Reminiscing about Ultima Online in the comment-field in a different post made me all nostalgic, like. And I came to realize that no MMORPG (or MMO, if you prefer) I have played since has struck a chord with me to the same extent as it did. Not just because it was my first MMORPG – I recognize that very little compares favorably to one’s “first”, but also because UO awoke in me a desire for virtual worlds. Take note that I used the word “worlds” there and not “games”. I like games. I’ve played games all my life, and will continue to do so for as long as I am able to. Virtual worlds, however – that’s the stuff dreams are made of! Also, the Matrix.
Let’s take it from the beginning
On the 31st of December 1997 I started playing Ultima Online. It sounded like a dream come true at the time; to be able to run around in the Ultima-universe alongside other real people living out our alternative lives, dispatching hordes of monsters, living the stories, even baking bread? Hallelujah!
A cousin of mine got the game as a Christmas gift, after I had been drooling over the game for months and he had barely heard of it! O, what cruel fate! Luckily for me, though, his computer did not meet the minimum required system specifications (Pentium 133MHz, 16MB RAM, 4X CD-ROM Drive!) to run the game, so the game ended up being installed on my beast of a P200 MMX instead *rubs hands gleefully together sometime in the distant past*
A couple of months later I got my own copy of the game and from then on there was no looking back (until now).
About broken dreams and trying to recapture the past
Ultima Online didn’t turn out the way I dreamed it would, but despite quickly coming to realize that other people are horribly broken, despite all the PKs, despite all the bugs, and despite a network ping and/or server lag that occasionally caused running across the screen to take two minutes, I still found it enjoyable for many years – partially because of the potential I thought I saw in the game for evolving as a virtual world. After a while though, the people I had played UO with moved on to other games (or returned to “real life”), so gradually my own days in UO grew shorter and further apart, and I started trying various other MMORPGs, hoping to find one that could recreate – and perhaps improve on – the initial feeling I’d gotten back when I took my first few steps in Britannia.
After passing through various games (AC, DAoC, Ao, SWG, Eve, ++) I eventually ended up in World of Warcraft when it launched in 2004. It was the natural choice at the time, seeing as how that was also the game the rest of the world was jumping into (including friends and family). It was very much a different experience than UO had been, with a static and linear interactive story. Compared to UO’s player-driven storytelling it was a definite step away from “virtual world” territory and towards “game/theme-park”, but the graphics were alright, the quests and stories varied and interesting enough to keep me occupied.
For a long while I was (along with everyone else at the time) content with this situation. Later – after I finally tired of running on the treadmill and getting nowhere fast – I drifted from MMO to MMO without really setting down roots in any of them, discovering that it was all just different models of treadmill everywhere I went.
Fast forward eight years
Fast forwarding to 2012, I look back and observe that I’ve visited a large number of MMOs since those early days in Ultima Online. These are some of them (not counting all the ones I installed briefly for my ever-popular-with-spambots-post about crates in MMOs):
- Asheron’s Call, Anarchy Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Earth and Beyond, Ragnarok Online, Eve Online, Puzzle Pirates, Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, Ryzom, World of Warcraft, EverQuest 2, Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings Online, Pirates of the Caribbean Online, Tabula Rasa, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, Age of Conan, FusionFall, Champions Online, Free Realms, RIFT, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Secret World and – most recently – Guild Wars 2…
They all had their own unique qualities, but none of them came close to quenching that ever growing thirst for virtual worlds. After fifteen years of playing games like this, and longing for virtual worlds, I must admit I now feel more or less burnt out on the whole genre.
Maybe it’s the focus on linear questing/character progression where every player hops through the same exact hoops in their journey through game-worlds with level-based content, which ensures that every player will get a stream-lined and expertly guided tour through all the available content? Or the incessant grind for the next tier of epic loot (which of course will allow you to do more grinding for the next tier, and so on)? Some games deviate slightly from this pattern by giving you some choice of which poison to take – which content to consume first/last, for instance, but mostly it feels like the same old thing rehashed over and over again.
I’ve touched slightly on the whole “theme-park” vs “virtual world” topic before, but I can’t help but repeating myself: My initial interest in this genre of digital entertainment came from the possibilities inherit in virtual worlds, the potential for living alternate lives alongside other virtual real people, worlds in which everyone could chose their own destiny – whether that was to be a trader, a crafter, a soldier, a thief, a bartender, an adventurer, a tomb-raider, a hacker, a secret agent – the list goes on to infinity.
Instead what we got was worlds where every player follows the same story, every player has the same goals, every player gets the exact same carefully crafted on-rails experience, every player is the Hero That Saves the World(TM)!.
Where did we go wrong?