12 October, 2009
Sometimes I wonder if MMOs have really lived up to their potential. From my first steps playing a text MUD and realizing that some of those other characters were controlled by people like me, these games captured my imagination. The fun diversion became a deep fascination with multiplayer gameplay and game mechanics and eventually a career. But, when I take a look at where we are now, I can't help but think that something is missing from our games.
Have you noticed it, too?
The problem is, the MMO community pretty much defines discontent; early MMO blogging took the form of "rant sites" that served as a central location to bitch about MMO games. So, sometimes it's hard to separate out the snark from the real problems we're facing. But, it does seem that there is some specific discontent people feel these days. Even game developers feel the discontent.
What would you do?
The always thoughtful Tesh wrote an article that wasn't about discontent, but hinted at the general feeling some have been experiencing lately. He starts with the old way of trying to figure out your ideal career: if you didn't have to worry about money, what would you do? This is probably the thing that you are passionate about, so your ideal career would be to find someone who will pay you to do that. (Unfortunately for some people, "lounging about the house" doesn't pay well.) The twist to this exercise is that Tesh then poses this question in terms of playing MMOs: if you didn't have to worry about levels and gear, what would you do?
The problem is that this is a misleading question. Tesh is really asking what would happen if we removed the Achiever motivation from games. For people highly motivated by Achievement, that game would hold little interest for them unless some new form of achievement was put in. For the rest of us (the minority of the current audience) who care less about achievement, this gives us an opportunity to do what we really want to do. Personally, I'd spend more time exploring the setting and the game mechanics, being a dyed-in-the-wool Explorer. With no levels or gear to handicap me, the world would be wide open for my pleasure.
But, Tesh's question does bring up most contemporary games hyperfocus on the Achiever motivation and the consequences of this focus. If we remove the Achiever motivation, that being the loot and level upgrade tracks, we're not left with much in most current games.
Why do we do what we do?
The primary purpose for most commercial MMOs is making money. Under a subscription business model, maximizing revenues means maximizing the number of accounts being paid for. This means the game needs to appeal to the widest group of people possible in order to maximize income. For many developers, WoW has provided a blueprint on how to try to gain this large audience, having captured one of the largest audiences for a a commercial MMO. Much of their work has gone into streamlining the game, allowing players to play the game with as few disruptions and interruptions as possible; they made the loot and level upgrade treadmill as slick as possible to get you on and keep you going. Some would say it's designed to be so slick you don't realize that you're on just another grind.
The problem with this streamlining, as I pointed out in my previous post, is that without risk there's less feeling of overcoming obstacles. Filling in the troughs diminishes the peaks by comparison. People don't think they miss the troughs, but sometimes the experience still leaves them cold. There's also the need for developers to control the experience as much as possible to make it streamlined. Strict requirements on how the came must be played has displaced some of the fun of the unknown. As Wolfshead says in a comment, "Where has all the freedom gone in our MMOs?" Things were not always this regimented, where games like Meridian 59 didn't even have a formal party structure, but that didn't stop players from working together to accomplish goals.
This highly regimented gameplay has attracted more people, but it may be hurting the core of waht MMOs are about. Wolfshead also posted a great article on scaling, arguing that encounters should scale to the people available so that you can play with the people you want to play with; players should not be forced to bring in strangers or leave friends out of the fun just because the numbers don't match what the game mandates. Of course, automatic scaling is hard to do and may otherwise disrupt the slick presentation of the game. Given that one of my recent suggestions was to do away with static groups, I like the concept. I think scaling is the wrong way to think about it, though; the world should offer challenges and let the players come up with ways to overcome them. In the original EQ, the old raid bosses just existed, it was up to the players to figure out how many people needed to be there. As players learned to handle the encounter, less people could be brought and not feel like you were handicapping yourself.
What is missing?
Reading a lot of these posts and comments, I think the big thing missing from these games is a sense of adventure. Things have been made so streamlined that players feel penalized for going outside the carefully marked track, so there is very little opportunity for serendipity. You have to play the game exactly as the designers intended, otherwise you can't enjoy all of the game. The "theme park" philosophy of design may make for a fun diversion, but is this the best we can do?
Looking at the inspiration for our games, we can see how far things have gone off the rails in our quest to provide the streamlined experience. Frodo and Sam didn't go kill spirits in the Dead Marshes to level up before heading into Mordor. Luke didn't broadcast on /lfg before heading into Jabba's palace to try to save his friends. Batman doesn't have to go "defeat" 500 more criminals to be able to buy and learn to throw a Batarang. Yet, these are the expected behaviors in a typical MMO. Going into a dangerous place without a high enough level, without a large enough group, without the proper equipment is tantamount to suicide. Doing things the proper way removes frustrations, but it also removes unexpected experiences that stand out in players' minds.
It's become a running joke that if everyone is the hero, then nobody is. My favorite example is the Sharpbeak quest in WoW. The culmination of this quest that I did in a group is everyone standing in line waiting for the victim you're trying to save to respawn back in his cage so you can use the key you looted to free him. It's pretty silly when you look at it, but this is how the developers felt the story had to play out to make sense in the world.
How can content be spread around?
One of the main problem here is a very old one: content. Allowing one person to "do all the work" to resolve a quest for a group means that the group will go through the content faster. The world is also supposed to support the illusion that the player is the big hero. Being the sidekick standing next to the guy rescuing Sharpbeak may not be quite as heroic as being the person actually opening the cage and seeing the little guy fly off with the larger griffons.
It's hard and expensive to create large amounts of content by hand. The two main ways to get around this limit have been unsatisfying: user created content which generates more penises than useful content, and procedurally generated content that is often uninteresting or doesn't seem to work quite right (a problem I fear that Wolfshead's scaling proposal will have). So, we're left with cheats to spread out the content: repeatable daily quests for big rewards, quests that are merely slight variations on other quests, grinds that spread out content over longer periods of time, etc.
This isn't the only problem. Too often games don't seem to take the multi-player nature of the game into consideration; why does each person need to open Sharpbeak's cage? Why does each player in a fellowship have to carry their own pie or mail bag in LotRO? Why can only six people venture into Nektropos Castle at one time in EQ2?
Where do we go from here?
As I have said many times before, if the answer were obvious and easy, people would have done it. Creating lots of content is the obvious answer, but not easy. This is why smart people blather on about how you need $XX millions before you can make an MMO, because that's what it takes to add the content required to just match the sometimes disappointing lack of adventure we see in current MMOs.
As I said above, the two main ways to "cheat" and get more content have failed to deliver on their promises. I fear that this user created or procedurally generated content are the designer equivalents of the PvP discussion: the die-hards are sure that there just needs to be the "perfect implementation" that will show everyone that their preferences are the right ones. Perhaps its time to realize that we need to approach the problem in a different way.
The concept that comes to my mind is one that is unlikely to prove popular enough to support a game. Using the microtransaction model, focus on providing a small amount of exceptional content. Instead of demanding a subscription from people who may like the game but not feel compelled to keep paying for the game, we can offer paid content when it becomes available. Focus on providing high quality content, and hopefully people enjoy it enough to keep paying for it. This takes a forward-thinking audience willing to support a game during the rough initial times, and it's still going to be tough to keep creating new content. But, perhaps this is what is needed to help MMOs realize their potential.
What do you think? Have you noticed the missing sense of adventure? Or, is it something else you have missed? How can games re-introduce these missing elements and once again start reaching their potential?