Thursday, June 18, 2009

How to Trivialize Your MMORPG

Games fail when they do not allow their users to make meaningful decisions, or, even worse, when they offer what appears to be a meaningful decision, then render the decision utterly pointless later on. Colin Brennan ran into both of these phenomena and wrote about them at with reference to a new MMO, Jade Dynasty.

MMROPGs are two-faced. The first face presents you with carefully crafted characters and a story that takes time to absorb and understand before the player can be involved in it. The other face is one that touts the great end-game content—how the game opens up when you hit max level and you will have a powerful hero at your disposal that can crush the forces of evil (or good) into a fine pulp with pleasure and pizzazz. As you play the MMO, you realize that the first face is telling you nothing. There’s no motivation to care about the epic tales it spouts because, in the end, it cannot reward you. Only the second face can reward you. And, even worse, all that story is further trivialized by how every other player in the world can hope to achieve the exact same goals. The worst part: none of these great, harrowing achievements actually change the game world! All the raid bosses, enemy faction leaders, great kings of evil and chaos simply respawn after they’re killed. The world remains exactly as it was before aside from a few trinkets looted and perhaps a level gained here or there.

The face that presents you a non-trivial experience is directly contradicted and proven worthless by its counterpart. You are left with only the game mechanics. And, as any experienced MMORPG player knows, those certainly have a long, long way to go before they become non-trivial.

Imagine a coin with two faces. One faces is brilliantly hand-carved by a master engraver with a picture of the symbol of the state gloriously displayed and the other side has only a number or symbol printed on it. When you pay with the coin, the merchant who receives the coin can look at and admire the first side of the coin as a piece of craftsmanship, but, really, all that he cares about is the number printed on the other side which tells him how much richer he has become. After seeing a few of these coins, the sensible merchant would no longer care about the masterful artwork on the first face, he would only care about the number. Soon, the Mint decides that it is too much work to hand-engrave a thousand coins a day, so they simply press a standard pattern into the first side of the coin. No one but the rare collector or particularly observant will notice the difference.

Jade Dynasty doesn’t reveal that all MMORPGs are actually grinds. It commits a deeper double fraud: first it presents the same double-faced personage where the first face is trivialized by the second, then it trivializes the second face, laughing all the way to the bank.

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