Editorial: Why We Play Games and the MMO Treadmill

Greetings from the Dark Side of the Lusi-Force. It is I, your new Dark Editor-in-Chief of the Sith, Darth Lane!

I have a confession, gentle readers… I have not bought Portal 2. This may make me an iconoclast, a heretic, a weirdo, or just someone who does not want to dish out the cash at this point, but there it is. I have not bought Portal 2. It is not that I am opposed to the game, or to puzzle games in general… but I just have never found the time to get around to playing.

So I asked myself, “Why? Why am I not playing games that I would in all likelihood enjoy?”

I find your lack of faith... disturbing
This is what I wear to work every day.

As we have covered on many occasions, my actual “games per week” time is limited by a number of constraints. Writing this column, for one. Second, my family, by which I mean (mostly) my wife. The secret to a happy marriage (or a relationship of any kind) is that it takes time. About twice as much as one would put in to a job he or she loves. Which is a nice segue into my third constraint on my time, a job. Being a prolix barrister/solicitor is not an easy job, and the eight plus hours a day I put in at the office pale in comparison to the hours per week I spend keeping myself abreast of the latest legal developments. Topping off this “demand on Lane’s time” sundae are my more mundane and domestic chores.

In these meager moments in between, I find the time to cram in being an officer in a raiding guild in WoW, trying to get my mind around Rift and how to play that game, trying to find a single-player game to interest me or to review for the slavering monsters that are my readers (and my steadfast refusal to play Grand Tetsuo-ken Saga III: O-dai-dai Kuromaru Onegaishimasu or something like that)… not to mention my other hobbies of writing (bad) fiction and reading (good) fiction, trying to watch a movie or TV serial here and there…

Never count Blizzard out.
Never count Blizzard out as far as games go; Warcraft's popularity may be flagging, but the company is strong.

I want to invent more hours for the day. Perhaps I should move to Mars, although that only nets me another half-hour or so. Also, I am quite fond of oxygen.

So that is that; I give everyone absolutely bunkum about Portal 2. But what productive use of my time am I making?

That is the topic of today’s rant: why do we keep playing these amusing little games? For some games, the answer is obvious: I played Dragon Age 2 for the story. I will play Hunted: The Demon’s Forge for the interesting cooperative gameplay. And I play WoW and Rift because…

I have had some trouble answering this question of late. Nominally, we play MMOs for the social aspect. However, combating burnout and dwindling populations has taken a toll on the social aspects of my WoW game. Real life has intervened in all its fury, and getting 10 friends together for a raid is sometimes a difficult proposition.

Boss Hawg and Reetin have had some fun recently playing Terrible Game Final Fantasy XIV, and I found myself wondering… why? If the game can only be played in short spurts, where most of the focus was on leveling and crafting, what was the goal?

In some games, like EVE Online or Second Life, victory conditions are entirely arbitrary. “Winning” the game could mean something as simple as living a virtue life, or making the most money, or being a giant penis monster. FFXIV strike me as in this latter category… for now. I am sure at some point some overarching, lore-based reason to have a dungeon, or slay a world boss, or a major RvR battleground will be implemented, and then players’ time in game will be directed toward a purpose.

In other games, like WoW and Rift, the victory condition is more defined: get to the level cap, get geared through endgame dungeons, and then participate in endgame PVP and raiding. WoW‘s endgame has entirely stagnated, and even the upcoming new heroics will provide, at the maximum, a month or two of interest before boredom sets in again. Why? Because the game is not offering anything new… and it probably will not. Blizzard has even moved on as a development house, and I am more than confident that their new project, codenamed “Titan,” will be the perfect successor to their success with WoW.

Rift Logo
Rift has carved itself out a niche as WoW 2.0.

Rift… well… Rift is WoW with a clunkier UI, better graphics, and a better class system. It at least promises some difference in endgame strategy as it breaks the holy trinity of MMO class design by… throwing an actual necessity for hybrid classes. This promises to make slotting for raids much more difficult and cut down on endgame accessibility… but I expect that in a year, we will see Rift‘s depth and strategy come down to WoW-ish levels… at least if they want to keep people subscribed.

In short, the ol’ MMO treadmill is starting to show its age, and it may be time to put it down. Here’s three ideas I have to pump life into this flagging genre:

1. Skill-Based Progression

Levels are stupid. Level progression before endgame grind progressions is a fruitless exercise in adding artificial length to a game. A skill-based progression makes more sense. For example, consider this: a WoW character starts at “Level 85,” so to speak, but most progress in stepwise fashion through several zones, completing the quests, because each quest chain awards both skills and gear. If instead of learning a number of basic attacks and spells at the start, imagine if a mage had to “earn” each spell by completing some task in the world. “Powering up” this spell would require actually using it, and using it correctly.

The Secret World from Funcom
Funcom is developing a very interesting-looking urban fantasy MMO.

While this would cut down on the time necessary to get to the endgame (and therefore run the risk of not keeping the attention of people that care only about leveling), it would also increase access to the endgame and make endgame grouping easier if every player had a ready “stable” of characters to bring depending on particular group needs that night.

2. Varied Endgame Content

Waves of trash followed by a boss, or endless wars of attrition in PVP-battlefields, or short deathwatch style arena games is old meme. It has to stop.

Rift tried (and failed, spectacularly) to have a major world event to open up the River of Souls raid. The problem with this strategy is that it required a specific commitment to a specific time for players to be in-game. Some servers experienced massive queues to get in, and even then, the event was buggy and a first-come, first-served ordeal. This obviously cuts down on accessibility, and penalizes the vast majority of gamers, including those with jobs… which are the people game companies need to reach out to in order to be successful.

But the idea is solid… limited time (yet repeatable!) events that are organic, but with some degree of depth, is necessary. Endgame content that pits players against players against monsters is necessary. Open realm-versus-realm with actual strategy (e.g., not WAR zerg rushes) needs to be implemented, probably with a three- or four-way faction balance.

3. Choice!

Currently, games really only excel at one or two parts of MMO gameplay. A truly successful game will offer players a high-degree of choice and flexibility in how they play. And the only way to do this is to increase accessibility: I am talking “easy modes” for most dungeons (that drop lower-in-level loot), even endgame raids. I am talking hard modes for the same raids with increased risk and reward. I am talking completely separate PVP talents that keep the PVE game balanced around PVE and not PVP. I am talking the removal of “bind to player” gear, allowing free gear trading between guild members or on a single account. Multiple talent saves per person (Rift‘s four talent saves seems a good number).

Combined with ideas 1 and 2, I think this would breathe some life into the non-sandbox MMO genre. The idea is to remove the barriers to play, and to create lots of interesting occasions to play in the world, and to allow the player some degree of control over his or her place in a larger, story-driven narrative.

Which game will be the one that satisfies these conditions? Star Wars? Titan? The Secret World? What say you, readers?

7 comments

  1. I will sue you for using my likeness without my permission! Oh wait, you are a lawyer… Damn. Anyway good post, carry on.

  2. I was very excited to get back into World of Warcraft at the start of Cataclysm, but in the past month my excitement tapered off. I find myself spending time on WoW I would much rather be using to play another game, finish some homework, laboratory assignment, hang out with friends, browse the internet, or hang out with my girlfriend. The problem with the game is that it requires too much of my time as an immediate investment. It is not enough to play the game for a half hour or so, in order to do anything that the game would consider worthwhile, I’d have to spend four or more hours in a row grinding levels or running dungeons or waiting for queues, or losing battlegrounds to pick up gear that lets me die slightly slower while doing more battlegrounds to pick up still only slightly better gear.

    I prefer games like Team Fortress 2 and even Pokemon, where there are certain proficiencies that characters have, and your goal is to maximize your strategy, and you are free to spend your time as you wish in the game without fear of falling so far behind that the game is no longer fun, or even fear of burnout, because if you drop the game, there will be no (or at least very little) extra content to ‘catch up to’. These are games that I can spend time on as I see fit. I can play them for four hours in a row if I want, or I can play just one or two matches (or battles) and save and quit, moving on to other things.

  3. Reetin is a taxi car.

    I read your post, and was going to comment that SB probably has something to say, but … he said it.

    The reason Reetin and I play FFXIV is because it can be happily slotted into our free time just like TF2. One of the great things about it is that you can do one levequest, or you can do sixty-four levequests (eight, for every one of the eight members in a full party). You can spend a small amount of time alone or with a single friend, or you can spend countless hours with a large group. It’s extendable, and fits most schedules in a way that FFXI never could. (There were times when I would wait six to eight hours for a party on ‘off nights’ and never get one. Once in a party, you could expect it to last two to five hours! Some of my parties lasted more than TWELVE hours!)

    The recent release of 1.17 was slated to include Dungeons and Raids, but those were pushed back a bit so that they could prepare for launching them a little better. Given the visible and spectacular failures of other companies’ launches, I’m glad they prefer to spend a little more time and get it right. Meanwhile, they are building us an entirely new job system, and have gotten down to the BASIC FUCKING ENTERPRISE of looking at other MMOs and saying, “What do they do right? Let us implement/improve upon that.” This a concept entirely foreign to SE until now, and still largely foreign to the rest of the company.

    Simply put, FFXIV has been, and continues to be (ever more so daily) the best free-to-play MMO I’ve ever experienced. And I’m not just playing it because it is free. I did not buy it, or play it, until several months had passed after its release. Even then, I hardly touched it. But, as they have updated the game, I have played it more. Each update seems to correspond to gradually more time being spent in the game. The developers appear to be listening to reasonable requests. These are being implemented at once, where possible, and in a clear, publicly-announced timeframe in matters where development takes longer. And, in the meantime, no one is paying anything.

    These are all things I approve of. In the meantime, don’t expect to pay for XIV until after the new job system is released, and the first set of endgame dungeon/raid content (their terminolgy, that!) is out and running, and don’t expect THAT to be until September at the earliest, I should think.

    If FFXIV continues the advances it is making, it will totally be worth paying for. In the meantime, I love that it is free.

  4. I also haven’t acquired Portal 2, I plan on getting a new PC soon, and have a number of games sitting ahead of it in the queue, so I’ll probably get it when it’s cheaper and hope no one spoils it for me in the interim (Reetin this means you).

  5. @SiliconNooB what? Me? Spoil something for a stupid aussie? Never!

  6. @Lane: Funcom should be working on TLJ 3 instead of some MMO … :(

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