The Miseducation of MMO Players

White to play

I believe the only way to do anything is “all in”. When I started getting into anime in the 80s, I took Japanese lessons to better understand. When I watched the street racing anime Initial D recently, I learned for the first time how cars were tuned for specific road conditions (and watched a lot of Top Gear with a new appreciation).

I’m now working my way through Hikaru no Go, a cartoon about a middle school-er who is taught the game of Go by the ghost of a medieval Go master (go with it, it’s a kid’s cartoon) and rises to become a pro. So I am learning Go, and after a couple of weeks, am proud to report that a fifth grader placing stones randomly would only beat me 80% of the time. After years of study and constant play, I could perhaps come to challenge a Japanese middle schooler.

I don’t know where I got the impression that Go was a game of harmonious play striving for perfection of form and pattern and beauty and stuff. Hikaru Shindo, protagonist of Hikaru no Go, had this stunning insight that the stones on a Go board were like constellations of stars in a divine arrangement… just before he was absolutely, completely trounced. Go is war. You capture territory. You take prisoners. And if you have an argument about the final score, God hope neither of you brought a weapon.

There are video games that take this level of study and play; Starcraft, clearly, is one such. FPS shooters, as a genre, typically take intense training to master. Anyone playing one of these games has to expect to lose, and lose a lot.

Back in 1999, you had almost no choice in MMOs. In UO, new players were just fodder for gangs of griefers who would hunt you down and kill you no matter where you went. In EverQuest, level 2 moss snakes would kick your newbie level 1 character to death. Best run if you saw a rat. Now it’s common to solo to max level without facing a challenge even once. This is an argument MMO gamers have again and again.

Sure, PvP MMOs like Darkfall and EVE Online provide challenge the same way other challenging games do, by pitting you against actual people. But is there no room for a challenging PvE-based MMO? At all?

I think I got a good handful of achievements in Rift just for getting through the tutorial. Like “Hey there, Tipa, GOOD JOB!!!! Woohoo! Yay you! YOU GO! You’re very special! You can move FORWARD!”

Here’s the game I want to play. Seriously, build this and I will play it.

You start off at level 0 with 100 gold. You can spend 1 gold for 1 point of xp. Gold can be put in the bank and safely accrue interest, so if you just put your stash in the bank and wait, you’ll gain levels. Naturally, you can borrow gold from the bank, for which you will pay interest. Every so often (maybe daily) you get another piece of gold. There is no other way of getting experience. You can lose xp and levels. You can trade gold with other players for things you need. In all other ways, it is a standard fantasy MMO.

It’s a MMO on the gold standard, right? “Randworld“.

Games like Halo and Call of Duty and Starcraft are incredibly, enduringly popular, and they don’t put much stock in being forgiving, and accessible, and all-inclusive. These games will punish you until you rise up, accept the challenge, and bring your “A” game.

Even PvE MMOs need to do this. You’re not gonna have eleventy gazillion players ANYWAY, so why not accept your niche status and create a game that will challenge people to be better, more engaged, more alive? After all, the only achievements that matter in a game, are the achievements other players give you.

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17 thoughts on “The Miseducation of MMO Players”

  1. MMOs where the first games that started to record very extensive metrics. They were the first to find statistical evidence that dying makes people quit. After WoW, the genre had a destroyed self-confidence. Developer didn’t try to make fun games, but tried to copy WoW. And they FAILED!

    That’s why nobody has the strength to make a challenging PvE game.

  2. Nils, I was trying to guess why challenging games keep players. The only answer I came up with was that they were free, so the games avoided having an official “I QUIT!” moment by never having a bill come due.

    So it would seem there’d be an opportunity for a F2P, but non-PvP, MMO to fill a need.

  3. People left EQ and the other early games in droves for an easier game. It’s true. And to the detriment of the genre.

  4. I do love a challenge. My first MMO was FFXI and that was a pretty tough son-of-a-gun. Forced party play. exp loss and pretty challenging end-game. I miss that game but it horrifies me to level up again in that type of environment.

  5. Their is a difference between challenging and punishing. Early mmos were purely punishing, death equated to hours of lost progress. In a shooter or a fighting game if you lose you can immediately queue right back up for another match or another round to practice and get better. The only thing holding players back in shooters/rts/fighters is skill, in mmos it’s arbitrary constraints to keep people playing as long as possible.

  6. If you want challenge and concequences, go play a new game on permadeath on a tough ruleset.

    Dont voluntarily engage anything at your level or below. Dont quest at your level, only above it. Leave a zone once it gets easy. Dont use the Auction House. Adventure in what you can find or craft. Dont repeat content.

    And once you die, reroll.

    Just because everyone else is playing EZ Mode doesnt mean you have to.

  7. TheRemedy is on the right track with those comments… Challenge level can be re-introduced to the MMO genre when “death penalty” is eliminated. A game that is both highly challenging coupled with profound death penalties does not permitt the type of attitude that allows a player to merely shrug off a defeat and try to learn from it… they are too pre-occupied thinking about what they’ve just lost and how long it will take to re-claim it.

    I also loved and think fondly of the early MMOs like EQ, but I have no desire to return to them… although I have great memories of overcoming those challenges the simple truth is those early MMOs were punishing and brutal towards their players.

    Hopefully games on the horizon (like Guild Wars 2) which has already eliminated the death penalty and introduced the concept of “movement” to their combat system (btw – it’s clearly gonna take awhile for the players to catch up to that idea if the demos are any indication) which should allow for more interesting and tactical combat all by itself might be able to crank up the challenge level to a more satisfying range and have the players react like, “oh ya? kick my butt will ya? well I’ll show you!” and just come back at it more determined and invested.

    Hey… I can hope…

  8. Are you serious about that gold game, Tippa? As in you’d play it? Or am I not getting the tone involved?

    ArcherAvatar: As far as I can tell guild wars 2 hasn’t removed a death penalty – if no one revives you, you have the classic death jog from some waypoint, back to where you were. Which is pretty lame – why bother coding in a time waster for players?

    I think these games have trouble determining any fail point, which goes all the way back to gygax’s designs. With your traditional game, like a FPS, you have a level start, middle and end. What does a mmorpg have? middle, middle, middle, middle….

    Your classic FPS can send you back to the start of a level and that works out. While mmorpgs are floundering on what the heck to do – can’t send them all the way to level one! But can’t just do nothing every time they are hit ( see my example of this: ).

    I think they need to do the reverse of the traditional design and grant people bonuses for doing well – like go for one hour of gameplay without being knocked to 0 hp and you will GAIN 500 gold (can be won once per RL day/X number of times per RL day)

  9. Bit late to thread here ‘cos I’m just back from holiday, but you said something too interesting to let pass unremarked.

    Do you *really* believe that “People left EQ and the other early games in droves for an easier game. It’s true. And to the detriment of the genre”?

    In what way can the continued success of the “easier” version of the genre over any “harder” version that continues to be or becomes available be detrimental to that genre? If more people are playing, more games are being produced and more money is being made, in what sense are you using the word “detrimental”? Aesthetically? Morally? Philosophically? It can’t be practically, because for the change to have been detrimental in any practical sense the genre would have had to be capable of being shown to have been in decline as a result. Which it surely can’t.

    For my money, “easier” or “harder” simply doesn’t come into it. What’s required is “more entertaining”. My favorite gameplay in any MMO, by a very wide margin, is the part where my character starts out with nothing but the rags on his back and a not-very-pointy stick and steps out through the crumbling gates of his seen-better-times village to seek his fortune. Once he’s found said fortune, my interest wanes.

    For me, the perfect MMO would have my character take several years real-time to rise from penniless orphan to respectable, land-owning citizen. There’d be no dragons, no flying mounts, no massive raids, no interplanar portals. There’d be hedge magic, cantrips and rituals, bandits, brigands, wolves, bears, lions and the occasional ettin and hill-giant. Everything would be small-scale, down-at-heel, low-key. Gameplay would be about survival. earning a living and bettering oneself.

    BUT… it wouldn’t be “harder”. Hard is bad. Difficult is bad. It would be as “easy” as post-WoW games have become; it would just be much, much, much SLOWER. And much , much , much more detailed. And Intricate. And complex. Quick to learn, slow to master, that’s always the key.

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