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The Soapbox: Debunking the first kiss theory

Jef Reahard

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

So I owe this week's Soapbox to one of my gaming buddies who recently opined that a lot of older genre fans wear rose-colored glasses. We're a sentimental, eternally ornery, and change-resistant bunch, he said, and we're all searching in vain for that one game that recaptures the magic of our first MMO rodeo.

Ordinarily I'd take offense to those labels, but upon further reflection, my pal had a point (though it may not be the one he intended). This "first kiss theory" -- as I'm calling the bundle of nostalgia-related charges often leveled against old-school MMO fans -- is fairly common on massively multiplayer forums. This was the first time I'd heard the theory espoused by someone I knew personally, though, and as a result I spent a fair bit of time mulling it over.

Join me after the cut to see why it ultimately doesn't hold water and why, if older MMOers are indeed nostalgic, there are quantifiable reasons for it that has little to do with half-remembered glory days.

To recap, the first kiss theory holds that "cynical and jaded" (air quotes) veteran players are always comparing new games to the title that took their MMO virginity. These folks are also prone to lamenting the fact that no post-2004 MMORPG has rekindled the flame of Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, Star Wars Galaxies, or EverQuest.

These angry old first-kissers -- sitting on their creaky front porches and waving sandbox-scented shotguns at the kids playing grab-ass on the front lawn -- are supposedly stuck in a time warp. The old-timers just aren't progressive, logical, or forward-thinking enough to embrace change, bro, because everyone knows that change is good! Especially change for the worse! Hey, it's change! Amirite?!!11

Shrek and DonkeyHere's an interesting angle, though, so follow along with me. What if MMOs were in fact better at some point in the past? What if older MMOs still being played today are better than their newer, shinier contemporaries? These are crazy, heretical thoughts, I know, but hear me out.

What if, thanks to some freakishly fortuitous intersection of entrepreneurial spirit, capital, and unbridled creativity run amok, older MMORPGs actually had more and better features than their newfangled counterparts? What would a fact like that do to the first kiss/nostalgia theory?

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. "Better" is a loaded term, one that's completely subjective. And you're right. It is. Some people no doubt feel that Rodgers and Hammerstein were better songwriters than, say, Lennon and McCartney. Others like brussel sprouts and abhor bacon, so clearly there's no accounting for taste.

There is, however, accounting for the fact that Game A has features C, D, E, F, and G while Game B has feature C and maybe a half-assed implementation of D (if we're lucky). Anyhow, back to better. When I say "better," I mean more features, more and varied gameplay options, and more replay value. Here, let me give you a few examples:
But Jef, I hear you saying, you're just one of those (air quotes again) cynical, jaded gamers who hates change. Why would anyone believe you when you say all those old titles are better than all these new ones?

Well first off, thanks for asking! Secondly, I'm already running short on space, so I can't go into the details on all of the pairings listed above. How's about we pick one couplet and hit the highlights, though, and I'll leave the rest of the research to you if you're loath to take my word for it.

Kirk and UhuraLet's look briefly at EverQuest II and Age of Conan, two fantasy titles that are mechanically similar and cater to similar audiences (namely, PvE quester-types who like their PvP on the side if at all). EQII was released in November of 2004, a time when MMOs still featured extensive gameplay options for Bartle's explorers and socializers as well as for his achievers and serial killers.

Age of Conan debuted four years later, and three years after that it remains a serial killer simulator (and little else). Now, this is not to say that AoC is a bad game; it's quite good at what it does. The trouble is that it doesn't try to do very much. When measured against earlier, meatier themeparks like EQII, it comes up woefully short in every department save the visuals.

Sure, some people prefer AoC to EQII, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that those people are rather single-minded when it comes to gaming. They want to kill things, or they want to watch their XP bar move, and that's pretty much the extent of their imaginations. Note that you can do those two things in EQII, along with a hundred other activities that aren't related to killing. Therefore, EQII is a better MMORPG, and saying so doesn't make a person nostalgic or possessed of rosy spectacles. Similar comparisons become apparent when you're playing each pair in my earlier list, as well as dozens of other titles that I haven't the space to mention.

Ultimately, it seems that the desire to make virtual worlds has deserted many current-gen devs, and it's been replaced by the desire to make "MMOGs" (which is a marketing-friendly way of saying "Call of Duty with recurring revenue"). Is this viewpoint affected by rose-colored glasses, or is it a conclusion supported by ample evidence?

The unfortunate reality is that large segments of this genre have become a shovelware pit filled with simplistic combat treadmills. Said treadmills lack the functionality that separated earlier MMORPGs from your average multiplayer lobby. Exceptions do exist, but they are becoming fewer and farther between with each new release (hi RIFT, love your deep non-combat gameplay, truly). This observation isn't a product of a fondly remembered first MMO kiss but is instead a demonstrable fact.

If you're OK with that, carry on paying premium fees (subscription or microtransactions) for games that offer less. If it rankles you a little bit, support the games that actually measure up to the MMORPG moniker -- and demand that the pretenders shape up or shut up.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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