Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Seven Questions I Ask Myself About An MMORPG

I have trouble accepting an MMORPG solely as an experience for longer than a month (maybe even for longer than a week). I know people who can uncritically immerse themselves in games wholly and not see the flaws in the game or actually think about what they are doing outside of the scope of whatever game system they're immersed in. Sometimes I wish I could immerse myself as they do and simply enjoy games for what they are instead of seeing the flaws and constantly questioning design decisions. Unfortunately for me, I’m always thinking about how I’m actually spending my time in the game, what effect it’s having, and if it is actually worth it to continue to play this game. This curse of perception and judgment manifests itself in games wearing thin more quickly than I would like. Because there are few sources of relatively objective MMORPG gameplay analysis on the internet, I’m forced by my curiosity (and interest in finding the game that I’ve always wanted to play) to indulge in playing games that I ultimately end up discarding before I’ve exhausted their content—before even getting to the level cap.

After analyzing the way that I think about my play experience in MMORPGs, I’ve come up with this preliminary list of questions that I ask myself about a game system in order to determine whether I’ll like it or not.

1. What proportion of my time in the game world is spent doing important things that yield effects on my character? Other characters?

I should be spending most of my time in-game making progress towards my goals as a player and character. This progress should be non-trivial—I’d consider walking across the map as a trivial endeavor (90% of the time you’re doing it; there are exceptions, of course), whereas completing quests is mostly non-trivial. I have yet to find a game that lets me focus most of my time on non-trivial tasks.

2. Do I understand what is going on with the important mechanics of the game?

I should know the fundamental mechanics of the game enough to use them to achieve my aims by the end of the first couple of weeks of play. I shouldn’t have to go out of my way to learn how to do something in the game that is core gameplay.
An example: In Atlantica Online, it took me a while to figure out how to even open the window for crafting. It was hidden in one of the multiple menu systems in the game. Crafting is a crucial activity in that game and it’s inexcusable that the ability to craft wasn’t clearly laid out before me. Many hours of play after I learned on my own how to craft, the game’s tutorial missions finally told me how to do it. This is no good.

3. Do I know what the strengths and weaknesses of my character are in a game-specific sense?

I should have a feel for the limits of my characters power as I’m playing him. If the game doesn’t give me enough information about my own character or enemies, this becomes difficult and the result can be frustrating.

4. Do I know how to improve the parts of my character that I find lacking? If not, can I easily figure it out?

Within the framework of the strengths and weaknesses I’ve found that my character has, I need to know how to improve different aspects of my character. The answer to this question is often with different gear or a different spec. I need to know enough about each of those options so that I can make an informed decision about what I should do.

5. Are there meaningful choices in character advancement?

Not every character of a given persuasion should play the same and end up the same. I want to be able to customize the way my character performs enough to suit my desired play-style without being gimped. I’m not asking for every character to be able to do everything, but for a given class to have a few different viable builds—I’d love it if there are more than a few.

6. Do I have to be in-game to do things that would make more sense if queued up and done AFK? Are there a lot of simple, repetitive tasks that I have to do in the game—tasks that do not benefit from any level of intelligent play?

I have yet to find an MMO that satisfies me in this area because every MMO is a grind in some level of elaboration. For a lot of these games, you have to be doing a lot of repetitions of some mundane, trivial task that a computer could handle doing in your stead at little cost—activities that don’t require an iota of intelligence to accomplish and don’t actually benefit from being done more intelligently above a very low threshold.

7. Is it clear to me what I can do and where I can go next? If the game sets goals for me, do I feel an appropriate need to accomplish them?

This is very important. If the game doesn’t give me the tools to come up with goals for myself in the absence of goals it provides for me, I lose interest very fast. The next achievement or point of advancement must come relatively soon (and benefit from being achieved intelligently instead of just ground through). If the pacing falters during leveling, I have no problem with logging off and finding some other way to entertain myself.

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