Free for All: Looking for experiences, not challenges

Wurm Online screenshot
When I was around 20, I used to watch my girlfriend's younger brother play Nintendo games. It was a pretty intense scenario. He would become so angry when a boss fight took away one of his lives or when a leap at a moving platform would fail that he often chucked that poor controller at the wall. It happened again years later after we'd graduated to the internet and PC gaming. The strangest thing is that he would return to the challenge over and over until it either broke his will or his device or he finally conquered the challenge. I never quite got it. Surely such frustration sucked any enjoyment out of the entire process?

I tend to be more lazy when it comes to my digital adventure. I hate to repeat content, and I would rather leave the raiding and boss fights to those with more patience or to those who simply have a desire to win that matches their tolerance for frustrating situations. I would rather become a trader, crafter, roleplayer, explorer, or even adventurer in certain titles.

Just spare me the overwhelming challenges while I game.

Vindictus screenshot
Here's an example: I recently let our Massively village deed in Wurm Online go without rent. The game takes some amount of dedication and time, and I wasn't playing as much as I might have liked. The deed was costing me money that I didn't see the need for. The main issue was the way the city had grown up and become, well, a city. I settled the spot months before, on the most remote island on the server. It was literally packed with giant scorpions and wolves when I arrived, so I had to slowly build a fence on the shore to protect me until I could start a house. Later, I paid for the deed, and the village grew as my co-workers and our Massively readers came and helped. It was a lot of fun, but soon enough, some of the members of the village were asking for some sort of leadership or guidelines for behavior.

"Don't get me wrong; I love a good challenge on occasion and will even take on great monsters or scary dungeons. The problems set in when things start to become too scientific or organized."

Understand that in my real life, I try to stay very organized. I can be a bit on the airheaded side, so keeping a good calendar and a yellow pad handy have helped a lot. While in game, however, I need to explore, take it easy, or play a role. Don't get me wrong; I love a good challenge on occasion and will even take on great monsters or scary dungeons. The problems set in when things start to become too scientific or organized. When the Wurm village started to become a well-oiled machine, I missed that feeling of settling a new place or exploring through the mists of early morning. I missed the immersion in polite chaos that an MMO offers.

So I let the deed go. It broke down and started to rot away.

Recently I jumped back in the world of Wurm to see just how things had fared. It was actually quite eerie to see the old plot, half-rotted and grey, and to remember how much hard work had gone into it. At the same time, that old feeling of exploration, discovery and even a bit of fear had crept back in. The old place was gone; an eerie ghost town had grown up in its place.

Free-to-play games give me the freedom to explore and game to my heart's content without the lousy frustration that repetitive content can bring. Sure, certain titles like RuneScape have layers upon layers of different things to do, and a game like Ryzom has intense, wonderful lore to help with roleplay, but I still find that the desire for exploration trumps all of those. I love to find a new game, to jump in head-first, and to see where it takes me. If it's not to my liking, I move on. Free-to-play allows this.

Wizard101 screenshot
It might sound as though I am a sort of anti-gamer, someone who doesn't actually participate in the lifestyle but frequents the hangout. That couldn't be further from the truth. I play more, and probably spend more, than most gamers who contribute to only one or two titles. I just don't grind my way to max-level and repeat content. I would rather move on to something else or take my time in a game by coming back to it maybe twice a week. What tends to happen is that my characters grow or level just as any other avatar in the game, but it happens much more slowly. I tend to think that players level or outgrow content much too fast anyway (see RIFT or Star Wars: The Old Republic), so my gaming style extends the life of a game. I spend less time in a game per week, but I probably last longer overall.

"The most immersive, wonderful experience that designers can dream up is never endless, and players will seek out every nook and cranny of each game."

I can definitely see how this might seem like admitting the flaws of standard MMO design. It's closer to the truth to say that no game, no matter the budget or brilliance of its designers, can outlast the modern MMO fanatic. No world can withstand the constant number-crunching, data-mining, and speedy growth of today's gamer. The most immersive, wonderful experience that designers can dream up is never endless, and players will seek out every nook and cranny of each game. I admit to this flaw in me and my fellow gamers, and I take steps to prevent myself from burning out, moving on too early in the story, or giving up without investigation. Free-to-play lets me try on a game, explore it a bit, and grow my character slowly. I can avoid those aggravating boss fights or that boring stat grind if I want.

In another example, RuneScape is often called out for being "grindy" or "nothing but a grind." I have been perplexed by this. While the game does offer the opportunity to grind up levels in any one of its many skills, it also offers the ability to complete achievement-style quests, to explore, and to roleplay. I think that this common opinion of the game was fortified by younger gamers who saw the many, many levels of the many skills to be some sort of rule, a sort of guideline for what is an acceptable activity while in game. You grind because you must. All of this chatter about grinding completely detracts from the game's ability to hand you unusual quests, weekly updates, and fantastic lore.

People often feel the strongest need for rules, guidelines, and challenges in the most open sandboxy games. When the world is open and players can become almost anything they want, standards are developed. During my time with the Wurm deed, I found that some players needed rules and guidelines so badly that they couldn't enjoy themselves without being told what to do. That's when I knew it was time to let the thing go, at least for a while.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.