The MMO With No Soul

Keen beat me to it, and stole the very counterexample I was going to use. In today’s post, he talks about Warhammer’s ‘biggest flaw,’ and it’s the same flaw that I see: Warhammer has no soul.

It’s a terrific game, well-designed and mechanically solid. It has a colorful IP, rock-solid art direction, and enough content for players to advance through. It has a wonderful PvP system that’s well-balanced at the group level and provides a reward stream for participating it it. It’s got a ton going for it.

But you know, at level 22, just over halfway through the leveling, I feel like I’ve pretty much explored Warhammer’s world out. I’ve visited the Chaos Wastes and the narrow streets of Praag, and been only modestly inspired. I’ve fought in a dozen different scenarios, all of which play well but none of which are in anyplace particularly interesting. I haven’t seen every zone, but I have no drive to visit those I haven’t, nor to play the Public Quests I’ve missed. The content and questing is good, but I have no desire to try to advance the story, or even read the parts of the story I’ve already unlocked. And even if I was, it’s not my story – it’s somebody at Mythic’s. I feel like I’ve explored it enough to completely understand it. I don’t feel like there’s some surprise or mystery over the horizon.

There is very little sense of community. The game is dominated by big guilds, within which there is interaction, but outside of their own cliques, nobody talks. The open channels are silent. Warhammer makes forming and getting into groups so easy that the grouping, something utterly central to the MMO experience, is utterly meaningless. You can join a group, play for hours, and then log out, never having said a single word to anybody. The Warhammer grouping tools are so good that they eliminate the need to have any kind of social interaction in the game.

The quests are all good – and all paint-by-number. The difficulty goes up, and the number of phases goes up, and the challenge is there, but there’s never anything that’s a departure from the old standards. There are no dungeons worth talking about, and lairs are one-off encounters packed into a world that’s far to small to accommodate that kind of content. There are no Easter Eggs in Warhammer – if it was worth putting in, it became a feature, and everyone knew enough about it from top to bottom on day one to strip it of any mystery or suspense.

Lots of people are playing Warhammer. And they are having fun. But I don’t have a sense that any player feels any love for the game, or the world. I’m not talking about the players who have left, like me – I’m talking about the players who stay. There were passionate players – before the game launched. Four years in, there are still millions of World of Warcraft players who are passionate about the game, who love it despite all of its many flaws and want it to succeed and improve. Such players are invisible in Warhammer less than two months after it released. New classes and new quests and scenarios, even new zones and the arrival of the missing capital cities… none of that will give this game what it’s missing, only more of what it already has.

Warhammer is a work of splendid engineering. Vanguard, and EverQuest, and Age of Conan, and even WoW, are works of craft. They have soul. It’s the difference between a monolithic, Soviet-era apartment block and the Empire State Building, the difference between an award-winning documentary and The Godfather. The former you will watch once, and be entertained or informed; everything it has is lain on the table. In the latter there are layers and subtleties that make it worth experiencing a dozen or a hundred times over. This is what makes repetitive content worth tolerating.

It’s something that the Warhammer development team, skilled and dedicated as it was, managed to miss. Vanguard’s development, catastrophically flawed as only a true debacle can be, got this one thing right, and because of that Vanguard survived the worst launch in the history of MMOs, and is still around – even thriving in a comfortable niche sort of way.

19 responses to “The MMO With No Soul

  1. That was one of the reason i left Warhammer a few weeks ago. No one talked. Even when i tired to talk to people, no one would say anything. The only people who would ever talk to me were other MMO blogger who saw my name and was like, are you ogrebear… Other than that, it was pretty much a single player game to me.

  2. I’m not going to disagree with you…not completely 🙂

    I agree about PvE. I don’t mind WAR PvE, but I’ve never been a huge fan of PvE anywhere. It’s probably the last thing I pay attention to in MMO’s.

    The soul of WAR will be in the same place the soul of DAoC was found, in the endgame fighting alongside guildmates and realm mates.

    It’s just a damn shame that people aren’t going to reach that endgame, because they’re unimpressed with the PvE, or the various methods you have to reach the endgame. I can’t disagree with those people; their opinions are their own, and their happiness is their own to decide. In the end, I’ll have to blame Mythic for not getting people to the best part of their game fast enough, or easily enough, or interestingly enough.

  3. Felt it even before launch, and to the many who railed against me as I tried to warn them…

    Told ya so.

    Good overall post of what happened!

    Also, I pretty much think what we are seeing is just everyone rehashing the same mechanics, types of stories, and not stepping beyond that “safe” border.

    The genre is tired right now. Needs a break. Glad I took one…

    Cheers mate

  4. I’d like to see what you think of grouping after you try City of Heroes more intensively. It somewhat bothers me that people decry ease of grouping as a reason for not talking. In CoX, PUGs form very easily and there’s a good mix of people who will chat even while playing and a good mix of people who stay utterly silent, but everyone just gels together anyway and has a rollicking good time.

    Could be because the group limit is 8, not 24, as in WAR, so people don’t get social loafing tendencies, “ah, they’re not going to miss me if I take my time and don’t show up for a bit.” Could be the general community of CoX is just more naturally chatty and less achievement-focused due to the nature of its game than loot-driven fantasy MMO players from WoW and WAR.

    Oddly enough, CoX has the soul that WAR still lacks. CoX has little nuances that are different from the standard MMO tropes and it takes a while to learn them. It’s got the world immersion and the you-are-your-character down pat – you design the very look of yer character, fer cryin’ out loud. And the stories make you understand the world of Paragon City more. Even if the beat ’em up part can get cyclic and repetitive after some time.

    Perhaps the silhouetting for RvR and semi-realistic look of WAR works against it here. WoW characters have that cartoony appeal, but WAR characters are difficult to feel special in. You’re classified by your role, not your name.

    The odd thing is, I’m almost certain WAR does have fairly decent stories and verisimilitude of world lurking around to help character immersion into the setting. But it’s so hard to find because of the design. First you almost have to be solo or in a small group with the same idea or the other players will rip you right out of immersion and into gaming WAR. The map has to be resisted or you’ll see the metagame placement of stuff all over. The full quest text has to be read – not those convenient bolded bits. The chapter stories have potential, but because they’re demarcated by levels, I’ve forgotten what twist happened in chapter 4 by the time I’ve gotten to chapter 8. Gods help you keep track of the story if you do a few racial pairings at once. The epic quests are the best, but boy do they take you around and run you the risk of stumbling into something else happening you’d rather jump into for loot/xp/renown reasons (and out of the story as a result.)

  5. @Rick: I’m sure I don’t agree that the soul of WAR will be found in the endgame. I think that will be more of the same. To be sure, there’ll be cameraderie and some epic fights. But in DAoC (and for that matter, EVE,) there is interaction and rivalry, struggle and politics between the various guilds and alliances and factions. In WAR all anyone needs to do is show up to fight. I get just as much engagement from Team Fortress 2.

    Is this fixable? Maybe, but nothing that’s on the table right now will fix it. It’s even possible that the players themselves will fix it, with a change in attitude away from leveling and renown and gear and towards building a community and experiencing a world – but for that to happen, the player base is going to have to contract quite a lot. WAR is an excellent and well designed game that’s sorely lacking in depth. It’s not Peggle, but it’s more like… Counterstrike. Compare that to EVE – that is what I mean.

    @Edge: Yeah, yeah. :p

    You know what other game has no soul? LotRO. Another licensed property that looks great on paper but lacks depth and manages to feel totally flat in play.

    Still, there’s a lot to love in the MMO genre, and a lot of high-quality games that really are striving to be as good as they can be within their technical and economic limitations – and even, in places, pretty innovative. CoH and EVE are the best examples of games that have really added a lot of new dimensions post-launch.

    I appreciate that you’re bored with or burned out on MMOs – that’s understandable. But on some level I find MMOs more engaging than other types of games, and I realized in the last few days that WAR played more for me like an “other” game than an MMO.

    @Jeromai: I agree with you – CoX has great gobs of soul. It also has a great community, which even if it doesn’t provide that soul, helps illuminate it.

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  7. @Ardwulf

    But on some level I find MMOs more engaging than other types of games

    Then why are you playing a game that is more outside the MMO norm? EvE is not a standardized MMO.
    WAR is by all accounts THE norm..You level, you get gear, you kill 10x, etc…WAR has all the trappings of this..
    Yet, EvE you do not have a main avatar. You can make money offline, no elves, no dwarves…
    For being enamored with the genre, it is odd that the game you find most fascinating strays from that norm..
    Makes you wonder…eh?

    And oh YEA…LOTRO = the MAJOR soulless IP.
    Even with it’s issues, I think Vanguard has more soul going for it than LOTRO or WAR..

    (PS: As a side note, Spellborn will also break norms, as well as Aion.(playing an Angel or a Demon…THATS new…)…that maybe THOSE MMO’s may actually be worth coming back to this genre for me..)

  8. That’s a terrific question.

    I think what makes a game an MMO is not the avatars or the trappings of any particular genre, but the idea that you’re in a living, persistent world with other people. That requires player interaction and mechanical depth, such that the world is not entirely known and predictable, no matter how well you might understand the mechanics or the map. I don’t mean this to be a ‘definition’ of an MMO, but an ideal state. EVE, Vanguard and City of Heroes are probably the closest to that ideal in my experience. That one of them hews pretty close to the traditional mainstream, one departs somewhat, and the third departs a whole lot is, I think, entirely incidental.

    For me the distinction is ultimately about immersiveness, in the holistic feel of the setting and in how it impacts the play experience. WAR, and LotRO feel to me to be overly mechanistic, games to play rather than worlds to experience. And its the worlds that appeal to me, even if there needs to also be some game in there to occupy one’s time.

    I’m not sold on Aion, Spellborn, DC Universe or any other upcoming MMO a the point. All those look promising (and I will have a post about that today.)

  9. Hmm… herein lies the difference in what people want, and what they expect.

    When I play an MMOG, I don’t care about the “world” feel. I look for a fun game first, and one that can keep me advancing with my playstyle. I’m not a “lore-ist”, I play for the fun of playing with people and/or alone whenever I want.

    So when I go to a new MMOG, or an old one, I’m not picking it based on its world or “soul”, I’m picking it based on mechanics and solidity of its play and people.

    To me, the only game that does the basic mechanics of gameplay better than WAR is WoW, but WAR has better PvP and of course CoW, which is my main desire right now. Therefore, I play WAR.

    I guess, what I’m rambling about, is that I don’t think any MMOG has the “world” feel you may be looking for. The other people that populate an MMOG will ruin that from the get-go.

    If I want a world to explore, I’d rather explore it freely and without others. That’s when I go play Fallout 3 (as a recent example). When I want a fun and engaging game with people to play with, I go for an MMOG.

  10. @Ardwulf
    WAR, and LotRO feel to me to be overly mechanistic

    We agree…that must be it, as that is what they feel like…

    All mechanics, no feeling.

    Maybe EvE’s “social” tools are what is key here (as I have heard CoH is also good with this)

    AoC has a world feeling …but SOLO, and that is where the MMO disconnect goes wrong there. AoC is an awesome single player game.

    Guild Wars is more of an MMO to me for one simple reason.
    You MUST interact with people regularly in towns, and it is very social.
    Who woulda thunk it from a game that isolates you in the gaming world.

    Maybe this MMO thing is different for everyone who plays also. Bildo feels WAR works on some level for him (well CoW is the major draw I think, not the game..)

    So, we come full circle. MMO’s are ALWAYS about the social tools..

    Maybe Curt Schilling really has a handle on this genre, and we need to watch him…

    His #1 Fix for MMO’s is better social tools

  11. @Bildo: “…is that I don’t think any MMOG has the “world” feel you may be looking for. The other people that populate an MMOG will ruin that from the get-go.”

    Ah, but I think exactly the opposite – there are definitely games that do, and the problem is not a lack of such games, but a wealth of them. I’m not saying that “world” is the be-all and end-all; I’m saying that for me, and I think for many of the people who enjoy MMOs in particular, it’s an important component, and I felt the lack of it in WAR, to the point that it only felt like most of an MMO to me.

    It’s not about lore or exploration per se, although those can contribute to this, it’s about the sense of world, of being there. Immersiveness. My experience was missing something that I have distilled down to “soul” for the purposes of this discussion.

    As far as the people… well, some games have good communities and are full of great, helpful people, and some games don’t. WAR’s community is mostly nonexistent outside one’s own guild, and I think that’s regrettable. It’s possible that as the game matures and the percentage of serious, sociable players in the game increases, and the jackasses find other games to be jackasses in (their attention spans being notoriously short,) this will change.

    I would also like to emphasize a couple of things. First, that the CoW experience was awesome. The WAR experience was fun but not catchy. And second, that I am not at all saying that I do not think WAR is worth playing, or that I will not return to it. I’m saying I found something missing in the WAR experience that was a factor in my departure. In this respect, in that I had hoped that WAR would be a game that would hold my interest for months or years, WAR did indeed not measure up to my expectations.

    @Edge: See, I think that Guild Wars is missing something, too. Maybe something different, and maybe that’s a topic I’ll visit on its own.

    It’s not any social tools that EVE has but WAR lacks; on paper, WAR has a ton of great social tools. Part of the issue is that they are so efficient that people don’t need to interact. EVE, like EQ before it, forced people to interact using the tools it did have. WAR rewards cooperation just as much, but removes the need to interact to do it.

    WAR worked on some level for me, as well. But even Bildo in his defense above implies that the primary reason he’s staying is CoW. Which is totally valid and understandable – and without CoW, I would probably not bother returning to WAR.

  12. To be fair, the reason I stay in any MMOG longer than a month or two is usually the people. It was the people for WoW, the people in LotRO, and the people in WAR that I’m having so much fun. S the social aspects, plus the game mechanics matter to me.

    If one or the other is missing, I’m liable not to stay long. I left LotRO after many friends did and solo-ing became impossible. WoW I stayed with for a VERY long time until the dungeon-running guild I was a part of fell apart.

    If CoW (God forbid) were to crumble, I’d need to find a guild in WAR or else I’d be screwed. But again, I think FOR ME, that this is true for an MMOG. I need the people, just as much as I need the game to be fun. Both need to be there.

    Luckily, so far, this has been the case with WAR.

    I could see that being the case in CoH too, but I never got in with a good group of folks there. I’m hoping to get in on the ground floor with DCU or Champions when the next super-hero MMOG hits. Because I definitely loved CoH’s mechanics. I just couldn’t connect with the community at all. I keep trying every 6 months or so, though. I’m stubborn.

  13. Oh, and another example. I left AoC not because of the social aspects. The Shadow Company were and are a great group of RP-Lite folks to play with. But the actual game became the issue there. It was (and likely is) incomplete. That’s one I’ll go back to when and if it ever finishes baking.

  14. @Bildo: I will toss you a heads-up when I dive back into CoH, and mention it over on the CoW boards. Casualties of Paragon City FTW!

    Also, yes, AoC was and still is half-baked. With time it might get where it needs to be – Funcom has actually made more progress in the last two big patches than they did in the preceding several months. There’s signs of life there, and I think that the game will be worth checking out again someday.

    @Thallian: Yes, that’s a big part of it. There’s no fluff at all, nothing extraneous, and worlds need extraneous stuff for verisimillitude. Snafzg touches on this at the Greenskin today.

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  18. I disagree. I love the game, I love the groups I’ve been in. I do agree it’s the social aspect that make or break MMO’s for me. That’s why I quit WoW, FFXI and AoC. I have no problem with WAr because I talk to people. Even the screaming caps lock kiddies can be nice if you talk to them.

    In essence, and this is going to sound mean but, maybe it’s you that need the soul, not the game. Mythic can’t make people be your friend. You have to do that yourself.