I think I understand the fundamental appeal of online role-playing games (or MMORPGs if you like unwieldy acronyms). There’s a definite attraction to the idea of embarking on some grand adventure–the kind traditionally offered through popular offline series like Final Fantasy or Dragon’s Quest–while engaging with other players at the same time. The dozens of hours spent fighting monsters can be made less lonely online. Games that are sprawling and time-consuming turn from solitary to social activity when other people are thrown into the mix.
Despite understanding the draw of this design on a theoretical level, I’ve still never managed to get more than a handful of hours into an online RPG and remain invested. The process of building up a character–earning new equipment and skills-in these games has always seemed unnecessarily convoluted. The stories of those I’ve played have been uninteresting. Instead of presenting the kind of fiction that encourages long hours of exploration, they seem content to entice players with the dangling carrots of experience points and always-close level ups. None of this is what I look for in games. But, still, I’ve always been fascinated by the online RPG. I’ve always wanted to understand what keeps players returning to them.
So, I took two recent, apparently popular, and, most importantly, free games for a spin to try the answer the question: why bother playing an online RPG?
Part One: TERA
Three or four hours in Bluehole Studios’ TERA were almost enough to kill this entire experiment. TERA is a nightmare of a videogame. It’s writing and visuals are slathered in a fantasy goop so generic that setting out into its world feels less like an adventure that a distorted re-visitation of the past. I’d heard that its combat was supposed to be engaging, but, after time spent trying to discover its potential, it didn’t seem to offer much other than cycling through a menu of basic attacks, rubbing canned battle moves up against unending waves of identical monsters. (I imagine the committed player may see something I missed during several hours of repetitive clicking and number-punching, but nothing about the game encouraged finding this for myself.) There was little to keep me interested after a few trips into TERA. If anything, much of it (like this option in its character creation process) was actively repulsive.
Only a single session yielded something entertaining.
This player was shouting his theories to the entire game world. Desperate for novelty, I tried to insert myself.
But, I was ignored.
And, even though I couldn’t get a word in edgewise, I enjoyed the responses.
Eventually, the person–someone like the digital version of the worst person to ever sit next to on the subway–stopped and I decided to press on, hoping to find someone else to talk to. Like Dante traveling the darkest circles of hell, I tried to at least bring back some interesting stories from my fellow damned.
Nothing doing. A while later, I logged off.
Part Two: Guild Wars 2
ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2 is immediately more inviting than TERA because it has a real sense of style to it. The menu backgrounds are almost impressionist in their sketched shadows and lingering paint streaks. There’s also some level of quirkiness to its writing–enough to establish a personality that elevates its otherwise homogenized fantasy world of vaguely Dark Ages, Western European swords and sorcery. For instance, here’s the background I chose for my newly created character:
Still, this kind of colour is largely sidelined to the margins of the plot. Soon enough, the game fell into an expected rhythm. Kill monsters, buy armour, complete little quota-filling quests, and level up. Spurred on by the fact that the most (only?) entertaining part of TERA was the other people, I tried to put this out of mind. I thought that making conversation would help me get a bit more out of Guild Wars 2.
It didn’t go well initially. This group didn’t care to respond.
When I complemented this player’s tiger, they said “thanks” and quickly ran off. (I was probably too enthusiastic.) By the time I ran into a player inhabiting the role of a strange, armoured creature, I was barely making a good faith effort anymore.
The armoured creature teleported away and I went back to fighting and gaining experience points. This wasn’t enjoyable. Though it has heart, Guild Wars 2‘s setting, story, and combat felt as if they’d been plucked from a hat of fantasy genre conventions. Its writing is strong enough and its visuals are nicely distinct at times, but additional hours playing resulted in little else but slowly strengthening a character in order to better navigate a world I wasn’t finding much reason to care about.
I went to another central town to try to find other players. I did a mission alongside a bunch of them and, before logging off, decided to make a public appeal.
And, surprisingly, some friendly people responded.
Another player wandered over to say “hello.”
The other player listed systems that I could engage with after leveling my character for dozens more hours. Considering how tedious the first few had been, I decided that reaching this point–continuing on doing something unenjoyable with the promise of slightly more exciting activities in the future–wasn’t worth it. Still, when I think of logging into Guild Wars 2 (TERA is now just an uninstalled bad memory), it’s only the glorified chat room aspect of it that offers any kind of draw.
I imagine that it’s this type of interaction that keeps others coming back to online RPGs. It’s easy to see how those who find the basic interactions of their gameplay systems worthwhile (or their stories compelling) can become sucked into the experience of hopping on again and again, completing game tasks, and hanging out with like-minded strangers or digital friends. I know these are hardly profound (or novel) thoughts, but, to me, they’ve helped to somewhat demystify the success of these games. Though neither TERA or Guild Wars 2 offered much, there’s a definite allure to the concept I mentioned at the top of this article. An RPG that successfully integrates real players into its world sounds like it could be a lot of fun. The only caveat, I suppose, is that the foundation of these online games has to be something more than slight revisions of the same, staid old fantasies to capitalize on this.
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared at Kill Screen, Paste, VICE, Playboy, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER (a compilation of critical essays on the shooter genre), runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.