One of the things I have learned over the nearly ten years of doing this thing… is occasionally you need to see your own words reflected back at you through the eyes of another player for something to finally click into place. Yesterday my good friend Pete left a comment on my blog and I had one of those moments of clarity. So for reference the comment was specifically about the statement I made about having trouble engaging with a more traditional MMORPG.
I recently re-subbed to FF XIV; in my case I was so lost I rolled yet another alt to start over. Annndddd I’m really struggling to engage for that same “been playing quasi-MMOs too much” reason. I just feel like the time-invest:reward ratio is off now. Maybe it’s because I started fresh, or maybe I’ve just moved past MMOs. Of course knowing I’m all-in on Anthem in a couple of weeks is also kind of coloring all my gaming experiences now. Everything is just to ‘tide me over’ until Anthem comes.
Ultimately I think the key problem I have been having is that what I am looking for doesn’t quite exist yet. I’ve gotten used to the rhythm of the quasi-MMO/MMO-lite style games where you get some sort of bit of your cortex lighting up every few minutes as something happens that is interesting and exciting. This could be an engram drop or a really freaking sweet headshot… or getting to use your super or favorite grenades… but something cool is constantly happening. In a traditional MMORPG it just feels sluggish by comparison with nothing really exciting happening unless you are in a dungeon… and even then loot has been so sanitized and normalized that nothing really exciting ever drops anymore. Gone are the days of hoping that one item you had been seeking drops… and replaced is the item level 300 version of the same item you have been since since item level 100 just scaled up.
Everything feels like what we used to refer to as a “stat stick”, aka those boring trinkets that had a lot of stats on them but didn’t do anything to change the gameplay. In a MMO-Lite like Destiny, each time I pick up a new weapon it feels like an interesting and unique experience and having that one magically rare “god roll” feels so much better than the slightly less perfect versions I have littering my vault. In Anthem… each weapon and ability load out felt vastly different than the other options… so Venom Darts felt significantly different from Pulse Blast for example. Items in a traditional MMORPG don’t do this… because they are trying desperately not to upset the balance of how each class relates to every other class. As a result you get the same item over and over scaled up for level as not to upset the apple cart.
Then there is the action aspect that I find myself craving… in an MMORPG the skill component tends to be either mashing your buttons with Dance Dance Revolution style perfect timing, or your ability to react to things happening quickly, or in the case of Final Fantasy XIV… execute a choreographed dance perfectly. Please note I am not discounting the amount of skill that any of those things take, because I have done them all in one form or another but never at the level of polish that the hardcorest of hardcore raiders do. However this just feels fundamentally different than lining up that perfect headshot or timing a grenade just right as the enemy is running down a hallway and you wind up sweeping that entire group. That is just a level of interaction that you don’t really get in fantasy games… and I think is in part why I have been enjoying Assassin’s Creed Origins so much because it gives me some aspects of that.
The more Actiony Fantasy games comes close, but never quite work in the same way that a Destiny, Division, Warframe or Anthem do. Probably the closest that exists is Skyforge, but while the combat feels great… the overarching flow of that game is somewhat incomprehensible and it is also “very free to play”. Neverwinter has a lot of the same traits… and it can be super enjoyable but it is almost too MMO at times… and again suffers from the “very free to play” hurdle as well. I feel like I should take a moment to explain what I mean by that. Free to play games tend to do a bunch of things to confuse the user and drive them towards buying their way out of holes… so they give you very limited inventory or in the case of Neverwinter spend lots of time deluging you in complete useless shit that you will loot and fill up that inventory space. They also have tons of competing currencies that have no direct exchange rate that largely just give me a headache thinking about them. If I can manage to keep my head down and focus on the quest at hand I can enjoy these games for a period of time… but again the gear all has the problem of feeling like the exact same item regurgitated over and over with higher stats.
Elder Scrolls Online is a phenomenal MMORPG that wants to be action oriented… and while yes you are constantly swinging your sword with your mouse button in place of hitting an ability with the number 2 to spam it… it also doesn’t feel very far removed from the traditional formula. Hitting an ability doesn’t feel exciting in the game and instead just feels like hotbar combat filtered through a different lens. I continue to play that game for its expansive and wonderful story and my love of the Elder Scrolls setting, but it failed at providing a more action oriented alternative to the MMORPG because in many ways it feels like they didn’t go far enough. I love the fact that we are limited to a specific number of abilities, but most of those abilities don’t feel powerful enough and can be spammed… which sorta destroys that feeling of having an exciting moment driven through gameplay.
The game that comes the closest to nailing the Fantasy MMO-Lite is Monster Hunter World. So many of the elements feel spot on, but it is absolutely NOT trying to be this game and it shows. Grouping still feels awful even though at least on the PC it is driven by Steam Communities instead of a Clan that requires people to have joined the same session to invite folks into. It is also very limited in focus… it is about hunting big monsters and if you want to do something other than that the game really doesn’t offer much in the way of opportunities. There is no “strike” or “dungeon” construct and there are very few activities that offer an opportunity to just hang out and chill, as everything is laser focused on taking down big boss monsters. However it does nail down the perfect crafting system for one of these MMO Lites or “collect a bunch of monster bits” and then have some NPC make your gear from it.
The challenge is still that no one has quite created a version of the Destiny model that works for Fantasy games. “For Honor” tried to create a version of melee combat that does things to require skill… but it feels confusing and obtuse with its rock paper scissors inspired system of defending and attacking. In a perfect world… someone would take the world of Anthem… the activities of Destiny… the combat of Monster Hunter World… and package them all together in one MMO-Lite that gives me my fantasy fix. However for the moments developers all seem to be chasing that looter shooter niche… which is great… but sometimes I don’t want to shoot but instead hit people with a sword. Sure I know that Warframe has that ability but it is still a Sci-Fantasy game… and I still have issues with the fucked up perspective of the characters in that title and the inability to zoom out further. What I ultimately want is a game that no one has built yet.