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The Soapbox: MMO slot machines


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 are beginning to drown in a sea of MMOs that are shedding variety to mimic simplified slot machines. The danger in this is that MMO gameplay is becoming akin to gambling. Enjoyment of minute-to-minute gameplay is being replaced by hours of frustration unless we manage to match three-of-a-kind to get our loot drops. The success of the games isn't resting on the shoulders of enjoyable content but on the prizes to be won by schlepping through that content. We're letting developers know this not just by playing these games but by literally asking for more of the same.

The result is that money flies into developers' hands while they skirt the boundaries of ethics by supplying "gameplay" soaked in habitual greed, delivering to players only the barest skeleton of an MMO.

But what about today's eye-exploding, razzle-dazzle graphics? Sure, I love graphics. What I don't like are paintings that you can't interact with. Beautiful buildings litter many newer MMO landscapes, but they are just sitting there to admire from afar, like window-dressing. You can look, but you can't touch. And how hard is it, really, for modern developers to make a great-looking 3-D painting? The bulk of the challenge seems to be in making paintings you can actually interact with. Middleware is found everywhere you look nowadays, and it provides basic MMO-building functionality. The only thing the developers need to concentrate on is making the graphics look different from the next MMO using the same (or similar) middleware software.

What I don't like is the lack of story that could be provided in a linear or non-linear experience or through world-building tools with which the players could write the story themselves.

Runes of Magic screenshotLook at it this way: More and more, the actual gameplay in these MMOs is quickly converging with that of console games. The features that are selling are small 6-man groups that can easily be formed for instant -- and separate -- action apart from any multiplayer connectivity. Economies are being tightly reined in so the developers have more control over the environment, just as in a single-player RPG. That's not much different than console games that are now able to offer co-op action and deliver that co-op to small groups via online lobbies that allow players to meet, chat and form groups to run through instanced levels. And console game developers have a much easier job of designing a tightly structured experience with better polish, fewer bugs, and never-ending DLC. So why should we continue to play an MMO if we can get a much better experience out of console games?

We hear players saying they play because their friends are still playing, or they stay in a game even if it's not that great because their guilds are still there. They do it for the people they play with, yet they could just as easily do that in many console games. To me that statement falls fast and hard for anyone other than players who have stuck around since the early days, when MMOs were less stripped-down and offered all the benefits that I'm saying are now being taken away.

But what MMOs can truly offer over consoles is still alive and shivering in the cold dark places of the MMO landscape, waiting for the sun to rise on it: MMOs can have gameplay not divided by black and white concepts of sandbox and themepark. Instead, they can be whole games that are living virtual worlds with hundreds of thousands of players inhabiting them, affecting them, dealing with each other, running the worlds, and enjoying every second.

World of Warcraft loot screenshotI don't play platformers much anymore. I just don't have the hand/eye coordination I used to have. But I'm not playing Super Happy Jumpfest and crying for the devs to take jumping away and put in more lasers and explosions from spaceships.

But business is business, and right now the dollar is overwhelmingly in favor of stripping MMOs down to a meager framework, pumping up, and feeding on addictive behavior at the expense of just having a fun game.

The Gamasutra article about fairness should be an alarming wake-up call. Why do we have so many MMOs that have numerous skippable levels past which players zoom to get to the "real" game? Having levels, or rather numbers, is a way to track progress. Two is bigger than one; we know that because we know math. I don't hate levels. Levels have always been a great way to mark progress. Math has been around for a long time, after all. What I dislike is this destructive obsession with it.

Moderation is the key here. Having levels in an MMO often goes hand-in-hand with having a crafting system, auction house, monsters, and beautiful buildings to explore -- everything that makes an MMO an MMO and not a watered down, console-esque, action-based wannabe.

Running around at each level and doing special events -- be they rifts in RIFT, public quests in Warhammer Online or minigames in Runes of Magic -- should be fun without any rewards of any kind to begin with. An MMO should be a fun virtual world to live in. More importantly, all the basics you find, like leveling up, running around and killing mobs for XP, and death penalties, should be fun as game elements in and of themselves. That's a split responsibility between developers and players. If devs made a game in which there really isn't anything to do except level-climb away from a distasteful part of the game, then that's a red flag. If players constantly think the grass is always greener on the other side, that's a red flag.

RIFT screenshotMMOs don't need a revolution to become fun. They don't really need any kind of instant radical change to become fun. Having levels isn't evil. Having raiding isn't evil. Building a slot-machine when you know the first 60 pulls on the lever won't be fun -- that's evil.

I need to go play some Vanguard: Sage of Heroes or EverQuest II now because even though bugs may run rampant or populations are low, I know that I can run around at any level, as long as I see fit, even turning off XP gain, and amazingly I can have fun in the countless activities provided to give players choices and options. These choices and options allow me to participate in activities that are fun as I play them. I get more than just the choice of what I get to play, and I'm not stuck performing repetitive tasks to get to the end before the enjoyment finally kicks in.

Thankfully this is just a very cynical look at an extreme endgame for an industry that could very well change tomorrow.

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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