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The Trouble with MMOs

As if it weren?t obvious by now, allow me to reiterate: Like many gamers, I?m a giant, raging geek.

Hand-drawn pictures of griffins and manticores on the high-school notebook? Been there, done that. Years spent poring over Dungeon Master?s manuals and Star Wars role-playing game (RPG) supplements? It doesn?t take a saving throw against dignity to discern such sordid highlights are also on the resume.

Oh, and that ongoing obsession with Hellblazer and 100 Bullets comics? Sorry, Charlie ? we?re on a strictly don?t ask, don?t tell policy in this column.

But spending hours exploring Internet-only worlds that exist and evolve 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the company of fellow players via massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like Guild Wars and PlanetSide? That?s where even I draw the line.

At odds with many journalists, to be frank, I?ve done my damnedest ? save for the occasional work-related tour of duty ? to avoid these universes like the average couch potato does exercise.

The problem: You, dear readers? More specifically, the general public-at-large and all the other well-intentioned, happy-go-lucky end-users just like you.

Allow me to clarify: There?s no personal slight intended. I just don?t appreciate other people and their potential failure to fulfill yours truly?s every waking whim at a moment?s notice intruding upon my otherwise pixel-perfect fantasy.

Call it an instant gratification thing. I demand that my tomb-raiding adventures or assaults on impregnable spaceships be delivered at a certain pace and in the company of automatons who?ll lick my damn boots if I should but so demand. Waiting for supporting allies to patch my wounds or earn enough gold to purchase the weapons our party needs by table-dancing for tips at the local cantina isn?t the most rewarding experience by comparison, you know?

Just to rewind, in case you?ve been living under a Tandy for the last 20 years (strangely possible, given Radio Shack?s inexplicable continued existence): These outings, playable by thousands of live participants at any given time, are the way of the future.

Offering an end to single-player game-inherent limitations like linear quests, campaigns of fixed scope, and a general lack of socialization, such titles provide unique play experiences every time you login. The fixed monthly subscription fee one typically pays in addition to a retail purchase price for the base product is, of course, a downer. But look at what you get for the money ? constantly-changing worlds, an immense amount of content, and the opportunity to connect with and make new friends worldwide. I, of course, appreciate none of these virtues, being someone who grew up on short, punchy arcade titles and solo-centric epics where the closest thing you?d find to live humans were digitized B-movie actors.

So it was with great trepidation (not to mention an irrational fear the wife might come in and accidentally stumble upon me relapsing into teenage addiction) that I finally took the plunge and made the leap into the 21st century. That?s right ? this past weekend, I actually bit the bullet, gave my inner berserker the benefit of the doubt, and booted up Dungeons & Dragons Online.

Promising solo- and small group-oriented action nonetheless set in a sprawling realm inhabited by countless other dweebs just like me, it seemed the perfect solution to my personal peccadilloes and admittedly archaic preferences.

Um, er, yeah? let?s just say in practice, not so much?

Here?s the trouble. Heroes advance much more slowly than in standard RPGs; after several days? hacking and slashing, I remain a Level 1 (translation: weak-ass) paladin, instead of a walking tank. Members still make idiots of themselves at local taverns as well, cavorting about on top of the bar, choosing sophomoric handles and generally taking a steaming dump on your suspension of disbelief.

More amusing yet; although you can experience the click-happy thrill of exploring vast sepulchers and bashing giant spiders repeatedly in the head with a mace by your lonesome doesn?t mean you?ll want to. The difficulty level?s set so high you?re essentially forced to seek out help for any given quest from two to five additional players, lest a mechanical dog or snarling ogre use your codpiece as a punching bag.

Therefore, as much as you might prefer avoiding dealing with the game?s cheesier elements (read: anyone who?s swapped ?Z? for ?S? when choosing a handle, or enjoys alternating caps ? i.e. ?BaDAzZWiZZerD?), such interaction?s a forgone conclusion.

As is, for that matter, the fact most major games are slowly moving towards the goal of supporting unfettered online access, and an increasing emphasis on player interaction. Consider the aforementioned offering a prime illustration; it would?ve worked just as well as a single-player outing, yet the powers that be had other intentions.

Please, spare me the lecture. Sure, Dungeons & Dragons has been dozens of times before on the PC, few of them properly. And yes, the game in its original, tabletop form was designed for group play. Guess what, though ? maybe that?s why I, a grown man-boy, don?t hold regular Friday dungeon-delving nights anymore at age 28. (Seriously? have you smelled some of those so-called mighty rogues and magic-users?)

All said and done, I?d still rather be killing time with Pool of Darkness or Eye of the Beholder, wrestling with software glitches and poor viewpoints, than having to do the same damn thing while accompanied by a bunch of slack-jawed yokels. At least my cleric casts healing spells on-command when I?m bleeding like a stuck pig. And, while we?re at it, doesn?t try to yak my ear off about the latest episode of The Simpsons. (Talk about a major buzzkill?)

All I can say about the trend towards online social gaming is this ? crap in a hat! Just because we have the technology to accomplish such feats doesn?t mean that we should.

Disagree? Chew on this: Throughout the industry?s 30-year history, one single fact remains constant. The best games are the ones which tap into Earth?s most vast and untamed resource ? players? own imagination.

Go back and play the original Grand Theft Auto. Dig a copy of Mr. Do out of your collection. Hell, just boot up any recent Mega Man title. All are well-executed, certainly. Inevitably though, where a lack of whiz-bang, photorealistic visuals and 3D positional sound fails to captivate and astound, your own brain fills in the blanks.

Now try maintaining the illusion of being completely immersed in a simulated fantasy environment while some guy dressed as a ranger from Kentucky?s asking you to pull his gauntlet-covered finger.

Sincerest apologies ? we hardly know each other, and already I feel as if I?ve offended. But, quite frankly, I don?t want you and your stilted version of a good time (to each his own, right?) loitering around my ideal universe, peeing on my parade.

I come to these virtual worlds to escape reality, not get a super-sized dose of it.

Having to deal with other players? hang-ups (some are selfish bastards, other accept phone calls during life-or-death encounters) and peculiarities (don?t get me started on horny freaks looking for hook-ups), is a major downer. Ditto for planning complex strategies with your pals, only to have these grandiose machinations suddenly ruined when someone?s power goes out or kid starts barfing on the rug.

As for game makers configuring key encounters so that you?ve got no choice but to wait for friends in order to amass enough manpower or military might to complete them, well? You try planning a quality adventuring career around a demanding work and family schedule.

I?m not saying developers should do away with the notion entirely. As World of Warcraft?s six million (!) subscribers can attest, such ventures aren?t just lucrative, they?re the video game industry of tomorrow?s bread and butter. But let?s not be so quick to discount the notion of single player-specific excursions? importance too.

I?ve already spent days happily enmeshed in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion?s standalone confines, and feel ? thanks partially to intelligent supporting characters and somewhat to my own twisted cerebrum ? as if I?m a core part of a never-ending story. The best thing about it too: Not a single living organism?s actually sharing the experience with me.

As for D&D Online, you can kiss that puppy goodbye already? It?s being donated to a buddy in grad school. He says he?s hoping to form a regular adventuring group, and, possibly, even meet a few frisky elf maidens who appreciate the size of a man?s magic wand.

Before going back to the more serious business of saving my own personal kingdom, all I can think to do is wish him luck. And propose a few good ideas for a snappy name.

My point being this: Any of you lovely ladies swept off your feet by a dwarf fighter/spellcaster who?s great with words, but never there when you need him, and goes by the moniker of ?HoTLiPzHaRRiZ,? well? you?ll know who to thank.

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