Monday, May 24, 2010

An Open Letter to People who Make MMORPGs

The big problem is that I’ve been spoiled by 16-bit console RPGs. In my opinion, the most incredible console and computer story-based adventure games were made in the early to mid nineties. The Super Nintendo (the fucking SUPER NINTENDO!!!) brought us Breath of Fire, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound, no less than three Final Fantasy games, Lufia, Secret of Evermore, and Secret of Mana. Not one of these games was bad, and I played the shit out of them. Add the kinda-meh RPGs for the Sega Genesis (and a couple of gems, such as Phantasy Star IV), and I grew up with some pretty great console games as a kid.

Those games set the bar for me, and there have only been a few games out in the past decade that I feel met or exceed them. Dragon Age comes to mind, probably because it’s fresh in my memory. Knights of the Old Republic, too. Jade Empire, Elder Scrolls – Oblivion, Fallout 3. So there have been some decent games, but in general the quality of good story-based adventure games has gone down in the past decade. While the games have gotten much prettier to look at, they’ve lost a lot of what made the 16-bit games so much fun.

The thing they lost was “character.” Not in the sense that I couldn’t tell Jade Empire from Fallout; the games are definitely unique and have some pretty amazing art direction and flavor. But they’re missing something. And it’s something games like Chrono Trigger and Phantasy Star have in spades.

I really like the characters I interact with in those games.

The protagonist guy from Chrono Trigger doesn’t speak. He’s just your avatar. Whatever you would have said there, that’s what he just said. But characters like Frog and Magus stick around with you. They’re cool. They have interwoven histories. They’re unique and interesting. You get to learn more about them as you progress through the game. They gain depth through their actions and through the way they tell their story. Modern console and computer role-playing games, with a few key exceptions, have lacked this, and it’s noticeable in the quality of the games.

See, the guys at Bioware understand what the hell is going on here, and they make up for it. Dragon Age has some really neat characters in it, and they’re unique and they’re fun and you get a pretty good idea of what they’re about by the end of the game. None of them are humanoid frogs, but they don’t need to be for you to remember who they are. Morrigan is sarcastic and strangely naive. Alistair is straight-laced and thinks he’s funnier than he is. I haven’t played the game in months, and these are character traits I remember. Very few computer or console rpgs are going to the effort to make that happen anymore.

This is especially true of MMORPGs. This started off as a criticism of Star Trek Online, for its absolutely horrendous lack of interesting characters, but it’s been pointed out to me that the problem is rampant throughout the platform. It is generally assumed that any sort of role-playing you might want to do during an MMO would occur with other players. Or, at least, that’s the only reason I can fathom that would explain the complete absence of interesting non-player characters in MMO games. And sure, that’s an option for some games. I’ve had moments of pure role-play in World of Warcraft and FlyFF, but those moments were very few and so far between that I believe they happened once per game in years of playing.

See, people don’t want to role-play on a console or in a computer game. For one thing, it’s currently impossible to make a program do all of the cool things your imagination can. For another, people understand how to interact with a game like Star Trek Online from their experiences with other console and computer games. They interact with one another on STO the same way they would interact with players in a HALO game. Which is really sad, because HALO doesn’t pretend to be an RPG.

If you take all of the RPG elements out of Star Trek Online, it’s a pretty fun adventure game. If you take all of the things that make Star Trek fantastic, it’s a pretty good homage to the setting. But both RPGs and Star Trek are about character and that is something that the MMORPG market is missing entirely. In playing STO, I want to care. I want to talk to my crew and learn something about their history. Hell, make it up. Make it random. Choose 100,000 pre-made “who are you” character scripts and compile them into chat trees. Pay me enough money, I’ll write them for you just so that I can go home and read my own chat trees and feel like I know something about my crew.

I want them to interact with me and with one another. I want missions to be based on the fact that my chief of security walked into my Ready Room and told me his wife is having a baby on Deep Space K-7 and he’d love it if we could get him back there before his daughter is born. I want a mission that is just me mediating a dispute between two members of my crew. I want to know that when my helmsman and one of the science lieutenants are working together, they’re more efficient because they’re lovers. Or less efficient. Or whatever. Any character trait at all.

And if there was a storyline behind Star Trek Online as compelling as that found in Chrono Trigger, you’d never get me to leave the captain’s chair. Hell, if the story was as intriguing as the worst season of Enterprise, you’d have me knocking at your servers constantly.

As is, it’s a pretty good adventure game.

I’m just going to post a link here. It’s the Memory Alpha entry for Lieutenant Commander Data. Take a look at the things that made this character interesting. Let me know how much of that is based on the space ship he flew or the away missions in which he shot his phaser. I’ll let you come to your own conclusions on just how important character interactions are for MMOs based on that…