Don't Wanna Win
I originally wanted to call this piece, “Escapism vs. Competition,” but I realized it wasn't entirely accurate. More to the point, anything short of the title I've put up now seems to make it too analytical, when, for once, I'm having a knee-jerk realization that's hitting me right in the gut.
That realization is that when I play MMORPGs, I don't want to win.
I know that, for many of you, that might not make any sense, so today's Devil's Advocate will discuss exactly what that means.
One thing I've realized from the games I've played, especially from Japanese single-player console RPGs, is that I feel bad when a game actually ends.
When a game ends, it often means you've defeated the final world-ending boss, and you've saved the world or yourself or something important to you.
I could never put a finger on why I rarely finished RPGs, save for Xenogears and Final Fantasy VII, but now that I'm older and more in touch with my thoughts and feelings, I'm actually able to say why it bothered me so.
For myself, as a player, it meant that I had seen everything the world had to offer, because the game's limitations meant there was nothing else to see.
Unless you're a completionist or make a yearly pilgrimage to a game for the sake of finishing it at a higher difficulty setting, winning a game also meant leaving that world and resigning it to the finished game pile.
Victory Means Nothing
In MMORPGs, things done by people constitute small victories. Defeating an enemy, leveling up, gaining new armor... those are small victories.
The problem for me is that, these victories feel great, but mean little because I know that the emotional payoff isn't spectacular.
With a good number of MMOs now, the idea is that there is a great evil that needs to be found and destroyed to save the world... and there will always be a new evil threatening the world in your expansion, so you have to keep at it.
The emotional payoff of exploring a world and defeating evil is diluted in these sorts of games because the end game doesn't actually end. The victory means nothing because another obstacle similar to the last one is placed in front of you, kind of like those small victories I just mentioned.
Oh, and you can do them on harder modes for better loot? That's nice, but it doesn't help remedy the issue behind not having victory mean something.
The Alternatives to Victory
There are a number of ways to remedy this, but none of them are easy. Some of them are even heartbreaking.
The first alternative is to make a world where you set up a grand quest for your players, only that quest is impossible to actually complete, and thus the entire thing is predicated upon creating a lie.
That's actually the premise of the second arc of a Japanese light novel series called Sword Art Online. This “Fairy Dance” arc tasks players in the fully-immersive Virtual Reality MMORPG Alfheim Online with climbing the world tree, and unlocking the door that opens the fabled Elven city of Alfheim. The player race that first gets to Alfheim's King Oberon acquires the ability to fly in-game without ever needing to rest (which, if you're in an MMORPG where you can actually feel flight, would be amazing).
The problem is, the city of Alfheim, when the protagonist finally reaches it, doesn't actually exist. What he finds, instead, is that the system administrators of the game are actually using the connected players as an experiment in emotional manipulation. So I would not think this is the smart way.
The second alternative is to create a world without a world-ending enemy. This world constantly grows bigger, either by adding new systems for players to master or by adding new lands for people to explore on a frequent enough basis.
This is the typical sandbox-type approach done by EVE Online and Wurm, which appeals to a number of people immensely.
One other way, which I think games like The Secret World and Final Fantasy XIV are doing, is introducing a world filled with a major threat, but allowing that threat to develop.
In TSW's case, the Lovecraftian aspect of the game allows for major threats to be maintained because the overall cause of multiple points of weirdness has yet to be revealed (or at the very least, people are too busy fighting a never-ending war against the darkness). All in all, so long as they can keep content coming and the mysteries unsolvable, it should prove endearing, especially given the revenue model shift.
In Final Fantasy XIV's case, the threat developed and ended the world (and the servers), setting up a future where the entire world is reborn. This, I think, will be an interesting revival for FFXIV.
Of course, both TSW and FFXIV suffer a bit from still having a gear grind. At the same time, you had a world that meant something because there was always going to be something there to keep you hoping for the best.
The Bottom Line
Here's the bottom line for today: I don't want to win, because a world without a worthwhile struggle is one that means little to people.
In a game where victories bear few repercussions in the physical world, this is especially notable. I hope future games decide to focus on building a world (preferably through an engaging, non-deceptive manner) that people can escape to rather than simply creating a victory-required gear grind that brings home the point of pointlessness to people.