I may occasionally bitch about the IGDA, but I am lucky and proud to be a member. The Detroit Chapter has struggled mightily to maintain itself on account of a vast geographical area – we don’t want to splinter into an Ann Arbor Chapter, a Lansing Chapter, an EAST Lansing Chapter, a Grand Rapids Chapter, etc etc etc – and is currently amidst a new period of growth and energy. At our monthly social meetings you get to drink and meet the wonderful game development community of southern Michigan. And thus it was that I met Jacob Elert, who stated without a hint of irony that most people called him Bear. If you ever meet Bear, you will see why. Bear is a big fella; but he’s not a “Gorilla” or an “Elephant,” he’s definitely bearlike. In addition to being bearlike, Bear is a passionate new entry to the game development world, and I enjoyed chatting with him so much that I suggested he toss me an article for Tap. And he did! Today you’ll be getting a bear’s view of what MMOs have meant to the game experience as well as just the market. I think you’ll find it well worth your time. Take it away, Bear!
Are MMOs Leveling Gameplay?
Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (or MMORPGs) have certainly changed over the years. The early days of the MMORPG experience were based around Multi-User Dungeons (or MUDs), games that existed in text and not much else. Soon, though, it became clear that graphics were not just an added feature but also a necessary one; Neverwinter Nights in 1991 set the stage for our current MMORPG market.
My experience with the genre is more limited; while I do admit to having spent long hours in Star Wars and Wheel of Time MUDs, I have alas never played Neverwinter Nights (yeah, yeah, get out the pitchforks and all that). My graphical MMORPG experience started with Earth & Beyond (a sadly short-lived space game); after it was canceled, I lost interest in that genre until entering a beta of a game that would end up consuming five years of my life and real-life friendships beyond count: World of Warcraft.
WoW offered everything: easily maintainable friendships, epic storylines and missions that I could actually complete. Possessed either by a desire to see life from a new perspective or a desire to be that asshole who picks Oddjob in N64’s Goldeneye, I became a gnome warlock and began my career. And as I leveled, I became greedy for more… more spells, more pets, more ways to kill anything that moved. I soon joined a guild and became aware of the social phenomenon known as “peer pressure,” especially after I got to the maximum level and began to notice that everyone looked way more awesome than me.
But something became boring with the structure of WoW, something that took me a while to identify. I loved the story which pulled me further and further into the lore surrounding the Warcraft series; Warcraft II had aided me a little, but much of the plot and story became evident after I completed enough quests. There was no doubt I had friends in WoW; there were people who cared about me as a person in my circle of guild mates. So what could it be? What could possibly be the reason for my growing disinterest in WoW?
Then I had it: gameplay. I was bored of clicking on a target and hitting numbers; it just didn’t appeal to me any more, especially with the ability to auto-attack. I wasn’t involved enough in the actual play to be interested in continuing.
I attempted to get back in to the MMORPG market, but games were still vastly unappealing due to their target, click-and-go-get-a-sandwich play style. As I continued trying out new demos and betas, I began to realize that this would be an issue I couldn’t back down from. Without a new approach to gameplay, it wouldn’t matter how many friends were playing or how interesting the story was… I simply wouldn’t be able to enjoy it.
Enter Vindictus, a free-to-play MMORPG created by devCAT, an internal studio of the Korean company Nexon.
I had just about given up hope that I’d ever be addicted to another MMORPG when I saw a trailer for Vindictus. It promised a “hack-n-slash” style of gameplay as opposed to the “tab-targeting” style that had been copied relentlessly in the Western market for MMORPGs. I was obviously excited… could someone have finally gotten gameplay right?
It was early 2011 and Vindictus had been out since mid-October. I got on the site, registered an account, downloaded the game and braced myself for what I thought would be yet another disappointment. After playing a few hours, I realized that I had worried for nothing; the “hack-n-slash” style that was promised had been delivered. No longer were enemies targeted by hitting tab or clicking; my weapon had to actually hit them to do damage. I could dodge attacks from enemies by rolling to the side, a feature I had been waiting for since the annoying line-of-sight issues in WoW.
That’s not to say Vindictus doesn’t have its fair share of problems; along with less of an open-world experience, it’s suffered server glitches, lag spikes and occasionally unscheduled maintenance with repeatedly-revised fix times. But for all of its various issues, the game shines in areas that other MMORPGs (especially free-to-play games) still can’t get right. It has a fantastic introduction and a simple, unobtrusive tutorial. The moves are simple and easy-to-learn. Micro-transactions are present but handled in a way that doesn’t intrude on player experience; I’ve been playing for eight months and haven’t spent a single penny.
There are currently four classes (or “characters”) available for play: Lann (a dual-sword/spear-wielding DPS character), Fiona (a sword/shield-wielding tank), Evie (a magic user) and Karok (a pillar-wielding giant of a man), my personal favorite. Yes, that’s right. He fights with a freaking pillar. Each class can heal itself using potions and resurrect other players with in-game items; there’s no need for one of each class in dungeons (called “Battles” in Vindictus).
I’m a little more wary of the upcoming Guild Wars 2 from ArenaNet. In addition to promising an epic experience filled with “dynamic events,” advanced customization, intricate story and more, ArenaNet announced that Guild Wars 2 would distance itself from the old and tired gameplay most other popular MMORPGs suffer from.
Up until Gamescom 2011, I had believed Guild Wars 2 would feature the same awesome hack-n-slash style that Vindictus offered (only with more choices and innovations). What I instead found was a seeming hybridization of the tried- (or tired) and-true “tab-targeting” and the less present “hack-n-slash” style I had fallen in love with. The preview showed a player moving through a “dynamic event” instance and killing enemies by using different spells and abilities; while I liked the “dodge” feature and the way skills advanced, the player still had to target each enemy by clicking or tabbing to the target… and sometimes, the player wasn’t even facing the target.
Don’t get me wrong… Guild Wars 2 looks awesome. Its innovations on classic MMORPG style will make it a definite competitor to many of the games dominating that particular market. Maybe this “tab-targeting” component of gameplay will be discarded or changed to something more immersive; maybe the sheer fun of what Guild Wars 2 has to offer will overwhelm this minor detail. Most people still consider “tab-targeting” to be enjoyable and my opinion is just that… an opinion. Of the guy who hasn’t even played Neverwinter Nights.
I sincerely hope that future games move away from that “tab-targeting,” auto-attack-style gameplay featured in WoW, Aion and other such games; just as first-person shooters would be less fun with a similar approach, that style seems to sap immersion away from the player’s experience. For now, I’ll continue to harp on how superior Vindictus‘ gameplay is compared to other MMORPGs and yell at Nexon whenever they change the time on the next unscheduled maintenance to plague the servers. That reminds me… I should get back to work beating bad guys into the ground with my pillar of skulls.