This is the first article of two about what kinds of design decisions can make themepark MMOs trivial and meaningless as games. The community can provide meaning to themepark MMOs and often does much more in that area than the games themselves do, but for the sake of my continuing analysis of themepark MMOs as games, I will focus only on the game design.
I have identified three sources of triviality and meaninglessness in themepark MMOs. These sources can be treated as the reverse of what you should do in order to design a good themepark MMO.
- The meaningful (content) is subordinated to the meaningless (rewards).
- A more powerful character cannot effect the world more than a weaker character.
- Unchanging or increasing character power relative to even-level encounters as character level increases.
In this article I will cover the first and second. In the next article, I will give a longer treatment to third.
The Subordination of the Meaningful to the Meaningless
Players should want to play themepark MMOs because of their content. Content is the focus of the game’s design and implementation. The game is based around setting up reward streams, the rewards allow you to advance to more content. Playing the game to receive rewards logically indicates playing the game for its content. In the player’s mind, rewards should be below content in importance. Players should want to play through a raid more than they want the rewards from that raid, because the rewards only enable them to raid further. If players don’t find raiding particularly fun, why would they raid to get rewards that would only facilitate raiding more? The design is clearly at odds with player behavior here. Players need a constant stream of rewards because the content is drab, but the rewards are only valuable insomuch as they apply to future content.
Rewards are made meaningful by the content they bookend and enable. If the content on either end of the reward is trivial or meaningless, the rewards are meaningless. If the players value the rewards over any content, the rewards are meaningless and the content is meaningless. If content is trivial, rewards are meaningless.
A game cannot long trick a player by rewarding him and building expectations without delivering on them. This is the source of burnout in MMOs. When a player burns out, she played the game to be rewarded, but the rewards didn’t build up to anything she thought was greater and worth achieving. You will find the source of bitterness and disgust among ex-MMO players comes from here, as well.
Too many (perhaps all) themepark MMOs rely on the reward expectation escalation trick to hook and keep players. It works well as long as there are fresh players to use up, but it is not sustainable. Most players will burn-out on not only a specific game that uses this trick, but on the entire genre.
Characters Powerless to Change Anything Beyond Themselves
Growth in MMOs is meaningless, or without substance, when the player cannot effect the world. In most themepark MMOs, a character can only effect himself in a significant way, and other characters by small, usually impermanent, degrees.
In real life, the concept of “power” centers on the ability to effect others. A powerful person can bring grave or wondrous events to reality that cause millions of people to instantaneously alter their behavior. When the Germany declared war on Poland to start World War II, several diplomats and world leaders instantaneously unleashed millions of soldiers onto the fields of battle, ending hundreds of thousands of lives and significantly altering the daily lives of millions of people. Clearly, those German diplomats and leaders were powerful people.
You're only becoming more powerful in a meaningful way when you can effect the world in more significant ways through your actions. If you can't actually effect the world in any way and mob power is relatively equal with the character's, there's no meaning to the character gaining power. Gaining power doesn’t manifest itself in any meaningful way within the game.
A themepark MMO can only survive so long on the illusion of power gain. A substantive form of power in the game world provides a source of meaning in gameplay—without power meaning something, character growth is effectively trivialized.