NOTE: This article assumes some passing knowledge of MMORPGs/MMOGs and won't take the time to explain their mechanics or minutiae.
I have played Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. It sounds like I just admitted some life-shattering truth at a 12-step program meeting, and perhaps the analogy is not all that imperfect, but I don't mean it as anything more than a simple statement of truth. I play and have played MMORPGs, or MMOGs as they're now known.
I'm not laying claim to any kind of title. Ask any of the people I've gamed with and they'll tell you that I'm perhaps the least driven of their guildmates. Leveling and gear were important, but never the be-all and end-all of the experience for me. I can't say that I've been playing since the days of Ultima Online (although friends out in Kirkland, WA did invite me to play Everquest with them), but I have been playing since the days of Asheron's Call, shortly after UO. I've been playing long enough to recognize the majority of the acronyms: UO, EQ, AC, AO, DAoC, SB, SWG, FFXI, PS, EQ2, CoH, CoV, WOW, AA, and DDO. Just recognizing them doesn't mean I've played them all, or even most, by any stretch of the imagination.
I've played AC, AO, DAoC, SWG, WOW, AA and DDO. I've beta tested AA and DDO and I was lucky enough to have both alpha and beta tested WOW. I've never come close to the level cap of any of these games. I've never been tempted to purchase anything off eBay to enhance my in-game character's uberness. I've never dedicated 8 hours of my life to a single raid, although I've come close to this in a single game session. Kids in Korea are dying of exhaustion from 3 day sessions and I'm bored stiff after 6 hours.
Perhaps most bizarre is my reluctance to group in any of the games I've played. I don't like dedicating the time and effort it takes to group with most other players. If it's a pickup group, I can at least ungroup and wander away without feeling any kind of remorse, but I do have this annoying habit of taking responsibility for my actions, so I rarely ever do so without good justification. When it's grouping with friends, which is the only kind of grouping I ever truly consider, I always feel like I'm letting them down when, after an hour or two, I'm ready to go and they're just getting warmed up for the next quest. Then comes the long hours of solo play because I'm now so far behind everyone else in the guild that I'll only be able to group with their alts (who will then quickly outlevel me again).
I'm not whining or complaining about the group thing, but explaining that this particular requirement of the game's style never really appealed to me. I'm kinda anti-social at times and I just want to sit back and get immersed in the game world. I don't want it to be a job nor do I want it to be a political morass where I'm forced to take into consideration the multitude of personalities from all over the world; I do enough of both at my regular work.
So why do I play them knowing that I'm always going to hit a wall where I'll be required to group if I want to hit my next level within my lifetime? Why, if I'm as anti-social as I claim, would I even bother picking up a game that, by its very definition, is so very multiplayer? Why would I subject myself to leveling a character to reach an endgame in which I have no interest in participating? And why would I pay a monthly fee for something where I get only partial enjoyment?
I'm an idiot.
Beyond that rather obvious statement are a few reasons. One would be that these games have become meeting grounds where I can join friends from all over the country with whom I've played, competitively even, some of the classic games such as Quake 2 and Counterstrike. These are people whom I've never met, but with whom I share many memories and common experiences.
Another would be the fact that I often review these games for XPD8.net, where I've become something of the defacto MMOG reviewer due to the fact that I play these games regularly.
Primarily however, I would have to say that it's a kind of never ending hope that keeps bringing me back to these styles of games. I feel that there's so much promise in this genre, so much undiscovered potential. The MMOG is an opportunity for people to explore and, in the best of games, define an entirely new world. The opportunity for tales of high adventure, to borrow a line from Conan the Barbarian, is a strong lure for me. My history with pen and paper RPGs reminds me that creating worlds with friends is perhaps some of the most fun that a creative person can experience. Each new game with a new look and a new gimmick draws me in, moth-like.
Sadly, like all memories that have been twisted with time, I don't know that the MMOG will ever live up to my remembered expectations of world creation. For one thing, I don't have the control over the world that I did when working with friends across the table using nothing but our imagination and some dice. For another, I believe the success of some of these games (WOW is the obvious success story right now, but Ultima Online and Everquest are huge successes as well) has spawned a lot of me too developers and distributors who are less interested in the games they're creating than the potential for dollars they represent.
That being said, there are glimmers of potentialities; rare glimpses of magic within many of these games. There were moments in AC when I stood on the beach and stared in awe at the red, bloody water of the ocean after a particularly nasty world event. There were times in DAoC when I survived an encounter against an enemy who should have beaten me in PvP when I actually felt adrenaline flowing through my veins. And there are the prideful moments in DDO when the group I'm in gels and we spot all the traps, find all the hidden doors, survive all the fights and solve all the puzzles that make up the dungeon crawls. These moments are, sadly, not as common as they should be but they are enough to lure me into the next great MMOG that hits the market.
So I've accepted the fact that I'm a casual MMOG player. I understand that I will almost certainly never find a game that can rival my memories of fighting long, intricate battles with friends and a bag of dice. Still, there is the hope, and so I shall remain the reluctant MMOG player.