Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Currencies of the Realm Part 1

This was going to be a single post, but as I've typed it, I've realized that no one in their right mind would read all of this at once.  So therefor, for your sake, here is part one of my rant on MMOG's.

Today I want to share with you something I came to realize while killing time at a Starbucks in the middle of rural Georgia (yes, I appreciate the irony too).  I've been giving MMOG design a lot of thought in recent weeks.  This may be due to the fact I've got a pet project in the wings that I'll share with you when the time is right, but for now allow me to continue.  I'm fairly certain I am not the only person in the world currently frustrated by the homogenous nature of the MMOG scene as it stands today.  With only slight variation and with rare exceptions, every MMOG released to date seems to simply be a repackaging of the same tried and true swords and sorcery formula which has changed little since our parents used to play it and it was called Dungeons and Dragons. This even goes for games which aren't high fantasy but are instead repackaged in a science fiction or "modern day".  That is merely different window dressing on what is essentially the same freaking window.  So what kind of a formula are we talking about here? Mostof us could probably rattle it off in our sleep, but for redundancy's sake lets spell it out:   

You are (insert character name here) a young and promising (insert gender, race, and profession here). You have arrived in (world name here) to find it a place full of danger, strip malls selling armor and weapons, and a seemingly endless supply of weak creatures to pillage and plunder.  Early on you are informed of the grave impending danger of (antagonistic power here) and are inevitably given a unavoidable quest which will surely lead to more unavoidable quests which will unquestionably set you on a collision course to go head to head against the dreaded (antagonistic power here).  But before you can Save the World (just like the guy who signed up right after you) you must prove your unswaying dedication to your goal and complete submission to the Powers the Be (the game devs) by grinding.  What is grinding you ask? Grinding is what game developers stick between Meaningful Content when they want to slow their players down. Its what makes MMO's financially feasible and it's what keeps the story team from absolute nervous breakdowns.  

But as a lowly player you're not supposed to remember any of that and focus on the task at hand.  In specific, you must plow your way through the faceless and oft nameless hordes of Slightly Weaker Beings in persuit of the coveted Experience Points.  Nowhere is it explained why on earth experience points(and their much more easily recitable cousin level points) are so damn important to everyone in (world name here) or even who in the world is even keeping trak of such a arbitrary statistic but its commonly accepted that they are Very Important indeed.  Provided you are a persistant and easily baited player, you will inevitably not only accumulate the sacred XP, but also a small landfill worth of Marginally Valueable Stuff which for some unexplained reason,  was being toted around at random by members of the faceless hordes you slaughter. 

Through your travels you learn that some of these items can combined together through some arbitrary process to create Expendable Items of Average Utility. They're always expendable, becuase if they weren't you might start to realize what a absolute drag grinding is.  Every blue moon or so, one of the faceless horde will drop the highly prized Rare and Obscure Item of Great Value, which of course can be used to either further your genocidal spree or to create a Very Expendable Item of High Utility. So you play on, as the quests begin to blur into each other, the story line lurching along in syrupy hiccups between hours of grind.  Then, just when you've fallen into the groove, the plot reaches its inevitable climax and you, the (gender, race, profession here) must summon your greatest effort and several friends with questionable attention spans and bad internet connections to defeat the One True Evil.  

Then its over.  You've reached the top and suddenly the grind has lost its meaning because now your experience points and your level suddenly seem so arbitrary.  After all, what does the person who has defeated the ultimate evil do after?  You hope that the developers will hurry up with that promised expansion, the one which will unlock a whole new world of faceless creatures and a extension to the plot, and along with it a reason to start grinding again.  But until then you are a lost soul, wandering about the world fighting the few surviving Very Difficult Creatures in the hope they will provide a challenge and more rare items.  But there's never enough of them, and even when you do defeat them, you've only joined the swelling ranks of the Players Who Have Done Everything, and you realize you look a awful lot like all the others. Depression sets in, and you stop playing, vowing to never play a MMO again.  Yet before long you find yourself sitting at your computer excitedly, with the brand new and highly marketed (game name here), hoping that this one is somehow different from the last.

I nearly fell asleep typing that.

 Now as I said there are exceptions, as there are to any sweeping generalization.  Games like Planetside and to an extent EVE Online try to mix things up by making it about PvP territory control. Some get more serious with their content creation tools, others try and mix it up with encouraging socialization.  But the truth of the matter is the sheer rank and file of the MMO scene follows the same pattern, and frankly as a gamer and as someone with game design aspirations, it's getting a bit old.  

Up next in part two of this rambling diatribe: I'll attempt to describe the beginnings of a system that actually lives up to the stratospheric expectations I've just set for myself.  


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