Time for another of my meandering musings on video game design and the industry in general. As ever, don’t look too closely at any facts I present in here, as it’s all written from scratch in one sitting from the viewpoint of someone who has no idea how the industry works, nor it’s systems, limitations or complexities that might well explain pretty much all of my queries. In any case, this time I’m writing on the subject of Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Games, or MMORPGs for short, or MMOs for even shorter. More specifically, is the grind-to-level-up style of gameplay inherent in the genre, or is it a fear to try a new approach that is holding back what could be a very exciting type of video game?
I’ve never really been that into the idea of MMOs. Don’t get me wrong, I can see the allure of having a couple of mates that play the same game, with whom you could team up and play with in a persistent world. However, in my experience this aspect of an MMO would almost always be overpowered by the far stronger need to ‘level up’ your character by continually killing the same creatures until you were experienced enough to gain a higher number next to your name, and slightly improved killing skills. Whatever game I played (and I have tried the free trials to World of Warcraft, Eve Online and City of Heroes/Villains), I would find myself surrounded by people apparently having fun by simply clicking on an enemy and waiting for it to die, then finding another enemy to do it again. I attempted to get into the game by mimicking their behaviour, but would find myself bored after an hour or two.
So what makes other people enjoy these games so much? It’s not that I wasn’t open minded, after all I had tried these games before dismissing them as the awful trash I had already decided they would be. Luckily, I needn’t stop at my own bewilderment, as I had a number of friends who did play MMOs, and for a reasonable amount of time too. I spoke to such a person about why they played a certain immensely popular MMORPG that shall remain unnamed.
Thoughtshake: So, in your own words, why exactly do you play World Of Warcraft?
Friend: I guess I have far too much spare time on my hands, while im not doing my 3 days a week job.
Thoughtshake: But you do enjoy it?
Friend: I dunno. It passes the time, and it’s fun to make loads of cash.
Thoughtshake: What do you spend the cash on?
Friend: Nothing… Upgrades, I guess.
So, after that encounter I still wasn’t sure about the allure of WoW and nor, it would seem, was the person I talked to. However, just why people play the genre isn’t the point of this article, so instead of pointing out the failings of the current system, perhaps it would be better to focus on what might be done to refresh a genre which needs gameplay as varied as the settings the games invent.
One of the major problems people associate with the current MMOs is the ‘grinding’ phenomenon – where players would willingly repeat certain actions for an indeterminate amount of time until they achieve what they are aiming for – be it a certain amount of a commodity, or an increase in their level. However, I don’t see this as a ‘real’ problem in the sense that the games are created in order to encourage such behaviour. Rather, it’s the player’s attitude to the game that makes them feel like they need to constantly be progressing through the game rather than just fooling about and having fun. After all, how many WoW players do you know that log on to have a bit of fun and not focus on trying to get to that next level/earn that certain amount of gold? It would seem that MMOs are structured such that the only real rewards players are given are for either increasing in level, or having lots of a commodity. As a result perhaps they find the game fun at first, when they’re being rewarded fairly frequently due to the low levels of difficulty, but then find that unless they keep up that pace of progression, they will not keep finding those fun rewards. Due to the nature of ‘leveling up’, each level is harder to attain than the last, which naturally leads to players forgoing the more casual aspect of the game in favour of the more mundane but rewarding (in terms of experience) tasks.
To tackle this, either the levelling system would need a complete overhaul, the designers need to branch out into creating different rewards for other activities, or there needs to be no levelling system at all. The first suggestion, the levelling system having a complete overhaul, would perhaps be the most likely of the three to come into fruition within the real industry as it stands now. Given the huge popularity of games like WoW, newer developers would be somewhat unwilling to try anything radically different, and Blizzard (the developers for WoW) are unlikely to change anything major when they own a never ending cash cow like World of Warcraft. So how could it be done?
First of all, the reason people want to reach a higher level is generally for the status it gives them within the game world. In essence, they like showing off infront of people not as good as them. In order to keep this but reduce the need to grind to achieve such levels, I would suggest more than one type of level, so while one person might achieve a high level in combat from grinding away at killing enemies, but another might achieve an equally high level by simply exploring. Of course, where they to fight the person who had relentlessly hit several thousand giant ants would undoubtedly win, but in terms of bragging rights the numbers would be the same. However, in order to cater to most people there would have to be a large number of different tiers to climb and would mean that a lot more content would be required.
The second suggestion would be the heaviest on new content, but could be the most feasible option for keeping the structure of the core game the same. The idea is that while you can just go out and bulls-eye several dozen womp rats in order to receive your reward, other activities could give you other types of rewards other than experience, which might be rarer and only available by straying from the usual path. An example of this in practise, although not in an MMO admittedly, would be Bethesda’s Fallout 3. While it was possible to simply kill as many enemies as it would take to gain another level, the majority of players chose to explore the world more thoroughly and as a result found a world far richer than would have been discovered if the player had remained on the main plot’s missions. It also awarded you for almost any action, and as a result meant that it was varied enough that while you were always doing an action, it was rarely the same one over and over again.
The third suggestion is by far the most radical approach, when looking at the current state of MMOs. Without levels, you would undoubtedly have a sizable amount of people shouting angry things like “Where’s the game?” and “What’s the point?” or “Now how to I compensate for my penis?”, but in the long run you could well find that people will keep playing. For this approach, I would compare what it would like with games like GTA. Given the level PC hardware is currently at, I believe that such a game would be entirely feasible with some minor cut backs on graphics. In such a game, you would still be assigned missions, but you would not gain experience. Instead, you would receive money that you would spend on perishables such as ammo and weapons that degrade over use. Such a game would have to be founded on a strong community so that it would not peter out before it comes into it’s own, but if the developers kept introducing new content (such as Rockstar are for GTA IV in the form of the Xbox 360 DLC), I believe people would play.
Obviously there are problems with each approach, and there are a number of very good reasons why MMOs are designed the way they are at the moment, but in order to make a fun, lasting game where the veteran players and the newbies alike can enjoy themselves some vast changes are required. I am contemplating following this article with another on the same subject, looking at the genre more broadly (I realise not all of the problems with MMOs can be pinned on the levelling system and people’s need to be better than each other), but if you feel I’ve overlooked anything blatant drop us a comment below.