As I begin my foray into MMO blogging, it only makes sense to reminisce on my first steps into MMOs themselves, and the hooks which drug me in and kept me here for good. It started at the library. I can’t remember why I was there, but if I remember the early 2000s correctly, I was probably avoiding getting kicked off the dial-up by the threat of imminent phone calls. I was researching the still unreleased Star Wars Galaxies, my uninformed imagination running wild with the possibilities that this virtual world would offer. A friend from school noticed me, and upon hearing the type of game I was interested in, introduced me to Runescape; My first steps into the MMO genre soon followed.
Before picking up MMOs, I had wild and unrealistic expectations of what they would be – worlds teaming with other players, exploring vast wildernesses together, wary of the threat of enemy players as adventurers and comrades in arms reached out their hands to grasp at virtual glory. Although I had yet to learn the term, my expectations were decidedly sandbox in nature, as the games I had built in my head centered heavily on player interaction, with their exploits being the defining features of the game. Sadly, my dreams were closer to reality then than they are now, though luckily we do have some interesting upcoming sandbox MMOs to look forward to.
I launched myself into the world of Gielinor – the name for which I swear I had never before Googling it just now, and immediately was awesome at the game. Well, not quite. Not at all actually. I remember playing the game over a week, accomplishing very little and barely reaching level 12. It was only after my friends asked about my progress that I realized how little I had achieved; thankfully, they teamed up to teach me how to play the game.
The community came through and introduced me to mining, and in no time at all, I had learned to farm and created myself a full set of Bronze Armor. It may have been the worst armor in the game, but nonetheless I was thrilled to have it and I felt like a badass. I spent hours farming ore, crafting gear, and selling it at the trading hub in town. Slowly, I began to get the hang of it, and found myself straying into other areas of the game.
Questing was different in Runescape than it was in other games. They weren’t a mindless grind completed to level, but were uniquely crafted story experiences, often with perks or unlocks available for completing them. One of the earliest examples was a quest in the desert city of Al Kharid, the completion of which allowed you free passage through a gate which greatly reduced your travel time to and from the city.
One of the most challenging quests Runescape players encountered early in the game, Dragon Slayer was your first experience with a dragon. It was also the prerequisite for equipping the rune armor chest plate – at the time, this was one of the best armor pieces in the game, and a definite milestone in the progression of most characters. Preparing for the quest was quite the process, involving leveling specific skills, gathering a lot of specific crafting materials, and having access to a decent amount of gold. You start the quest and are sent to find Oziach, a reclusive salesman living on the edge of The Wilderness, the lawless area where other players could attack you at will; the PvP carried real risk in Runescape, as death in The Wilderness meant losing most of your items and gold. Oziach issues you a challenge, saying that he will not sell his armor to you unless you prove yourself by killing Elvarg, a fearsome dragon.
Merely getting to the dragon was a quest in and of itself. You needed to seek out an anti-dragon shield, which gave you powerful magic resist, find three pieces of the map to the island, all of which required substantial effort to acquire, and find and repair a boat to get you there. Obtaining the shield was easy enough, requiring little more than asking the correct person. The first of the map pieces was hidden in a labyrinthine dungeon, demanding that the player find hidden keys to progress. The next was found by answering a riddle whose clues lead you to the crafted materials you needed to open a hidden door in a mine. The final piece required you to follow a trail of clues to an incarcerated goblin raider,who you could beat up with ranged attacks or pay off to complete the map. After its reassembly, you needed to repair a boat, the materials with which to do so were also crafted, after which you were finally ready to sail to the island, and fight your way through the dungeon to reach the challenging fight with Elvarg.
Even though more than a decade has passed, I still remember the epic (using the word correctly and not just as a synonym for ‘good’) adventure that players experienced moving through the quest. Finishing Dragon Slayer was a rite of passage, and after passing its trials, players wore their rune chestplates with pride as a badge of honor.
Get off my lawn
Thinking back to the beginning, I can’t help but feel that MMORPGs have regressed as time has marched on. Their virtual worlds forced an interdependence on players which has been replaced with single player content gauntlets in which we play solo, inhabitants of a world we cannot influence, with a chat box thrown in our face to remind us that we are not alone. The worst part is that in terms of the single player experience, the games have still declined in quality. Even in The Secret World, where the narrative, delivery, and environments combine fantastically to provide a story experience that I truly love, I never completed a quest that felt epic. It’s entirely possible that I haven’t needed to prepare for a quest beforehand or to work to make sure I have the skills required to progress in a quest since Runescape way back in 2002. Dragon Slayer and similar quests were not just another stretch of the road to level cap, but meaningful content in their own right. The challenge has been lost, the journey foregone, and with them, the epic adventures have been laid to rest, gone before the heroes that enacted them. Rather than continuing our descent into a death spiral of banality, let’s bring epic quests back to the MMO genre, and make that content more than just a grind once more.