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Killing Fun by the Numbers

William Murphy Posted:
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We’re all rats. 

We get set down into a box and we’re told to press a button over and over until we are assigned rewards at random intervals.  If we stop pressing the button, we get electrified by the grid below our feet: a diabolical way to keep us pressing that button.  It’s a clever way to keep us locked in our operant conditioning chamber lest we break free and realize that there’s a way out of the box should we choose to cut loose. 

We are gamers.

We play our chosen MMOs and we kill virtual creatures repeatedly in the hopes we will be assigned shiny gear at random intervals.  Should we stop killing the virtual creatures in search of our loot, we won’t be able to compare to our peers.  We won’t be able to progress our characters.  In the shift to subscription gaming, developers must find a way to keep us playing and paying. 

They are trying to get us addicted, and the scary part is that it’s actually working.  I won’t deny that I have fallen time and again for the lure of the shiny.  At heart I am an achiever when it comes to the Bartle Test.  Most modern MMOs are designed to snatch people like me.  I can’t even remember the last time I wasn’t subscribed to some game or another.  But as developers begin to realize the need to keep us hooked, they rely increasingly on mechanics that reward a ridiculous amount of repetition and along the way they’re forgetting to add in the fun.  The hero of MMO developers isn’t someone like Richard Garriott anymore; it’s B.F. Skinner.  In the process of working so hard to get us to pay a subscription, a lot of studios seem to be forgetting to make their games fun.

Even in WoW, as filled with multitudes of content as it is, amounts to little more than a glorified slot machine.  I love leveling up my characters as much as the next guy.  I love seeing the sights, reading the lore, and interacting with my friends, but I’d be lying if I said the power of the loot piñata held no sway over me or my actions.  This is the truth of human behavior that Blizzard has managed to latch onto and exploit for the past half of a decade.  They even lampooned the practice themselves (intentionally or not) by creating a quest reward “Carrot on a Stick” which would make a player’s mount run slightly faster.  In the Pre-BC days I can’t recall a single person who didn’t highly value that little doodad almost as much as their Tier 1 armor. 

Games like WoW are designed brilliantly to keep us playing and entertained as long as possible.  It used to be that character progress in MMOs was incredibly slow.  But WoW changed that.  They made leveling an easy climb to the top.  Finally it seemed like a company understood that it didn’t need to keep us moving slowly along to keep us paying… and then we hit the level cap and found out what we needed to do for our class armor sets.  The process has been simplified these days sure enough, but 400 Frost Emblems for Tier 10 armor is still no drop in the hat.  You’ll still be repeating the same content over and over to achieve your goals, and that’s just the course of action Blizzard hopes you’ll take. 

And that, for me, is when the fun stops. 

No more do I play MMOs for the gear.  I don’t care about the payoff.  If it’s a grind, I avoid it.  And here, I define “grind” as something bland that I must do repeatedly for a pittance of reward.  If I’m playing a game where the only way to progress is through mindlessly slaying mobs because I’ve run out of actual questing content to partake in, I stop playing.  If I am told the only way to get the game’s best weapon or armor is by repeating this content over and over again, then I don’t try to obtain that item.  It’s my very own MMO credo. 

I don’t very much enjoy being treated like a rat.  And I don’t suspect game developers really want us to be treated as such either.  They’re really just trying to find a balance that will keep us both enjoying their game and paying to do so.  It’s a business.  In anything that is serially delivered, like a TV show or a magazine imprint, the only way to keep that business going is to keep your customers hooked.  MMOs that base their entire revenue model off of the subscription process are stuck in the same conundrum as your favorite weekly sitcom.  Our money keeps them working, which in turn keeps us entertained.  But for MMO design balancing the lab-rat practices with the actual fun is proving to be a difficult task for many designers.

I wonder then if ArenaNet isn’t onto something profound with their Guild Wars franchise.  The sequel by all current accounts is coming along smoothly and looking like a true evolution of the MMORPG… and it won’t carry with it a subscription.  A long time ago games were made without a thought to how long they should last.  Rather, they were designed to last tens of hours for $50 and not hundreds of hours stretched out across a $15 monthly subscription and a boxed retail price to boot.  It’s when that latter pricing scheme came to be that metrics and player-behavior came into the equation and ruined the fun for everyone.

So maybe Guild Wars 2 will be a huge hit and be universally acclaimed for reviving the ingenuity that has been lacking in the MMO genre and show publishers that not so much stock needs to be put into the subscription model, thereby ending the reign of terror that is operant conditioning videogames.  Or maybe we’ll find that our $50 gets us an all-you-can-pull sitting at the slot machine and this whole argument will be rendered moot. 

Whatever the case, I hope that developers start thinking less about how to keep us paying $15 by way of “Science!” and more about how to keep us paying $15 because we’re actually having fun. 


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.