Ask Massively: What happened to open-world MMOs?

ArcheAge
A reader named Gabe emailed Massively last year with two questions (I'm getting through all the emails -- I am!). I'll address the second one eventually, but let's do the first one today because it's something I love to talk about: open-world MMOs.
What happened to "open world" MMOs? I grew up with giant world MMOs where you would almost never see a load screen. I remember spending countless hours running from end to end of continents exploring and trying to see what I could find. You would run into a city instead of loading a city. I don't feel I am a part of a "world" anymore. After World of Warcraft, I played The Secret World, Star Trek Online, Neverwinter, and a few other closed-world MMOs, and it just pisses me off because I feel as if I am playing a single-player game with multiplayer options instead of a world I am a part of.
I think we've got two separate issues here: One's about the literal meaning of open world, and the other's about the feel.

First, I wish I knew which MMOs you grew up on before World of Warcraft. I stretched my brain backwards to EverQuest, the first 3-D MMORPG I played, and remember LOADING, PLEASE WAIT screens between every single zone wall and teleport death, even between city districts. Isometric Ultima Online before that was never perfectly open and seamless, either; you always had a wait period when casting recall or trying to zone into a dungeon. In fact, all of UO's server boundaries were obvious since they lagged you as you crossed them, even when you didn't face a formal frozen screen while loading.

And then there was Asheron's Call, which tweaked EQ's nose a bit with its claims about doing away with annoying loading screens but had its own problems -- namely, the inefficiency of the giant rolling world helped MMO players appropriate the term "rubber-band lag" and still had plenty of loading time as you zoned into locations. In fact, the game handled player load so poorly that for many years Turbine's solution to crowded cities was to randomly portal-storm excess players away from the city, making trade and PvP and monarchy meetings difficult and forcing the population to spread out rather than coalesce (a modern player can chime in here and tell me whether that was ever fixed!).

And really this is why I don't need to keep rattling off how X, Y, and Z MMOs way back in the day did it because they all did their best and ran into technically insurmountable or financially irreconcilable problems, many of which are still problems today. Dividing a game into zones or subservers or whatever a studio is calling them really does make development easier in terms of graphical demand and player load, even if there is no formal loading screen -- recall that many of SOE's games make use of a handy trademark zig-zag corridor between open spaces and interiors so that players can't see both at the same time. No MMO has ever perfected a truly open and loadless world. Heck, EVE Online, 11 years after launch, is still trying to solve the Asheron's Call problem: how to jam a zillion people into a small space without lagging them all out. And EVE's solution -- degrading graphical representation to the point that everyone is a tiny dot -- might get the job done, but it's not exactly ideal. It's not what we imagine when we think of an open world.


Bless
Or is it? For a lot of folks, it's not about the tech at all but about the feel of the game. EverQuest was the sum of big boxy zones with small doors between them, but it actually felt pretty open because of the size of the space and the scope of what you could do in it. Ultima Online was sectioned off into subservers that jerked you across the screen, but the overland areas and high seas encouraged exploration. Asheron's Call had long roads between cities and you just never knew what sort of ruin you were going to find on the path from Shoushi to Lin. And some games feel more open all the time; WoW is a great example of a game that started out with rigid, EverQuest-style zone walls and has opened up with flying -- so much that people now complain it's too open!

I do understand your frustration, though, and to the extent that I love open worlds myself, I agree with you. There are definitely a lot of "lobby MMOs" floating around the genre now. Neverwinter is a keen example, but it's one I'd overlook. Why? Because the technical structure fits the theme. It shouldn't feel like a giant sprawling world; having zoned town areas and dungeons helps keep the game feel tightly controlled and almost claustrophobic in a way that enhances the atmosphere of what amounts to a dungeon-delver.

I wouldn't want all games to be that way. In my heart of hearts, I just want to get on my BARC and zoom from one corner of Tatooine to the other and gape at the player cities along the way, with no loading pauses or physical walls to hinder me. But that doesn't mean I don't want to see other MMOs doing things a little differently. There's plenty of space in the genre for both a Guild Wars 1 and a Wurm Online. Before this year, you had to broaden your horizons beyond AAA games and lower your expectations quite a bit to play an open-world MMO since most were old or poor. But this year? I think the industry is prepared again to give you what you're looking for. With the year sandbox games are having, maybe all you need is a little bit of Landmark and ArcheAge in your MMO diet.

What should you play? Where is the MMO industry headed? How does Massively operate? Has Lord British lost his marbles? Why is the edit button on a timer? Should "monoclegate" be hyphenated? Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce submits to your interrogations right here in Ask Massively every other Friday. Drop your questions in the comments below or ping us at ask@massively.com. Just ask!
This article was originally published on Massively.