After last year’s extensive MMO trialing, I’ve come to a few conclusions about what I want out of games at this point in my life. This may not generalize to other people, but it may be an instructive thing to share for those that follow this blog and want to know the origin of much of my game design thought.
The Same Patterns that Lead to the Same Patterns
You can easily define a number of mechanic patterns in MMORPGs. These go largely unchallenged and effectively provide a framework for games in the genre.
- Persistent intrinsic semi-permanent character advancement.
- Loot advancement.
- Your play session is only a window into a game world that continues persisting before you’ve logged and and after you log off. (I’m not saying “persistent world” here because “changes” to a themepark game’s world don’t persist for more than one character.)
- The game is based on the player controlling one character at a time.
- The player is an adventurer who kills a variety of creatures for various reasons (quests) to gain experience used to advance.
- The player can combine materials harvested from nodes or looted from enemies to craft items.
- Players organize into game-facilitated groups and guilds to defeat stronger enemies.
Most of the games I played were nothing more than a collection of minor variations in the implementation of those patterns. (And some of those implementations were outright failures.) Very few moved away from this: Atlantica Online makes you control a party instead of just one character and DDO instanced everything and focused on small-group content—two examples of more significant variations.
These patterns bore me. I’ve seen them done so many times. Playing MMOs turned into a process akin to painting rooms in a house. Each room is different in shape and size, some may even have a special feature that needs particular attention for the painting to turn out appealing, but after you’ve painted one or two rooms, you get the point and the rest of the rooms are just minor variations on putting paint on walls and avoiding putting it elsewhere.
You can find such basic patterns in any genre of any medium, of course, but in MMORPGs there seems to be nothing interesting beyond the specific implementations of these patterns. The PvE centeredness of themepark MMORPGs primarily relies on player time investment to gate content and character progress. Since there’s very little one can do in a themepark MMO to set themselves apart in terms of skill—there’s little competition among MMORPG players aside from in the top 10% or less of players who play competitive PvP and raid at the highest end—I will end up playing the game to see how the genre-specific patterns unfold. And when these patterns unfold, the result is boredom.
What Themepark MMOs Show About their Players
(I try not to treat negatively people who play games in different ways than me. I understand that not all players have the same goals when they game. Fun isn’t uniform from day to day, person to person. Even if everyone did have the same goals and fun was uniform, taste accounts for significant variance in what games people play. I hope that the following section is not too negative about themepark MMO players—I intend it to be an explanation of how I feel about the games and not a indictment of other people who play and enjoy them.)
I’ve given up on themepark MMOs (and many sandbox MMOs, as well) due to their direct time-investment focus. When I think about where I’ll be after playing a game for a few months, I’d like to be able to say that I differentiated myself from others through my skillful play and strategic thinking. MMORPGs require a significant time investment before you can get to a point where skillful play and strategic aspects show their faces in any way that would let me distinguish myself from most players. I’d be throwing time into an MMORPG and getting nothing back but the same standard rewards everyone gets for investing time.
Through playing a themepark MMORPG, I think that I would be labeling my free time as a throw-away. Why should I bother playing a game where I’m just one of a huge crowd of other players, unable to differentiate myself in a game-significant way? It communicates nothing about me to others; there are plenty of other significantly more interesting games that could communicate more about me as a player and person. I cannot avoid the thought that the game acts as a medium through which I communicate about myself to others and to myself. I could choose to ignore this communication and just play whatever game tickles me (and themepark MMOs are expert at tickling), but I don’t because ignoring a signal will not make it go away.
These thoughts of signaling through game playing do not occur to most people—and if they did, I doubt whoever thought about it would mind it much. It matters to me, though, so I’ve moved away from MMORPGs to other multiplayer games that act as a more dynamic communication medium.