It hasn’t been the best of years for MMO games.
Massively multiplayer online games have lost some of their luster, for sure.
World of Warcraft dropped to five million subscribers and then Blizzard stopped reporting numbers. Everyone else seems to be treading water at best, but most are losing ground. Which prompts the question of why? Why is one of the most popular game genres of the last decade, and my own personal favorite, suddenly struggling?
One reason is certainly that players are able to find socialization in other multiplayer games, such as MOBAs, without having to deal with the downside of MMORPGs. What downside, you ask? Hm? You didn’t ask? Right, well, I’m going to tell you anyway. So grab a snack and sit back.
The downside to most MMOs is that they are MMORPGs. The RPG at the end isn’t for Rocket Powered Grenade (although how cool would that be?), it’s for Role Playing Game. Central to a role playing game is progression. Your character starts out weak, lacking experience and equipment, but willing to undertake an epic quest. As you travel and learn things, you fight many battles and receive many rewards. At the end of your epic quest you are a mighty hero, festooned with the trappings of glory and armed to the teeth with both spells and weapons. You’re ready to find out what else in the world needs your attention.
When that role playing game is a single player game, it can do anything it likes for you. Areas of the game world don’t have a level range associated with them because it’s JUST YOU in the world. Sure, there are weaker opponents and stronger ones, and it’s easily possible to get in over your head. But there isn’t some strange artificial reason that wolves on the north side of the forest, while appearing the same size and shape as the ones on the south side, are much stronger and more dangerous. You can go anywhere you like, it’s your world to explore.
When your role playing game is an MMORPG and there are hundreds or perhaps thousands of additional players in the world, the game can’t adjust to you as it does in a single player game. It simply isn’t practical. Let’s say that Johnny has a level 9 cleric and Susie has a level 1 rogue. If Johnny stays in the starter area with Susie, he doesn’t get any rewards. The enemies there are weak and easy to kill, and the game punishes him for it by making it a waste of time. And if Susie should go where Johnny finds a challenge, she gets destroyed by the first butterfly she sees. If the game world adjusted, it would make it suddenly too hard or too easy for other players, and that would be chaos.
Having games that artificially raised or lowered a character’s level is nothing new. City of Heroes introduced sidekicking to the MMORPG world years ago, where your level would be boosted when you were grouped with a higher level player, allowing you to play with your friends even if you were far behind them in the game. But those were groups, what about for solo players? Games like Guild Wars 2 will automatically lower the level of high level characters when they return to low level zones so those characters can’t steamroll everything and annoy the lowbies. One of my regular games, RIFT, has both mentoring (where you manually lower your level to any point you want, so you can return and experience older content at level) and sidekicking (where your level is artificially boosted to match that of the highest level player in your group).
But again, that’s based on finding people to group with. GW2’s system works for solo players but that just reduces the power of high level characters who are slumming it in the easy zones, making it less likely they will return and annoy others by killing with a single blow 10,000 of the rats you need to skin for a quest. If you are a low level character, you are either stuck in the low level zones OR (if your game supports it) you have to find higher level players to group with.
Until now. At E3, Bethesda and ZeniMax Online announced “One Tamriel,” a new system coming to The Elder Scrolls Online sometime this fall. The idea is simple, you can go play anywhere you want. Your character will always be the same level as whatever he or she is fighting. Yes, you still get gear and you still gain experience that permits you to allocate skill points and learn new abilities. But even as a player just starting out, you are not restricted as to where you can play in the game world.
The Elder Scrolls Online Complete E3 Presentation
It’s brilliant, if it works. They did address some basic questions, such as what happens to gear that you earn or find while playing in an area of the game world that would previously have been very high level. The answer is, the gear will adjust its level to yours. Return to the starter zones and your gear reduces in power. Move to a higher level zone and it becomes MORE powerful. I’m not clear on whether there’s a cap for that or not, but I presume there is otherwise your first set of armor would be the only set you’d ever need to earn.
If you have ever played an MMORPG and wandered into a dangerous corner of the world where you met a sudden and grisly end, the One Tamriel system would be a welcome feature indeed. If it is well implemented, we can assume it will spread to other games. Hopefully the day will soon come where you don’t have to kill a hundred crabs on one side of the street before you are judged worthy to cross to the other side.
That’s Into Gaming, I’m Mark Lautenschlager.