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The Soapbox: You have an hour to grab my attention

Shawn Schuster

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

We're at an interesting time in the progression of the MMO genre. Development studios and publishers are beginning to realize that there's much more to the "MMO" buzzword than meets the eye. You can't simply tack "Online" to the end of a successful single-player IP and get a multi-million-player hit.

A few years ago, this wasn't the case. Even as late as 2009, this formula was still thought to work. MMO gamers were still excited by the runaway success of World of Warcraft, with fresh memories of the "good ole" EverQuest and Ultima Online days fueling their optimism. When you have some of the best times of your gaming life in something as unique as those early MMOs, you hold on to that, wishing for an improved version to come along any day now.

But with recent game closings, developer layoffs, and a general burn-out on the same features in mostly every game, that optimism is decaying. We can only take so many faction grinds and escort quests before we just start throwing our hands up and turning to other hobbies.

Between the vets waiting for their first days in EQ to be replicated, the casuals looking for an omnipresent hand to hold, and the hardcores racing through to that last carrot in record time, I find myself stuck somewhere in the middle. I want to feel like I did in those initial days of my first MMO. I want a world that will keep me feeling like I'm making a difference and not like I'm just another hero in line to save the respawning princess. I want to have more "wow!" moments, and I don't want to spend 500 hours in a game before that happens. Essentially, I want it all and I want it now. Is that too much to ask?

So dear game designers, we love what you do and we appreciate the hard work you put into your craft, but to me, and all other ADD gamers of my kind, you don't have much time to convince me that your game is better than everyone else's. I figure I'll know if I want to keep playing a game after an hour of gameplay, and in many cases, that's being generous.

"I want it all and I want it now. Is that too much to ask?"

The root of the problem

There are many reasons why MMOs fail to capture the audience they've intended. Most of the time, it has to do with too many cooks in the kitchen. A game is created in a brainstorming session by some truly brilliant and creative people. But because the process from concept to concrete takes lots and lots of money, business experts need to get involved. There are no two personality types more polar opposite than creatives (right brain) and financiers (left brain).

What I'm trying to say here is that games don't start out crappy. Rushed launches make games crappy. In turn, we gamers get discouraged, jaded and cynical about what the future holds for our hobby. It's a typical psychological progression that will inevitably turn into either an end to the genre or a complete revolution.

But in the meantime, those of us who feel we've seen and done it all will not be as eager to sit down and give a game a chance when its most advertised feature is some mysterious endgame that you can only see after spending a year grinding. I want to be wowed now. I want to enter a game, forget everything else around me, and actually relate to my character. That can't happen if the UI is a puzzle or the tutorial is buggy and vague.

The problem grows!

Sure, it might be easy for an armchair designer to sit here spouting off yet another rant about rushed games, but this problem is being perpetuated by the idea that every new game must be accessible to as many people as possible. When you spend so much time and energy trying to please everyone, you'll please no one -- especially yourself.

Game design should follow this basic rule. We're at a point right now when hundreds of millions of people across the globe have at least tried an MMO. It's easy to set your sights on as many of those people as possible (at least from a money-making perspective), but I think we need to get back to lower-budget, niche markets.

It seems like such a simple concept. Create a game that fills a void, market it as such, then maintain and keep that audience happy. But all too often, a game gets marketed to a wider audience for the sake of income. If you advertise your game as an FPSMMO, and it's neither of these, you will piss off the FPS players and the MMO players. It doesn't matter how many letters you throw at it, an FPSRTSFTPMMORPG would appeal to no one.

"It doesn't matter how many letters you throw at it, an FPSRTSFTPMMORPG would appeal to no one."

Do we even know what we want?

Because of these problems, we have evolved into an audience that is willing to simply skip over to the next game if we're not finding exactly what we're looking for. Free-to-play games are compounding this problem by making accessibility so darn easy. I do enjoy the fact that I can try so many games without any financial commitment, but it's really ruining us in the long run.

When I was younger, we didn't have cable TV. We had five channels and there was always something on. Yes, and we liked it. We knew what to expect and we looked forward to that next episode of Mork & Mindy or the evening news. Years later, when satellite TV came out, I was thrilled at the possibility of so many options. I think you know where I'm going with this. I had 500 channels and nothing was ever on. That prospect of something better always loomed on the edge of the "Channel Up" button.

Ironically, here we are in an on-demand generation, ditching our cable and satellite TV packages for Netflix streaming and Hulu. We appreciate the options, but we don't like to be overwhelmed.

And this is the way I want to see the MMO genre grow. With my attention so delicately distracted and the value of my time increasing as I get older, I want to play a game that I will enjoy from minute one. I play MMOs for the experience. Making new friends, building my character, immersing myself into something I wouldn't ordinarily experience -- these are all reasons I play MMOs. I don't play MMOs to be taught a lesson or punished for not spending 12 hours a day at it. I shouldn't feel like the game won't be fun until I hit level 50, where "the real game begins."

Give me a game that does what it promises from the start. Give me a game that works as advertised and doesn't pull us along with empty promises. We're in this to have fun and to be entertained. That should start from the very first moment.
Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!

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