Quite a while ago now- perhaps as far back as eight to 10 years - I conducted a completely informal little survey in which I asked developers with experience working on at least one MMOG whether they felt the titles of that time were as much fun as they could or should be. The answers were preponderantly negative. This was as expected. I'd have been gravely disappointed if people had thought there wasn't significant room for improvement.
Flashing forward to the present, the industry has definitely progressed in this regard. However, as you can gather from today's column heading, I'm not entirely happy with the extent that has actually been achieved. Of course, this begs the question "Why not?" I'm not presumptuous enough to suggest or even think I can provide a definitive answer, but I do have a few thoughts I'm willing to offer up for consideration.
The first five to 10 minutes
Even a decade ago, it was abundantly clear that MMOGs could start serving up the fun sooner. Unfortunately, there was a significant blind spot in this respect. And it still exists now, although to a somewhat lesser degree. What I'm getting at here is the frame of reference that typically begins after installation, which can eat up more than 10 minutes all by itself. In the case of free to play releases, the total is even longer since we can also add the download period before we ever get to account creation and login.
Of course, we don't have to sit there staring at our monitors during these steps. But is this time even slightly enjoyable? Can it be put to better use? Are we ever given the chance to do anything? Or do many developers and publishers still appear to be stuck on the assumption that the game experience doesn't start until we log in?
It's rather frustrating that Disney's Toontown put forward an example few teams have followed. In case you don't know, it was designed so character creation could begin within seconds of starting the download. On a phone modem, no less. The reason behind this was to address children's short attention spans by getting them involved right away so they wouldn't have the chance to shift their focus to something else.
What I don't understand is why similar thinking hasn't been applied across the board to other audiences regardless of age. It wouldn't have to be character creation; anything would be better than what most games have, which is nothing, especially if it's more active than reading.
The first five to 10 minutes II
This time, I'm talking about the initial play experience after my character has been created and arrives in the world. How often do I get to do or see something really cool right away? It does happen, but not nearly often enough. So, even from this more conventional perspective, an improvement that has been talked about within the industry for more than 10 years still hasn't taken hold as much as I believe it should have.
It also strikes me that the F2P sector should be more actively and aggressively leading the way. After all, since new players haven't bought a retail box plus a month of playing time, their monetary exit barrier is basically non-existent. As a result, it seems extremely important to start the process of building emotional investment as soon as possible. Is there a better way to do this than by presenting some kind of special moment or experience immediately upon arrival?
Rinse, lather and repeat...
I have spent more hours of my life than I care to remember killing various kinds of critters and monsters over and over again. Was it ever truly fun? Only in a couple of relatively limited ways. The more frequent one happens when I face an adversary for the first time, and something about the encounter is different enough to set it apart. Unfortunately, this feeling seldom endures past a couple of repetitions, almost always because the newness factor simply isn't strong enough to last any longer.
There's no question content is expensive to create. But does that have even the slightest impact on how much fun I have when I do something for the second, third or umpteenth time? Should I cut a game any slack whatsoever for this reason? Do I figure it's okay I'm not enjoying myself as much as I'd like because it would have cost more to do so? Of course not.
It has long been my opinion that experience curves are generally too steep, which not only leads to a need to repeat content, but also exacerbates it as characters reach higher levels and need greater amounts of time to attain each successive one. There has also been too much reliance placed on advancement as a reward in and of itself. Although I don't deny this has a degree of validity, I believe that if the actual play were more consistently fun, it would - and should - matter far less.