The future of the MMORPG: The rise of the "independent funtractor"
*blows the dust off of the blog*
Well then, a healthy bout of writer's block, and a strange sense of "nothing worth writing about" amidst barrages of news kinda put TFTV to sleep for awhile, but there's been a term gestating in the back of my mind for months, so today I'm going to think out loud and share the process with you all as I flesh it out:
Today's term is "Independent funtractor".
In the days of EverQuest's unchallenged dominance, and influence on the direction of MMOs (including WoW), if you wanted to "be a somebody", it wasn't as much your own skill that mattered (but it still did), as it was who you knew. Guilds, raid teams, even looser-knit circles of recurring play-partners were key to getting anything "of note" done. Indeed, at the onset of the MMO's emergence, the novelty, and a huge "feature", was the ability to play with other people. Because of this, people tolerated (to varying degrees) and gravitated to microcosmic concepts of community co-dependence and things like guild loyalty, consideration of your neighbor's time, and the impact you had on it, which were addressed and handled at varying degrees of success. Things like group-earned loot and the "trinity" of tank/heal/damage added spice to the soup, and group/guild leaders succeeded and failed at the social minigame that was just as important to killing dragons as individual player competence.
The novelty of this "cool, we can play together over the Internet!" sensation was bound to wear off, and it did. It's still a draw, to this day, but it can't be used as a huge pillar to sell a game anymore. Stripped of novelty, a lot of glaring holes can be seen in this monolith of gaming standards we have enshrined.
First off, the fact that no matter how good the game is, a bad experience with another player can do lasting damage to your success or enjoyment is a horrible business model, when selling to the individual: the only sales pitch that matters. To tell someone "to see the end of the story, bring 24 friends, and make sure X number of them are willing/able to do the high pressure roles", is not a pitch that today's consumer will generally tolerate in an RPG with story that starts as a personal, solo pursuit.
Story is a huge part of any RPG. You create a character, and have fun exposing that character to a world, its story, and often the other people "living" there. The developers of the world can control one of those two important variables, and as trends have indicated over the years, it's important to rein in the negative influence of the other (the community) over your fun, since the developer generally can't control it. It's an axiom I've applied to LARPing in the past:
"The problem arises out of the fact that many of the features of the product are or are enabled by the customers themselves, who often exercise their paid right to refuse to be the product, because they are customers."
When this circle inevitably presents itself, the MMO, as we know it, starts to crumble. Game designers can dull the impact of this cycle, even prevent it from manifesting, to a degree, by slashing certain elements of co-dependence, and they have already begun.
In WoW: Continuing the ethic that gave birth to the dungeon finder, the raid finder puts the final nail in the coffin of "needing an army" to finish the story you started by leveling solo.
In SWTOR: The fact that the game itself is "online, parallel dragon age in space" as it relates to its story is right in line with this "selling to the individual" ideal.
In GW2: The personal story, the exterior, open world dynamic events, the home instance: everything is pointed at the individual player interfacing with the game in a way of their choosing. In fact, the ONLY feature that necessitates co-dependence is the dungeon content, and even that is smoothed by the absence of "the trinity".
Online communities can and will still form in our favourite MMORPGs, it would be kind of silly if they couldn't, but more than ever, games are marketing to and designing for players one at a time.
A common complaint aimed to this line of thinking (particularly the dungeon finder type features) is that it kills the sense of community, and that's a fair point, but my respectful rebuttal is that the worst sides of each other that we see in the more "gear treadmill" type games (like WoW) are brought to the surface by the idea that there are two kinds of content:
1) "Grind content", whether it means leveling faster, gearing faster, maxing rep or chasing achievements, it's easy to see "the journey" in the common MMO as something to be pursued with personal efficiency, even when grouped, (this is why "hard heroics" failed in Cataclysm: it's grind content, not seen as the place to be hindered by another player's reflexes) because this isn't "the real game", this is somewhere that other people tend only to "get in each other's" way on the way to...
2) The endgame. You're done, you're there, now it's about competing to get loot, competing for DPS, competing in PVP, etcetera. Again, we're either in each other's way, or holding each other back, OR we're in the perfect group. If not in said perfect group, you're paying for a product you're potentially not as happy with as you should be, and it's all because of an element of the product that the developer has little or no control over. This actually has less to do with the "looking for" features, and more to do with the overall design of the game itself: empowering "them" to dictate "your" game.
This is why the MMORPG of the future needs to be less about "them" and more about you. The more happy, self-empowered "independent funtractors" are drawn to an individually engaging game, the more will be around to deal with group undertakings, which then turn into opportunities to meet people that WANT to be there, as opposed to players using each other to reach an objective that "you'd better not cost them".
A community that doesn't "need" each other is then freed up to "want" each other. And if they don't, they're welcome to that too, because if they don't need each other, they won't inhibit the folks that would rather want each other.
One of the only votes against all of this is the indirectly and unfortunately cultivated desire to "control" each other's progress, be it through shunning someone with a bad reputation, or perhaps "the only tank" dictating the pace of the whole guild/raid's pace of enjoyment. I'm afraid it's not in the best interest of the MMORPG industry to leave these "sacred cows" of social policing alive, they need to die, because that guy with the bad rep, and those guildies hoping that the tank makes up with the guild leader should not have the quality of their own funtime dictated by others that didn't pay for those other players' subscription/game. The ones providing the service (the developers) need to lessen the impact of these scenarios, because even an MMO is populated one player at a time.
Don't need your gaming community, want it, because if you don't want it, you certainly don't need it. The games out there are slowly enabling this for you, so capitalize!
If you're still here, thank you for reading, and be mindful of how you can be an independent funtractor in your MMORPG of choice, because it's not about them, they're not paying for your subscription/game, it's about you, and you, and you...
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