gamesVSlife: Why MMORPGs aren’t like they used to be

An old Paladin's words on the way things were.

My first day in Final Fantasy XI’s Vana’diel was a bit like my first day in high school – an awkward and uneasy time orchestrated by whispers of uncertainty, double-checking and apocalyptic confusion. What was I to do? Where was I to go?  It was a time ridden with anxiety and self-doubt, and it was a time when I didn’t know what the Firaga I was doing.

And yet out of the sweaty palms of uncertainty and self-doubt, friendships were born. It was that need to work together – to be awkward and uneasy together – that would create lasting alliances. I’d wipe your sweaty palms if you’d wipe mine.

And so we’d trundle along, uneasy and unsure – but at least we were as confused as Firaga together.

No real friends, no real equipment, and no real knowledge – I was a newcomer to a world ostensibly designed for people of experience. It wasn’t littered with tutorials and tooltips: it didn’t tell me where to go; it didn’t tell me what to do; and it didn’t tell me who to talk to. It was bloody brilliant.

Communication was a matter of survival. I had to ask for help: I had to ask where the best place to grind was; I had to be escorted to the next area; I had to ask how to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. People were my tutorials, they were my guides through this vast and unknown world.

By comparison with today, Square’s first MMO outing was brutal. The game’s world wasn’t cluttered by giant exclamation marks and automated transport. It was this awkward design, this difficulty, that forced me to interact with the world and the numerous avatars running around in it. Final Fantasy XI was hardly the bastion of accessibility.

It was us against the system, against the server. Inadvertently, Square had posed a challenge: to see how far we could progress in its unexplained world. It could be difficult at times – laborious, even. When we inevitably conquered that challenge, though, it was a feeling like no other. No amount of oversized weaponry could match it.

Now, we work with the system. It tells us what to do, where to go. The system dictates almost everything. In Final Fantasy XI, I didn’t have a collection of text boxes guiding my every action. I’d wander off into a new area, naive and unprepared. I’d die. I’d lose experience points and a little bit of dignity. And yet I gained something: I learned that area wasn’t for me. Not yet. It was experimental, organic and, dare I say it, akin to something real.

But today’s MMORPGs are different. Other people seem secondary on a moment-to-moment basis. Going “solo” is a much-touted feature. In an interconnected world, though, “solo” is a dirty a word – it suggests an isolated, single-player experience. Call me old fashioned, but if I couldn’t play with other people, I didn’t play at all.

That relationship between players was a symbiosis dedicated to creating a shared experience. You didn’t make your own fun, others made fun for you. Massively multiplayer games used to be profoundly people-centric. Indeed, they used to be the most anti-social way to be social. If you removed people, little would be left but a bunch of numbers in a lifeless, server-based oblivion.

MMORPGs have lost something – that spark. They’ve lost that sense of curiosity, that sense of exploration, and that sense of the unexpected. I don’t need you, and you don’t need me. Thousands of players can inhabit a single world whilst disregarding everybody else’s virtual existence. Dependency is dead.

And so MMORPGs aren’t like they used to be. Take me back to high school – a time with equal parts anxiety and curiosity, a time when not knowing what to do could be exciting. I miss that challenge. I’m tired of dialogue boxes explaining everything, of maps showing me exactly where to go. I’m tired of tooltips reminding me of how much of a tool I really am.

And if high school had tooltips and tutorials, it would’ve been a very different experience, indeed.

gamesVSlife is a weekly column dedicated to video games, life, and how games relate to life. Feel free to leave your comments and stories below.

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