Monday, August 23, 2010

Does Anyone Actually Play an MMORPG

Chris at Game by Night brought to my attention the current WoW raiding scene. I am wondering if this is a winning scenario for Blizzard.

Back before Burning Crusade, before badge gear, raid progression was set in stone. Players went Molten Core, Blackwing Lair, Ahn'Qiraj 40, Naxxramas. Zul'Gurub and AQ20 were mixed in occasionally to get a few odds and ends. If a guild was fresh to the raid scene, they went to ZG and MC.

In Wrath, this insertion point progresses with the aid of badge loot. Naxxramas and Ulduar are obsolete, and subsequently see little action. It seems like the vast majority of fresh raid teams try their hand at ToC (after acquiring their mound of badges).

This is what players wanted. Raiders in 1.x cried foul when Naxxramas was released, claiming that they would never see that content (never mind that they still had parts of BWL and AQ to see). Now the newest raid is but one stepping stone away, but this stepping stone can be pretty mighty for unseasoned raiders (as Chris points out).

I would be very curious to see some numbers comparing these two systems. This is completely speculative, but let's say that the percent of players who "consumed" part or all of raids was something like: 40% MC, 35% BWL, 20% AQ40, 12% Naxx; while with in Wrath: 35% Naxx, 30% Ulduar, 30% ToC, 25% ICC. In terms of content consumed, I think the Wrath system is better. Sure there are some players who are late to the game and won't see Naxx and Ulduar (because they jump right to ToC), but those same players wouldn't see AQ and Naxx in 1.x. At least now they could potentially go back to the obsolete raids to see the pretty lights.

In terms of gameplay though, I think the former system is superior. I don't think either is particular good, but as a friend of mine points out, "[Guilds] could still go in [to AQ] and feel like they accomplished something. Now you are just silly if you go to Naxx to get gear."

Observing these two systems, I can't help but wonder if playing an MMORPG is really "play". CrazyKinux linked a very good article about a psychologist's definition of play, and this stuck out to me:

To the degree that we engage in an activity purely to achieve some end, or goal, which is separate from the activity itself, that activity is not play. What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions. The actions are merely means to the ends.

In play, however, all this is reversed. Play is activity conducted primarily for its own sake. The playful student enjoys studying the subject and cares less about the test. In play, attention is focused on the means, not the ends, and players do not necessarily look for the easiest routes to achieving the ends.

This is in relation to play in general and not just games (play with goals), but it seriously threatens the notion of playing an MMORPG. Don't think about "fun"; fun is an illusion, a bag of tricks to keep you entertained: random item drops akin to slot machines, leaderboards, etc.. When was the last time you actually played an MMORPG? Used your character to perform some action for sake of that action itself? Visited a dungeon you liked not for an Achievement and not for a piece of loot? Or even just fought a monster to play around instead of consuming it like a resource?

When there isn't actually any play involved, raid content dies. Naxx and Ulduar will be forever empty like ZG, BWL, and AQ with its enormously entertaining C'Thun fight. The "carrot on a stick" design mantra of WoW is great for entertaining users, but later on players will painfully grind reputation and badges.

Don't think I'm picking on WoW; the entire genre is like this. And it is very unfortunate.

12 comments:

Klepsacovic said...

I think there is play, at least early on. I know when I started WoW I was playing. Loot, reputation, raiding, these were all meaningless concepts to me. I spent a lot of time wandering and dying and being curious, enjoying the experience itself. I don't know when it was that I got tricked into thinking there was a right way to play and that way was to maximize my stats and scores and whatever else.

Sometimes I still play, but I don't think it's anywhere near as often as when I started. Newbs have the most fun, at least until something bursts their bubble, then they just feel like noobs.

I think there is a last stand of play: exploration. Sadly much of that involves going to places we're not supposed to be.

Zed said...

I find that the only real challenges in most MMOs are self-imposed, but I think all self-imposed challenges fall under the category of play. If one is deliberately not doing the content the easy way because one relishes the challenge of doing it under some sort of handicap, one is certainly not doing it primarily for the in-game reward.

DiscoDonut said...

Gray's definition of what activities aren't 'play' is basically a definition of what players call 'grind'. This is interesting in that it means that grind/play is largely subjective; by choosing the right goals, you can have fun where other people don't.

Andy said...

I suspect, though I have no evidence to prove it, that many guilds will organise Ulduar runs purely for the fun of it, just because Ulduar is a fun instance. It's not got the oppressive gloomy atmosphere of Naxx, and it can still present a fun challenge, especially on some of the hard modes.

Obviously it's not the hive of activity it was in the 3.1 days, but I don't think it's quite as deserted as Naxx.

motstandet said...

@Klepsacovic

I think this is why so many newer MMORPGs are failing. Seasoned players don't see the dull gameplay any more; they immediately pick up on the reward cycles. They want to know how long it takes to level, what raids and PvP leaderboard exist at launch, if they can display trophies in a "house".

Players should really be asking, "Are any of the main game activities (combat, crafting) innately fun?" If they are, then the reward structures are bonus and will enhance the entertainment instead of BEING the entertainment.

@Zed

If that self-imposed goal is just status or bragging rights, then it isn't play either. If you decide to level to cap without dying, but hate every second of being cautious, then the activity is not play. If you enjoy the challenge for its own sake, then it would be play. As DiscoDonut points out, it is very subjective.

@DiscoDonut:

Of course "grind" is subjective; it is very difficult to distinguish players who are doing the activity for its own sake or for some external reward. But when the gameplay challenge level remains at Meditative or Boring after hours of "progression", you have to wonder if the activity or the reward is actually tickling the senses.

@Andy

I have experienced low-intensity runs with my raid team, and they were highly entertaining. Everyone is socializing with VOIP; players are goofing off, trying strange tactics, and just generally enjoying themselves. And on the other hand I have experienced those same dungeons with a different, equally progressed guild, and the atmosphere was very stoic, and let's say... "efficient" :)

Tesh said...

"Play" is about all I do in these things. "Progression" tricks actively get in the way of my play, which largely consists of exploration of both mechanics and content.

I'm probably "doing it wrong", but if I play an MMO, I'm actually playing; doing what I do because it's fun to do, not because I want to get somewhere or acquire something.

Logan said...

i think in our competitive culture gaming is more closely related to "sport" than "play"

a good example i think would be golf.. in golf you basically play against yourself, you try to get better and better every time you go out on the course.. you can compare yourself to other players if you want to, but it's not a team sport and the amount of fun you get out of it is entirely up to you.

the only game i can think of where you actually "play" is maybe something like the sims, or roller coaster tycoon... except i think those even have achievements and lots of rewards oriented systems now.

personally i think that sports are a lot more fun than just playing... it's fun to improve yourself, it's fun to compete with other like-minded individuals....

i don't think games have ever been about "play"... even old games like pinball and pac-man were all about getting the highest score.. and comparing your score to your friend's score.

i guess i just don't really buy the idea that in order for a game to be good it has to ascribe to this definition of "play"... honestly i don't think any game ever created could be considered something that you purely "play".

Logan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
motstandet said...

I don't want to radiate a Holier Than Thou attitude; I've certainly been addicted to reward cycles in a variety of MMORPGs and regular games. But as I'm becoming jaded and a bit cynical about where games are headed, I just wish some company would stand up and say, "You know what? We don't need all these tricks. Players will enjoy our game on gameplay alone."

I don't know if you read the whole article, Logan, but there is a passage related to competitive games:

Similarly, children or adults playing a competitive game have the goal of scoring points and winning, but, if they are truly playing, it is the process of scoring and trying to win that motivates them, not the points themselves or the status of having won. If someone would just as soon win by cheating as by following the rules, or get the trophy and praise through some shortcut that bypasses the game process, then that person is not playing.

Logan said...

i would love to see better gameplay in MMOs... and i think we're getting there slowly... the MMO genre just moves so painfully slow.

there are some games on the horizon that look like their gameplay will be solid enough that they won't have to rely on reward systems so heavily (vindictus, Tera, Continent of the ninth)... but they probably still will just because that's what it seems that players want.

now that i think about it.. i have just "played" in WoW... but not since vanilla... i used to run Dire Maul tribute runs just for fun... even after making 20+ runs to get the staff of the ogre magi for my mage and... something... a 2h sword maybe?... for my hunter... i also used to solo the elites in winterspring just for the heck of it.

i also "played" in aion during my brief time there... but all the invisible walls just completely killed my desire to explore.

i totally understand wanting developers to focus on gameplay... but i don't think it's that easy to separate the rewards from the "play"... without some sort of win conditions it's not really a game.. it's just an activity.. and unlike an activity like building model cars or something... with videogames you really don't have anything to show for all your hard work in that activity.

Kenny said...

I think it's pretty safe to say that the answer to your question lies in the simple fact that nothing is fun forever - yet retnetion is one of the main issues of mmos. I'm sure you did this math before.

Nils said...

I "played" in WoW Vanilla. I also "play" when I level my 20. alt to level 20-60 just to start up the next alt.

The success of WoW is rooted in its perfect gameplay. The fun of controlling your character, the precision, the animations. In the athmosphere of the virtual world. It is not rooted in quick&dirty teleported Dungeon Finder runs with anonymous jerks from other servers.

I probably killed thousants of elites in the plaguelands solo during vanilla. I had several chars with maxed out reputation on all battlegrounds.

Right now I'd love to play some epic vanilla battleground; but there aren't any!!

All I could do is join a 20 minutes queue for a 15 minutes distraction with resilience and without communication. No thanks.