I don't like MMOs. You know these games: World of Warcraft; Diablo; Lord of the Rings Online. I don't like them because they're boring - they're safe.
The combat is all based around maths and stat points. Rather than feeling like you're in a genuine fight, you slowly grind down an enemy's health meter while spamming hotkeys to top up your own. The missions or quests are similarly dry. Typically they involve collecting X amount of MacGuffins, or venturing into some cave to kill a few enemies and collect a bunch of treasure. Worst of all, the majority of MMOs all run with the same aesthetic; the same sub-Tolkien, elves, dwarves, and magic narrative setup.
The drab mission structures, even the number-crunch combat would be fine if they were just set against a different backdrop. Why not have an MMO set around the Second World War? Why not one based on crime and gangsters? It seems that aside from tweaking gameplay mechanics and algorithms, the massively-multiplayer genre has stood still for about a decade. Some smaller titles have tried to go with something more contemporary, such as All Points Bulletin and City of Heroes, but they've died on their arses. The whole culture of MMOs seems unprepared to test something original.
But here comes Destiny, a sprawling online multiplayer shooter developed by the guys who made Halo. I played the beta, and was enthusiastic about it, but it's only now striking me how valuable this game could be. Putting gameplay, script, and everything else aside (because I haven't finished testing the full version yet), Destiny is at least a step in a new direction. And with the indomitable corporate might of Activision behind it, surely it can't fail. Surely, unlike those other dare-to-do MMOs, Destiny won't just slip into obscurity. Here comes a game that will shove a new type of mass-multiplayer down everybody's throats.
That at least is worth getting excited for. There's a lot you can do with the sci-fi aesthetic. Set your game far enough in the future (Destiny takes place in 2700) and you have all the creative license of a fantasy author. Instead of spells, you have technology. Instead of goblins, you have robots. What I've played of Destiny so far has shown that the basic bones of MMOs can still be exciting if you change the aesthetic.
Destiny works like any other MMO - you grind stats, you do fetch quests, you monitor health bars - but because there's electricity in it, because it's colourful and that little bit more flavoursome, it feels like a brand new type of game.
So what might follow it? Once the Dungeons and Dragons conceit has been shot in the car park, what next? Well, anything. If developers have faith that their audience is mature enough to try new things, and so long as that faith isn't misplaced, MMOs could branch into all sorts of different settings. The aforementioned war and gangster games could work, or maybe something set around medieval times. It doesn't matter so long as it's different – so long as it's not more bloody Gary Gygax.
The tragedy with MMOs is that, in principal, they should be amazing games. They should be broad and social and engrossing - they should lend themselves to spontaneous narratives, to anecdotes which belong to individuals. But they don't. They're perpetually dull. There seems to be just no regard for idiosyncracy or stimulation. It's never about people's senses, like sight or sound. It's just blithe number inputting; calculations; grinding; work.
Imagine the car chases in Grand Theft Auto or Watch Dogs lifted into an MMO - imagine doing those with two friends on the back seat, shooting out the windows. That could be a success. It's exactly why DayZ has been such a runaway hit. DayZ's different, it's grounded, it's properly violent and nasty. It's an MMO where you do more than just collect items and kills in order to up your meaningless rank.
And it all comes down to aesthetic. You ditch that bland, safe fantasy bunkum and you're free to do something new, something tasty. I can't pass a value judgement on Destiny yet, but at the very least, it's a jump off point. And when DayZ is finally finished, maybe then MMOs will have a bit of variety. Maybe then they'll be more than just idle occupations for your hands.
Destiny launches on 9 September, 2014, for PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.