Have you noticed the creeping casualness that permeates all MMOs these days? When is the last time you died in a starter zone? What happened to 40 person raids that have dwindled to 5? Do you feel any sense of achievement in the race to end game, or is the end game the only achievement?
It all started with the drive to make MMOs, which in the EQ and Ultima days were a niche and hard core game, more accessible. Accessibility was the mantra when I was leading the World of Warcraft team. We labored over the user interface for the game, going through many iterations, to find one that would be easy and intuitive for players new to the genre. We created a massive number of quests to lead the player through the world, making sure that they never had to think about what to do next.
But even that wasn’t enough. As WoW grew in population, reaching ever more casual gamers, new expansions introduced even more refinements. Quest trackers were added, and xp was increased so that it was easier to level through all the old content to get to the “new stuff” of the expansion. Gear from the a new expansions first quests made raid gear from previous expansions a joke. And the level curve became faster and faster until we reached a point where everyone is just in a race to get to max level, and damn everything else in between. Why care about level 20 gear when you would blow by levels so fast it was obsolete before you even logged off for the night?
And it worked. Players came in droves, millions of them. But at what cost? Sometimes I look at WoW and think “what have we done?” I think I know. I think we killed a genre. There are many reasons I feel this way, but I’d like to discuss one in particular, the difficulty curve.
The main thing we lose when lowering the difficulty curve is a sense of achievement. When the bar is lowered so that everyone can reach max level quickly, it makes getting to max level the only sense of accomplishment in the game. We lose the whole journey in between, a journey that is supposed to feel fun and rewarding on its own. Nobody stops to admire a beautiful zone or listen to story or lore, because there is no time to do so. You are fed from a fire-hose of quests that you feel compelled to blaze through, whose content is so easy and quick to accomplish, that you are never in one place long enough to appreciate the incredible world around you. We feel bored by these quests, simply watching numbers on our quest trackers count down to completion before we are fed the next line of quests. And you don’t feel satisfied from playing the game because it never challenged you.
And since these quests are so easily and quickly accomplished, the developer is not motivated to spend any time creating rich quests or events for players, since they will only be done once and discarded in the blink of an eye. Developers have no choice but to rely on kill 10 rats, fedex or escort for nearly every quest, and to do so with the least amount of work possible, lacking in depth or story. Its simply not worth it to do anything more. This makes the situation even worse, as not only do we not have a sense of accomplishment, but we enjoy these quests chains less and less as they become simpler and more cookie-cutter. The moment to moment gameplay suffers. And its this focus on throwaway quests as “content” that is putting MMOs into a very deep bind.
As content gets easier in order to appeal to a wider market, it at some point also pushes that market away. We feel bored by the same formula over and over. We never explore the world, having been indoctrinated to just follow a laundry list of tasks. There is no thinking, and not much choice, as the ideal path is spoon fed to you in a linear fashion (ironic how open world MMOs have become linear quest fests). It may be great for relaxing and having a fun couple hours of gameplay, but it doesn’t last. No wonder we have such a huge crowd of jaded and bored MMO players. Every MMO that follows the WoW formula is a trivial exercise, dominated by rote and convention, trading off the joy of the journey for a series of meaningless tasks. And when we race to the end, we expect some kind of miracle end-game that will keep us playing. It never does.
It’s not the end game that we should be worried about, its the journey. An MMO should be savored, a lifetime of experiences contained within a single, beautifully crafted world. The moment to moment gameplay should be its own reward. You should feel like you could live your whole life there, not by having infinite quests, but by having a living world that makes you feel good just for being in it and experiencing all it has to offer at your own pace. Its not about the competition to max out your character, its about a way of life and a long term hobby with enduring friends.
In our own game, Firefall, we try to focus on the journey, not the end. We work hard to create a beautiful world, and you never out-level a zone since the dynamic events scale to players. Our quests and missions are dynamic, letting us put more work into making the event fun to do and letting you do it as often as you like and because you are challenged by them. Our combat focus is tuned for skill and moment to moment fun, and because it require dexterity and aiming, you can always challenge yourself to do better. We also have an intricate progressions system, one that focuses on lots of tinkering on the journey to maximizing your battleframes. Our crafting and resource system is one of the deepest and most complex of any MMO, having more in common with the well loved crafting system of the original Star Wars Galaxies than the simplified crafting systems of current MMOs.
Firefall is not a trivialized distillation of an MMO. We found that adding a little difficultly and depth has actually made the game more fun, not less. Maybe, just maybe, as an industry we’ve made things too easy, and its time to get back to games being challenging as well as fun.