Saturday, February 20, 2010

Leaving Themepark MMORPGs Behind

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.

  1. Persistent intrinsic semi-permanent character advancement.
  2. Loot advancement.
  3. 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.)
  4. The game is based on the player controlling one character at a time.
  5. The player is an adventurer who kills a variety of creatures for various reasons (quests) to gain experience used to advance.
  6. The player can combine materials harvested from nodes or looted from enemies to craft items.
  7. 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.


Copperbird said...

Why is it so important to differentiate yourself? And do you play team sports at all? Or boardgames?

I only give this as an example because I play board and card games with my friends because it's a good excuse to spend time together, and we enjoy the games. This is pretty much the same reason that I raid.

MMOs give me the chance to meet new people, make new friends, and play games with them. That's the only reason that I need, really. I like the virtual world aspect also, and I think I'd prefer the games if they were more generally interesting, but the basic framework is there.

Kenny said...

I think the biggest problem is #5. It is accepted and repeated as a mantra, even by bloggers like yourself, Keen, Tobold, etc, that combat is the only accepted way of leveling. I think combat + themeparks go strongly hand in hand. If you can solve the combat-oriented nature of the games, you can definitely cross out #2 and #5, and you have a much easier time with #3 in terms of handling characters remaining in the game world after a player logs out.

With that said "ALL of the games I've played are a variation of #5 and some/all other elements tacked on."

However I have to agree with Spinks here, I'm not sure if you're looking at the right medium for self-differentation. Even with in-game terms. In essence that would require am unique path for each and every player, and that is yet to be tackled. I would also like to mention that in any other multiplayer game than MMORPGs (and perhaps BioWare games played in multi) you have no in-game persona in a way like in MMORPGs. IMHO this is a really important differentiation here, and might be the reason you are disillusioned with themeparks (besides the obvious burn out).

On a final note: your problems with the time-gating at least halfway can be traced back to #2 - again if you move away from combat at elast you don't have to worry about equipment grinding that much.

Kenny said...

I mean you don't repeat "combat is the savior" like a parrot - rather you all fail to propose alternatives even tho we know that at least one half-assed example exists: EVE.

Dblade said...

I think differentiation can exist even in combat-the problem really isn't themepark, time investment, or sandbox, the problem is MMO combat doesn't really provide enough options.

Phantasy Star Online gave tons of options, and they worked well enough to let a player pick how they wanted to fight without hopelessly gimping yourself or having a clear cut winner. You could make your own identity by your class, and also the weapon you used.

Even though it was a grind, you still felt connected and meaningful. You might use a ice-element handgun and constantly freeze enemies in place: I might use the last survivor, a great sword with a wide arc that could knock back groups of enemies. A ranger might use a megid element rifle and kill enemies in one hit a quarter of the time. Someone may use a doublesaber just because it looked awesome.

I think most MMOs now are too unbalanced and tend to show one single path to advancement. That might cause the problems of feeling a face in the crowd and detached.

evizaer said...

I approach MMORGPs the way I approach other computer games: as games. I don't play them as a social lubricant (I don't need them to be), and I don't care that much about finding friends on them, though it is nice. Usually those friendships are fleeting and go only as far as use allows and do not extend into anything genuine.

Playing an MMORPG as a game is a boring endeavor, as I say in the post. For many people, though, the social options motivate them enough to continue playing the game. But for me, the social stuff doesn't give the game meaning--the game has to make the meaning on its own and the social stuff can only multiply that.


First: I don't know why you expect me to break the combat fixation. There are good reasons why combat is front-and-center in these games--primarily because it's a quick "thrill" and something people don't get to do in real life. It also leads to a lot of interesting mechanic decisions (most of which MMORPGs entirely miss and go for very boring ideas).

Second, I'm not complaining that every one of those core patterns I described is bad. I'm complaining that there is no appeal to these games (when playing them as games) aside from seeing how those patterns are manipulated by the game designers. The game designers of themepark MMORPGs barely ever do anything interesting with those patterns, so I'm bored with the genre.

Getting away from combat would certainly change the problem and make me interested in the games for a little bit longer, but I think you'd just introduce another pattern that everyone would copy and it'd become just as boring. It's not what you do that makes a game mechanics great, it's how you do it.

Kenny said...

Evi: I d expect you to move away from it in hopes you realize that most of the boredom comes from the combat-fixation. Combat leads to levels, levels lead to grind, grind leads to timesinks, timesinks lead to suffering! :] Not like you can't screw up a non-combat-oriented game the same way but at least it's not required by design.

(note: and let's forget about skill-based games because you either don't have advancement - this is a glorified fps then - or you end up with a terrible monster like GA - based on your posts.)

To twist your initial pain-argument a little bit, Michelangelo did paint the ceiling of a certain chapel, yet... If you limit the interactivity to combat and maybe crafting, it'l like telling the man to paint with mud and a straw (you know, cave paintings by cavemen style). I simply believe that what we have with those patterns (and most notably combat) is both choking game development and hindering it from progression.

And let's just not forget that we all got very, very much desensitivized regarding any and all aspects of combat (violence). It's not even a quick thrill to many anymore, just as "normal" as clicking in any given program.

Sara Pickell said...

An artist may excel no matter his tools. Even murals of staples ( ) may be exceptional works of art. One doesn't need more options to be more creative, being creative is making more options where others find none.

Kenny said...

I think it's safe to say that a game has more functions than a work of art (while itself can be a work of art).

That being said let me rephrase: how many iterations could you check out of the staple artists if they were to pop up in dozens before you are burnt out on the whole concept and simply stop caring, Sara?

Verilazic said...

I know that during the last year or so that I played WoW, I was no longer interested in the themepark aspects of it, except as a mild diversion. In that respect I agree with you Evizaer. On the other hand, during that time I treated the idea of distinguishing myself as a challenge in that world, rather than as something that can't be done. Plus, it also is a matter of perspective: do you need to distinguish yourself in the primary part of the game, or among all the people in the game, or perhaps only among a certain part of the community?

I suspect that the social aspects of these games allow people to feel distinguished on some scale (as a guild leader or officer, or the guy who runs regular pickup raids, or can be counted on by a lot of people to be a reliable healer/tank/CCer in group activities).

I have to admit, it seems like every time I read about a WoW patch or a new game, that it'll become harder and harder for people to be able to feel "special" in any way.