Ernest Adams writes an occasional column for Gamasutra entitled "Bad Game Designer! No Twinkie!" In these articles, he details game design decisions as being "Twinkie Denial Conditions" or TDC's. His numerous articles focus on non-MMO games and some of the poor game design that runs rampant through them. I shudder to think of the list of TDC's he would compile if he were to draw his ire towards MMO's. The vitriol would flow like runoff from the Misty Mountains! Why, then, are they so popular? Why are MMO's full of conditions that players would not tolerate in other types of games?
Pain, thy name is Level Grinding.
Imagine if you will, a console RPG such as Final Fantasy or Fable, where it would take you many hours of mindlessly killing monsters to gain a single level? Where monsters, equal to your own level, only provided double-digit experience points? This simply would not stand. But why do we accept it so easily in MMO's? On the one hand, console games are often trying to drive a story home to you in about forty hours. MMO's have a story but it is less the focus of the game and more of fluff or filler for quests to give the players the slightest motivation to keep going. If you could gain a level or two in a few short hours of killing monsters in the countryside, the game would become full of high-level players. This would cause the game developers to continuously pump out higher-level challenges to keep their players interested. Is that all that bad? Hard to say. But it might cause players to tire of the game quickly and that could prove detrimental to the bottom line.
Quests: A necessary evil!
Questing in MMO's is like copulation with a cheese-grater: mildly amusing but mostly painful. In console games, only rarely do you have to re-visit an area once you've progressed beyond. That is not always true for those silly side-quests you do later on but for the most part, the games progress in a forward direction. MMO's aren't so guided. It is more like a trip to the DMV. Go here and get these papers and take them here. Now go back to and get the signature from this person here. Return to this guy here and get more papers and then go back to where you started and have them stamped. As a matter of fact, that sounds a lot like a MMO quest. For instance, in Lord of the Rings Online, there's a quest where you have to get a letter from a lone ranger (did I just say that?) and take it across a map-and-a-half to another lone ranger (ugh) only to have this d-bag translate the letter and have you jog it back to the first idiot! Are you insane? All this magic and ancient lore and the best you two can come up with is to send my dwarf jogging back and forth on his stubby, little legs? Ever heard of carrier pigeon? Heck, even a well-trained squirrel could do this! You're right. The alliance for good is truly doomed if this is the best you can do! And to think: someone at Turbine got paid to come up with this one.
Loot? What loot?
In console games, items drop like candy from a Thanksgiving-day parade. Useful items, no less. Potions to consume, weapons to use, and armor to wear and admire. In MMO's, the drops from your everyday monsters are paltry when compared to the drops from those rare bosses only found in instances. Even when you do get that drop you've waited months for, you have to roll for it. Rarely are instances solo, by the way. It can happen but don't hold your breath. So your options are crafting, which we've discussed before, and questing as we more recently examined. Either way, you're looking at some hard work and long hours to get that good gear. This is probably why our jaws drop when we see that glowing avatar standing like some obnoxious prude in the middle of town. Slowly turning around so we can all get a good look at his new super-rare, unique cape before running off to his cottage with shouts of "Noobs".
Why do we do the things we do?
There are more things we could discuss, of that I'm certain, but we have to stop at some point and ask ourselves why game developers seem to favor the tedious and monotonous gameplay and why we continue to indulge them. The vicious cynic in me stares madly at the almighty dollar sign. If you could "pass" a MMO in around forty hours that would seriously cut into the notion of monthly billing. If it didn't take hours upon hours of mindless grinding to get halfway to the level cap, MMO's wouldn't be the tremendous moneymakers they are today. It has to be something more. Is it that these immense worlds feel more real if we have jobs, houses, spouses, and chores? Is it the community that we cling to? Is it the addictive drive for more loot? The answer is all of the above. It is different for each and every player. Some like the grind. Some like the crafting. Some like the stories told in the strange fetch-quests and others simply like to play to get away from their real-life grind. Whatever way you cut it, the MMO business model won't change. Let's just hope the game design evolves so those designers can get their Twinkies.
Better get going, hero. The king needs his pie.