February 26, 2011

The Dark Side of MMO Gaming

It often happens that the games we enjoy the most are the same ones that we complain about the most. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to massively multiplayer online roleplaying games such as EverQuest, Star Wars Galaxies, and World of Warcraft. We've all heard people claim that they no longer really enjoy the game, but continue to play only because they already have so much time invested, and they are, allegedly, "addicted."

Having thousands of players in a world that is constantly evolving has created a number of problems that single-player games don't have. Given how popular MMORPGs are becoming, it's worth taking a closer look at these issues.

Paying the Price
Running a persistent online world is a fairly expensive proposition, and this cost is typically passed on to the consumer in the form of a monthly fee. Added to the price of the game CD and expansion packs, it's not hard to spend a couple hundred dollars a year playing a premium online game. This may seem like a bargain to some, but considering that one can purchase four or five computer games that have no subscription fee for a similar price, MMORPGs are still a tough sell.

Lag and Computer Crashes
These are things that have always plagued online gamers, but in a MMORPG they can be considerably more frustrating. Persistent world servers always seem to go down just before you complete a huge quest that you had been working toward for hours on end. If you're fighting your way through an instance, this can result in the loss of an entire game session. Similarly, if your own system crashes, your Net connection goes dead, or you get a bad dose of lag, gameplay can deteriorate rapidly. While simply switching servers can solve a lot of problems when playing an online action game like Counter-Strike, this is usually not an option with MMORPGs. Even if a MMORPG offers numerous servers to play on, moving a character from one server to another is never a simple matter, assuming it's allowed at all.

Customer Support
Or lack thereof, could be the most widespread complaint that people have with MMORPGs. No game is without problems, and when people are paying to play, they want mechanisms in place to resolve disputes and deal with issues promptly. The more popular the game is, however, the more difficult this task becomes. Although developers who can afford it inevitably respond by hiring more support staff, it's rarely enough to satisfy the entire game community. It may be that gamers are very demanding in this regard, but it is also likely that developers need to pursue more efficient ways of providing customer support.

The Time Requirement

Most MMORPGs do not lend themselves well to a casual hour or two of gameplay. In a lot of games it can take that long just to find a group and get to where the action is. By their very nature, MMORPGs essentially go on forever and you can never really win. The abilities your game character has are almost always determined by how much time you have spent playing. Someone who can only put a few hours per week into the game will not progress at anywhere near the rate of someone playing a few hours per day. Worse yet, certain quests and missions seem to serve little purpose other than to slow down player progress.

Given that many consider it a good thing if a game demands a lot of time, it's always difficult to judge a game based on the amount of time it requires, but MMORPGs are unique in that when players lose interest, the money stops flowing. It's no accident that some of these titles are so time consuming - after all, they do want to keep people in the game, and hardcore players, as they race through every corner of the world, are continually demanding more content.

Rules That Constantly Change
Although patches and expansion packs are a way of life in the gaming industry, in a MMORPG they can have particularly profound consequences. Players constantly complain about having had classes, abilities, and items "nerfed," referring to when an update has changed the attributes of something in the game. A persistent online world is a work in progress, so players have to get used to the idea that the rules are going to change as they go, often with little or no explanation. On occasion these changes turn out to be mistakes and will have to be changed back. Perhaps worse, retail expansion packs frequently add new, more powerful gear to the game which makes it very difficult for anyone without the expansion to compete. An optional expansion for a game with no subscription fee is one thing, but a "must have" expansion when you're already paying to play is quite another.

Rotten Apples
It's a well-documented fact that people can become a bunch of douchebags when playing an online game. There are always those that will go to great lengths to cheat, exploit, harrass, or simply inconvenience other players any way they can. While this is a concern in all multiplayer games, having thousands of people sharing an online world definitely exacerbates the problem. These game disrupting activities include everything from camping valuable item drops to "training" large groups of monsters into other players. Efforts are sometimes made to deal with these problems as they arise, as no developer could have imagined how many ways people would find to bend and abuse the rules to the detriment of the game.

Game Life Span
When a MMORPG no longer has enough players to make it profitable, the world goes offline and the game ceases to exist. They tend to scale their operations to fit their player base, and we've already seen a number of them disappear completely. Single-player games, on the other hand, can often be reinstalled and enjoyed years after they have fallen out of favor.

Finding Solutions
Despite these issues, there is little argument that MMORPGs have improved dramatically since pioneering projects like Ultima Online and EverQuest launched in the late 90s. Game developers are aware of the problems and they've gone a long way toward addressing them, or least minimizing their impact on gameplay. The technology has also gotten a lot better over the years, allowing developers to offer innovative features that make massively multiplayer gaming less persevering. Let's not forget that if MMORPGs get too good, it will become all but impossible to get out and cut the lawn, study for exams, or hold down a steady job.

Credits: http://internetgames.about.com

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