Recently on slashdot, I noticed a post regarding Ultima Online, which basically waxed nostalgic and pondered why there are no other Massive Multiplayer Online experiences (that are not World of Warcraft) that contain the same gameplay mechanics as UO -- divined in the post as housing, thieving and looting. While the post mentions smaller MMOs like European developed Darkfall and Mortal Online, it leaves the question open to potential comments.
It's because as games evolve along with the tastes of the gaming community.
When Perfect Dark first appeared on the Nintendo 64, it was lauded as a huge success. Not because Rare had struck upon some perfect formula for creating video games, otherwise they would have made more Perfect Dark titles beyond the sequel that didn't completely suck, unlike Perfect Dark Zero. It was lauded so highly because it was essentially Goldeneye, a previous Rare title, except set in the future and you played a chick instead of Mr. Bond. Seemingly, this seems like a complete lack of evolving gameplay, but all the single player similarities aside, the game truly shined in multiplayer. Sadly, time may not have been kind to Perfect Dark, but we'll see how that goes when the game hits Xbox Live this month.
Back in the realm of MMO games, designers, publishers, developers and subscribers constantly have to continue to shape, and at times police, a world that is inherently designed to change. The best online games have the capacity to shift by taking their players and environment into account and altering the gameplay mechanics slightly enough that the drastic change won't push players away while continuing to invite new players in.
For every major patch that Blizzard has released, there have been droves of subscribers that have complained about one or more classes becoming overpowered, underpowered or basically broken. The same could be said about City of Heroes/Villains, Star Trek Online, or Hellgate: London or just about any other MMO you can recall that I can't mid-rant.
These games changed overtime to continue to be a draw to players new and veteran. But given enough time, the game will change enough that players will be pushed away. This was the case for me when it came to WoW and subsequently regarded UO when it came to the writer of the cited article. After so many patches and doing the same grind over and over, it came to the point that I was finding myself bored more often than not. For people who are unemployed or go to school, this may not seem like the case when it comes to MMOs, but for those of us who work 40+ hours a week and come home to familial obligations, you notice pretty damn quickly when a game feels like work.
Ultimately, Blizzard is altering World of Warcraft again to draw players back or introduce them to the world of Azeroth in the form of improved Battle.net integration and Cataclysm slated for release sometime this year (hopefully). This is the natural course of evolution that must occur for an MMO to remain viable. If Blizzard had simply released the game day one and merely updated the game server with rudimentary patches that never addressed major issues, people would have stopped playing years ago as the gameplay became a stagnated mess.
It's perfectly okay to wax nostalgic and want a game to feel the same way as it did the first time you played it. I still wish games like Super Mario Brothers, Metal Gear Solid, Goldeneye, Halo, Final Fantasy and even World of Warcraft still felt the same way as when I booted them up for the first time and relished in the styles of each title, lost in the worlds each one had offered up for me to explore. Additionally, it's okay to wish new games would carry over the same mechanics from a previously title in a franchise or from a separate series altogether. It's a natural desire for any gamer, let alone any human to want to experience more of what they enjoyed somewhere. But if something doesn't necessarily garner a following, even a minor one, then suffice to say it's doomed and was never meant to be. Just ask everyone who played Tabula Rasa or Hellgate.
On the other hand, the post makes mention the Bartle Test and the desire for an MMO appealing to Killer-oriented players, such as those who would crave a decidedly player versus player (PvP) experience as opposed to player versus environment (PvE). While there is a massive following amongst gamers who religiously subscribe to playing multiplayer, even to the point of ignoring a single-player campaign, the MMO is built around a pillar of basic social interactivity. After all, what the hell is the point of subscribing to a game where you're online if there is zero interactions with other players? Sure, you can play games via PSN, Xbox Live or even on the Wii, but an MMO is the shining testament to a community of gamers playing and existing together in a game-space.
While I can't point the poster in the direction of a UO appropriate MMO with the requirements they're seeking (If anyone can, please please do), this is for a good reason. WoW has essentially shaped a generational progression of MMOs from previous games making anything prior to it seem foreign and anything after it come off as a clone. World of Warcraft set the bar. Hating to admit that, it is nonetheless a simple fact of life. In the meantime, there are always going to be more games for people to play online. Star Trek Online is relatively up and coming with a large enough initial base of fans to carry it well moving forward. Conversely, Star Wars will have it's own, new MMO focusing on the Knights of the Old Republic universe, which will also doubtlessly garner a distinct following all it's own.
Suffice to say, Ultima Online isn't the beast it once was and is slowly falling to the wayside as far as developers are concerned, if the current release outlook of games is taken into consideration. The site is still active and I'm sure people still play, but it is nothing that could topple the empire Blizzard has established around WoW. It's an MMO juggernaut that sucks the damn life out of people. But despite this, UO still has a small, dedicated following and that in and of itself is laudable. Seemingly, what it comes down to is a games ability to continue offering new and exciting content while keeping the things that made it viably great. Perhaps, UO is just that kind of one-trick pony, but then again so is WoW.
Now hit alt-tab, your tank is dying I'm sure.