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MMObile: Old-School MMOs are Alive and Well... on Smartphones.

View Nelson Schneider's Profile

By Nelson Schneider - 10/25/15 at 08:36 PM CT

Recently, I shared my experience with “modern” Massively-Multi-Player Online (MMO) games. As someone who was never a fan of “traditional” MMOs, I appreciate the fact that modern MMOs at least put on airs of being less grindy, less time consuming, and more accessible than the primogenitors of the sub-genre.

However, the fact that modern MMOs now dominate on PC and console platforms does not, indeed, mean that traditional MMOs are dead. Much like any other criminal element, when detected and actively persecuted in one place, they simply moved to another – one that is sparsely regulated and that allows them to target a new audience of suckers who might not be familiar with their fiendish ways.

Sure, “Everquest” is gone, never to return (well, it is scheduled for a reboot, but it will most likely take the form of a modern MMO). Sure, none of the modern MMOs that have arisen to replace it have all of the horrible elements that made it so simultaneously unappealing and addictive. Instead, the traditional MMO has metamorphosed into a new form in its new hunting grounds: the Smartphone.

In some markets, like Japan, mobile phone gaming is a roaring Godzilla, stomping all over dedicated gaming console, handheld, and PC markets. But even in parts of the world where mobile gaming is looked upon with derision by most people who identify themselves as Gamers, the platform’s lack of curation/quality control, low cost of entry, and potential to manipulate users socially is allowing a new crop of games to take root, sown from the old, dry, desiccated seed of the traditional MMO.

Let us consider the following titles:

Clash of Clans” by SuperCell
Game of War: Fire Age” by Machine Zone
Ingress” by Niantic Labs

These are but a small sampling with which I have first-hand experience, but I see numerous other games with similar models but different themes frequently advertised on TV. What makes these games the successors of the traditional MMO? Allow me to elaborate.

The traditional MMO is known for three key features. First, a traditional MMO is supposed to be grindy, forcing the player to do the same (or so similar the difference is negligible) thing(s) over and over again ad nauseam. Second, a traditional MMO is supposed to take an absolutely insane amount of time for the player to make any progress. Finally, a traditional MMO is supposed to feature open Player vs. Player (PvP) conflict in order to encourage players to sink more time into it, thus giving them a tangible advantage over players who don’t.

While not ‘features,’ per se, the traditional MMO also has two identifying traits that are simply a side-effect of its nature. A traditional MMO has no appreciable story/narrative/character development. Nor does a traditional MMO really ‘start’ until the player has sunk the months (or years) into it required to reach the maximum level.

The only difference between these modern mobile MMOs and traditional MMOs is the way they are monetized. But upon looking at these monetization systems, we can see that it’s simply an inversion of the same model. Traditional MMOs had lots of slow – seemingly endless – grinding because they were subscription-based. Keeping a player p(l)aying for months and months put money directly into the developer’s pocket. They had no vested interest in speeding things up for the player. Modern mobile MMOs are free… but making progress takes the same interminable amount of time. However, the player is given the opportunity (and copious encouragement by the developers via in-game ads) to spend real world money on in-game items that make the grind less… grindy. Games using this model have been dubbed “Pay2Win” by the gaming public at large, but in reality there is little difference between Paying2Win and keeping up a traditional MMO subscription.

Pay2Win mobile MMOs and traditional MMOs are both not fun… or at least not very fun. I recall seeing an article or video online (I absolutely cannot find it again in order to link it!) that stated factually that Free2Play, Pay2Win, and Free2Wait games only have to be ‘good enough’ so as to be ‘not terrible.’ The entire purpose of this genre is to ensnare additive personalities with a lightly cathartic, infinitely repeatable task, then keep turning the screw a little bit each time the task is completed, making the next completion slightly more onerous, difficult, and time consuming. At some point that next ‘fix’ becomes so unattainable that a traditional MMO player would have to buckle down and focus all of their (and their guild’s) efforts on grinding, while the mobile MMO player need only give-in and pay cash to make the problem go away. The thing that makes mobile MMOs even more bedeviling than their non-mobile predecessors is the fact that, as mobile phone games, most people play them on their mobile phones… which are with them all the time!

The omnipresence of these mobile MMOs grants them a frightening ability to ensnare people who otherwise consider themselves immune to the genre’s Siren Song. MeltedJoystick’s staff – despite adamantly refusing to add mobile games to the site because they are “not real games” – have fallen prey to these predatory games, with Nick being to most traumatically victimized. This is the guy who routinely gets huffy at me when I chastise him about missing a scheduled online game night (and without sending a notification that he’ll be absent), using oft-repeated phrases like “I play videogames for fun and relaxation. I don’t want to be forced to follow a schedule!” Yet he was (and is) perfectly willing to attend to “Game of War” every 6 hours (if not more frequently) and physically travel out of his way on a daily basis to access “Ingress” portals. For my part, I would abandon all of these mobile MMOs in an instant, were it not for the other MJ Crew members constantly pressuring me to stick with it.

The glut of mobile MMOs we have on our hands at the moment is overwhelming enough, but the future holds something even more frightening, as Nintendo and new mobile partner, DeNA, will be teaming up with the very same Western developers who made “Ingress” to build “Pokemon GO.” As if the industry really needs a game that combines the addictive qualities of both ‘Pokemon’ and Pay2Win MMOs! At least with “Ingress,” the users and their location data are the ‘fee’ that is paid. With “Pokemon GO,” Nintendo will most likely want to bleed players of something resembling cash monies. About the only thing we know about “Pokemon GO” at the moment is that it WILL be Free2Play, and it WILL feature in-app microtransactions. Perhaps pokeballs will cost as much in US Dollars as they cost in Pokebucks in traditional ‘Pokemon’ games.

The old-school style of MMO is alive and well, dominating its new stalking grounds as an uncontested predator. For my part, I’ll be happy to finally leave that killing field once and for all. Though even with my freedom, I will still be haunted by the absolute lack of anything good that came from the experience.

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View Chris's Profile


Wrote on10/29/15 at 08:34 PM CT

Link the SouthPark episode "Freemium Isn't Free" - I'm not 100% sure, but I think that's where you got that quote about being "good enough to be not terrible", plus, it's an excellent episode all-around (and really captures the Free2Play spirit).

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