Casual Play: MMOS Could Learn a Few Lessons From Grand Theft Auto
By: Steve Wilson
Editor's Note: This is an edition of a weekly column by Staff Writer Steve Wilson. The column is called "Casual Play" and will look at some of the stranger or more frustrating events in MMOs as seen by Mr. Wilson. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of MMORPG.com, its staff or management.
In the years that I've been playing MMOs, I've gone through many phases of love and hate. It seems that most of the early games really catered only to hardcore players. The demands on time and skill were so incredibly high that only players willing to devote a second life had any possibility of advancing enough to see any more than a fraction of the world. And one play style, killing things, was the only way to explore those worlds. MMOs catered to and consisted of hardcore players who were good at one play style. In that same time however, there were single player games that were able to create a perfect mix of hardcore and casual elements expanding the single player market immensely by drawing players into genres they weren't particularly attached to. Grand Theft Auto 3 was one of those single player games that drew in an audience beyond what was considered normal for the driving genre. If an MMO had copied some of those design elements the once mythical million subscriber barrier would have been broken much sooner.
Right off the bat, it wasn't the violence, the drugs, or any of the hysterical excuses that evangelists, nanny state politicians or overprotective parents claimed that made the game a success. Being able to kill pedestrians and street walkers had little to do with the game's popularity. Plenty of pseudo news shows and parent groups tried to make that connection, but mindless violence alone doesn't make a game popular. Bad Day LA and Postal are easy enough proof of that. The list of single player games that have banked on that premise alone and failed is a lengthy one. Being chased by police also wasn't a new game play feature; both the Need for Speed series and Driver had already delivered games with that element without the same blockbuster success that GTA had found. There was no single element of GTA hadn't been tried or done in other games and yet something about the game made it a huge success beyond the normal driving games audience.
My belief is that it was the successful delivery of both linear storyline with the ability to pursue a player's own personal goals that made this game wildly successful. This was exactly what MMOs desperately needed at that time. GTA gave players a very linear storyline of revenge that they could follow along fairly mindlessly. However, they could also put that storyline on a back burner and explore the game's cityscape at their leisure, creating their own set of goals. Some players ran road races vying for first place, others performed stunts to see how big a stunt bonus they could earn, some explored the whole map looking for the hidden items that granted more powerful weapons. A player could hop into the game and try stealing one of every type of vehicle, or try their hand as a cop, fireman, or taxi driver. The game had a plethora of options that allowed the player to chose from a wealth of diversions and explore any one of them for a while. When all that got dull there was always the storyline to follow along again. But the sheer number of diversions gave the game serious longevity. A player could hop in and find a play style to match their mood of the day or minute. It was vastly more interesting than the choice to kill or craft offered in today's crop of MMOs. This ability to go back and forth between developer delivered story and player created goals is what I believe was the primary reason for the popularity of GTA. Players were the ultimate ones to choose whether to burn through the game's content as fast as possible, or screw around trying to jump their car up onto rooftops.
This is something that MMOs could walk away with and would vastly improve the virtual worlds we have now. MMOs that approach the virtual world style, like Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, offer new players very little in the way of coming to understand the world. The player is instead tossed in and expected to be able to create their own goals without fully understanding the mechanics or rules of the world itself. This attitude has traditionally alienated casual players and unnecessarily depressed the number of people willing to pay a monthly subscription to be entertained by a video game. MMOs that take the opposite approach of being a game first and foremost tend to give players quite a bit to do but lack fun diversions. World of Warcraft for example has a lot of great storylines but the diversions outside of that tend to require massive amounts of time or grinding the same mobs and/or dungeons over and over. The MMOs that lean towards game tend to lack having diversions that make the player feel any investment in the world. The player is really only there to grind out story line quests.
I believe that what's needed is the very thing that made GTA successful. Give the players some story to get the new and experienced alike on the right path, introduce them to the world, and create context for being in the world. Then offer enough fun diversions beyond that so players can set their own personal goals. Of all the games on the horizon Lord of the Rings Online looks to have the best shot of accomplishing this. There's tons of quests and a strong central back story that get the players into the game. There's also some interesting diversions like monster play that don't benefit the players characters but create an interesting alternative to the grind. Turbine also has a track record of constantly adding in new content including frivolous diversions. This could very well be the game that bridges the divide between casual and hardcore player drawing both groups in for completely divergent reasons.
Kill, craft, and maybe decorate, those don't really cover the full range of moods that I might experience or want to play off in an MMO. In the same way that GTA offered a heck of a lot of options I'd like to see virtual worlds one day mimic. Give me the freedom to create my own goals, but have that safety net of quests and crafted content waiting when I get bored with the sidelines. GTA was able to deliver this freedom quite well, MMOs could only help themselves by learning the same lessons.