Games, even just video games, are varied. There are lots of different kinds available from the preposterously fantastic to the incredibly realistic, from the casual to the hardcore, from brain-rottingly easy to the extremely challenging, and in a diverse array of genres. So what is it about MMOs in particular that interests us in them? What drew us in at the start, and what keeps us around?
Having done a lot of reflection on the subject both over the last few years and recently in the wave of Skyrim, I think the basic appeal of the MMO is threefold.
First of all, you have the big nominal selling point for many, especially among the commentator set, in that in an MMO you’re playing with other people, often “friends” of some description. Yet most MMO players (but not necessarily most commentators) play mostly or exclusively solo, either be preference or due to problems getting together with the same bunch on a regular schedule. Surely, the presence of other players is appealing to some, but just as often other players in the game can be a distraction or an annoyance. In quasi-MMOs like Guild Wars or multiplayer Diablo their presence is entirely optional, such that you don’t even have to notice them if you don’t want to. It’s my thought that the presence of other players, no matter that it may be very important to some folks, is a secondary concern, and the other two factors don’t rely on it.
Second, you have immersiveness. Many different types of games can be immersive, while others don’t even try, but almost anything calling itself an MMO, as well as a few examples that fit only marginally into the category, at least make a passing attempt at it. Some level of immersiveness is a commonality among MMOs. To me, the social part of the game, while attractive, is less important than this, but the two factors are unalike in that nobody plays a game becuase it’s not immersive, but plenty of people play multiplayer games because they are profoundly antisocial. For some it’s a social outlet that they find they can manage, while for others it’s an outlet for their antisocial tendencies. This last type of verminous individual has an impact beyond its numbers.
Third is the open-ended nature of the MMO. Few examples are really open-ended in truth, but they can seem so in practice, because some players will simply never exhaust the finite content, or never get bored with the repeatable content. You can, if you want, play regularly for years and never see the same stuff, or just deal with it. There’s a sense of progression, but you have that in many kinds of games, not just RPGs, let alone MMORPGs. In an MMO, though, you should ideally not very often feel that you’ve reached the end of the line as you would in a game like Dragon Age… and if you do, you may quit or at least put the game aside for a while until there is something new to do. This is the one that gets mentioned the least, but is perhaps the most important. How many folks do we know who left an MMO because they felt that they’d done all they wanted to do in it?
This last is also where the World of Warcraft formula, of easy advancement made even faster and more trivial over time, starts to look counterproductive. It’s a good thing for a game to be accessible, as WoW is, yet it burns players out faster, too. Lost in the fact that WoW has more players than other MMOs is the related fact that more people leave it, too, and I would bet that happens at a higher rate. It’s an easy jump to thinking that, for example, EVE players, in a more open-ended game with a steadier advancement pace, might be by and large more loyal to it.
This calculus also says something about why Skyrim has, by and large, been so immensely appealing to MMO gamers in particular, and why it took over the MMO blogosphere to such a great extent before players were wrenched away by the must-play SWTOR… and why some didn’t make the jump, despite all the hullabaloo. It’s an immersive and open-ended game that happens to lack an MMO’s social multiplayer aspect. Not that there aren’t other factors, of course, but this is one of them.