You know how it goes in a typical MMO: You level through a variety of zones, usually at breakneck speed, just so you can get to max level and the endgame. Once you’ve reached that milestone, those old zones become barren wastelands, populated only by the occasional alt or max-level player scooping up low-level crafting mats.
Granted, MMO developers have tended to do a better job these days in getting you to visit your old stomping grounds and making them seem alive, but you’ll probably still spend most of your time doing max-level things with your max-level characters. I’ve played a lot of Rift and Guild Wars 2, and I think those games do about as good a job as can be done in getting people to visit low-level areas, but those zones are still largely empty outside of the occasional big event. Unless you’re leveling an alt, most people spend their time in the handful of max-level zones, towns, and dungeons.
Making all that open-world stuff takes time, money, and energy, maybe as much (or more) as it takes to make a dungeon. The difference is, a dungeon will be used over and over by a player, while a leveling zone will be chewed through in a few days, (almost) never to be seen again. I don’t consider myself a speedy player, by any means – I like to take in the sights and enjoy the landscape while I level – but even I have to wonder if we wouldn’t have a better full game experience without it, if those resources that went into barely used leveling zones could be better invested by creating a richer endgame experience.
The first question is, why do we have this stuff in the first place? I think there are two reasons, one for gameplay and one for aesthetics. The thing is, I’m not sure either is really necessary, at least not in the way they’re presented.
The gameplay argument is the typical “learn to play” argument, that you need to play… well, something fairly easy… before you can get into the real, “tough,” endgame. I’ll agree that some kind of basic training is a good idea, especially in games with vertical leveling, but is it worth it to create 50 hours (or so) of non-repeatable content to prepare a player for hundreds of hours of repeatable content? Most shooters that are designed to be played online have significantly reduced or completely done away with the single-player aspect of their games, letting people jump right in to the core multiplayer experience, even if they’re a little undergeared and underskilled. Why don’t MMOs do the same?
Then there’s the aesthetic argument, the notion that the world just won’t “feel” right without some vast territory to explore or conquer. We’ve all played single-player RPGs, and many of us have played pen-and-paper games, and journeying over that next hill or finding the monsters’ hidden lair is part of the fun – assuming you didn’t just look it up on the game’s wiki. It helps set the scene and more fully immerses you in the fictional setting. Maybe a “no open world” game would be like a movie or book that’s all about big action sequences without any of the dialogue to set up the action.
Of course, in both of those cases, the “filler” is part of the game roughly on par with all the other parts of the game; in other words, you might spend 50 hours leveling and then another 10 hours on the “endgame” until you beat the final boss. MMOs have more like a 50/1,000 leveling/endgame hours split. The same goes with a movie or book; the writer or director might spend a little more time making sure the climax is great, but you aren’t likely to revisit it once a week.
But even with both of these factors taken into account, it’s still pretty much guaranteed that you’ll spend far more of your time doing the max-level stuff than running around the leveling areas. This is a gross simplification, but if it takes half the developers’ time to create the open world and half their time to create the max-level content, why not just take that half that goes into creating hills and oceans and villages and double up on what people really spend their time on? From a strictly economic standpoint, it makes sense.
This is mostly what a game like Warframe does. There’s not a whole lot to think of in terms of story, other than that you’re a resurrected space ninja who’s supposed to destroy everything in their path. But it’s got classes, advancement, a party system… really, just about everything you’d expect from a full-fledged MMO apart from an open world to explore.
Suppose that that’s how your favorite MMO worked. Let’s take Rift as an example. Maybe you’d still have a town to socialize in, but you’ll spend all your time doing the chronicles, dungeons, raids, PvP battles, etc. Trion could, conceivably, make more of those because they aren’t spending time building up a new leveling zone with every expansion – a zone that you’ll basically ignore once you get to max level and sit around in town all day waiting for queues to pop. If that’s what you’re spending most of your time doing anyway, shouldn’t that be what they make more of?
Or, maybe the correct alternative is to go in the other direction and get rid of everything except the open world. Maybe if you’re going to go to the trouble of creating this world, you need to take away the temptation of the easy advancement through nice, easily regulated instanced areas. Old-school MMOs, with their open-world PvP, were often like this, and you can see it in games like PlanetSide 2 and DayZ. Nobody is suggesting either of those games add dungeons.
I’m not sure what the answer is, and like my last awful idea, I’m not suggesting this become the new trend in MMOs. I still like having some semblance of “life” to my MMOs, and not having an open world to roam – even if I know I won’t spend much time in it – makes it seem like less of a world, makes it seem less alive. Maybe we still need that, inefficient and “wasteful” as it is.