Friday, April 15, 2011

MMORPGs, from Adventure to World of Warcraft. A brief historical summary.

I've mentioned several times before that I play World of Warcraft, but I haven't really gone into specifics, the hows and the whys. As a gamer, I grew up on tabletop RPGs, arcade games and the NES. Hobby gaming including wargames with miniatures and boardgames, PC Gaming from those early Sierra adventures to Dragon Age 2 and console gaming from the NES to the Xbox 360 have always occupied a lot of my leisure time. With the exception of Dungeons and Dragons, it is unlikely that any single game from any of those categories has taken a greater portion of that time than World of Warcraft. Before I can answer the questions of How, specifically I play, and what about WoW appeals to me as a gamer, I'd like to provide some background on it, and the genre it currently dominates.

Ah, Gold Box. We were so happy to have graphics, most of us didn't notice these were actually pretty dull.

Playing as a knight, wizard or elf in a dungeon on a computer was one of the very first things anyone ever tried to do with one that wasn't science, business or military-related (as far back as 1975, with “Adventure”.) From early text and ASCII adventures (the roguelikes) on through digital D&D from Pool of Radiance through Baldur's Gate and beyond, the single player dungeon crawl has always been popular. The multiplayer experience, trying to get something like the home D&D session on the computer was perhaps not in the specific design objectives of these titles, but it existed in the imaginations of many of those who played them.

Enter Ultima Online. There were few graphical games of its kind when UO first released, Meridian 59 in 1996, and earlier offerings on proprietary networks like CompuServe, GEnie, AOL and The Sierra Network. Many gamers interested in the concept of a persistent online fantasy world signed up for Ultima Online when it launched in 1997, partially on the strength of the Ultima license, which was one of the traditional PC RPG franchises at the time. People loved, and hated it. UO got to go first, and made mistakes other games would later learn from. Rampant player vs player murder and theft, since all items could be taken from a dead character... it was just more profitable to engage in antisocial play. Player housing sprouted up across the land, with wealthy players using cheaper houses as artificial fences to keep others out of large sections of the world. The economy was broken, people used the in-game macro system to automatically gain levels and skills others worked for, and rampant cheating or bug exploits made the game a huge mess. But it was a start.

Classic Moment. Player Killing and Theft were so out of control, this shows the moment that Lord British, leader of the world of Ultima, being played by the company president, was PK'ed during his speech... with a stolen scroll.

Many other MMORPGs launched in the wake of Ultima Online, most notably the Korean game Lineage, Asheron's Call and EverQuest. Many of these games adopted features that persist even into modern MMOs, and as popularity grew, the opinions of roleplaying gamers started to diverge. The novelty wore off for some and negative opinions grew into backlash against the genre, while other found that this emerging style of gameplay was precisely what they were looking for. Each world developed mostly in its own direction, with a few common features and assumptions in most of the new games being released, most of these solutions to actual or perceived problems with UO and other early games in the genre.

A few standouts in an era mostly dominated by EverQuest include Dark Age of Camelot, Final Fantasy XI, and Runescape. Dark Age of Camelot continued the process of refining the systems and gameplay elements of earlier games, and introducing faction-based world PvP combat. This innovation balanced somewhat the desire of players to have the risk associated with non-consensual PvP and its attendant thrill against antisocial grief play that can drive new players from a game. Final Fantasy XI took the popular Japanese console RPG into the world of the MMORPG with players from around the world able to play on PC, PlayStation 2, and later Xbox360. Runescape launched as a free-to-play, browser based MMORPG with optional content available for a small fee. This attracted many gamers who wanted to play this sort of game, but who refused to pay a monthly fee for the privilege.

This box brought more controversy to my gaming groups than anything since Magic Cards at the table.

The modern era of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game really started in November of 2004. World of Warcraft launched with a successful and familiar franchise from its Real Time Strategy Warcraft series, having learned from a lot of the games that came before it, and is still the undisputed heavyweight in the genre. WoW started with a design goal of examining every feature common to any MMORPG that came before and evaluating it. If a feature was popular and enjoyed by most players, a way to highlight or enhance that feature was implemented, Such as action bars and chat windows a la EverQuest, or faction based PvP from Dark Age of Camelot. If a feature or assumption was disliked by players, it was eliminated and replaced with something else. Most early MMOs started players in a field killing rats or bunnies, and these “newbie zones” didn't do much to make a new player feel heroic. WoW discarded the “fight rats and rabbits” trope, and focused on early content as an introduction to basics of the setting and a larger story. Continual adaptations from this philosophy, with gradual graphical improvements to make the game look and feel modern without becoming unplayable on the average subscriber's system has kept WoW on top for the last 6+ years.

Still on top... for now.

In a future article, I'll talk about my experience in particular with World of Warcraft, from beta tester before its release, to casual player, guild member, hardcore raider, guild officer and guild master of a successful mid/top-tier raiding guild. I understand the perspective of the gamer who hates this game, and in the years I've been playing... I've been there. My wife and I still play together as officers in the guild I once led, pushing along with a team to defeat the most difficult bosses in-game, but most of our involvement is now down to between four and five hours three or four nights a week. It is a hobby, and one that has proven to be a less expensive way to spend time as a couple than many others we could choose.

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A Beer for the Shower said...

You know, I think I played just about all of these. The first game that got me hooked on the genre was Final Fantasy for NES.

Now, on Cataclysm, it's so much nicer to be able to blow up enemies/other players with more than 8 bit explosions.

DerpFiles said...

I can't stand MMOs, too much time to do anything. It's like having a second job.

Grafted said...

It's cool that your wife plays with you

Erika said...

Oh, how times change. It really is quite spectacular.

Jay said...

ultima yeah!

Living cheap said...

well written. played wow for a year, got to lvl 80, stopped before last expansion.

Moobeat said...

wonderful. can't wait for a follow up. i played for for almost 4 years

Matt said...

Great post! I have always loved RPGs, but never got too much into MMOs through a combination of me being cheap and seeing how addicting they can be for me. I always made fun of guys I know who played Ultima all the time, and then I spent one summer playing the hell out of WOW with one of my friends, and I realized that I either needed to stop or just start doing it full time.

The Happy Whisk said...

Tim played UO back in the day. I tried but I could never get my horse or characters to move right. They kept walking into walls.

G said...

Eve is the only MMO i've played - it was awesome

Meghan Moran said...

I used to play ultima online, that game was so much fun.

Justin said...

I like DC Universe right now. I have yet to get into WoW, mostly for it's monthly cost. I haven't renewed past my first free month on DC Universe either haha.

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