Instead, let me entertain your opinions on the way we design our MMOs. This column is dedicated to something I like to call the "Kamehameha Fallacy," otherwise lovingly known as the "Mine's Bigger!!!!!11one" syndrome. This fallacy is the reason you're addicted to MMOs, the reason you hate Dungeons and Dragons Fourth Edition, and the reason today's MMO leader (World of Warcraft) is doomed to fail all wrapped up into one little ball.
Most MMORPGs built today function on a core system of numbers we fondly know as stats. These numbers drive everything you do in the game, from what areas you visit to what items you can use to what monsters you can face and live to tell the tale. These numbers and today's leveling process are, without a doubt, the main feature when it comes to MMORPGs. You want to be "the best" in a world you love and cherish, but the world does come second place when it comes to items and experience.
But, if we go backwards in time to the original Dungeons and Dragons, the numbers were instated for one very real purpose -- to provide rules to guide situations. Sure, the stats were extremely restrictive and rolled under extremely harsh rules, but they were there because they played in the background. What was focused on was the outcomes of your actions and how you roleplayed them. What you did guided what you rolled and powered the story, not the story empowers the numbers.
We used numbers and the concept of chance to finally put to rest the usual childhood-esque bickering that would come from imaginary games. We can all remember those games of Cops and Robbers where you told your best friend Billy that you got him with your pistol, but Billy adamantly protests that he was safe behind his tree. The numbers killed these types of arguments by leaving the outcome to chance and giving the players the ability to deal with the situations that would arise, hence why roleplaying is an extension of improvisational acting.
But, with the rise of more modern MUDs, EverQuest, and other MMORPGs, we began to see a focus on the statistics because developers had a lack of storytelling capabilities. They couldn't constantly oversee thousands of players and be the storyteller for all of them. They couldn't give everyone custom built quests or dungeons at the drop of a hat. Instead, we built systems of static, unchanging content to give everyone an adventure based on their level and personal skill. When you were done with all the content, you had to replay the same content until you were at a suitable level to get to the next set of content. Thus, "the grind" was born -- the boredom of playing the same stuff over and over just to see new stuff.
Now, leveling and storytelling became one in the same. Getting to a higher level was getting to see more adventure and more content. The old Dungeons and Dragons style of storytelling first and statistics second was beginning to crack. As we made more MMOs, we didn't change what we did with them. Even as we began to see how we could introduce storytelling and more dynamic content, we didn't follow up on it because static content is cheap, effective, and lasts as long as the game is being made.
Soon enough, our games became nothing more than number comparisons. "My +20 greatsword is better than your +19 scythe!" The lore and reasoning behind your greatsword is no longer important -- no one cares that you crafted it out of the bones of 1,000 zombies and forged it in the fires of Mount Boom in an epic ritual told to you by the god of war himself. Everyone just cares that it's a +20 greatsword. Statistics first, storytelling second... maybe if the developer feels like it. (Really, does your Staff of the Doctor Monkey have a story? Pfft, no. You found it off of a boar, and no one knows how the heck a boar carries a staff.)
With today's modern games, like World of Warcraft, we've written ourselves into a game design loop of epic proportions. When new content is added, players want more of a challenge. But to offer them a challenge, you have to raise the bar on both the difficulty and the rewards offered. You can't give them rewards of a level equal to what they already have, no one would bother to do the harder content when they can get it from easier fights. You have to make the numbers bigger.
At first, this sounds fine. This sounds just as fine as Goku turning into a Super Sayian at the end of the Frieza Saga in Dragonball Z. It's epic, it's awesome, and you think it's ten times of cool. But by the time you get to the Buu Saga and Goku is Super Sayian Level 16 and a half and his friends are Super Sayian level 7, you begin to wonder why you even care anymore. (What the heck, blink punch?) Goku could destroy five planets by sneezing, and yet he still has trouble fighting with one pink marshmallow guy. His level of power has now become a moot point.
The same happens in World of Warcraft. We now have tier six gear! Oh snap! Now you can have more than 10,000 hit points! But don't worry, when the Wrath of the Lich King comes out, you can get Tier seven gear and have 20,000 hit points at level 80! (Yes, the video is fake.) And before you can scream "Kamehameha!" at the top of your lungs, Blizzard will release tier eight gear and you can have 50,000 hit points!
You keep one-upping yourself and things start to just sound and feel stupid. Not only does it feel weird, but it starts to kill old content at the same time. What was once epic is now child's play -- like killing Onyxia or running Molten Core. What once took 40 people to work in a coordinated fashion now only takes two. Five people can destroy one of the elemental gods, but they have no chance at killing trash in The Black Temple.
This is the Kamehameha Fallacy. If you keep one-upping yourself, you will eventually run into a point where power means absolutely nothing. You will eventually make content that can't be possibly any more epic than what you had before. This is why, quite possibly after Wrath of the Lich King, I'm going to predict the fall of World of Warcraft. You're going to lose players because they're going to start realizing that all their doing is increasing numbers in a database -- nothing more. And at some point, those numbers will hold absolutely no significance. Level 90, anyone?
Games that are designed as sandboxes, however, seem to avoid this little problem. The reason is, you're making your own story and carving your own path. You're not relying on the developer or static content to entertain you. Instead, you're taking the tools given to you and having fun with them against others who may be taking those same tools and using them to aid or hurt you. You have enemies, plot, social intrigue, competitiveness, rising action, falling action, history and more. The developer is happy because they don't have to keep writing content like a theme park builds rides. Your happy because your game may not play the same twice. When corporation X takes our your starbase, all of a sudden you have a new raid objective on your plate. Hello EVE Online, how are you today?
This is why you hate Fourth Edition. Not only have they streamlined the game for character creation, they've put more power into the hands of the DM. They focused on keeping the game moving and not on number smackdown. Skills have been stripped, classes simplified and numbers raised all in the hope that they can make things both simpler for newcomers and less focused on statistics.
You think you hate Fourth Edition because it looks like an MMO. In reality the MMO system, which blows for MMOs because it runs into the Kamehameha Fallacy, is great for Dungeons and Dragons. The reason you can avoid the Kamehameha Fallacy is because Dungeons and Dragons has the storyteller in the position of mediator. He can dumb down the encounters, string out content and make levels mean absolutely nothing. You can have a whole great campaign and never reach level 2 if the storyteller is good enough. And, most importantly, the storyteller can write an ending before the Kamehameha even becomes a problem.
MMOs lack a mediator, final authority and the all-important ending. They need to keep going because they are a business and need your money. You need to keep paying those subscription fees and with current game design, this is how they hook you. They're not going to tell you a story or anything like that, they just want to make you feel better than your friends.
Funny, how games with no ending will still inevitably run into one -- whether they like it or not.
Colin Brennan is the weekly writer of Anti-Aliased who owns and likes D&D Fourth Edition. When he's not writing here for Massively, he's over running Epic Loot For All! with his insane roommates. If you want to message him, you can do so in Second Life (SL: Seraphina Reymont), or send him an e-mail at colin.brennan AT weblogsinc DOT com.