Free for All: A hardcore raider shines light on F2P issues

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Free for All: A hardcore raider shines light on F2P issues
My gaming moods come and go, but generally I always avoid heavy grinding. I am 36 -- all grown up -- and the last thing I want to do is put myself into a position in a game that makes me feel like I am working instead of playing. In fact, I think participating in a heavy grind will only encourage developers to make more of the same, so I try to do my part by avoiding it. I hope this doesn't sound harsh, but I believe that heavy grinding is ruining gaming. Allow me to explain.

We humans love to establish rules and boundaries. Many of us need rules and boundaries or we don't know what to do with ourselves. We like to achieve goals, and some of us are obsessed with surpassing those goals. Have you ever stopped to wonder how we got to the point that a standard work day is eight hours and how the weekend is set on the days it is? This is all due to our ability to fall in line, to give into the demands that we place on ourselves, to give into a set of rules and guidelines. One only need attend an average wedding to see how ridiculously far we accept certain guidelines in the name of tradition. Funerals can be equally silly.

What does this have to do with free-to-play gaming? Well, click past the cut and we'll chat about it.

I'd like to say that, whatever you might think my job here is, I can define it only as a spokesperson for social gaming. No, I am not talking about Facebook games (although I do count many of them) but rather games that allow players to socialize, and in some cases, need players to socialize in order to play the game. Whether we are talking about raiding, adventuring, exploring or roleplaying, MMORPGs are unique and wonderful because of this social connection they provide and often demand. For me, this social connection is so important and incredible that its mere presence in a game can improve it. After all, a real-life party is really just a gathering of strangers -- what makes it impressive is the untapped potential of socialization.

Notice how we have crafted open social activities into expected behaviors: the handshaking and the give-and-take introductions. Even sworn enemies are dependent on social structure to communicate. If you think about it, it's almost amusing when you see someone arguing with someone else. The two combatants take turns speaking -- even in war there is this strange tradition of give and take.

This penchant for making rules disturbs me when I see it happening in gaming. The further away I get from established rules or expectations and the more I explore my own playstyles, the more I notice how infrequently other players stray far from them. In one of the most disturbing (and admittedly infuriating) blog posts I have read, a top-tier World of Warcraft raider admitted to working a full-time job, playing the game for 10 hours a night, and living on just four hours of sleep per night. The worst part was when I noticed how little the readers commented about the dangers and stereotype-building behavior in the various comments sections that the blog was reposted to.

Why is this disturbing? For so many reasons. Mainly, it establishes a certain roadmap to "success" without considering player health. It leads other players to believe that attaining some kind of title in an imaginary world is more important than good health, diet, sleep, or real-life interactions with family and friends. Granted, I really don't care that some players want to believe in this kind of make-believe goal. Go for it, if you really want to. The problem I have with it is that it shows just how obsessive humans can be in their pursuit for identity and possible happiness. I fear large groups of people when they try to establish such guidelines. It might sound crazy, but hard-core raiders at Kruf's level remind me of cult members more than anything.

Before comparisons to world-class athletes or obsessed geniuses pop up in the comments section, notice something: The player is talking about sacrificing his health, possibly mental health, in the pursuit of this goal. Whether it's being undertaken by an athlete, lawyer, or world-class debater, obsessive and destructive behavior is the same. The specific occupation or hobby is irrelevant. The key here is that we are talking about destructive behavior, not "dedication."

"For once, free-to-play games make me fear for the future of humanity -- at least the portion of it that plays for 36 hours straight while trying to hit max-level."

What does this have to do with free-to-play?

Free-to-play games come in all varieties, shapes and sizes, but one thing is for sure: The grind is in many of them. Of course, the example of the raider above shows just how common the grind is in almost any MMO, but this article is about free-to-play gaming. For once, free-to-play games make me fear for the future of humanity -- at least the portion of it that plays for 36 hours straight while trying to hit max-level. It's a dangerous culture, period. I truly believe that this single-minded pursuit of a goal (hit max-level, get that piece of loot) can potentially suck creativity and harm the body. The scariest part is that, from my point of view, it is becoming more "normal" all the time.

There is a certain expectation by many gamers that "achieving" something is the goal in these MMO games we play. While I will admit that it is one goal, there are countless others -- a number only limited by the physical confines of the computer and the imagination of the player. Like I said, however, it's less common to see players experimenting with play these days. Yes, some players experiment, but not nearly as many as those who think that doing anything but pursuing one of the standard goals is literally a waste of time.

In a very real way, these attempts to standardize play will affect our society. More players are going to be depending on social gaming for their entertainment -- this has been established by experts in the field like my new crush Jane McGonigal -- so as in sports and other forms of entertainment, rules will be set in order to give those over-achievers something to brag about, to live for, and to gain self-esteem from. This is the dangerous part, if you ask me. Notice I am not talking about normal, healthy amounts of play. Remember the blog post that started the whole discussion.

When we take masses of people and apply a set of guidelines and structured goals for them to follow, we set up what is essentially a religion. The people in the group believe what they are told, they follow the rules set out before them, they pursue perfection in the eyes of the rules -- even if that means sacrificing their own health. While this might read like I am taking one or two examples of extreme gaming and applying it to all of MMO gaming culture, that's because I am. While it might not be smart to insult or disturb the very people I am writing for, that's not what I am trying to do. I am bringing up these points to raise a question: Are those extreme examples that far off from common reality?

"These type of players (and there are many) will not shrug off any suggestions for new games. New and excited players feed an evolving market. An evolving market means more money and more games."

I'm going to say that the average MMO gamer spends a healthy amount of time playing his games. But (and this is a big but) it feels like that average is creeping closer and closer to longer and longer play sessions. I cannot tell you how many new players I have watched become obsessive goal-oriented players within weeks after being introduced to the genre, and then become experts in the game within a few months. To me, that drive is the sole reason most players play one or two games only and rarely explore any other. There seems to be a deadline for these players, a self-imposed and very clear understanding of how much they should know and how good they should be. It is, essentially, hobby as work.

It is in my best interest to know and participate in conversations with players who want to play anything and everything they can get their hands on. These type of players (and there are many) will not shrug off any suggestions for new games. New and excited players feed an evolving market. An evolving market means more money and more games. This all hinges on players who are exactly the opposite of the raider or hard-core grinder I mentioned above. Players like those wouldn't mind if every single human played only their one game. At least that way they have more players to be better than.

I have seen free-to-play evolve over the last few years, and this is exciting. At the same time, free-to-play has got to get past the mega-grind and 300-level goals in order to evolve more. Yes, it is still common to find stereotypical grinds in free-to-play. Fortunately it looks like that's changing, but players need to change as well. If you feel like grinding away an evening, go for it. Just don't do it at the expense of your health or at the expense of the rest of the game.

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!
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