Lost Ark is everything I’ve been waiting for in an MMO…yet playing it feels like a strangely hollow experience

Sometimes, Lost Ark’s art direction can be surprisingly good

Back when I was 10, living on a diet of Runescape and Diablo 2, I had a brilliant idea. What if someone combined those two games, and made the best game ever? Middle school logic aside, it’s not a bad idea. Diablo-style ARPG combat seems like a natural fit for an MMO, not demanding enough that you get easily burnt out, but providing enough engagement to make grinding a somewhat pleasant activity. Which is why it’s really strange that no one did it successfully until Lost Ark came around. Sure, Path of Exile dipped it’s toes a bit into the MMO pool, and a number of more or less successful games took a stab at implementing some ARPG mechanics, but in more than 2 decades, Lost Ark is as close as anyone has come to the “Diablo as an MMO” pipe dream. And it’s not just like they slapped guilds and raids onto a generic ARPG and called it a day. No, Lost Ark is like a greatest hits collection of MMO systems, borrowing the best(and occasionally worst) features of every popular MMO currently on the market(starting with, naturally, World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV). That this giant stew of mechanics and systems even fits together as a coherent game is already a small miracle. And the fact that’s it’s actually …good? Well, you can see why it set all kinds of records in terms of popularity. So then, what’s the problem here?

Well, to put it bluntly, the problem is that it knows how to cater to it’s audience. Too well. This might sound ridiculous at first, but consider all the common complaints about sub-par MMOs. The grind takes too long, the solo PvE content is too boring, the story is generic. Voice acting and writing are sub par. How do you fix all of these? You could make a good game, or you could take the easy way out, and skip them altogether. Lost Ark somehow went with both options.

Behold, my pet bunny

It’s apparent from the start what kind of experience you’re in for. The game opens with a lovingly crafted prologue, which introduces you to the main systems(combat, dialogue, exploration, etc.) and covers a decent chunk of the main plot. From the very start, it also shows you a big “skip prologue” button, that’s flashing the whole way through. Lost Ark is a well made game that is constantly making sure you play as little of it as possible. You start at level 10( out of a maximum of 50), and the easiest way to level up is to pursue the main quest line and ignore everything else. Even taking the scenic route, it only took me about 12 hours to get halfway through the level cap. And I’d have done it in half the time if I just did what I was supposed to. In many other games, this would be a blessing. But in this case, it’s very clear that the developers put a great deal of effort into stuff you’re apparently not meant to care about.

That’s a lot of systems for a game that pretty much plays itself

The story is involved, decently written and performed(and given that this is a Korean MMO translated to English, that’s saying something), and with far more effort put into the production values than you’d expect(there’s an in-engine cinematic cutscene at the end of every major quest, and there’s a decent amount of effort put into the animations, and even lip-syncing). It’s not Witcher 3, or even Diablo for that matter, but it’s well above average for an MMO. The combat is snappy and satisfying. Even the visuals provide a few unexpected moments of awe, for an isometric game. In short, Lost Ark would be a serviceable experience even as a single player title. Yet the average player won’t ever see the vast majority of the solo content this game has to offer. Lost Ark is so damn insecure about itself that it’s constantly showering you with free rewards, overpowered items, experience boosts, and anything it can throw at you just to make sure you don’t stop and enjoy it for even a second. There’s no challenge to be had here, and fun is strictly optional. And the worst part is, I totally get why. At first I questioned why, for instance, they went through all the trouble of programming an incredibly complex and flexible skill system only to give you the option to automatically select the best build(and infinite free respecs, in case you manage to somehow mess it up). But then I quickly realized that it’s just cutting out the middle man. There’s already dozens of skill guides out for every class. Lost Ark gives you the option to do everything, and also does it for you, because it knows it’s pointless. Freedom of choice has never been a pro, no matter how much we tell ourselves it’s what we want.

Lost Ark’s story is pretty damn impressive for an MMO. Pity that few will care enough to see it.

Ask every veteran MMO player, and they’ll tell you that the “real game” starts once you hit the level cap. The idea is so ingrained into our minds that we don’t even question why some games literally make you pay for the privilege of playing them as little as possible. Somewhere along the way, the entire MMO genre stopped being about fun, and started being about winning. Gameplay is no longer the primary feature, but a means to an end. Narrative is just set dressing, that most players don’t even bother with. All that matters is hitting every plateau possible, sooner than everyone else. I used to think that I wanted an MMO to come along and upset this status quo. A game that wasn’t so cynical about it’s entire progression mechanic, or one that didn’t consider most of it’s elements to be perfunctory. In short, an MMO that was more about the fun of playing it, rather than making sure you can min/max everything as efficiently as possible. At first I thought Lost Ark would be this game. On an intellectual level, I’m a bit disappointed that it isn’t. I’m even more disappointed that it could have been. But in practice, I’m actually glad that’s not the case. Because I just have to endure having fun for 10 more hours or so, and then the real game begins.

There’s something a bit Kafkaesque about a game giving you a reward for opening your reward

So many people attribute the current stagnation of the MMO industry to lazy or complacent developers. I used to think so as well. I used to wait patiently for the game that would reinvent the wheel, that would make me fall in love with the genre again. Now, I seriously doubt that game will come, and if it does, it will probably flop. Because that’s not what the majority of people want from an MMO. Hell, I’m not even sure it’s what I want anymore. Maybe the reason so many games stick to the formula is because we demand it of them. Lost Ark is the biggest MMO in years, and I attribute it’s success almost entirely to the fact that you don’t really have to do anything. You just go through the motions, grind as efficiently as possible(and for as little time as you can), blindly follow the meta that’s already been formed, and hope you succeed. I guess that’s really what an MMO is about these days, isn’t it? If I sound overly negative and bitter, I’m not. I’ve had my fun with Lost Ark, and I really do think it’s a pretty decent game. I don’t hate it’s community either, or the MMO fanbase in general. After all, I’m part of it. But I do wish things could be a little different. For a change of pace at the very least.

One thought on “Lost Ark is everything I’ve been waiting for in an MMO…yet playing it feels like a strangely hollow experience

  1. “Somewhere along the way, the entire MMO genre stopped being about fun, and started being about winning.” is such an excellent quote. I’ve come late in my mid 30s into the world of MMORPGs and this is what struck me about the whole genre as it is currently. It’s all a rush to end game, with no time to stop and smell the flowers, to play into randomised instanced content. If you’re not min-maxing and theorycrafting you’re doing it wrong. The only game I’ve found that somewhat retains the spirit of MMO should have been (in my opinion) is Runescape and I’m saddened I’ve missed the boat with that one a little. There is no end game in Runescape, the journey is the actual game. You know, like any other game is. But MMOs have forgot this lesson along the way.

    That said, it was a good read, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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