Tag Archives: The Division

The Ever-Shrinking Gap Between MMOs and Other Genres

Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of concern in the MMORPG community about MMOs becoming less multiplayer. The worry is that an increased emphasis on solo-friendly content, smaller scale or more optional grouping, and other systems that aren’t as reliant on other players is stripping the genre of its identity.

A legendary skin drop from Overwatch's suspiciously MMO-like loot crates

But have you stopped to consider that this may well be a two-way street? Just as MMOs are becoming more like non-MMOs over time, so are other genres becoming closer to MMOs.

Spreading the MMO love

MMOs are famously addictive. Their penchant for repeatability, scale, and (nearly) endless progression makes for a perfect cycle of reward and satisfaction that keeps players coming back for more.

Developers know this, and so MMO-style progression systems are now found in many more styles of games, from MOBAs to shooters.

Take the recently released and hugely successful Overwatch. It offers an odd hybridization of the traditional MMO progression systems, leveling and loot. In Overwatch, every match grants experience, and when you level up, you get a crate of random cosmetic loot. There are enough cosmetics to keep the average player grinding for a good long time.

Or take Blizzard’s other non-MMO online game, Heroes of the Storm. It offers persistent out of match progression on the levels of both the account and the individual heroes. Earning the most basic rewards from these systems is quite easy, but maxing everything out is a Herculean grind the likes of which would make the most hardcore of old school MMO players shudder.

You can find plenty of other examples of online games adding MMO-like progression systems. Counter Strike: Global Offensive offers boxes of randomized loot, which has even led to a rather bizarre gambling scandal.

A match in the multiplayer game Battleborn

Less cynically, the social aspect of MMOs also offers a lot of benefits for players, and that, too, is beginning to creep into non-MMO titles.

Take Battleborn, for instance. At face value it seems a very traditional game, with multiplayer on the one hand and a story mode on the other.

But Battleborn’s story mode need not be played solo. You can tackle it with friends, or even random players via matchmaking. You basically never have to play Battleborn alone if you don’t want to. When you think about it, is it really so different from heavily instanced MMOs like Vindictus? You may not be running across other players in an open world, but you are constantly connected to a greater playerbase.

Even single-player games aren’t purely solitary affairs these days. Story-driven indie game Oxenfree allows players to send messages forward in time, which will then be received by other players when they play through the game. Oxenfree and the similarly story-heavy Life Is Strange both offer the player statistics comparing their choices with those of other players, allowing people to see where they stand among the greater community.

With platforms like Steam, Origin, and Battle.Net, you never need to be separated from your gaming friends. You can be fully connected, chatting up a storm, even while playing a purely solitary game.

Blurring the lines

All this is leading to a scenario where the lines between what is and isn’t an MMO are becoming ever fuzzier.

Exploring the quasi-MMO The Division

Let’s look at The Division. Is this an MMO?

We covered it on this site, so that would seem to argue that we at least think so, but it’s a bit more complicated than that really. It’s close enough to an MMO to be potentially relevant to our readers’ interests, but whether it really fits the bill of an MMORPG as we’ve traditionally understood the concept is a lot harder to determine.

The Division is always online, and it has a huge and largely seamless game world, but in most of its content, you will never encounter other players unless you specifically make the decision to group with them, via your friends list or matchmaking. It is entirely possible to play The Division solely as a single-player game and get many hours of entertainment out of it without ever having any meaningful interactions with other players. Its Dark Zone, the only part of the game where interacting with other players is compulsory, could be compared to the optional multiplayer of certain single-player titles.

The Division is not quite an MMO but more than a single-player or co-op game. It’s part of a new breed of game that doesn’t quite fit into or traditional conceptions of genre. You can see it as either a corruption of the MMO genre, a slide toward single-player games, or as single-player games beginning to bridge the gap between themselves and MMOs. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.

Is this the future?

All this gets one to wondering what the future of multiplayer gaming looks like.

The worst case scenario for fans of traditional MMO gaming would be for the lines to be blurred so much that large scale MMORPGs as we know them vanish entirely, and we are left with nothing but multiplayer but non-massive games, like MOBAs.

Personally I don’t think that will happen, but I do think it’s a valid concern that conventional MMORPGs may become an increasingly niche market.

Previewing skins for the Lunara character in Heroes of the Storm

On the other hand we might see MMO concepts proliferate to the point where we MMO fans can find something familiar no matter where we go in the gaming world. The DNA of MMORPGs may blend into that of gaming as a whole until the two are inseparable.

That also seems like something of an extreme scenario, but we do see multiplayer and MMO-like concepts becoming ever more common, so it may not be too far from the truth.

What is clear is that we are going to continue to see the lines between MMOs and non-MMOs blur. This can be frightening to those of us who value the traditional model, but there’s also a lot of exciting potential here. Online gaming is still breaking new ground, and the possibilities are endless.

The Division Beta Is Mostly Empty (But Maybe That’s Okay)

This past weekend, Ubisoft’s new quasi-MMO shooter, The Division, threw open the floodgates on an open beta test. Only a fraction of the game’s content was enabled for beta, but it was nonetheless enough to get a feel for what sort of game it is.

A screenshot from the open beta of MMO shooter The Division

Through the days of sniping, looting, and wandering abandoned subway stations, I was repeatedly struck by two things: how incredibly empty the game feels, and how I was enjoying myself despite that emptiness — or perhaps even because of it.

New York fallen:

First, the basics.

For those not in the know, The Division is a third person, cover-based shooter set in downtown Manhattan. A biological weapon killed off a large section of the city’s population, and the quarantine zone is now overrun by looters, gangs, and murderous fanatics. It falls to the elite agents of an organization simply called “the Division” (IE players) to go in and restore order to what remains of New York City.

The Division also incorporates many traditional RPG elements, such as a gear grind, skills, and talents, though there are no classes and it seems like you can eventually learn most if not all skills and talents on a single character. It’s a bit hard to tell because the progression systems, like so many other things (including character creation), were only partially implemented for the beta.

It’s often talked about in the same breath as MMOs, but even knowing that it was not exactly the traditional MMO experience, I was struck by how much closer to a single-player game than an MMO The Division felt.

This was the first way in which the game can feel terribly empty. Outside the Dark Zone (more on that later), the only place you’ll naturally encounter players are in a few specific hub areas, and these form a sufficiently small part of the game that I’m not sure why they even bothered with them. It is entirely possible to play The Division, experience the majority of its content, and basically never encounter or have any meaningful interaction with another player.

Combat in the open beta of MMO shooter The Division

Now, I tend to spend a lot of time soloing, and I like the idea of social elements being optional rather than something you must participate in to progress, but at the same time, part of me missed the sense of an MMO community, the buzz of general chat and looking at how other people have designed their characters.

It is easy to meet-up with other players if you want, though. The game features easy to use matchmaking that will quickly find you groups to help you play missions.

I’m not sure if this is deliberate, but the difficulty of missions seems to be tuned to favor groups, even with enemies scaling up somewhat to accommodate larger groups. Alone, I found story missions very challenging — frustratingly so — but in a full group, they were almost too easy.

As for the missions themselves, I found them nothing special. The fact the beta throws you into the middle of the game with no context can’t have helped, but I didn’t find the story particularly compelling.

In particular the dialogue bothered me. It seemed like the writers were being paid based on how many curse words they could cram into a single sentence. To be clear, I am not at all offended by mature language; it was just so over-used it made the dialogue seem ridiculous and cartoonish.

And the mission design was nothing to write home about. Go here. Shoot bad guys.

The Division’s talents lie elsewhere.

Going dark:

Calling down an extraction in the Dark Zone in MMO shooter The Division

The game’s main multiplayer feature comes in the form of the Dark Zone, a sealed section of the city where the anarchy has reached its peak.

in the Dark Zone, mobs are tougher, loot is better, and you will actually encounter other players. The presence of your fellow agents is a double-edged sword, though.

In the Dark Zone, you will drop any recently collected loot if you die, and other players are free to take it. This encourages the other unique feature of the Zone: players have the option to attack and kill each other.

The only to way to guarantee your ownership of any Dark Zone loot is to call in an extraction from certain specific points, but this advertises your position, sending NPCs and players alike bearing down on you.

I had expected the Dark Zone to be a miserable gankfest, but that didn’t turn out to be the case at all. In fact, I saw more cooperation than competition between players.

The reason for this is that attacking a player unprovoked designates you a rogue agent. Not only does this give other players the right to kill you without consequence, there are even rewards for taking down rogue agents. This makes going rogue a very risky proposition. They are target number one for most players.

A screenshot from the open beta of MMO shooter The Division

Only once was I ganked, and I had quite a merry time chasing down the perpetrator and exacting my vengeance. Otherwise rogue agents felt more like prey than predator, and the mobs actually proved a much greater threat than the players.

I do wonder if this pleasant balance will survive much past launch, though. In the beta, everyone had roughly equal footing. Once people have time to grind out the best skills and gear, I could see the Dark Zone becoming far less fun, especially for newer players.

The Dark Zone had its moments, but it was not my favorite part of the game, and now the issue of emptiness comes up again.

I walk alone:

For me, I found The Division reached its greatest heights not when performing grand rescues of civilians, or even when chasing rogue agents through the streets of Manhattan, but when walking alone down random streets, taking in the sights and hoping to find something useful to salvage.

The Division is not like other open world games I’ve played, MMO or otherwise. Most try to cram items and activities into every inch of real estate. While this can be exciting at first, over time I find it starts to make things feel like an endless checklist of chores.

The Division isn’t like that. It has a lot more empty space.

That’s not to say there’s nothing to find. Hidden loot caches are fairly common, and you’ll sometimes come across events called “encounters.” I initially took these to be similar to the randomized events in games like Guild Wars 2, but they don’t seem to be random or respawn once completed, so I’m taking them to simply be side quests by another name.

A screenshot from the open beta of MMO shooter The Division

You can even get rewards by handing supplies to starving and otherwise needy civilians — a nice touch if I’ve ever seen one.

Because these things are less common than they would be in other games, they feel a lot more meaningful. It’s genuinely exciting to find a hidden cache of items in a random apartment.

I also appreciate that mobs in The Division are not omnipresent. One of my MMO pet peeves is when games stuff hostile mobs into every inch of the map, making it impossible to go five feet without being jumped by a (usually trivial) enemy. Hostile forces in The Division are common enough that you never feel entirely safe, but you can also explore without having to defend yourself every ten seconds.

It’s not just loot or bad guys that you’ll find while exploring, either. Abandoned cell phone recordings and other lore items help to flesh out the backstory of the outbreak, and while the main story is mediocre at best, the little stories told through these found items are far more compelling: intimate, personal, and believable.

This experience of exploration is further enhanced by the fact that The Division features one of the most detailed, realistic, and immersive urban environments ever to grace the video game genre. I’ve never been to New York, but I do live in a major city, and I found The Division’s environments hauntingly familiar.

The day/night cycle and weather effects are also spectacular. Snowstorms can strongly impact gameplay, cutting down visibility severely — especially at night. It makes the game feel incredibly real.

A screenshot from the open beta of MMO shooter The Division

The lonely, haunting feeling of wandering the ruins of New York somewhat explains the need for the lack of other players in the greater game world, but it also causes some mixed feelings. It is a bit strange that an ostensibly multiplayer game shines the most when you’re playing alone. I could see maybe bringing in one or two friends without greatly impacting the experience, but more than that would begin to cheap the game’s ambiance, I feel.

Final thoughts:

I’m unsure whether to recommend The Division. It’s certainly not a good choice for those seeking a more traditional massively multiplayer experience. It ultimately seems far closer to single-player games than MMOs.

But it does offer very strong immersion and exploration, and the core of the game is quite solid.

I suppose it depends on what you’re looking for.