Did MMOs fail to adapt, or did I get old?
Ten years ago Azeroth felt like a second home, but now, in 2018, I’m not even planning on buying Battle for Azeroth, World of Warcraft’s latest expansion.
I was 19 and a sophomore in college when The Burning Crusade expansion for World of Warcraft launched in 2007. I skipped my classes, like many fans my age, and dove in head first, rushing to get raid-ready. I was in deep and stayed that way for two years. That’s not an uncommon experience for most of us that came of age during the MMO boom of the mid-2000s.
I’ve bought every new WoW expansion since then, intending on getting up to speed with the endgame again. But as soon as I hit the level cap I just … stop. It’s not that I’m not having fun and then make the conscious decision to not log in again. At some point, I quit for the day and never log back on, leaving my subscription fees to pile up until I remember to finally cancel it a few months later.
I’m not going to do it this time.
11 years after my last brush with MMO servitude, I’ve been struggling to regain that feeling of wanting to do everything that games of that magnitudes have to offer. And I’m definitely not the only Azeroth expat to feel this way.
Times have changed, and along with them both my tastes and expectations from modern loot game design. I’m looking for something very different than I used to with MMOs, even when I know I still want to ride a loot grind of some kind.
I’ve gotten used to the rapid, consistent gratification of games like Warframe and Diablo 3, not just a grand-scale assault on a massive enemy for the potential of one, huge dropped item. MMOs are often less about regular rewards and more about building up to one massive moment. But is it too much to ask for both?
World of Warcraft isn’t the only MMO in recent years I’ve struggled to get back into. I’ve tried Final Fantasy 14. I’ve given The Elder Scrolls Online a shot. Guild Wars 2 is sitting still installed on my hard drive. I bought the Destiny special edition of the PlayStation 4 when it came out (and not just because I like the white color), and you better believe I picked up Destiny 2 when that came out. I’ve hovered over the dark world of Black Desert Online more times than I’d like to admit.
And I can’t find a way to convince myself to commit to any of them — at least not in the way I’d like to. None of them have managed to find that balance between tiny, yet significant rewards and the feeling of a late-2000s raid attempt. Once a player hits the level cap, blue and yellow items in hand from questing, the process of filling out your inventory with those purple epic pieces of gear feels like an insurmountable task, even if it’s as simple as running a few dungeons to get a chance at picking that up. There’s little in the way of clear objectives for success.
This could always be personal
Part of the problem is my own fault. When I play multiplayer games, I want to go hard. I want to experience everything a game has to offer. I want to raid in WoW, climb the ladder in League of Legends, have all the best cards in Hearthstone or just get all the sweet loot in Diablo 3. My brain doesn’t allow me to play these games “casually,” just taking in the sights and sounds of the world. I need those numbers to go up, and I need them to continue to go up. And I’m often looking for a game give me the push I need to get to that “hardcore” status.
It’s not really an issue of time, either. Sure, I’m 30 years old and have adult responsibilities like rent and a job and what passes for a social life in Los Angeles. But I find time to play multiplayer games. I’ve played hundreds of hours of Diablo 3 and League of Legends (well, thousands on that one) since the last time I played an MMO in a serious way. I still love to learn complex games enough to spend the time becoming an expert in them, it’s just MMOs don’t inspire that same feeling in me anymore.
I won’t speak for everyone — Battle for Azeroth sold a massive 3.4 million copies in its first day of release, after all — but I can say that most of my former WoW compatriots are in the same boat as me. So why do we keep spending money chasing that MMO dream? Why, when we’re fully aware that we’ll never return to my youthful exuberance, do we keep trying?
You can’t go back, but maybe the genre needs to come forward
Probably because I still believe that there’s the one MMO that’s going to get me back into the genre. But what would that look like?
I’m a known Warframe evangelist, and Diablo 3 takes over my life any time I decide to roll a new seasonal character. But even those amazing, grindy, loot-focused games don’t quite scratch the same itch as a full-blown MMORPG.
Now, I don’t believe that MMOs need the same pace of their more “pure” loot counterparts. Those set pieces and long-ass raids are intrinsic to the experience of the genre. I just wish I could get the same satisfaction out of an hour of World of Warcraft that I do after doing a couple Warframe Spy mission runs. Modern game design has gotten good enough to deliver the same feeling in a shorter amount of time.
The more “adult” my gaming patterns become, the more I need that quick dopamine hit of regular rewards for long-term commitments. With more disposable income and more access to games (largely thanks to my job), it takes a lot for me find the willingness to commit to something that takes over a life as much as an MMO. With less time to play games overall, I need something that respects and rewards me for my time.
Maybe one of the reasons we player fewer MMOs when we’re older is that we don’t have to; earning more money and setting your own schedule means that you have more options about what to do and play. Of course that means we don’t spend as much time on each game as we did when we were kids.
It might seem contrary to the spirit of that last point, but the most I’ve played of an MMO as of late is the mobile-focused Lineage 2: Revolution. Yes, a game that effectively plays itself. But it scratched that massively multiplayer itch. It’s a huge, open-world game with a wide variety of things to do, even if they all end up feeding into the same power stat.
It’s got that cooldown-focused gameplay that the MMO part of my brain digs, crossed with the instant gratification of loot titles — even if many of those little loot drops only have a tiny impact on my character’s power level. There are even late-game raids, something missing from even the most boss-focused loot games. And you know what? The auto-play feature of that game gives players a direct path to the endgame, something that is surprisingly comforting.
But even my time with the most auto-questing MMO out there came to an end. It just wasn’t active enough to keep me engaged for a play period. But hey, it was a good few weeks! And that ability to enjoy a game for what it is, only to leave it behind when it’s no longer as enjoyable means that the long-term commitment to MMOs is much harder to maintain.
For me to get back into an MMO like I did in my youth, it’s going to take a combination of all the things I love about gear-driven games. It’ll need the constant gratification from pure loot games, the set pieces from more traditional MMOs, and strong moment-to-moment gameplay. It’s not enough to have thousands of quests resulting in little more than a bump in experience and a few coins in my bag. It’ll only help if there’s a clear, direct path to the endgame.
But these kinds of thoughts are hard to untangle. Is it the game design that’s changed, or have I? Which needs to adapt more to get back to what I used to enjoy in this genre.
I really do wish a game would lock me in again. It’s been too long since I’ve been enveloped by a new world. And with some of the leaps in loot game design, I feel confident that a developer is going to be able to draw me in eventually. The only problem is whether or not I’ll be ready to meet it halfway, give it the attention it needs with my evolving gaming habits. Right now, I think I would be.
It’s been too long since I stepped foot in a 25-player raid, unsure if we had the firepower to bring down the big monster standing in front of my guild. I miss it.
And I don’t think I’m alone.