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MMOWTF: Linear Systems

This week, Dan Fortier takes a look at "linear systems" as a trend in MMORPGs.

Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Dan Fortier. The column is called "MMOWTF" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Fotier. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.

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You just had to see this new show. All the critics raved that it was the next classic and it's been sold out since it was announced. You had to buy a scalped ticket on E-bay just to get in for the premiere. The seat is comfy and they even pass out delectable H'orderves on shiny silver trays. Eventually the light dims and a man in a top hat who looks like he belongs in a carnival struts across the stage in front of the curtain and bows dramatically.

"Ladies and Gentleman, children of all ages! Welcome to the release of the greatest thing since sliced bread! A spectacle fit for the Gods themselves. You will be witness to a performance that will leave you breathless and steal your heart away with its complexity and drama. You've waited patiently for this day and we're proud to show you what we've accomplished. Now without further ado, let the show begin!"

The velvet rope is pulled, the curtains part to reveal the stage beyond and the audience gasps at what is revealed: The town drunk is sprawled out on a threadbare rug mumbling something that might be poetry into a broken microphone in between sips on his bottle. Behind him two cheap sparkler fireworks flank an inflatable three ring pool with a child jumping up and down splashing water everywhere. In the background you can see half-made props laid out in random fashion and two set- builders deeply engrossed in a game of backgammon. The man next to you turns with a stupid grin on his face and says:

"This is great! I wonder what they do for an encore?"

If this reminds you of the release of any modern MMO, you're not alone. I'm not going to bemoan the fabricated hype that surrounds the release of most broken juggernauts or hurl textual abuse at the latest game to disappoint me though. I realized it's not the half done design or the shoddy server architecture that really makes me shake my head when I log on: It's the brute force stupidity of linear advancement!

I can only imagine the focus groups that guided game Devs and companies down this path. Dolphins can jump through hoops and monkeys can pound out a sequence of buttons if you give them a banana when they're done so why should humans be any different right? The same kind of people who are intimidated by game systems with depth are also the ones who get lost when they get off the highway or stand in front of a microwave yelling "Cmon! I don't have all minute!"

Let me clarify here a bit what I mean by linear systems. Most MMOs are little road-worlds that lead from easy to hard with some stuff in between. If your goal is to do anything but level or train skills your are pretty much S.O.L.. You can take your hard-earned money and craft weapons, armor and er...stuff that helps you fight monsters. You can be social and chat it up with your friends at a bar, but that's pretty much makes it a chatroom with a monthly fee. In short the genre is about making a game, not a world and I'm OK with that.

The real problem with this design is that players are pretty much ushered from zone to zone by the quests and the diminishing returns on the XP you gain from the monsters you find. Games that have tried to divorce themselves from this are billed as 'void and lifeless' because apparently not having a game shoving you through its content is 'tedious' by a mirthless majority. Since (most) MMOs have never really tried to be difficult or complex outside of the standard templates and special skill spamming, the real hardcore players have to be content with designing macros and smack talking in chat channels. No matter whether you play fifty or five hours a day though, you're still on the same merry-go round.

We design these beautifully hand crafted worlds then divide them up into level tiered areas and make them inaccessible unless you have put enough of your time currency in them a la Freelancer. In that kind of environment you'll have to excuse me for not being impressed with your fancy mount or leet player-owned mansion. Maybe if we ever get some games that give you a chance to lose, it might mean something. Remember that handles are on the treadmill for a reason folks.

No other genre of game allows as many people the opportunity to interact and it's all being flushed down the toilet with systems that remove any kind of free will and choices with consequences. Hopefully with all the attention on the blockbusters, investors don't forget that some of the most successful titles did more than just lead you by the nose to the endgame.

Sorry to wake you pal, but this is the last stop. You'll have to wait another week for this train to elitism. Sign a comment card if you like and drop it in the circular file with the others and I'll dump..er..read them when I get a chance. Watch your step!

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