Debate Club: Are MMOs Relevant Anymore? (The “Yes They Are” Side)

By: Steve Zachmann, contributor

World of Warcraft fundamentally changed my view on gaming as a whole.  It represents to me the very best that the MMO genre has produced, and while WoW is very clearly entering its twilight years, the fundamental building blocks that it helped forge are ones that I believe can be expanded on in ways that will push gaming in new and interesting directions for a long time.  Despite the recent lack of quality in the genre, there are still some very different experiences to be had in MMOs, the kind of experiences that simply cannot be found anywhere else.

Where single player games tend to tell deep yet isolated stories,  MMOs create worlds where story is less important than social experience.  Just before World of Warcraft launched  its second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, there was an event involving a zombie plague.  Players could become infected and eventually turn into zombies if not cured quickly.  Once fully zombified, players could infect or kill other players, and npcs.  What happened was truly epic.

Zombie players began wreaking havoc, infecting and killing anyone they found.  Non-zombie players hunted them down ruthlessly, while attempting to stave off their own infection.  Zombie players were vicious and deadly so traveling alone was a death sentence.  Players traveled in packs, with healers curing the fighters as they went.  Hundreds of players all holed opted to hole up in safer areas like the Stormwind cathedral.  Of course this prompted hordes of zombie-players to attempt to overwhelm them.  Battle lines between zombie-players and non-zombie-players were drawn, and the battle raged for weeks.  Quest givers, class trainers, and all other manner of npcs were killed or turned.  Players fought for their cities, while the zombie hordes constantly threatened to overwhelm them.  When you logged on you never knew what the world would look like from day to day.  Some days it felt contained, with masses of players eradicating even the smallest outbreak.  Other days it seemed like the zombies had decimated everything.

The event was polarizing to the player base.  Some – like me – loved how organic it felt.  Others found the inconvenience of dead quest givers and auction masters to be extremely irritating.  No matter how you felt about the event though, you remembered it.  The stakes felt high.  Players who didn’t want to become zombies banded together.  High level players went out of their way to protect low level players.  Players wanting to be zombies constantly changed their strategies trying to invade cities from multiple routes and at different times.  For the short time the event lasted, it felt like a truly epic battle, and it happened in a completely unplanned way.  I used the word organic before and that is truly the only way I could explain it.  The game gave players a pallet of tools, and we built our own experiences.

The fundamental thing that separates the MMO genre from every other gaming experience is the manner in which players interact.  Sure there is player interaction in many other traditional multiplayer games, but the type of persistent world that the MMO genre creates affords players the opportunity to have meaningful, long-term experiences together that can have an impact on the world far beyond a thirty minute capture-the-flag match.

Things like the Zul’Gurub pandemic, and many of the high profile events in EVE Online further show that the type of experiences offered by the MMO genre are unlike anything else in gaming.  There is no doubt that the genre is not in its prime right now.  Other than WoW, and Guild Wars 2, there is little to pay attention to.  Even a Star Wars MMO flopped pretty badly.  That said the genre itself has merit.  Unlike single player games, or even traditional multiplayer games, MMOs allow players to craft experiences together with massive amounts of other people, and that’s something that I don’t believe is going to go away anytime soon.  Even if it takes five years for another great MMO to come along, now that so many people have experienced some of the really fun and different things they provide, I believe that the genre will be relevant for a very long time.