In the past few years, PC game journalism has been dominated by one thing: the sheer amount of time it takes to play massively multiplayer online games. Of course, you can go off and hide in a corner, pretend to be an expert in one of the many other genres that make up the great messy corpus of PC gaming, but you’d be kidding yourself that it was going to work out for you in the long term. Editors, sub-editors, writers, readers: They all want to know what is going on with MMOGs. Hell, they may not even care to play them, but they want reviews, anecdotes and flavors to be delivered by someone. They want to see inside and get reports from those virtual places. These internet explorations make interesting times for games, and even if you’re not there to see it all, you certainly expect someone else to be. That someone has, for the last three years, been me.

Now, if I were (on pain of sudden evisceration) challenged to supply one word that really summed up the experience of playing as many MMOGs as possible during a 36 month period, that word would be “overwhelming.” A second word (on pain of public humiliation) would be “disappointing,” and a third (just to complete the set) would be “significant.”

Explaining the overwhelming part is easy: Lineage II takes over 2,000 hours or so to get to its final echelons, the level 70s. It’s not quite as ludicrous for World of Warcraft‘s level 60, but nevertheless, the thousands of quests and 16,000 kills that are required to get to the later stages really do begin to weigh heavily on even the sternest gaming constitution. Then there’s Second Life and the need to learn how to use a CAD program to get along and feel productive. Even if you don’t become a builder, you’ll still need to negotiate dozens of unfinished shops, unruly journalists and weird avatars trying to make 3-D porn if you want to survive in Second Life. It’s all a bit much.

But then we might consider EVE Online, where you die horribly if you poke your nose into the wrong solar system, and where every transaction and mission is as stressful as refinancing your house. This is less a game, more a second job. “Bored? Why not try commanding space-logistics operations in a universe that only you can see.”

And this is where the disappointment comes in. MMOGs promise a world of imaginative enterprise, but they end up failing to deliver. World of Warcraft looks, to the untrained eye, like a world of limitless fantasy adventure, but is in fact quite the opposite. It is a world of severely limited fantasy adventure. You can only kill the designated monsters, no matter how hard you might try, and you’ll even end up lining up for the privilege of killing certain popular beasties; less a fantasy epic in which you are the hero and more another dose of linear Diablo-esque monster clubbing, but this time with lots of other people getting in the way.

EVE is more Space-Truckers with tax returns than it is Starfleet, and City of Heroes is a world in which all heroes can really do is mince about in warehouses, looking for weak ninjas. Most disappointing of all, perhaps, is Auto Assault. We all want to be able to live the road-warrior existence of Mad Max (in the second film, obviously) and play out post-apocalypse fantasies in our own desperate dust-caked corner of the future. But, well, let’s just say Auto Assault isn’t like that.

And this final observation of what might have been is where “significant” comes in. The first draft of this piece had me writing “suggestive” in that slot, and neither word is quite right. What I mean is this: MMOGs have, more than any other game I have encountered, suggested ways in which gaming might progress. They’re disappointing in all kinds of new and unusual ways, but that’s because they offer us an amazing insight into what could be. The fact is: We’re really still in the most basic infancy of this technology, and no one has really figured out how to make it work to its fullest. World of Warcraft might seem incredibly polished and immensely successful, but it is also one of the keenest demonstrations of where the boundaries currently lie and how we might be able to go beyond them. Warcraft‘s kill-quest-loot model is an aged and limited concept, which has escaped extinction for far too long. Likewise, EVE Online and City of Heroes are each flawed in their own ways, but they nevertheless provide maps into possible gaming futures.

EVE demonstrates that you don’t need a rigid level structure for a roleplaying world to make sense. The false and counterintuitive hand-me-down from Dungeons & Dragons, the linear hierarchy of leveling up, does not have to be how online games are structured. The fact they almost all use this concept is because it is a shortcut. It’s very easy to set up and equally easy for players to understand. But EVE has thrown all this out and suggested a few ways in which skills can still develop over time, but don’t alienate people through leveling.

Partly, this is down to the time-based training system (you click and wait, rather than grind through quests until you level up), where simple skills take a few minutes to train and complex skills can take months. But it is also down to the way in which combat occurs. Level-based systems mean that high-level and low-level characters must not be allowed to fight, whereas EVE relies instead on complex group mechanics. Learn a couple of basic abilities, and you’ll contribute as much to the battles as a top-end character. EVE suggests that what an MMOG needs is not a vertical structure, but a horizontal one. Characters get better at certain things, yes, but more importantly, they get better at more things.

There’s another, very different lesson to be learned from Second Life. The great “build your own” world experiment has shown that player-created content probably needs a game built around it to make the most of it. In fact, it’s rather telling that the areas in Second Life that get some of the highest traffic are those in which a game has been built. Sure, there’s all that stuff about the 3-D web and the like, but for us to want to spend lots of time making things, it would be nice if the “thing” had a definite purpose. In Second Life, about the most creating something could do is raise some virtual cash or furnish a polygonal villa. That’s not game enough for most of us, and Second Life‘s potential, as a leisure process, becomes truncated.

Player-created content needs to be integrated into a world in some other way, a way that means that co-operation and competition have some distinct goals. EVE‘s player-owned structures suggest a way to do this, by granting sovereignty and allowing players to exploit game-resources to their own ends. The problem for EVE, of course, is the structures and game-mechanics that have been built up over the years are so poorly integrated, only a tiny number of people have the patience to get anything out of them.

It’s far easier, by comparison, to get something out of designing a really beautiful outfit in City of Heroes. This, I think, is where player-created content in online games should be looking. Create tools that work and that allow individual projects to be accomplished quickly and effectively, in a way that makes us feel like we did something unique.

And then there are the insights of Guild Wars. I’ve long ago tired of Wars‘ soft-focus fantasy world, and its lack of humor and slightly irritating character design never really struck the right chords with me. What it did do, however, is demonstrate ways in which instancing can be used in gaming worlds to help them make a little more sense. One of the great travesties of Star Wars Galaxies was the moment in which you were sent out into the wilderness to club a log. The stump of your target caught fire and then disappeared, all to a blaring John Williams score. You didn’t feel like a hero, you felt ridiculous. (Especially if you got killed by a butterfly on the way home.)

Guild Wars, meanwhile, doesn’t doom you to start with such preposterous tasks – you are not at the bottom of a very long ladder, killing things that higher-level characters are glad to ignore. Instead, it creates a world in which real drama is taking place and where things will change forever. It does this by creating instances of the world for each party that goes off to adventure. The payoff, of course, is that it loses a sense of massively-shared world that games like World of Warcraft seem to capture so deftly. And there is a suggestion of a happy medium, too: City of Heroes mixes the two approaches with startling effect. Catching a train out of town is just one way that it creates challenges that are just for you, while the city as a whole feels like a bustling, shared environment. The next generation of MMOGs could be vast, open and explorable, but also avoid forcing players to line up to kill monsters.

I believe all the MMOGs suggest something about what the technology of putting thousands of people into the same game can accomplish, but I also believe that none of them have yet used that technology satisfactorily. This is, in part, because these games have been so ambitious, they have opened up immense spaces of possibility – spaces far greater than their capacity to fill them. The current generation of MMOGs almost seem like exercises in elements of what is to come, giving our imaginations fuel enough to see where the technologies of online gaming might take us.

The development studio that crafts a world to rival Warcraft, character-creation to rival City of Heroes, economics and breadth to rival EVE, and exploding vehicles to rival Auto Assault will, I think, have built a triumph of a game. But is such a hybrid even possible? Perhaps not. Only time (and a few more experiments in MMOGs) will tell.

Jim Rossignol is a writer and editor based in the South West of England. He writes about videogames, fiction and science.

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