Some time in the years between 1998 and 2019, the levelling experience in MMORPGs simply became a means to and end.
This wasn’t always the case.
In EverQuest (EQ), the journey was for many far more enjoyable (not to mention accessible) than the destination. Far more people in the original EQ timeline experienced grouping to gain levels than grouping to raid ‘endgame’ bosses. In Ultima Online (UO) there were no levels at all, and your character was never truly ‘finished’. You fought, you gathered wealth, you created a niche for yourself and a home to live. Arguably this was true to a greater or lesser extent of Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, and even the early version of EverQuest II.
World of Warcraft (WoW) changed everything. You could argue that early or ‘classic’ WoW had a levelling experience that was enjoyable in its own right. However even in its early days WoW funnelled you from quest to quest and finally to the endgame and its raids. With each passing expansion this was more apparent, and nowadays a brand new player is flung headlong to max level, and even given a power leg-up to current content when they arrive.
A world less living
Ultimately this makes the world feel less alive. In current day WoW, the vast majority of players are sitting in the latest expansion zones. Players new or old are encouraged to speed run through the rest of the world so they can ‘catch up’. The Battle for Azeroth zones are, for all intents and purposes, all there is to WoW right now. This will be the same when WoW launches its next expansion too.
When you look at older MMORPGs, there were reasons for even max level players to visit almost all of the world. Equally, there was no accelerated pathway to max level so people spent longer in areas of the world that weren’t solely aimed at max level players. Even on a server like Project1999, which has been timelocked for years and has a significant over-crowding problem at max level, you see players all around Norrath. Alts take months, not weeks. For some this is a turn off, but it means the majority of Norrath isn’t a ghost town – and Project1999 isn’t even an especially high population server.
So we as MMORPG fans find ourselves in the predicament that anything sub-max level doesn’t matter. The gear we earn is transient, the experiences we have are hasty and meaningless, and the ‘challenges’ we face are typically barely worth of the word. It begs the question, for WoW and any other theme park MMORPG with several expansions under its belt, why bother having a levelling experience at all?
A path worth walking
Perhaps it’s why I can go back to older classic emulated MMORPGs and enjoy them – EQ, UO, SWG. Their live versions have adopted the ‘catch up’ mentality of modern MMORPGs, but their emulated classic versions provide a slower, more sedate experience.
Of the current day ‘production’ MMORPGs, Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) is an unlikely exception. Far from a perfect game and certainly not innocent of speeding up the levelling process, the developers implemented a ‘pause button’ years ago. It is an item that allows you to shut off your experience gains so you can enjoy the content. And there is a lot of content soaked in Tolkien lore that is worth seeing. It signals ‘no, our game is worth more than the latest raid and a handful of dailies, and you should have the choice to experience it.’ Unfortunately, true to form in LOTRO, it is locked behind a cash shop purchase.
A vision worth having
I confess I have not watched the next crop of MMORPGs closely enough to say which way they will go on this issue. I have the feeling that many of the more independent MMORPG developers are moving away from the WoW-esque ‘single player MMORPG endgame only’ model. But the developers of these games must still find themselves bound by what people want to play.
For many, the fact that 90 per cent of the virtual world is essentially an empty museum is a fair trade if they can log in for 30-60 minutes, and progress their character. They are happy that they can do so without having to worry about that progress being contignent on another human being. They are equally happy that, if they want to create an alt character, the character will be at max level and running the same things as their main character in a few weeks.
So perhaps it is a minority of us that desire living, breathing virtual worlds and not large-scale interactiv instance lobbies.
I hope not, but I fear it may be true. I’d be happy to hear from you if there is an MMORPG on the horizon with this vision.
I think it’s a vision worth having.