“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?

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21 Comments

  1. Tesh says:

    I’ve written about this several times, albeit from different angles. Yes, I’m looking for an interesting world that doesn’t need me to exist, but that reacts to my existence because I can have an effect on it. Modern MMO design doesn’t scratch that itch, despite the potential of the genre to do so better than nearly any other game.

    It’s a big part of why I keep writing about them. There’s so much that could be done differently.

  2. Longasc says:

    Yes, I like huge worlds to explore. But I must like the setting. Aion’s world was nice, but in the end a bit too small and alien for me.

    In general I prefer the standard fantasy setting. I just do not care for superhero scenarios like CoH or CO. I have nothing against Science-Fiction, but the upcoming SWTOR is a fantasy MMORPG in disguise, as much as Star Wars was much more of a SciFi styled fairy tale space opera fantasy mix rather that by now often gets refered to as Space Opera. And what else besides EVE is out there to satisfy scifi online gaming needs at the moment?

    It is interesting that I am quite fond of story-quest/mission driven games like Guild Wars or LOTRO. LOTRO calls the major plot related quests books & chapters, Guild Wars calls them missions. But both games send me around in a vast world to explore, while being very different at the core. LOTRO is a heavily quest-driven game, while Guild Wars is a heavily instanced experience. Yet both offer fascinating worlds for me to explore, in the right “fantasy” setting. I personally think both beat in terms of lore and story behind their world the soap opera hero worship of WoW.

    It seems I simply have to give Fallen Earth a try, as it really seems to have convinced a lot of people with its very immersive “world” feeling! :)

  3. Jim says:

    I to am jumping from title to title hoping to find one that sticks. I need to have a world that makes me believe I need to kill those 10 rats or else the world will end.

    I somehow think that I will never get that feeling that the world needs me again. I have played these games to long and I can break all of them down and put them in a mold that I have already played. I hope I am wrong.

    • That’s why I want to give Fallen Earth a shot. I keep hearing that it makes the player seem integral to the human race’s survival and that he or she is not just another super-powered, dime a dozen adventurer.

      That was the reason I used to love Ultima Online so much. PCs weren’t these god-like raid annihilators; we were just some people who lived in Sosaria and happened to have to deal with stuff that came up.

  4. Robert says:

    While I’m not an expert on MMO’s, I’ve recently started getting into Aion. The environment is atmospheric and lush, and for a starting MMO, it’s really quite entertaining.

  5. spinks says:

    You know, I think this explains the ‘wow tourist’ phenomenon much better than assuming that all WoW players really just want to play WoW.

    People try the new MMOs, with a hope and an idea of what their ideal MMO might be. It takes about a month to figure out whether the new game fits or not, and if not they go back to whatever they were playing before.

    Anyhow I’m with you on this one, I want a vibrant immersive world in a genre that I like (this is why I didn’t try Fallen Earth, I’m just not interested in playing a post-apocalyptic survivor, it doesn’t make me think ‘I want to BE that’) and if I can’t have it I’ll prolly go back to WoW where I can at least hang with my friends and fight zombies together.

  6. pitrelli says:

    I enjoy trying new MMO’s, previously I’d try them and then when I left I would berate them, looking back on all the MMOs i have tried over the years there was always something that I enjoyed or kept me interested in each one. I think what MMO players are looking for now is the ‘holy grail’ of MMOs, one that encorporates every feature they liked…… now because mmo players are all different this game will never exist for the masses but comes down to personal opinion. Of course you have games such as WoW, Aion and WAR which many players believe is their holy grail… and who are we to say its not?

    Bottom line is Im more comfortable now to drift between games, there is a fantastic choice out there right now and whilst the gameplay is similar I wanna try them all :)

  7. lsg404 says:

    A lot of games are in production now, many of them with a non-fantasy setting. And setting is hugely important. Next year APB is coming out, a GTA-like gangwar game. Probably millions out there are craving for a Warhammer 40k MMO (me too). A World of Darkness game is rumored to be created by creators of EVE, if they can get it right, that can be also huge. Oh, they are also making this MMOFPS spinoff for the EVE world. You can be sure that the nextgen Blizzard stuff won’t be a traditional fantasy setting either.

    My journey started with fantasy, and it will stay in the core, but I see your point, the lacking of originality. (I am eager to give a shot at Darkfall, which is a lot “darker” than WoW, not just setting-wise but gameplay-wise)

  8. Gordon says:

    Setting effects my enjoying of a MMO immensely. It’s on the reasons why I couldn’t get into Aion even everything about the game was “right” and it’s why I really liked AoC and got into EVE Online. It’s more than just having a strong IP though (as WAR proved), it’s about creating believable immersion that thrills me and actively makes me want to log in.

    Fantasy based MMOs are a dime-a-dozen so it’s a lot harder to make them exciting now but it’s still possible. I’d definitely like to see some different types of MMOs though like sci-ones and apocalyptic ones.

  9. Is it possible to have an immersive world that feels unique and different? Seems to me that a good portion of a world being immersive is the fact that it is familiar. You see the trees, grass, and plains that make you feel at piece. Yet you stumble on the ruins of an old farm and wonder what has happened?

    Compare that kind of emotion to being on an alien world. Everything stands out and grabs your attention because it is all different. You are drawn to the beauty of it all but you don’t get that sense of curiosity and immersion that you would finding a farm. When you go to Outlands every fiber in your being tells you that hellfire penninsula doesn’t seem right.

    I’m not sure it is possible for us as humans to take a completely abstract setting and still feel fully apart of that world. It takes time to get used to a new setting. It takes awhile to feel like a part of the world, to truely be comfortable with your environement.

    You mention finding ruins that could be the same ruins in any game. Is that a bad thing? Do you not wonder what is inside just because it looks the same? If you look at real life photos of castle ruins many of them look similar. But doesn’t mean they have a similar story behind them.

  10. [...] I have a soft spot for post-apocalyptic settings, whether it’s games, movies, TV, or books. What’s your setting of choice? Like what you just read? Why not get free [...]

  11. Khoram says:

    This is one area where I feel EQ1 just utterly blows every other MMO away. There are so many off the wall, “useless” locations that you really can explore for hours and see things not many non-explorers will ever see. And because of the non-trivial transportation (I’m talking pre-Luclin EQ here), people used these various places as landmarks. Who can forget the site of the wooden bridge between WK and EK, or the tunnel to Ro in Commonlands, or the diving board in Lake Rathe, or the Aviak treehouse in SK, etc. I loved all the out of the way places that made the game world feel like a world. Nowadays, there aren’t many “unused” or “useless” areas in games; everything is cram packed with content and either quest givers or quest waypoints. In EQ, my friends and I used to meet at the inn by the waterfall in the most southern area of East Karana, just because we liked it, and no one was ever there.

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