MMO Gaming: The Present and Future

Any semi-serious gamer nowadays has either heard of or played some form of MMOG (Massively-Multiplayer Online Game), usually in the form of an RPG (Role-playing game). World of Warcraft (WOW), Guild Wars (GW), and Everquest 2 (EQ2) are three of the MMORPGs that have taken America, and the whole world, by storm.

Combining addictive gameplay features with tons of collectable items and obtainable levels, these games practically never end. They also receive patches every now and then, of various scopes. Some simple patches address equality within the game world (like, say, a particular race/class combo can get an ability too early, and thus has an advantage, or maybe some ability is too powerful for those it is intended for; the game developers will address this and tone down whatever is causing the problem, in an attempt to make the game world fair for everyone), while other major patches may add whole levels to the game. World of Warcraft is about to come out with an expansion pack called the Burning Crusade that will add new races, areas, mounts, etc. Expansions are like mega-patches that vastly change the game world.

I personally have played World of Warcraft a while ago. I played for about six months with one character, and only got him up to Level 37 (60 being the max in WOW). My game clock (how long I played under that character) was 9 days. As in 9 * 24 hours, or 216 hours! You progress the earlier levels quickly, but once you hit about Level 8 the gaps between levels become many hours. At my Level 37, I had about 8 hours to get to the next level, but I choose to stop playing. I found the game to be a wonderfully refreshing experience, as you get gameplay opportunities not possible in normal offline games. Playing in groups and making virtual friends is a type of fun that cannot fully be described. However, while it was enjoyable, I just reached a point in the game where grinding started to become necessary.

Grinding is one of the inherent problems in the huge online gaming worlds. Simply put, grinding is the deliberate leveling up of your character. It usually involves fighting the same monsters over and over again to get experience points, or having higher-level characters run you through instance levels like Scarlet Monastery (SM). The gameplay during grinding is either totally mindless and tedious or just plain boring because you are watching higher-level players beat bosses for you. Sure, SM may be fun the first five times. But in the road to Level 45 you go there dozens of times for the great gold and XP. One run can take about three hours, so you do the math.

Now before I go on, I want to reiterate how wonderful a game World of Warcraft is. I never played Everquest or Everquest 2, but WOW was a great game. I think its multi-million population now shows that others feel the same way. The gameplay moments from the game are among the best in my gaming experience on ANY platform.

But, I quit WOW for reasons that go beyond the monotony of grinding. I had schoolwork and regular work to attend to, and, simply put, I had to live my life. I played the game very litte… maybe two hours a day on average. This is extremely low for MMO players, as 5 hours a day is not uncommon. Still, I could see that it was eating up my spare time. On weekends especially, I did almost nothing but play WOW. It was fun, but you get to a point where you realize that it is going to take over your life. And here is the sad part: many people have become so consumed by the game that they have given up their jobs, girlfriends, spouses, and even health.

One of the larger patches to WOW was the addition of Battlegrounds, something that enhanced the competitiveness of the game, which in turn means people play longer sessions and more often. Battlegrounds is a system that allows players to make huge teams and play against other players. This PvP (Player versus Player) gameplay expanded as they added a Ranks system. Players who had the most wins and least losses in PvP battles would be ranked in the Top 25 or so, and would receive major rewards for doing so. Each rank reaped a special reward, the best reward of course going to the Rank 1 person. Rewards were usually cool mounts (horses, tigers, etc. that you can use to ride around the world) or armor that you could show off. People would know you were one of the top guys just by seeing your armor that couldn’t be received anywhere else. This would give you a level of pride and bragging rights that among MMO gamers is the ultimate reward. It is all about making other players envy you.

The whole Ranks system sounds real nice until you think about the consequences for the gamers. The magnitude of WOW is absolutely gigantic. The game is played by millions of people worldwide, in countries such as America, UK, South Korea, and even China. But no matter what country the gamers are from, they all know that the #1 rank is what they want to get. There are people who play WOW, as well as people who play any MMOG, that are willing to devote 20-24 hours a day to the game. The fact that players do this, and always will do this, ruins the concept of the present-day MMO. Average players like myself who only devoted a “measly” two hours a day cannot hope to compete. I couldn’t even get to Level 60, a goal most serious players eventually reach. But ranking in the Top 20 on any server requires you to give up a job, all schoolwork, relationships of any kind, and even food and bathroom breaks. And don’t think I’m kidding about that last bit. A guy from South Korea played the game so incessantly that he DIED from starvation.

This is where the massively multiplayer online games go from simply games to become a microcosmic view of the real world, with all the bitterness of reality with it. Inside the game, and also inside your life when you need to decide how long to play the game, comes moral and economical decisions. The average player doesn’t even realize that the world they are emerged in meant the death of somebody. And though the death was an isolated case, there are “gold farms” in India and China where players are paid pennies an hour to grind in the game to gather gold that will eventually be sold on eBay for real money. (more on this later) Regardless of whether people know about the exploitation and starvation resulting from the games, almost everyone is aware of the “envy factor” I introduced earlier.

In the real world, much is driven by envy. The people with the newest gadgets, the newest cars, and the trendiest clothes are often the most popular and have more friends. Generally speaking, people want to be with others that can benefit them. Whether it is a mutually beneficial relationship or not, people just love to live off others. They want what they see and hope that by immersing themselves in the lives of people with money and gadgets that some of it will rub off on to them. This envy that breeds much of the social interactions in modern society is deeply embedded into the MMOG world. In fact, it is a massive factor. Almost the entire appeal of MMO gaming is to show off your high levels and special items. The problem that eventually is bred by MMOGs is that the person with the highest level (and PvP rank) and items is not the most skilled player, but rather the one who can devote the most time to the game. Thus, if someone lets their inner envy and desire to get the in-game wealth and collections of cool items drive them, it will eventually lead to the allocation of hours upon hours a day to the game. This is a dangerous scenario that many people fit into.

Due to the fact that extremely hardcore players are willing to devote innumerable hours to the game, the balance of the PvP ranking system and overall game levels are thrown off. No matter how many times the developers release balancing patches, the issue of people that play at different paces can never be dealt with. It is one of the many inherent problems in MMOGs.

Beyond the vastly varying paces of gameplay, and the aforementioned monotonous grinding, there are other issues in almost all modern MMOGs. The next one I want to bring up was previously mentioned briefly: the in-game economy. WOW uses the standard currency of Gold and Silver. Final Fantasy XI uses Gil, Anarchy Online uses credits, etc. Regardless of what the in-game money is called, the problem is always the same. In the game, by excessively grinding in key areas, players can slowly but consistently earn massive amounts of money. This is a combination of the previous two problems that brews a ridiculously large balance problem. Those who are willing to grind for hours on end can have enough money to out-buy everyone else. Especially in games like WOW where there are auctions and a free-market system, economy is always changing, just like in the real world. Just like if the U.S. government started to print countless $100,000 bills and using them to pay for various things, if someone in a game like WOW grinds for fifty hours to get thousands of gold pieces, the balance of the economy is shifted severely. This makes the money worth less. However, in WOW and most MMORPGs, each quest you complete gives you a set amount of money. If the worth of money is less than when the game was originally launched, then players who are legitimately completing quests are going to get ripped off. There are also those who grind for certain items, like powerful swords or shields that can be sold for massive profits. Not only does this make the person who is making the money rich enough to unbalance the economy of the currency, but it also starts to create the same supply and demand issue with the item in question, lessening its value for those who get lucky enough to receive it per chance, as it was meant to be received. All of this is remarkably similar to how a free market economy can be (ab)used in reality, and shows that these “games” really are closer to reality than we give them credit for.

Beyond the balance problems associated with in game grinding for money comes an even bigger problem, and a problem that is really becoming a huge problem nowadays. People can sell their money that they have in the game for real money (such as USD $) on eBay or on some other services. Many games are coming out with Terms of Service (TOS) addendums that prevent such selling of in-game wares, claiming that all in-game items are the intellectual property of the developer. However, it hasn’t stopped what is now a booming business. As I mentioned before, there are so-called “gold farms” in foreign countries where cheap labor exists. The term “sweat shop” is often used to refer to similar environments where young children or otherwise poor people in foreign countries are exploited for monetary gain. These gold farms are no different. There are rooms full of computers connected to the Internet in China, India, Korea, etc. where people are paid mere pennies to sit and play WOW or other games continuously, for hours. You may be thinking that this could sort of be fun, despite the bad pay. After all, there are those who play extensively under their own volition. However, these gold farms figure out where in the game has the best gold yields or items that can be converted to gold, and the workers are forced to play in the same area for months. Being in the same place in game for hours a day, for weeks, is practically torture. The in game profits generated are usually pooled to one master account that is then used by the gold farm’s owner to distribute in game currency in exchange for real world dollars. Just a simple example, 200 gold in WOW on average costs $20. That is 10 gold per $1. To give you an idea, it takes roughly 10 hours straight in the game for a high-level character in the best possible dungeon to gain 10 gold. That means that you are paying only $.10/hour to the company for gold. And these people make profit, which means the exploited people actually gathering gold make less than ten cents an hour! And you thought your pay was bad? But in all seriousness, this is morally apprehensible at the highest level, and it really makes you wonder how things like this could be allowed to occur. The worse part is that Americans and Europeans who don’t feel like spending the hours in the game to get gold for themselves are the ones who support this foreign exploitation. Even worse is the fact that the makers of Star Wars Galaxy have created a marketplace for people to sell in game money and items for real world cash, obviously taking a commission. That means that the SWG developers are cashing in on the exploitation, profiting off the weak. Gold farms are the single worst aspect of MMO gaming when it comes to the real world, and truly shows how morals can play a key part on MMO players.

One final problem with present MMO games I would like to discuss is the monthly fee required to play the game. Most of these games go for about $49.99 in a store, just like every other game. However, they then cost an additional amount per month. WOW costs $14.99, while some games (I think Matrix Online is an example) cost as much as $20 (or possibly even more) per month. If you consider that a serious player of any of these games will play for at least a year, the cost of the game and the service will be over $225. With that kind of money, you could buy Playstation 2 and three of four normal RPG games. It is ridiculous to consider that people are willing to pay this. And then you have people that complain about the rumored cost of PS3 games ($65, which I do believe is steep, but try putting it in perspective with MMOGs). I think the cost of MMO games was necessary at one point, for the developers to be able to constantly produce patches and pay for servers. However, there is no longer a reason for the fees, as demonstrated by the games that have no monthly fee (Anarchy Online, Guild Wars). This monetary problem is another area where the MMOG may affect your real life, by putting a dent in your checkbook.

I have spent the last couple of paragraphs discussing the detriments of modern and present MMOGs. I am now going to take a look at what I believe the future MMOG should be, by using a model that I believe is the perfect MMOG. I am going to go through each and every problem I discussed, tell you why my “perfect MMOG” doesn’t have that problem, and why the future will correct this.

What I consider to be the perfect MMOG, which happens to be an MMORPG, is Guild Wars, for the reasons you will soon see. The first problem I discussed above was grinding, the monotonous pursuit of the next level or more gold required when quests just didn’t cut it any more. I’m not going to lie to you: Guild Wars has some grinding in its normal RPG mode. Every MMORPG has grinding; it is simply the nature of the beast. However, by having a lot of densely spaced quests, games can combat the grinding. Guild Wars starts off with a mode called pre-searing, in which you can do all kinds of quests. If you take advantage of all your quests here, and take care in progressing your character’s skills, you can get a nice head start on leveling. The quests in pre-searing are available only at that time, so it is best to do them all if you want to grind the least. You make the explicit choice to progress to the main part of the game, so you can choose to do as many or as little of the pre-searing quests as you want. I did as many as I could, and can tell you for a fact you don’t have to grind at all in the pre-searing mode. Just by doing all the quests you level yourself enough to battle with the Charr, which is necessary to get to the main game mode. Anyway, once you get past the beginning stages of the game, there is a lot to do, and a lot of ground to cover. Your ability to prevent grinding is solely based on how far you are willing to travel. If you stick to the first main areas, you will exhaust your quests quickly and find the need to grind in order to do some of the harder ones. The key is to spread out because there are easy-type quests all over that help you rack up experience points and gain levels. By doing all the easy quests, then all the medium, then all the hard, you can remove almost all grinding from the game. Naturally, no one will find every quest and do them in the right order, so there will be some grinding. I know that I am personally stuck in a grinding rut right now with my character because I stayed in one area for too long. Enough with that, though. The bottom line for grinding in Guild Wars is that there is very little if you tackle quests the right way. But what it basically comes down to is you can do as little or as much as you want, and it never becomes a true necessity.

The next issue I discussed was the pace issues, and the fact that there will always be people who play 24/7 and max out their character. This is always an issue, so it must plague Guild Wars, right? Well, not quite. Guild Wars employs this wonderful mechanism that truly eliminates all need for grinding or super-dedicated leveling. When you create your character, you can pick one of two game types: Normal RPG or PvP (the names may be slightly different, but the concepts are the same as what I will soon describe). The Normal RPG mode is what you would expect. You start at level 1, pick a class, and you’re off on your adventure. You gain levels and items and do the normal RPG thing. The maximum level in GW is 20, which is fairly low for a MMORPG. Getting to Level 20 in GW is a lot easier than getting to Level 60 in WOW, and not just because it is a lower number. But that isn’t the point. In the Normal RPG type game this problem of game pace will still exist. However, and where GW really shines, the PvP type game starts you off at Level 20, the maximum. How on earth could this create a balanced game world if everyone can just start at Level 20? Well, if you make a PvP type character, they don’t go through quests or the story mode. You pick every one of the skills the character will ever have right up front, then go ahead and use the character for PvP battles. You never intermingle with the lower-level characters, so the balance issue doesn’t come up. You can solely fight other players, not engage in the RPG world. GW is a very PvP focused game, and so this PvP mode is a very attractive option because it lets people experiment with different combinations of classes and skills without wasting their time grinding and speed leveling. It is in this way that GW really destroys the competition, as it really eliminates the balancing issues of pace.

Another way the game deals with pace is its instancing of the game world. In MMOGs, instances are your own little world. In other words, if you go into an instance dungeon, only you are in the dungeon, despite the fact that dozens of other people around the world are in the same dungeon. Only you and, if you have a group, your group is in the dungeon. In WOW, there are instance dungeons such as the briefly mentioned SM, as well as many others. When you go there, you can go ahead and do the quest without worrying about others getting the treasures before you, as it is your own version of the world cut off the from “massively multiplayer” part of the game. In GW, everything except the cities and towns are instanced. So, if you go to Fort Ranik (a town), you will see the hundreds of other players that are in that town (there are actually multiple versions of each town, especially big cities, to control lag and manageability, but that’s not the point). However, if you step out of the town (through the exit portal), you will be in your own instance, and only you and, if existent, your group will be there, along with all the items and monsters. That being said, if you never make a group, playing through the GW game, except for cities and towns, will feel like a single player game. That is how the pace issue can really be addressed because you can choose to play by yourself and not worry about others if you really desire. So, in essence, GW can be a single player game. There are even “henchmen” you can add to your group who are computer-controlled people to simulate a group. Using henchmen, you can make it through pretty much the whole game without ever interacting with another user. And, of course, if you want to, you can also go the old-fashioned group way.

The in-game economy of Guild Wars is exploitable just like every other game. There is really nothing that could be done about this. However, for what it’s worth, the problem doesn’t seem to be as widespread as in other games. The selling of entire characters, for example, like is popular in WOW on eBay, is irrelevant on GW since you can start at Level 20 if you so choose. Also, the fact that you can play the game primarily single-player if you want makes the economic factor really minor if you want to ignore it. If you do choose to play a part in the economy and use the various trading services provided in game, you will notice the fluctuation of various in-game commodities such as dyes for clothing. Just like any free market system, you can gamble on the increase or decrease in price of these items and profit that way. However, there is really not much room for exploitation, since so few people value gold in the game (it really is a very minor part, as most of the good items are not sellable).

The problem with most MMORPGs’ monthly fee is completely missing in GW. The game is free to play online, once you buy the $49.99 retail package. It thus feels like any other RPG on your wallet, but plays for so much longer, and of course the world keeps growing. The developers of the game can afford to eliminate the monthly fee by placing a heavy focus on expansion packs. GW recently released Factions, an expansion that added two new races, tons of items and monsters, an entire new continent to explore, and also enhanced PvP functionality. I haven’t bought it yet, but I definitely will eventually. Regardless, the expansion adds enough to warrant upgrade, and really doesn’t feel like you are being robbed like with the monthly fee. I know for a fact that much of WOW’s profits are from the monthly fee. There is no way the developers spend over 15 million dollars developing patches and maintaining servers (and this is assuming there is only one million players, which I know there is more when you count worldwide). GW capitalizes on this and believes that they don’t need to rob the gamer, but still can make money just like every other game developer who sells games at fifty bucks a pop. Anarchy Online is a completely different free approach. The game AND the online service is free. Anyone with an Internet connection can go download the game for free right now and play it for as long as they want. AO used to use the expansion pack system as well, but all the expansion packs are also now free! So how does the company afford all of this? They have in-game advertisements. It may sound annoying, but how could you complain if your getting a totally free MMORPG that is one of the best currently out there (the graphics are dated but it is still very fun). All of these alternative business models really make me happy, and the company is still making money. With everyone happy, it’s a wonder why people even spend money on WOW when there are free alternatives. I predict that developers will eventually all have to offer free service, or else GW and similar games will take over.

The future of MMO gaming will look very similar to the innovative GW. The ability to start at Level 20 for PvP eliminates any grinding. Its fully instanced system helps stop economic balance problems by letting the player completely bypass, if they so desire, the entire interactive part of the MMOG. Finally, the business models of both GW and AO that make the online service free are something that will become more and more of the way things work in the future. In-game advertisements, I predict, will begin to pop up all over the place as game developers realize the potential for profit. In games like AO with urban settings, in-game billboards for real products could actually enhance the realism of the game.

In conclusion, GW is all about giving the player choices, and that is really what everyone wants. The ability to play the game the way you want it, without all the hurdles of most current MMOGs, will keep more people coming. I think MMORPGs are quickly becoming mainstream, but as soon as the monthly fees are eradicated and the grinding and balance problems are faced, I think the casual gamer will find themselves right at home with MMOGs. I foresee a future where the MMOG replaces AIM. And by using VOIP and email features, it could replace telephones and email as well. Imagine massively multiplayer online games evolving into massively multiplayer online environments where your grandmother could exchange recipes with her old friends from school. I see computer systems evolving, and telecommunications and operating systems in general, I think, will eventually turn into this world of 3-dimensional avatars and large-scale social interaction. Just as current MMOGs portray society on a small level, I think society can eventually embed itself directly into what we today consider a game, but in the future will be more like a service for everyone to communicate with.

Until this future I speak of comes, enjoy the modern MMORPGs. Even the ones that rip you off with monthly fees and excessive grinding (WOW) are great fun. If you are looking to experience the future in the present, check out GW. This is where the MMOGs of the future are headed, and in the mean time it is extremely fun.