When I wrote the column about taking the time to read the stories that are behind the quests in your favorite MMO, I got a few comments from players who really could not care less about the story, they just wanted fun mechanics that in the end gave them great loot with which to make their character more powerful.
This column is not directed at those players, but is about them. Perhaps you don’t understand how someone can play a game with that mindset, and you might think those kinds of players are bad for the game. I want to tell you that those kinds of players are great, and it is they who have really forced MMO developers to step up their game in terms of design over the past ten years.
A lot of MMOs get accused of being a “grind”: doing a repetitive task many times in order to receive the reward you were looking for. The definition of grind has changed over time, and usually with a new batch of players coming onto the MMO scene, but at its core it is almost always considered a negative thing because grindy mechanics are repetitive in their very nature. Players don’t want to be forced to do the same thing over and over again, they want a variety. Over the years they have gotten variety, but as each new batch of players comes in they will always protest it’s not enough.
Modern MMOs break the grind into two parts: leveling, and end-game. Leveling is the most generous type of grind: rewards are frequent, don’t involve intimate knowledge of the game mechanics, and bring countless hours of varied environments to look at and monsters to fight. For a lot of people a “near perfect” MMO would be one of infinite levels, where the experience of leveling never ended. The obvious problem here is content creation on the developer’s part. They just spent 4+ years making enough content to satisfy the leveling grind for at best three months, and at worst a marathon weekend bender.
Thus we come to the inevitable end-game. Unless your end-game is “roll another character”, players are going to want to make their main character more powerful. Levels are no longer a “thing” that can be used to entice a player, so the concept of a level morphs into something else like Reputation, Achievements, or gear. Now this is where a real grind feeling will set in.
Developers need a player to feel like they are constantly working towards accomplishing something, but don’t have the resources to create eternal gameplay. What they end up making is either “dailies” or something akin to a Raid: a mechanics-heavy piece of content that can be repeated (usually at time-locked intervals), giving out fractions of a reward for each completion.
The rewards are important to. Few players will want to participate in the repeatable content if they don’t see a value of doing it for their time invested. Make a highly desired reward and attach it to a reasonable amount of time invested to get it and players will voraciously consume the content.
Developers can make mistakes. In an effort to add variety to the end-game, they usually have multiple options of raids and encounters, sometimes all giving out the same currency used to buy endgame rewards. Players can be like water and will often find the shortest, easiest, path to what they want. If end-game raid A takes 30 minutes for 100 tokens, and end-game raid B has a method of beating it in 10 minutes for 70 tokens, players will pick raid B over and over. Raid A will fall off their radar as “not worth the time”. Developers may then feel forced to do something about it.
I’ll let you in on a secret: developers will debate long and hard and end up making raid B harder, removing or changing the method that makes it faster. They know the players would rather raid A simply be made to last 15 minutes instead of 30, bringing parity back to the two, but instinctively they want to get their reward schedule back on track, and that track meant that there was a time-to-reward ratio that is getting all out of whack thanks to the 10-minute raid B. And you’ve probably seen this in action, too. A change going the opposite way than the players wanted. This isn’t out of spite, this is mostly a too-strict adherence to a game design and not wanting to throw carefully planned, metrics driven data and schedules.
However, the future is happening right now. New MMOs are arriving and each one is pushing the envelope of what “endgame” means. Like the previous generation, something new will catch on, some new mechanic to lessen the grind, or make it seem less at least. And like the previous generation of players, new players will come in and complain that things are too grindy.
Then you too can sit back and think, “You think THIS is grindy? Back in MY day we had to...”
I’d like to pose a question for you all. What motivates you still playing your character when you’ve reached the level cap? I’ll write an article about some of your answers in a future column.
Matt Miller / Matt Miller is a 22 year veteran of the computer game industry and columnist for MMORPG.com. He was Lead Designer for City of Heroes over five years, and has "seen it all" when it comes to MMOs (but still learns something new every day). You can always reach him on twitter @MMODesigner
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