I remember years ago staying up very late, usually on the weekends, chatting about politics or religion in a wonderful social MMO called There. My wife and I would join a bunch of online friends to haunt parties and other gatherings, often getting booted out because we would bring up sensitive topics or would act too silly. There was a great world to cut my social MMO teeth on. I had already been playing Ultima Online and EverQuest starting around '99, but There was a brand-new experience. I loved it. Social MMOs are a rare thing, often ruled by half-naked people and driven by mature themes. While There did have its "private parties" (if you know what I mean), it was generally a friendly place with a better creeps-to-normal-people ratio than other social MMOs.
The game shut down in 2010, and I honestly thought it was gone forever. Somehow I missed the fact that it relaunched not so long ago, and this past week I was able to not only log in to the game but resurrect my avatar from all those years ago.
Unfortunately, the game seems largely empty, but I do normally visit MMOs during the day. Still, I took a few screenshots and compared them to older ones just to show how things have changed. What a week. What a nostalgic, wonderful week.
I'm a fan of a certain style of avatar and art design. I like stylized MMOs, games like The Chronicles of Spellborn, Clone Wars Adventures, Dragon Nest, and of course, There. I absolutely love how chunky and solid everything in There feels. Granted, the older game engine does not look as good as it once did, but it still holds its own. There are some areas in the world that feel mysterious and alien, places like the land of Tyr with its Boneyard and crystal gardens. The great thing about the avatar creation in There is that characters range from beautiful to disgusting. You'll find plenty of shirtless, tattooed dudes and bare-bellied, pierced ladies in the world of There, but you'll also come across some truly unique individuals. As is my usual practice, I try and make an avatar that looks as close to me as possible. My avatar in There has my thick, cheap glasses, basic t-shirts, and classic Chucks (or close to them). Unfortunately, he still sports the pink hair I had for years, but that can be changed to my current blond hair easily.
If you've never played a social MMO before, then it's really hard to describe. What's the point of a social MMO? How long can players get together to discuss politics or music? The funny thing is that social MMOs are sort of how most MMOs played out for my wife and me back in the early days. Yes, we spent many, many hours killing monsters and raising levels or skills, but we also burned hours and hours sitting in front of the bank in Ultima Online or emoting the night away under the statue of Atlas in City of Heroes. Socializing seems to have died off in many modern MMOs. Players are too busy grinding levels or crafting goods to take the time to sit and talk about the news of the day.
I find the lack of socializing, beyond discussing what is going to happen in the night's raid, a bit disturbing. Yes, I know that players are still having discussions and chats with their best digital buddies, but back in the early 2000s, we didn't have as many MMOs to choose from and had to dedicate ourselves to only a few because of the subscription and intensity of the games. A social MMO provided a relief to the grind of EverQuest, for example. These days, there are hundreds of MMOs to choose from, and social media has allowed our entire lives to be one constant chat room. I believe this translates to gaming being all business for a lot of players. If we look at how modern AAA MMO design is going, it's about getting the player in, allowing her to avoid having to join a group in order to achieve something, then allowing her to drop out to go on her merry way.
Normally, I am a defender of allowing such a choice, but not when it seems to be creating an environment that is less and less friendly to roleplay and socializing. If we're not stopping and chatting with each other while we play in these magnificent worlds, why are we bothering to play MMOs?
There is still a great stopping point. The conversational tools are as clever as always. If you walk up to someone, you can be literally joined into a conversation with him either through voice chat or text. Campfires or other sitting areas provide relaxing atmospheres to chill out in, and camera controls seem finicky at first until it's obvious that they help keep us centered on the conversation. Of course, a player can skip all of those conversational tools to just have a good old voice chat with someone. Voice chat works well, becoming quieter or louder as you move around a conversation.
I sought out some of my old favorite spots and took screenshots. I was having a hard time finding one club in particular when I ran across two original-generation players. One of them looked at the old screenshot that I linked in chat, and sure enough, was able to point me to the club. I've included these screenshots in this article, side-by-side comparisons of the same area from two different times. These old stomping grounds haven't changed but for one fact: They're now empty. I have to admit that it was a bit haunting to revisit a lot of these areas only to find no one there. It's hard to explain, but I felt a bit sad and lonely when visiting them. Sure, eight years ago was not so long, but in the world of MMOs, it might as well be a lifetime. Imagine revisiting one of your favorite MMOs, one that was closed down for a while, but the world is now completely empty... you understand the feeling?
Does There still have magic left in it? Can the dated-looking social MMO still be a fun place to hang out and party with online friends? Of course. As someone who specializes in indie MMOs, however, I can already see the lack of communication that is so common when dealing with indies. Where was all the publicity when the game was resurrected? Even we didn't know! Although the current owners of the title have been very nice and communicative with me, where were the press releases? This might sound like an insider complaint, but so many great indie MMOs never get press simply because they never spread the word. Then again, it's my job to spread the word, so here we are.
I still love the look of There and truly enjoy many of the sites and sounds of the world. I even had many of the same old items in my inventory, including a hoverboard. I spent so much time on my hoverboard in the past, doing tricks and assembling temporary skate parks using a "paz," a portable area that can be decorated, saved, and pulled out in certain areas. Imagine a portable home and yard that can put into your pocket... that's a paz. I had as much fun as I ever had before by shooting around on my board this week. Again, though, I missed seeing dozens of people doing the same.
At the end of my return to There, I know it still has as much to offer as before. It runs much breezily on today's modern machines and is still as charming and inviting as ever. There are areas in There that are truly mysterious and warm. Take some time, make a character, and enjoy exploration as we did it back in the day. You can always raid later.
Next week, I am going to put my money where my explorer's mouth is and will jump headfirst in IMVU, a truly unique social MMO. I'll be livestreaming the game on Monday, the 17th of September, at 5:00 p.m. EDT right here on our Twitch.tv channel. Join me!
Each week on Rise and Shiny, Beau chooses a different free-to-play, indie, or browser-based game and jumps in head-first. It might be amazing or it might be a dud, but either way, he'll deliver his new-player impressions to you. Drop him an email, comment, or tweet!