Idle Time and Idle Mind

In a way, I am deeply unhappy with Skyrim because it has so dominated the part of my head that deals with gaming. I have a lot of other prospects to play, but I’m having trouble getting into anything else… so, of course, what time I have had to play has pretty much stayed in Skyrim.

This week we have Star Trek Online going free to play at last, and I’m planning to give that a whirl. Meanwhile, I have been dabbling a bit in Wurm Online, which is (graphics aside) the closest thing to Skyrim in the MMO world, even surpassing its immersability in many respects. (Nota bene: Wurm is not much like Skyrim at all, and I’m only comparing the two in terms of immersion. Gameplay-wise it’s a lot closer to Minecraft.) Still, I’m finding it best in small doses.

On something of a lark, I installed League of Legends and took that out for a spin. As I’d predicted, it’s not for me. I also reinstalled World of Warcraft with the thought of using my long-idle trial account on their new “free” plan, and played close to ten minutes of that before realizing that it’s just too stale these days. I will say, though, that Blizzard has done a fine job of making the download and install a great deal less painful than it used to be, so that’s something.

WoW’s linearity these days seems to be the deal-breaker for me, which even Blizzard seems to be recognizing. Unfortunately, this comes after the complete revamp of Old Azeroth into Linear Land that Cataclysm brought. It’s good in a way, because I will be less tempted to dabble in a game I now regard as permanently spoiled.

At any rate, I find myself at something of a loss. I have installed and could readily play LotRO, Champions, DDO, APB, Fallen Earth or EQ2, and that’s just the MMOs. Yet my desire to play any of them is at an all-time low. Perhaps it’s time to unearth a long-fallow tabletop project.

The MMO is Dead

In our last installment we discussed developers playing Blizzard’s game and failing. Tobold’s been arguing for a couple posts that the whole MMO scene is in decline. He has reason to think so, and I’d argue that the only real recent successes in online multiplayer games – and I’m specifically talking about League of Legends here – have learned things from World of Warcraft but found their own path. I’d argue that EVE Online has to some extent done the same thing, by building its own parallel market that, while it’s got a lot of crossover with the WoW audience, also has its own thing going on.

The paths of Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic lead to, at best, second place, in a playground whose borders have been put up by somebody else. Tobold’s right, but the underlying truth that he doesn’t mention is that the default state of everything is decline, and it takes vision, work and innovation (and luck) to overcome that trend and produce growth. Stagnation in the face of attrition means a slow roll downhill.

The only way to break the trend is to grow the market. If we want virtual worlds to succeed, we need to take them in new directions. Ultimately we need to look forward instead of looking to the past, but I think that the present situation, where a single game came in and dramatically inflated the market, is an unusual one. Shared virtual spaces were making great strides in the years between 1999 and 2004. And then, in 2005, the Blizzard juggernaut rolled in and progress slowed to a glacial pace.

You’ll notice that I’m not using the terms “MMO” and “MMORPG” here. Those are a convenient shorthand, but they’ve been diluted to homeopathic proportions. When League of Legends gets called an MMO and Global Agenda and All Points Bulletin are labeled MMORPGs, then I think something important has been lost by those terms. So we need new terminology, but that’s something I’ve discussed before.

We need shared virtual spaces that are bigger and better. More room to expand, more volume to occupy. We need to be able to build something lasting there and let people stay and grow for the long haul. More importantly, we need to abandon the big money dream of chasing somebody else’s audience, and a developer who’s willing to say “no, we are doing our own thing here”. This is hard. We need a group with talent and vision to take a small budget and turn it into something really ambitious that can start small and grow. Code Club AB gets this, and Wurm Online has a lot of what I’m talking about, but their interface is so clumsy that there’s not much farther it can go. Fatten up the action mechanics and character development, let a talented visual designer loose on the world and give it a real user interface and Wurm Online could go somewhere, but it really hasn’t made enough progress over the last couple of years for me to have much faith in it.

We need a Raph Koster or, hell, a Richard Gariott, who for all his nuttiness at least has vision. Or a Brad McQuaid, for that matter. Not literally those guys, of course… we need new ideas, and although I could make a case for Raph, the next visionary on the virtual world circuit is far more likely to be someone we’ve never heard of before. The tools available today dwarf those available in 2000, when everything had to be hand-coded, yet how many are reaching out to make something that looks great, plays well and pushes the frontier of virtual worlds forward? There are indeed a few that are trying, and maybe one of those will manage to do what all of EA’s hundreds of millions won’t.

Meanwhile, we have established properties that at least tried, even where they came up short. We have Darkfall and Fallen Earth, Perpetuum and Wurm Online. Soon we will no longer have Star Wars Galaxies, or, if Tobold is right, EVE Online. If you care about immersive virtual worlds, those are the games you should be playing. If you’re not that kind of gamer and WoW or one of its understudies fills your needs, then that’s awesome. A lot of those are good games, and I’ve certainly clocked many hours in them. I wish WoW’s players maximum fun, the game a long life, and Blizzard lots of ongoing revenue, because I’m not fundamentally an asshole.

Ultimately we have to move virtual worlds forward instead of endlessly circling the same success like sharks. We do not need an SWG or our imperfect, rose-tinted memories of it. We need something that transcends our terminology and shows us that all those words we like to toss around like “MMORPG” and “sandbox” are just pieces of something bigger and grander. What’ll that be? Hell if I know. But give me ten million and I might be able to figure it out. Meanwhile… let’s talk about it.