If you've played an Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMO) in the last two years, you've experienced it first hand. MMO's have become almost a plague to the video game market in the past few years starting with the global sensation World of Warcraft.
When MMO's originally came out, it was all about the challenge. It created such a sensation of accomplishment attaining what is referred to within the communities as "end game". End game is simply the point at which you reach the end of the level cap for that MMO and the real fun begins within the MMO as you are forced to work with other people collectively to defeat the real challenges in the game. Games like World War 2 Online, Everquest, and Ultima Online all harnessed this, leveling to end game could be a long (in some cases, years of your life hard spent), and arduous (in some games [Everquest] if you died, you lost all of your gear and in worst case scenarios you even lost levels that took you days to earn) journey which only sweetened the taste of victory once you made it.
It also stepped up the feeling of mortality as when you died it was a seriously significant loss. In some cases, tens to hundreds of thousands of in-game dollars (back before there was such as thing as micro-transactions) and weeks of work in collecting items to craft your armor, earn that money lost, or gain the levels lost. I would like to refer to this group of MMO's as first generation. These were the games that explored the genre first (after MUD's of course) and they were the most difficult to play and the most rewarding. There was no easy way around playing these games and if you were getting to end game it took determination and dedication to keep playing for long periods of time with no breaks.
2nd generation would be your MMO's such as World of Warcraft Vanilla, Everquest 2, and others that came out around the same time. It was roungly from 2004-2007 if i had to make any estimated guesses. I would consider 2nd generation to be the golden era of MMO gaming. It is now long over, just like 1st generation and will never be found again, however it was an amazing time to be part of the MMO movement while it lasted. Originally these games combined the best difficult aspects of generation one while doing away or easing up the negative difficulty aspects of 1st generation. This included things such as the ability to keep all of your equipment and the removal or decreasing of experience lost when you pass away.
2nd generation was not all good though. A lot of the MMO's that came out during 2nd generation either entered the world as what are commonly referred to as Monty Hall games or became Monty Hall games. This all started with Japanese, Korean, and Chinese free-to-play MMO's and the introduction of something called Micro-transactions which we'll get more into later. Most of the blame however is to be placed on the insane popularity that the MMO world had gained due to World of Warcraft's massive success. When World of Warcraft was originally developed and released in 2004, it became an instant success. An extremely large world that buffered entire continents at once, no load screens unless changing from one continent in the world to the other, the world was massive, thousands of quests, deep storylines, plenty of challenge to boot, and awesome looking gear for your players. Not to mention that the difficulty curve grew exponentially as did the strength of your equipment.
As World of Warcraft prepared for it's first ever expansion Burning Crusades it had already reached a player base of well over 8 million unique accounts. We'll call this original 8 million the foundation. The foundation was comprised of old and new players alike. Old players from Everquest who were disgruntled that Sony had them purchase every expansion for EQ1 only to re-release ALL of the content, with an updated graphics engine in one bundle for the price of one game, as well as newcomers to the scene who had heard about the challenge that MMO's had to offer and wanted to try it for themselves. Those who enjoyed the difficulty and accomplishment of reaching end game stayed for it, those who didn't like the challenge left to play something else.
These players who opted out of the foundation didn't leave before sending several written complaints each to Blizzard HQ, mostly saying that it's too hard, unplayable, and unenjoyable. Unfortunately, Bizzard, being desperate for money (WoW was their last ditch effort to keep from closing their doors for good. It was their attempt to roll a hard six) listened to all of these complaints and leveled out the difficulty curve, unbalanced the game to favor popular classes, implemented welfare epics, and made dungeons mindlessly easy. This marked the turning point where Generation 3 begins. Generation 3 is still continuing today and appears to be going steady and becoming more and more popular.
3rd generation MMO's started off with their primary focus on micro-transactions and the true catalyst was World of Warcraft. Towards midlife of World of Warcraft's second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard incorporated what have been dubbed as Welfare epics. Essentially, it was originally intended to make it so that complete newcomers to the game would have to spend less time between when they hit end-game and when they could start participating in current raids. Essentially all the player would have to do is, play every non-endgame dungeon once every day for a week and he would be fully outfitted in last seasons hottest items.
Coupled with welfare epics, Blizzard also decreased the difficulty curve of getting from start game to end game so significantly that instead of taking several months to hit endgame, a player could do it in about two weeks of playing four hours a day. Other video games, desperately trying to knock world of warcraft off of it's high horse, began popping up, almost xeroxing World of Warcraft with different names, items and worlds all failed swiftly under the giant's feet. Blizzard seeing this and acknowledging that i now had a player base of over 20 million players continued to unbalance the the player classes to the point where certain classes became unplayable and rode the wave of success as far as they could.
Enter late generation 3 MMO's. After so many MMO's had tried and failed at stopping the behemoth that World of Warcraft became, A few 3rd generation MMO's popped up that went back to basics, did their best not to duplicate World of Warcraft and are relatively successful compared to the rest of the graveyard. These games include games like Rift and SWOTR. The rest of the MMO's that failed or were on the verge of failing started a new trend of going free to play and focusing on Microtransactions. This list is dramatically larger now and includes Champions Online, Fallen Earth, Star Trek Online, Aion, Age of Empires Online, All Points Bulletin, and a long slew of others. These have become the modern propagators of the Monty Hall Effect.
In most of the Free to play MMO's their primary mode of earning revenue is by micro-transactions. As such, for the small fee of all your lunch money for a month, you can gain double xp, double cash, double health, mana and all of your stats, and armor that is unbeatable by anything you would normally find in the free world. This encouragement to make microtransactions has tainted the world of MMO's forever. However, those same people who were not part of WoW's foundation buy into it. and people like the ones in WoW's foundation are being to get a bad taste in their mouth because of how bad the world is becoming. So much so that World of Warcraft's subscriptions are back down to below the 10 million mile stone. The first to go were the foundation members who got sick and tired of the game's constant unbalance and lack of difficulty. Then the players who flocked to those attributes are beginning to lose interest because they are just not dedicated players. Period. End of story.
The intervention of Free to play has made it possible for so many MMO's to lay everything out on the table for people to check out, however, the introduction of real money markets in these games have turned them into nothing but monty halls, and money vacuums. There is no such thing as a genuine experience with MMO's now. In Star Trek Online, a player can get from begin game to end game in a weekend. They can purchase ships that have extra, better features than the standard issue ships and Cryptic is just riding the wave. Making no attempts to add any content. All Points Bulletin started as a pay to play with one of the first real, total real money markets meaning that you could buy ingame money for real money. Eve online, which started as a free to play, now has a legal trade network which is like Ebay where players can pay other players for game time, characters and ships.
My astonishment when people are actually willing to pay real money for digital items that will be gone faster than you can buy lunch is impalpable and i am further and further dissuaded from playing MMO's every day when i see the focus change from making a genuinely fun game to making a game that will reach out and grab hold of the first credit card it can then hold on for dear life. What's your take? have you ever played an MMO? Have you ever experienced the Monty Hall effect first hand? And how do you feel about it?