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The Gold and the Grind – What I like about MMORPGs February 7, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Gaming, Personal.
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I remember when first reading about Ultima Online and Everquest, dismissing the whole lot as junk. (The exception was UO’s resource ecology, which seemed interesting but doomed to disaster from the start). One-dimensional real time combat, graphics that looked ugly even for the late 90s, endless timesinks, and ye gods – why on Earth would I want to play with a massive number of people on the Internet? Wasn’t that a statistical grouping almost guaranteed to frustrate an annoy?

Up to that point, my online gaming had been limited to a brief period of obsession with Quake instagib in all its forms, then later a flirtation with a Counterstrike clone called Tactical Ops. I wasn’t them, and am still not now, very comfortable with social gaming online. And now, 7 years later, I’ve had characters in at least six different MMOs, and have gone to the level cap with one (granted, it’s WoW, but still….). So was I wrong in my initial assement? Somewhat. Did my tastes change? A little. Have MMOs changed? A great deal, I think. At least the ones I play.

And if at least some of these essays are going to be about gaming and game theory, it would help to establish a couple baselines. First and foremost, what I consider fun. And maybe a little about why. [While I’m generally not a fan of The Forge, I have gleaned that being able to understand what it is you’re gaming for is more important than it might seem.] So let’s start with some basic observations.

I like the RPG in MMORPG. I’ve played every Final Fantasy game to date (save FF5), along with a pretty decent showing in a number of other popular and well-respected franchises. I like the genre (specifically, the Japanese console niche) and it works for me. Fight monsters, gain XP and shiny things, get new powers and stabby bits with which to kill bigger monsters. A time honored challenge-reward loop, and for good reason. The downside of this is that I’m an insatiable story whore, which gets me into trouble later on down the line.

Design-wise, it’s where the action is. It’s the New Genre, kind of like where RTSes were in the mid-to-late 90s. Combine the novelty of the genre with the fact that you can make an Immense Pile Of Money if you do it right, and it only seems logical that everyone is flocking to the space. And failing, but even the failures can be interesting (see Earth & Beyond). There is at least a whole other essay on broad strokes in MMO design, so I’m not going to let this list item grow to Tokyo-smashing proportions. Suffice it to say that there are problems being solved in MMO design that simply have no analogue in single-player games, and watching people bash their heads up against these challenges I find interesting.

I’m just social enough. I play a fair number of table-top RPGs, so I’m certainly not averse to gaming with other people. It’s a great deal of fun, in fact. However, these are all friendships I made (by and large) outside of gaming, people I met in other ways who happened to be into the same things I was. I enjoy gaming as something you do with friends, but the jury is still out on making friends while gaming. There is probably another essay in this too, mostly about my experiences in Final Fantasy XI and the play-patterns it reinforced.

That said, it’s not all peaches and beer. Not even close. There is a reason I stayed away from this genre in the first place, and those reasons haven’t entirely gone away. There is a lot of crap out there, even in the good games, and ample reasons why I might not want to level my paladin.

I’m not stupid. Which is to say, I know a timesink when I see one. A certain dimension of MMO design is to eat up as many player-hours as possible with as few designer-hours as you can get away with. It’s a neccessity of economics and design, at least for now. Sometimes the timesink is just fun enough, or I’m really motivated to get to see what’s past it – but often I can just feel how tedious it is and give up.

Only a part of a balanced gaming diet. Hack & slash gets old. First-person shooters & strategy games share space on my shelves with Dragon Warrior 28 1/2. I tried the only FPS MMO, Planetside, but it wasn’t very compelling. Even a little lag made for a poor experience, and it wasn’t any fun to run around as a lone soldier.

I demand narrative. And I’m not talking some paltry excuse for a premise that is forgotten in an hour, or Guild Drama over who said what in chat yesterday. I like story with compelling characters, settings, revelations, etc. Backed up by good graphics & music. I’m willing to suspect an awful lot of disbelief, and break many of the “rules” of a persistent world, if you can tell me a good story. Most designers don’t want to, and even then they don’t do a great job of it. There is a good niche out there for whomever can figure out the magic formula, but that is (again) another essay.

Not quite social enough. The defining aspect to all these games is the MM bit. You gotta play with other people, and make – if not friends – acquaintances and other relations to get by. Being a hard-core solo just seems to miss the point, and chances are whatever you’re jonesing for can be provided better in the single-player variety. I’m very much an introvert, and for whatever reason the way I relate to strangers doesn’t seem to change when it’s shifted to an online environment.

My appreciation of symmetry compells me to close with a final list of three. In this case, three qualities which I acknowledge and respect that are present in the genre, but just don’t float my boat. Let’s call it “The Office” list, speaking of things which I understand are quality but I just don’t get.

Player versus player. Either it’s frivolous deathmatching on the Internet (which is why God gave us XBox Live), or you’re putting possibly hundreds of hours of work on the line to be ganked by a 13-year old sporting the latest broken build. In each case, I just don’t care. I’m also starting to be of the opinion that unless your game was designed around PvP as absolutely the central element (see Guild Wars, EvE Online, or any of that wacky Korean stuff), it’s going to be broken or twisted beyond all recognition eventually. You kids have fun pwning the n00bs.

RP or game-as-graphical-chat-client. My roots are decidedly not in the whole MUD/MUSH thing. I’m paying my monthly fee to play a game, and that’s what I want to do when I go online. Part of this is that I’m probably tone-deaf to social cues (as most of my female friends will attest), so I’m sure that there is stuff going on at this level that I’m entirely ignorant of. This is change in me a little bit, as I wouldn’t mind having WoW guild chat open in the background when I’m at work, but that is by far an exception. Also, if I really want to get “into a character”, tabletop does it ten times better (at least!).  Mostly, I’m there to kill monsters and take their stuff.

That’s the short list. What I like, what I don’t, what I think I care about when I think about MMO games & game design. Just in case it comes up later, this is where I’m coming from.