Much like "nerf," these are two terms that have been beaten into the ground until they no longer have any intrinsic meaning. The original "themepark" game was freaking EverQuest, which is not what anyone thinks of when he uses the term in a more modern sense. There's more concern given to whether or not a game fits into a given category than whether or not it's actually fun to play.
And that is a bad thing. Sure, your sandbox features a great housing system, but so does The Sims 3, and the latter doesn't abandon me in a featureless wasteland that eschews actual content in favor of letting me choose my final destination (here's a hint: All those destinations are grinding). Yes, Mr. Themepark, I see you chuckling in the background, but your single leveling path followed by the exact same huge-group gear-grabbing jamboree is not better, just annoying in a different way.
That's why I play Final Fantasy XIV. But I should probably elaborate a bit on that.
I'm a big proponent of celebrating what you love instead of tearing down what you don't like, so now that I've hopefully angered everyone still reading, let's take a step back. What actually makes for a good MMO?
There's no universal answer to this. For some people the answer is EVE Online, for others it's World of Warcraft, and for a vocal and presently quite unhappy portion of the population the answer is City of Heroes or Star Wars Galaxies. If there were one template for what MMOs should be, we wouldn't have a plethora of different games; we would have one that occasionally received a major update. What I can say with authority is what I want from an MMO, what makes a game something special.
It needs to have setting, for one. A thin layer of generic fantasy nonsense doesn't cut it; if I suspect your setting to have started life in a spiral-bound notebook, I am not going to be happy. The setting needs to have cultures, regions, religions, villains, heroes, turns of phrase, languages -- it needs character. And that means it also needs a story, something going on that's bigger than just where I choose to build a farm. I should have a reason to care about this place.
If there's going to be combat, it needs to be good. That goes for every game system, really, but combat is an obvious one and nearly universal. I don't care what system you use -- you could use the traditional MMO hotbar-and-target system, you could go with TERA or WildStar's more active approaches, you could make it a third-person shooter, or you could make combat into a puzzle minigame a la Puzzle Quest. That isn't the point because all of those systems can be done well or done poorly. Whichever system you choose needs to be done well and offer strategic options, and it should be polished.
That really goes for every set of mechanics. If you include crafting, don't have it just be a matter of "click a button and wait." Ryzom had such a good idea with its various material components, but the crafting still came down to click-and-wait. I don't want to just click on random nodes to gather; I want to be able to gather. I want depth. I might never want to play a miner, but if I decide to, mining should have an actual game involved rather than just the tedium of walking to nodes and clicking.
I want housing. I want stuff to do in a group, and I want stuff to do solo. I want to build a house and then I want to go run a dungeon. I want a sandpark, a term I started using back in 2010 to describe the first version of Final Fantasy XIV.
Management was changed. Naoki Yoshida was brought in to what was essentially the Finnegans Wake of MMOs, a collection of presumably good ideas made completely inaccessible due to presentation. He was tasked with putting it back together into a game that people would actually be excited to play.
As it happens, he succeeded at that so well that many people couldn't play during the launch week because there were too many people logging in. So that's awesome.
So why do I like FFXIV so much? Because it gives me all that stuff I just talked about. It picks out what it's going to do and then it just does it. Combat is pretty familiar if you've played anything else with a hotbar (with a big added slice of "move out of dangerous crap on the ground"), but it's not trying for novelty; it's trying for polish and tactics. Combat isn't about spamming out abilities; it's about considering your situation and positioning and then making the best use of them possible.
Want to craft instead? Then craft. Try to strike a balance of quality and overall item durability. Get it just right and you wind up with a much more powerful item; get it wrong and you've got a mess. Crafting is a fully developed game in and of itself, along with the option to just mass-produce items if you don't care about quality but just need plenty of lumber.
Want to gather? Go out, scout out locations, find out where to harvest rare items, sell them on the free market or use them yourself. The game does not care. You turn a corner and you find another fleshed-out system waiting for you. If you're not interested in one thing, you don't have to take part.
Don't want to quest to level up a class? Run dungeons or do FATEs (yeah, we've got dynamic events here, what of it?) or do leves or fill out your hunting log. Whatever. Queue up for a dungeon and then go craft for a bit. That's cool. We'll tell you when it's ready. Go harvest some logs and then turn them into furniture. Whatever you like.
And this is just at launch. This is based off of playing the actual live game for less than a month. We know that housing and a variety of PvP systems are coming, not in the vague "we'd like to do it maybe" sense but the "yeah, first patch, just ironing out the kinks" sense because we got to test a bit of these systems in the last beta test. We know that vanity systems are coming along with new classes and jobs and new ways to interact with the world.
If you want to climb a gear ladder, fine. If you want to focus on crafting and harvesting, fine. The game does not care.
The game isn't for everyone and isn't really meant to be. It's aimed at a very specific portion of the population, a portion that hates the idea that you can have your elaborate housing and crafting systems or your polished combat and directed dungeons. People who don't freak out at the idea that this MMO has a story but also don't freak out at the idea that I have to fill in my own story too. An experience not streamlined or simplified but polished and refined.
That's why I play Final Fantasy XIV. Well, that and Magitek Armor.
There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.