promotional events). In most cases their universe remains completely static. Nothing ever changes. Same enemies, same quests, same raids. You just get a little bit more powerful and get a little bit better gear.
Even if you want to role-play things and immerse yourself in the game world, you really can’t. The only people you can usually talk to are quest givers and they usually all want the same thing from you. They want you to go out and kill X of Y. No matter how the writers try to dress the quest up, it is always the same old thing. You don’t even need to read the text. Just accept the quest and go hunting.
Of course there are always exceptions to this rule. For example, Guild Wars had a very interesting idea of splicing the game world into separate areas. The newbie leveling area was it’s own self-contained instance. Once you did all the introductory quests you would then progress to the main game world and you were treated to a cut scene in which you could observe the newbie area being burned into the ground and destroyed. It was almost as if your actions had some permanent impact on the game world. Sure it was merely an illusion, but it was a good one. From that point on however it was business as usual. Kill X of Y, and then listen to some angry 12 year old scolding you for not having the right build for tanking.
This is not what I want in my video games! I don’t want to do the same thing over and over. I want epic adventures. I want to be a great hero, or a despicable villain. I want the bad guys stay dead when I kill them, and I want the NPC’s to react to my actions in believable ways. I want to immerse myself in the imaginary world, live in it and help altering it for better or for worse. I actually do not want meta-gaming talk within my game. If I want to talk gear and strategies I will visit the forums, or write a blog entry. But when I play a game I want to have make-believe adventures.
Now, I’m not saying MMO’s are bad in general. Doing a raid with a good team of players can be fun. But when you raid you are not really playing an RPG. You are playing a co-op, tactical combat based game. Raiding is not very much unlike playing a round of Team Fortress or Left 4 Dead – just more involved. Instead of relying on twitch-based reflexes you instead babysit coodown timers, watch your aggro, dps, heal your allies and etc.. The basic idea is the same though: you team up with a group of people and you work together to achieve certain clearly defined objective. It works because that kind of multi-player gameplay has always worked. I don’t have a problem with this aspect of the game. I have a problem with everything else: the static game world, the boring quests, the griefers, the people who constantly ask “wheres mariks waif?” and etc…
I seriously don’t think it’s actually possible for someone to build an MMO game that would capture my attention and imagination the way games like Morrowind, Oblivion, Mass Effect or Dragon Age: Origins did. They just don’t work that way.