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Strange Sands

Strange Sands is a place for ideas about the game industry, both tabletop and online. I'm interested in understanding how game writers can make better stories while allowing players to create their own interactions within the game world.

Author: Ortwig

Whatever Happened to Mysteries in MMOs?

Posted by Ortwig Saturday January 26 2013 at 2:38PM
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Many early computer adventure games intermingled plot and mystery, action and puzzle – Myst, Silent Hill, Indiana Jones  and the Fate of Atlantis, Zork, Ultima, The Longest Journey.  Playing these games growing up, friends and I spent long hours taking notes, making maps, figuring out plot connections – all this alongside the combat that could crop up at any time.  Figuring out how to open the mysterious locked chest or opening the secret door, or discovering that the king was possessed was half the battle, and when you did figure it out, it was often as exciting as the most challenging combat in the game. 

Even better were the games where nothing was truly spelled out for you – you found clues as you explored, and serendipitously the story or mystery emerged as you put the pieces together.  Myst was the best at this; you were simply dropped into the situation and left to stumble across strange notes, books, sounds and images, and left to put 2 and 2 together.  It was amazing.

So why is the investigation mission completely missing from the modern MMO?  I think there are a few reasons:

The rise of the console: console games, which inherited from the stand-up, coin-operated arcade game, had action combat as the primary focus.  At the same time the early computer games were making their way into the home, arcade style games such as PacMan or Galaga or Asteroids were making their way to the console.  These games did not have the up-close feel of the PC, and were meant to be played on the TV from the couch.  In contrast, the PC was an in-close, more intimate experience more conducive to “thinking games.”  The console game was all about impressive action, movement and shooting.  Later, when console style games such as Castle Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake came to the PC, you started to see a mixture of the console and PC play styles on the PC as well.  Many gamers who had previously played consoles now flocked to PC games as well, making games like Doom and Half-Life blockbuster hits.

The primacy of combat: Combat games are popular, no doubt about it.  The Call of Duty series remains one of the highest selling video games ever, and it’s been proven that game companies can reach huge player populations by making combat the primary focus of the game.  Even in games where other gameplay options are provided, combat is often the highest, if not the only, priority for the game developers to “get right.”  Many players will simply skip games that do not possess combat as the primary or sole feature.  Sure, atmosphere and story and puzzles and crafting systems are all nice to haves, but without combat, the game is a non-starter.

The push for mass audiences: Game developers, seeing the influx of the casual/console gamer to the PC game market saw an opportunity to reach vast audiences by simplifying and streamlining systems to make it friendly to the layperson.  These folks previously might not play such games due to their complex systems.  Both EverQuest and World of Warcraft saw huge increases in subscribers by targeting these new players and making the barrier to entry for an MMO extremely low.  Warcraft polished its systems so finely (and advertised the game so well, using celebrities like Mr. T and William Shatner) that it made it incredibly easy to get in and get going.  The trend has continued with content targeted clearly at a younger audience (Pokemon-style pet battles and martial arts pandas).

The MMO as a casual endeavor: MMOs reached the mass audiences when many of the more difficult elements were removed.  Players wanted to just get in and out with their accomplishments, and really didn’t want to be challenged too greatly.  Playing an MMO was taking a break, sort of like knitting or playing cards, something to be done on the side.  While the MMOs certainly reserved content for “hardcore” players, they increasingly became less of a focus, as it became known that the casual gamer made up the vast majority of players.

The MMO as a multiplayer rather than a solo game: I put this last because it the most controversial and also the one most players will point to.  It is also probably the subject of a whole different article.  The idea is that “solo elements” such as puzzles and investigations do not belong in MMO games.  This I think comes from a great many perceptions about what an MMO is supposed to be, but I think the thought here is that solving mysteries is something you can only do as a solo player, perhaps because these types of games were traditionally solo adventure games for the PC.    

With these clear changes in target audience, wise from a business perspective, but perhaps distressing to the players who grew up with the games that were more immersive and challenging, it’s no surprise that “thinking elements” were pushed deep down on the development priority list.  But was the baby thrown out with the bathwater?  I think so.

Given some time – Warcraft now stands at 8 years – some of the audience wants something different.  Certainly, WoW still stands as king of the hill with over 10 million subscribers, and will continue to dominate the MMO landscape – its audience is very loyal.  The MMOs that have tried to duplicate WoW’s success with similar gameplay, have found the strategy backfiring.  Star Wars: The Old Republic started out strong but lost millions of players very quickly when it became apparent that the gameplay was too similar to WoW’s

But so far, games that have tried something different (or even something “old-school”), have almost invariably reached a smaller audience, and are quickly “punished” if they overestimate sales or their target audience.  The games that have done well are the ones who have targeted their audience well, and planned for these smaller numbers.  EVE Online, though it boasts only 200,000 subscribers has steadily grown in numbers since it was released, and continues to be a stable company, in part because it has made no effort to duplicate WoW’s sales numbers (it’s also a critically acclaimed game).  Guild Wars 2 has reached a wider audience (2 million), I think, because it made efforts to target those players who wanted an alternative to WoW, and made sure to deliver specific features those players were expecting.

But back to those once-loved features such as puzzle solving and investigations, all the “complex” content – are they moot for today’s mass audiences, no longer loved or needed?  Is simpler, combat-strategy-only the way of the future?  Or is there an audience for those thinking features that is smaller but equally relevant and profitable given audience research, targeted development and a well-planned budget?  Are investigations too “solo”-friendly in a game that is a massively multiplayer game? 

My final argument: there are many teams who work together to solve mysteries every day – just watch any episode of Law & Order.  The recent ARG (alternate reality game) for The Secret World had people all over the globe on the forums working to solve pieces of a larger puzzle.  These kinds of scenarios, not only belong in an MMO, but are a long-neglected element that drive a more immersive and fascinating world.

raww writes:

I too have realized that mystery is one of the missing ingredients in what made older games so enjoyable. I believe that part of the problem you mention is the availability of walkthroughs, wikis, and guides. It was much harder in the days of early computer games, and even as recently as 5 or 10 years ago, when not everything had a wiki. Now it has gotten to the point where it is rather hard to find a game where you can't instantly Google solutions.

Nevertheless, I think you raise a great point. I wish they would add more logic and less combat-centric functionality to MMOs. The reason a lot of us play MMOs is not because we like to kill things but because we like progression. There is a lot of room for exploration of progression that does not involve killing monsters. I'm a bit old to be killing monsters anyway. I'm so used to it in my MMOs that I don't question it much, but when you really boil it down, it just doesn't insprie me. But killing sells. Dumbing things down also sells. Nice article.

Sun Jan 27 2013 10:14PM Report
Ortwig writes:

Hi Raww!  Thanks for your thoughts.

I realize that combat sorta comes with the territory these days and don't mind slaying monsters, as long as there's other non-combat aspects to the game as well.  I especially like it when thought is required, even in the action missions: maybe you have to figure out your approach to the monster, or remove some protections before you can tackle it.  As long as it isn't just a dumb walkthru.  I don't even mind kill X missions once in awhile as long as they don't completely dominate the game.

But, yeah, I think our tendency to look up walkthroughs is our own fault really.  We always talk about immersion and a true feeling of being involved in the world, but then we Alt-Tab out to a browser and start typing into Google.  I can see that if you are really stuck, but I think many people do it as a matter of course.  I always argue to people that the game is more fun when you figure it out for yourself -- the sense of accomplishment is great.  The investigation mission especially challenges you to do this -- there isn't any immediate death threat, so why not just use your noggin?

Impatience is a terrible disease.  :)

Sat Feb 16 2013 11:38AM Report writes:
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