I’ve stopped playing DC Universe Online. Even if it weren’t annoyingly buggy, I would’ve quit by now because I’m burned out on it. But I’m not sad or resentful about this fact. I enjoyed it a fair amount more than I was annoyed by it, and it had plenty of fun moments. Like almost every other game that I play, I had my fun and have now moved onto the next thing (Dead Space 2 in my case). That’s pretty much how most folks play games. The only difference is, now I have this sense of urgency and dread about stopping playing. Have I had all the fun that I can have in one month? I need to decide now before they charge my credit card for another month’s play time. It’s the kind of added, trap-like stress that makes me shy away from MMOs in the first place. Well, it’s one of the reasons that I shy away from them.
I have a number of friends who worked on Star Trek Online, but the closest that I ever came to playing it was watching an hour long Quick Look video over at GiantBomb.com. It looked kind of cool, and I am a Star Trek fan, but I didn’t for a moment consider playing it because I’m not an MMO-player. I vastly prefer tighter, more crafted experiences. In particular I’m a sucker for stories in games, and every MMO shares a central, fatal flaw for me: the story of my character can never matter. Because the world and its adventures need to be there for online players to experience them time and time again, my actions will never have any consequences on the world. The result is MMO stories are like a kind of Sisyphean theme park ride. While you’re sitting in your seat looking at the robots and flashing lights, it seems like you’re in the middle of an important drama, but once you exit the ride (often through the gift shop where you can get some new loot), nothing has changed at all. That is the exact opposite of the hero’s journey. Star Trek compels because Kirk and Picard are saving the galaxy and doing what no other starship captains can. I knew any collection of online theme park rides would never give me that experience.
DCU suffers a lot from this problem. It has multiple quests and raids and alerts that suggest grandiose plots and that culminate in fights with mighty foes. I liked this about the game. But then you return to the world and no one cares and nothing has changed and the fact that other “heroes” are shouting in chat with requests for groups to do the same exact mission make the whole thing seem especially pointless. I loved powering up my hero and going toe to toe with the big boys and girls of the DC comics universe. I hated that the world didn’t actually seem to care. Not that I was surprised that the game was like this. That’s just how MMOs are, and I don’t hold it against them. Some people like that sort of thing. Even I like it a little bit, especially when you’re playing with a friend (which is of course the real appeal of the genre).
So here’s what I would have preferred vastly from both Star Trek and DC Universe Online: forget the massive part, forgo the monthly subscriptions, and give me a great, open world game that I can play online with my friends. Borderlands is the perfect example of what I wish these other games had been, a game that’s a blast to play online with friends or alone, which scratches those RPG leveling up and collecting mad loot itches and which also puts me square in the center of epic events. I played a lot more Borderlands than I did DC Online, and the voice chat worked the whole time. And I did that in a game with a pretty mediocre story and an only mildly interesting world. I’d probably still be playing it relentlessly if instead I could have been a superhero teamed up with Batman or the captain of my own Federation starship.
Imagine DC’s Gotham City and Metropolis just as they are in the online game, filled with crazy villains and neighborhoods overrun with Joker thugs and Brainiac robots. Take the same amount of content—hours and hours and hours of play—but make everything responsive to what I do as a hero. Let me clean up those streets and maybe the villains come back if I don’t take out their base soon enough, but that’s cool. Then the responsibility is on me to do my heroic best. As it is, it doesn’t matter one way or the other what I do. Brainiac’s giant robots will always be in that park for ever and ever and ever. The game would have that wonderful sense of ownership, the pride of a job well done. I would love that game.
I have no idea whether DC’s sales will justify its MMO status over the long haul, although it seems to have done well out of the gate. The great allure of MMOs for publishers is that monthly subscription, and I know that it’s hard for them to let it go. But there’s DLC to be sold, new levels to add, and the additional sales from bringing in all of us who don’t much care for the MMO lifestyle. I know game developers look at the insane money World of Warcraft brings in every month and think to themselves, “man, we want some of that”. And maybe someday, someone will take a serious chunk out of those subscribers, but in the meantime, I see a lot of people spending a lot of time and money making games that I almost want to play. If only they’d make them for me and my hero, instead of trying to make them for everybody.