“You’re in Our World Now”: How Much Does Setting Affect MMO Enjoyment?
The following is a guest post from Professor Beej at (cunningly enough) professorbeej.com. Beej is a blogger who carefully walks the line between a slacker and an academic. I carefully walk the line between being a slacker and an underachiever.
Quick question: how many of you have ever played a fantasy MMO? Raise your hand. Most of you? Cool, I expected that. Now what about science fiction? All right, fewer, I see, but still some. What about post-apocalyptic? I see you over there Fallen Earth guys! Now, what about sports? Anyone? Anyone?
Why is that? Are non-fantasy/sci-fi games less fun? No, not at all, and if you were to ask any of the people who actually play more niche games, I bet you’d get some biased but heartfelt responses that the reality is quite the opposite. The problem comes from people just not knowing what to expect out of them. The more out of the ordinary a game’s setting or premise is, the fewer people will even give it a shot. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I’ve never tried a sports MMO or racing or puzzle. I generally stick to what I know.
But now, I’m burned out on the mainstream MMO offerings and their takes on the traditional, established settings. I love World of Warcraft, but it’s ruined me on fantasy MMOs, even itself. After playing for nearly five years now, I can’t get excited about a fantasy world, no matter how well-constructed. Aion hasn’t interested me because it looks like it’s just more of the same, whether it actually is or not. I don’t want to get that way for sci-fi games with The Old Republic on the horizon, but outside of the Star Wars license, I don’t see how the setting is really going to be any different from any other game in its genre.
Part of the fun for me in MMOs is exploration. Like Syp, I like finding hidey-holes and special places that maybe a quarter of the population ever see. Unfortunately, in fantasy games, they all turn out the same to me now. I remember exploring in Warhammer Online around its release, and I had a special tome unlock that gave me a title of some kind for finding some particular out of the way ruins. Whee. Ruins. That looked just like every other set of ruins in every other fantasy MMO I had ever played. I actually felt the same way about EVE Online; I was in space. That looked like all the other space in sci-fi games. I was shooting space ships. That looked like every other space ship…well, you get my point.
The world/setting is the most important part of an MMO to me, outside of gameplay mechanics. I want to find a world that makes me want to exist in it like Ultima Online did when I was 16. Part of the glory of an online world is the feeling that the world itself does not owe you anything. Too often the entire world exists for no other reason than to facilitate the gamer to move through it, and because of this, developers will often make the world similar to another successful property instead of developing their own look and feel. Look at Altdorf in WAR and Stormwind in WoW: they share a common visual theme, except that Altdorf is grittier because the game is grittier.
I’m tired of being pushed through generic worlds that could be palette-swaps with another game. I’m tired of, like Gordon posted about recently, being pushed along the rails of a theme park without ever feeling like I’m in the world. And I’m not even an RPer in MMOs. I just want to feel like my character belongs in the game’s setting rather than just visiting while I sign in and run him around. I want for the fantasy world to intrigue me like Middle Earth did when I first read the books as a child. I want to be blown away by actually standing in the Mos Eisley cantina. Unfortunately, though, I find myself being underwhelmed by even adored franchises and their attempts at immersion because of the copy-cats and lazy world designers out there.
I feel like I’ve become a fair-weather MMO fan because of this view. I’m hopping from game to game, looking for something that might not even exist: a new take on MMO setting. I don’t want just another fantasy world or sci-fi that breadcrumbs me to arbitrary end-game content. I want a world that I can inhabit and be a part of, whether that is as an adventurer or just as some schmuck. So far, it looks like Fallen Earth might be my last, best hope of finding a world that is unique enough to satisfy me.
What about you folks? How much does setting affect your MMO enjoyment? Is the world a big draw for you like it is me? Do you scoff at the thought of ever setting foot off the quest-line rails or do you yearn for the freedom that only a persistent, immersive, sandbox world can give you?