ON MMORPGS, Immersion, Narrative and connection to characters

So, I’m pretty excited about Everquest Next, its an open world sandboxy MMORPG that will hopefully be out in the not too distant future, which features a dynamic world and strong character customisation, but it got me thinking. Why is it that Everquest Next is exciting me with its potential that so few others do, and havn’t since I played Ultima Online all those years ago?


Examining this I came to a few conclusions that I think are probably true for others as well as me.


Since Everquest, which was the second big MMORPG to come out, and one that overtook Ultima Online in popularity, people have loved the MMORPG Genre, and the Everquest model has dominated the market pretty much since it started. You choose a race, you choose a class, and you go out and do quests and adventure. This process has become progressively more streamlined, simplified and bad bigger and flashier by subsequent titles, such as World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Neverwinter, TERA et cetera. So why is it that none of these games have been able to hold my attention for a fraction of the length that Ultima did? I never even played the original Everquest, and only briefly looked at EQ2 before losing all interest.


I came to the following conclusion. It’s about relatability to your character, to personal narrative and immersion. When you play one of these games full of epic storylines and questlines, you’re not really playing your character, you are going through the motions in a preordained story, often doing quite epically dramatic things, which when you think about it, is what you do in a singleplayer game, and that’s fine, but it makes no sense in an online world. Just how many times does the princess need saving each day?


For me, this linear progression actually gives me less connection with my character, I didn’t make any choices, I just followed the plot put out for me, and so did everyone else. So when you go to talk to people to tell them of your adventures… what adventures? You did exactly what they did, and everyone else too, you didn’t have choice. From a roleplay perspective, this means that to give your character a history and stories, you need to IGNORE the world narrative, which further disconnects you from the world your character is supposed to be immersed in.


“Ah”, you say, “but then they started adding choices to these quest lines to better reflect your character” Well, yes, they did, but in a way, that’s even worse. What if you don’t like the options available? What if none of them are really you? And even if they are, when you talk to someone else, they’ve done the same quest, but with a different outcome, which further fragments the narrative, as in your personal history, the princess was saved, but in this other person’s personal history, the princess was murdered by an assassin. The narrative no longer even follows the same path, your disconnect from the narrative is now even greater, now when you discuss the events of the past, your stories don’t even match up. You must again, ignore the world narrative to have any sort of coherent history.


The same thing goes for classes. What if I want to play a former monk, who left his order to take up his true calling as a bard. Does he forget all his martial arts simply because he now plays an instrument? He’s no longer a member of the order, why would the restrictions placed on a monk even apply? Granted there’s some logical ones, for example, martial arts in full platemail probable wouldn’t work too well. Again I’m not playing *my* character, I’m playing a character with a prescribed set of abilities and traits, which may not reflect the person I am trying to portray.


Think about the content in the most recent MMORPGS out, they rush you through the main content as quickly as possible to get to the endgame, which is large PVP, Sieges and Raids. Most of the game is the stick, with the endgame being the carrot. Am I missing something? shouldnt the majority of the game be an enjoyable experience and not a means to an end? But the problem is people have no affinity with their characters anymore, because they’d had so little to do with their character’s construction. Even ability choices usually end up falling to a set of prescribed optimum builds that you must use or you’re useless at that class, so even that little bit of remaining individuality is lost. You play the character designed for you rather than play the character you wanted to make.


So what is it about this end game content that makes it so appealing? I propose that is it the unpredictability, the adventure and the teamwork that makes it exciting. You do it because you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, for the first time in the history o your character, you have some control over it, your choices have consequences to your team, guild, clan or group, and it is to that clan, guild, group etc that your start feeling a bond to, rather than your own character. That’s what people play for.


In Ultima Online you had real freedom, there was no direction, you did what you wanted, when you wanted and how you wanted, there were so many different ways to do things, you could truly explore, rather than just move through, the world. You created your own story, you became attached to your character, because your character had a history and a narrative and fond memories that weren’t scripted in by a developer, they were created by you being at a place at a certain time and happening to come across an unexpected situation. Maybe it was an area you had never been to before, maybe it was some unexpected spawn, you expected brigands and discovered, to your horror, that there was a gazer in the area throwing fiery death at you. When your character died, that meant something, even if you knew you wouldn’t lose much or anything it wasn’t simply inconvenient, it mattered, you’d try frantically to stay alive, rather than just wait for your group to rez you. You had a story, and it was your own, it was unique and it was full of experiences that only you went through, others could relate, they had their own stories, but it wasn’t the same story, and that’s what I think has been lost, that narrative that bonds you to your character.


This is why I’m excited about Everquest Next, it has the potential to bring back that sense of personal connection, of identity and personal narrative. The world is always changing, that brings back the unpredictability and adventure, as sense of excitement that has long been lacking in the MMORPG Genre.


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