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MMO Litmus Test

Dana Massey Posted:
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Dana Massey: The MMO Litmus Test

Last time, Dana argued that MMOs had to make the "journey" more fun. This week, he expands on the thought train that barely got out of the station and develops a test that shows the problem with MMOs.

The following article builds on the thoughts first explored in the column "Why Not Make The Journey Fun?"

This week, I open with a simple test. I want you to honestly ask yourself or a gamer friend the following two questions:

Acid or base ain't the question now!

Where are you in [insert any single player RPG here]?

And where are you in [insert any MMO name here]?

The answer to the first question is almost definitely a description of where you are and what you’re doing. The answer to the second is much simpler: “Level X of Class Y.”

I tried this quiz at E3 and not a single person answered any differently. Predictable and instantly, they’d describe where they were in Fable 2, for example, and then immediately name class and level for the MMO.

It’s simplistic, but this is the core problem that I tried to identify in my last column, but never quite arrived at.

When people measure their progress through the mechanics and math behind a game instead of what they’re doing in it, it changes how they approach it.

That is why people complain about the grind. That is why people demean the genre as paying someone to work.

Think about this objectively. Fable 2 is not functionally any different than any MMO, save that its single player. The practical reality of both games are people walk up to someone, get a quest, go on the quest, return that reward to the person who gave it to them and so on.

The only real difference between Fable 2 and an MMO is the way developers and gamers approach these identical mechanics.

In Fable 2, you complete a quest to open up the next one. In an MMO, you complete a quest to fill up a bar, which then allows you to do more quests.

I mean seriously, who the hell can tell me what “level” their Fable 2 character is? No one cares. The mechanics are all there, but it’s really not the point.

It’s subtle and I came close to this conclusion in my last column, but it wasn’t until I read the comments, had a couple weeks to spin this around in my head and then talk to all sorts of people at E3 that I realized the simplicity of the problem.

In fact, this kind of half thought I put out last week is exactly what leads some games astray.

Let’s go back to Warhammer Online. Last week, I argued that the reason WAR’s RvR did not work out as intended was because the developers mistakenly assumed that players wanted to have fun, when in reality all they wanted to do was level up. While I don’t entirely back away from that statement, it is not quite that simple.

The logic at Mythic was impeccable. They had a game people loved. Dark Age of Camelot was still, at that point, very popular and people adored it. The biggest complaint was that the first 50 levels were basically a training course for RvR. People ground through them like no game before or since just to play the RvR.

Still waiting for this...

Thus, when it came time to make Warhammer Online, Mythic did what seemed logical. They took “the fun part” of Dark Age of Camelot and put it throughout the entirety of Warhammer Online.

This is where it all went wrong. By attempting to “make the journey fun” they actually ruined the fun part.

Now at this point you’re probably wondering what this idiot is rambling about. I realize this sounds like insanity, but let this idiot tell you, the paradox of ruining the fun by making a game about the fun part is dead on.

Warhammer Online is after all still an MMO and what’s the first thing they boasted? “Not only can you play RvR from 1 to 50, but you can level up through it too!”

And so renown was born. It’s a secondary advancement track within Warhammer Online and it essentially ruined their game.

When people did Dark Age of Camelot, initially at least, they did it for fun. Later they added subtle advancement tracks, but the stage had been set. They had ground their asses off to get there and it was time to slay some Trolls. The initial setup of Warhammer told people they needed renown. And they acted like it. Once the table is set, no amount of reprogramming will tell players to play differently.

The sheer importance of renown even encourages grinding. In a recent keep raid, I won the dice roll and got a fancy sword… that I couldn’t use because it required a renown level that I, as a casual RvR player, would never get.

I took the gold rather than grind scenarios for 10 hours.

Another good example is their keep combat system. It is stolen from DAoC. No point hiding it. It’s the same basic mechanic in both games. Yet, in DAoC people fought like bandits over those keeps. In Warhammer, one side takes it and immediately abandons it. It’s become Realms vs. Environment as real people never actually fight.

How can the same system work beautifully in one game and not at all in the other?

The moment advancement became an intricate part of RvR, players did what they will always do. They sought out the most efficient means of advancement and suddenly what was once an epic, eternal WAR became two sides looking for the most mathematically efficient means possible to advance their Renown Rank.

And as we all known, that’s when fun becomes a grind… and Warhammer Online has been bleeding subscribers ever since.

It’s taken me two columns to get my head around it, but I honestly believe this test uncovers the simple problem of MMOs. As long as progress is mentally measured through an experience bar and not some other means, be it story, unlockable items or territory, then MMOs are destined to remain a niche genre (and yes, I am aware of how many people play WoW and I still think MMOs are a niche genre).

There is hope, though. As much as I’d like to take credit for all this, it’s clear many others have come to this conclusion sooner (and over the course of a lot less columns). The best looking games at E3 took this to heart. Bioware’s Star Wars: The Old Republic looks a heck of a lot like a cooperative single-player RPG. The narrative seems, at a glance, to be a large part of the focus. While other exciting games like All Points Bulletin and Global Agenda are much more focused on character parity and unlockable content.

It’s a tired cliché, but if the “next generation of MMOs” keeps this in mind and doesn’t take the easy way out when it comes to progress bars, we might well finally be in for that golden age we’ve all been waiting for.

It’s about time MMOs leveled up.


Dana Massey