Working As Intended: It's not the journey or the destination

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Working As Intended: It's not the journey or the destination
If you play MMORPGs, you've no doubt been told, hundreds of times, "Slow down! Don't rush! Stop to smell the flowers! It's the journey, not the destination!"

Typically, you're being told to slow down in an MMO whose focus is the destination: the endgame. All the good stuff is at the end. The best dungeons are there. The best gear is there. The best PvP content and titles and achievements are there. The players the devs cater to are there. Patches and expansions provide new content there. In fact, the only reason to play the rest of the game is to level up to get there. The midgame is a hindrance, a barrier to the "real" game, and it's usually neglected by developers once most players are through it.

So if games themselves reward you only for arriving at the destination, why on earth should you feel bad for not savoring the journey?

You shouldn't. You are not the problem.

In my inaugural Working As Intended column, titled Endgame is the worst thing that ever happened to MMOs, I argued that the modern standard of ignoring the midgame and prioritizing development efforts on the endgame has conditioned gamers to rush through MMOs and quit when they "finish" games that needn't have endings, which feeds into a nasty cycle of plummeting subs and studio layoffs and single-minded insistence on chasing that tiny, uncatchable portion of the general MMO audience that demands 500 raids yesterday.

Developers lament feeling that they have to develop content that the bleeding edge playerbase wants, but they've brought it on themselves: Players rush through and demand more endgame content only because the game's vertical and linear design forced them to rush there in the first place. In other words, if you want us to stop and smell the flowers along the way, you have to build flowers, and they have to be worth smelling, and you can't make the flowers at the end 10 times better. You actually have to build a compelling midgame. You can't just blame players for not wanting to spend time in something you spent no development time on, not when they know the good stuff is in a different place. And if you're going to put in a ladder in your game, you need to realize that nothing else you do will stop a certain segment of MMO players from climbing it. They can't resist it because you've trained them to climb, climb, climb. You've trained them to think anything else is a waste of their time. Even roleplaying, an activity that should rightly be the cornerstone of the MMORPG genre, is a timesink that takes players away from prefab progression.

At the same time, a game built around a journey through a midgame can be just as problematic. Clever Massively reader paragonlostinspace inspired me to write about this topic when he commented, "One of the big errors that MMORPG game developers started making was the concept of pushing towards the cap and endgame activities versus just world/game activities all the time. Making the game about the journey instead of destination is my opinion is a return to a better game world, a more immersive and fun game world."

What struck me is the false dichotomy of the journey and the destination, one I have always embraced without question. It implies that a game is a journey to an end. If you're not on a journey, you're at the destination, and that's all there is. There's no room for anything else, and you can't have one without the other. Just framing it that way -- that players are on a journey, period -- implies there is a place you are and should be going, that you're physically moving through zones or figuratively climbing level ladders until you reach an arbitrary end point.

There's no reason MMOs have to be that way. We no more have to be going to a place than we have to be at a place to be having fun. There's plenty of room in MMOs to just be or just be doing or just be experiencing. Going isn't the only alternative to finishing. And that, I think, is what paragonlostinspace was describing, but when we rely on terminology like journey and destination, we inadvertently box MMOs up into single-serving, not-massive games that we charge through until we've consumed them rather than virtual, simulated worlds that we live in and make happen.

Don't mistake this for the sandbox vs. themepark debate; some of the games that most excel at being the perfect Zen MMO -- an MMO where you exist and do rather than go or finish -- lack the features we'd consider sandboxy. Classic Guild Wars, for example, lacked real housing and a crafting economy but featured a leveling curve so brief as to make the entire game the endgame, with each campaign paralleling the others and the stated goals for players (titles, skill acquisition, flat-stat endgame gear) being entirely optional. ArenaNet didn't create an overt midgame or ditch the endgame by perfecting or emphasizing Guild Wars' level journey; it simply made made the level journey a small and short part of the game in favor of letting players traverse the world (or not) at their own pace.

Indeed, there's risk in making any journey so long players can't see the end of it; consider classic EverQuest and early City of Heroes, which dodged a structured endgame in favor of a forever-midgame in the form of a gruelingly long and homogeneous level grind. In other words, merely eliminating the endgame or making the midgame an endless slog is not enough. A midgame-driven game must be substantial and meaningful.

But there will always be players who don't understand the Zen MMO, and I can hardly blame them. Take, for example, our readers who debated with Mark Jacobs in the comments of our Camelot Unchained series about that game's clever plan for horizontal progression. "RPGs are fun because you make your character stronger as you play. Remove that and the game becomes boring. If your character never gets stronger, why even play?" one reader asked. "You're going to log on to do what exactly? Why would I want my character to be hardly any stronger after six months of play? Sounds like a terrible idea."

I quote this comment not to ridicule but to demonstrate that modern gamers are so accustomed to linear level grinds and character power being the primary method and reward for playing a game that they cannot even imagine anything else. Standing still in a game is anathema to them. They can't picture a game that is primarily midgame or flattens level and power curves in favor of providing activities for entertainment's sake. They've seldom if ever seen such a game, even though so many early MMOs were exactly that. This is how much the genre now favors destination-oriented, Skinner box, churn-ware design. This is how so many non-endgame gameplay types have become eclipsed.

Please, developers. Don't build hamster wheels, condition us to run in them, and get upset when we do just that. Don't call us tourists when you know you're operating a tourist trap. If you want people to treat your game like a home, you have to build worlds that are more than just journeys and destinations.

The MMORPG genre might be "working as intended," but that doesn't mean it can't be so much more. Join Massively Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce every other Friday in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
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