It's not cool to play MMOs, at least in a gaming culture that's decided to equate their fanbase with basement dwellers and virgin mouthbreathers. Mention to someone in passing that you play World of Warcraft and the response is instantly different than if you said you play CoD. "Elves?" they'll say cynically. You might even get given an anecdote about their cousin in Michigan who disappeared for eight months after he founded his first guild, and by that point the judgements have already been made.
It can be mystifying how a type of game whose reputation has been so thoroughly shat on for over a decade can still be home to so many passionate fans. Even among hardcore gamers, who themselves exist on the outskirts of the mainstream, MMOs have been relegated to the bottom of gaming's totem pole. These Massively communities have been a part of their own independent social ghettos since the late 90s as a collective that no one on the outside, not even similarly minded players, seem to really understand.
So why the hell have I been a card-carrying member since I was old enough to pay a monthly subscription cost? Recently the same question popped up on our forums, in which MMO users asked MMO users what the actual draw of the genre really was. So as VG's resident Keeper of the MMO Hub I've decided to explain what it is exactly that draws me to the world of Massively games.
Here is the thing:
Regardless of the numbers of subscribers these games have, the general consensus doesn't rule in favour of MMOs - not even in the development community. Braid's Jon Blow has been one of the loudest in his lamentations over the poor design of the MMO, the "treadmill" which describes a system of game mechanics that give players a sense of advancement in a game when in reality they remain right where they started. It's a classic complaint that's been held against the genre for years, in which games from EverQuest all the way up to Star Wars: The Old Republic have been singled out for their repetitive experiences.
But for all the bellyaching over MMO grinds, or the lack of innovation happening behind the doors of MMO development, the success these things manage to still have at being video game crack shouldn't get overlooked as a coincidental part of the games. Phrases like World of Warcrack get batted around jokingly but the reality is it's agonisingly difficult to create any entertainment that can last hundreds of hours and still have the addictive draw it had a hundred hours before - and it's something MMOs have perfected over years.
Distilled across these hours of content is the Treadmill concept of game design that's been stretched so many times it should lose all elasticity, but instead it keeps snapping back. It should be boring - break quests down to their basic components and it's a trade of simple actions for experience - but the accumulation of rewards is what fun is in its most stripped down form.
This is a crude, kind of primitive fun that revolves around the mastery over your character, and the idea of stat growth as a gauge of success. Continuously accumulating better weapons, better gear, better abilities, better PvP ranks, higher levels, and so on is part of a design philosophy that embraces the idea that users should always experience a steady progression of small victories. MMO's are about being victorious, whether you're celebrating the extra XP you've received for finding new zones or handing in quests. It's a form of level chasing that is just damn enjoyable: watching a levelling bar slowly fill and being able to directly follow your progress in the game is the only incentive that's needed to continue pushing forward.
Similarly there's a draw to making incremental improvements to your character in order to hand craft the perfect avatar. The creation of a character whose armour, weapons, and skills have been decided on through a series of excel spreadsheet tweaks is the kind of self produced craftsmanship that fuels the best RPGs.
But more importantly MMOs are also the only place you can actually watch societies begin to form. Where groups of individuals begin to coalesce and create their own memes, game etiquette, and more importantly learn to cooperate on a global scale. MMOs live and die based on their community, and between the endless basement orgies of Second Life, the perpetual ganking in EVE Online, and the references to Mankrik's Wife in WoW each game has its unique cultural identifiers. Even more simply, these games show the best and worst of human nature in action, and act as working models of what happens when people act for the sake of a community, and what happens when they act for themselves. Are you a raid leader or are you a griefer, and how will you be treated by other players on your shared server based on the player archetype you adhere to?
It's also significant that these things can die. Your standard failed RPG might line the cut-price bins of GAME but MMOs are persistent worlds that can disappear entirely, which gives a sense of fragility to them. Servers are shut down, added, merged, new zones appear, guilds are founded and dramatically fall apart, subscription numbers dive, games die - it's all part of the shifting tectonics in an MMO. These are worlds, as they are levelling experiences, as they are treadmills.
But really they're just fun. And that's why I play.