Experienced Points: The Playground Model

By Shamus Posted Friday Mar 26, 2010

Filed under: Column 63 comments

You’ve heard me sing this song before, but it bears repeating. The article came to fruition while I was playing LOTRO and I suddenly had to gain 20 levels of being a warrior so I could continue my career as a chef. I needed to kill one particular boar, ignoring the thousands of boars in the world that I could slaughter without effort. (Or that fact that “raise pigs” is not exactly an advanced technology.) The excuse given for why I needed the level 40 boar would do was… an excuse.

I managed to get a player from my kinship (Knights of the Third Age) to help me out. And by “help” I mean, he did it for me and I followed him around and tried to not get one-shotted to death by any of the monsters. So the task was either impossible or effortless. In either case, what exactly was the point of the exercise again? Neither option enriched my enjoyment of the game, and I’m still fantasizing about a gameworld which simply doesn’t presume to tell me how to have fun.


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63 thoughts on “Experienced Points: The Playground Model

  1. Kristin says:

    I’m one of those weirdo loners who for the most part likes the quests and missions, and likes to play solo. I also like running around and seeing new sights and areas. I HATE PVP with the fire of a thousand burning suns – not so much for its existence but for the fact that they keep nerfing my AI-fighting skills and builds to “balance” things for PVP.

    I consider grinding to be “go out and kill things and get XP so we can unlock the next tier of quests, since the last tier didn’t give you enough XP”. Hunt and gather quests drive me insane, too. But fighting my way through an area to do some lame story-based quest? FUN!

    1. Meredith says:

      This is me too. I game for the story mostly and just want to get on with the quest. I love RPGs, but I hate having to go kill stuff randomly just for xp so I can level up and continue the story. That breaks the story and immersion (and it’s just boring).

      I must be weird too — I never realized that people don’t read quest text until Shamus started doing LPs. How can you not read the text? My mind boggles.

      1. Drexer says:

        I too when I played MMO’s, loved them for the story, and specially setting. Even the Korean free to play MMO’s are very interesting and have quite a good lore. Say what you want about them, but they do know how to balance the gameplay and story.

        Which is a lot more than you can say for Champions Online for instance.

        It’s not that the writing is horrible(which it is), nor that it makes no sense(which it doesn’t), but it’s like they decided to add to what no one wants, and subtract from what everyone wants. Instead of just giving the player a setting and letting them go free, they seem to want to give the player the setting, and a lot of story that is not related to the setting. If at least the story created some sense of dimension or depth, but it’s drawn out exactly in all the wrong places.

        My hope for DC Universe online, is that due to the large pre-created lore and its roots in pop culture, they can largely sketch the world and let the player go free. Pretty much everyone knows that there are a lot of heroes on that world, so all they need to do is: “Hey, now help the Teen Titans, they’re like a teenage version of the Justice League”, and any player can be both happy with the story(and then research more on the internet, on obscure missions in the game, or in the comics themselves), and jump right into the superhero world without breaking his suspension of disbelief.

        Or it might be that I just want to stalk Batwoman and the Question over the streets of Gotham…

      2. scragar says:

        I will sometimes skip quest text and such if it feels like it’s taking too long, if you’ve got a 10 minute cut scene, then my first quest and there’s three pages of text I’m not going to read it, there’s an important balance between story and gameplay, if you throw too much story I’d rather miss something important to the story than sit there and read for another few minutes.

    2. Bit says:

      This is pretty much me. My brief time in WoW (when I wasn’t dicking around trying to climb up cliffs and buildings) was spent taking “kill x amounts of monsters to get x amounts of stuff” just so I could run around doing cool rogue backstabby stuff on endless amounts of identical monsters. This is the same reason I love Borderlands; I have the most fun (when I’m not dicking around trying to climb up cliffs and buildings) running into big groups of enemies and killing them all with my cool laser alien weapons. For two hours.
      I’m odd.

  2. Greg says:

    On the one hand, the Elder Scrolls MMO supposedly in development really has to do what you want or it’ll have trouble calling itself an Elder Scrolls game – that’s possibly the defining feature of those games so far. But on the other hand, I have great trouble working out how they’d do it. Perhaps they’ll just not include PVP so it will matter less that characters can easily be very unbalanced.

  3. Nick says:

    Playground MMOG? I’d have to say that might be what Ultima Online was like. If you want, you can make a character entirely focused on farming, or woodcutting, or any of a hundred different skills. And you could only achieve 700 total points in all your skills, which meant specialization. You can get 7 skills to max, while being a dunce in everything else (including fighting), or mix and match. 70 in one, 35 in another, etc, as long as they all add up to 700.

    Since then, the game has changed quite a bit. And private servers have popped up all over the place, with their own changes to the formula.

    But it’s your playground. If you want to max out your swing set skill, go right ahead. You can do that just fine. I only wish another MMO took the same approach to character customization as that did. No set classes, you can change from something like a powerful battle mage down to a woodcarving minstrel.

  4. nawyria says:

    For me, the fun in MMO’s is to overcome challenges the game sets me to the best of my abilities (PvP, Dungeons, Raids, difficult quests), to immerse myself in the game world (storyline quests, exploration) and to interact with other people.

    If an MMO isn’t challenging enough or breaks immersion during any part, I quit. While there is generally enough to be found at the level cap, having a couple of friends to play with and doing some lower-level group content without a full part really spiced up the levelling process in WoW for me. Other MMO’s I’ve tried, such as Eve Online or Warhammer Online, simply failed to pull me in.

  5. krellen says:

    What I look for in games – MMO and otherwise – is storyline and exploration. Those are the things I love the most – discovering things, seeing places, figuring out how I can get up to the top of that ridge there (and when I find those 45 degree unclimbable ridges, it drives me crazy), and following a well-crafted story line.

    Very few games actually deliver this (for the record, I don’t consider the plots of either Morrowind or Oblivion to fit the creteria of “following a well-crafted story line”, just to forestall that line of suggestions. And they’re some of the worst offenders of the “you can’t climb that” issues. I’ve already tried them.)

    1. Greg says:

      I’m pretty surprised you’d include Morrowind in the “can’t climb that” stakes. There’s literally nothing in the game you can’t magically jump over, and only one zone that I know of where you can’t fly.

      1. krellen says:

        That requires caring enough about the game’s mechanics to develop a mage in their weird-ass magic system and learn a flying spell or high levels of the jumping spell.

        Which I could never be bothered to do, because the game felt so uninteresting and convoluted to me that I just didn’t bother. Sent my copy to some guy in Canada that commented here wanting it.

    2. Tizzy says:

      I remember playing Daggerfall and thinking it was the biggest waste of time ever (and thus stayed away from Morrowind and Oblivion). I was truly flabbergasted to discover that some people I respect and thought I knew had clocked tens of hours on that game.

      1. scragar says:

        I play daggerfall even now when the feeling takes me, the game can be rather fustrating when you first start out, with very little direction and a huge world to explore, but after a while you get to experimenting and exploring.

        1. Varil says:

          I loved Daggerfall for it’s old-school Pen-and-paper feel to the dungeon crawling. The dungeons were absolutely monstrous labyrinths, and exploration in search of your objective could mean circumventing not only enemies, but secret doors, locked(normally and magically) doors, rivers, chasms, inexplicable underground towers, entire sections of the dungeon that had gotten flooded…

          Even better was HOW you dealt with a given obstacle was pretty well up to you. You could just hack-and-slash your way forward and find bridges and stairs or whatever to get around obstacles. You could train up your swimming and climbing so even without magic you could navigate tricky terrain. Or you could easy-mode it and just use levitate and water-walking…assuming your mana held out.

          If only it wasn’t so buggy…

  6. Aergoth says:

    Guild Wars gave out titles for exploring the map but it’s a tedious, one-sided affair that involves running until you find the invisible wall and then following it like some sort of lamprey in an aquarium who desperately wants to eat you. And then you run around on the bits in the middle. It’s not worth the effort.

  7. ngthagg says:

    My most recent time in an MMO (WoW) was devoted to leveling two characters solo. I would spend most of my time exploring areas and completing all the available quests, with crafting mixed in to keep me going.

  8. Scott says:

    Star Wars Galaxies did this rather well… Too bad it was terrible.
    I guess Free Realms (Same company, huh.) does this to an extent, but the kiddy cartoon setting isn’t for me.

  9. Drexer says:

    I can’t really talk much about it, because of the Beta NDA and due to only having played 2 areas until now, but the LEGO Universe MMO seems to be advancing towards a very nice place of fun.

    It encourages a lot of exploring, and a lot of places are more about the fun of walking around and platforming than grinding or anything. There are no levels, only difference in equipment, but the more ‘fun’ related areas seem to be apart from the ‘battle’ areas, so theoretically you should be able to advance quite a bit without anything killing you. The progress is also quite quick from what I’ve experienced.

    As an example, on the first area after the first tutorial there is a mountain that you have to reach the top to get to the next area. It is full of LEGO obstacles that you can destroy or avoid, or buttons that you can build to prevent fans from knocking you around, elevators that you can build to reach the top quicker, etc… There are a total of 4 different pathways to the top, and you can in certain cases jump from one to the other. And after you make this trip the first time, you unlock a time trial mode with bronze, silver and gold standards and a leaderboard. I gladly spent three hours in this without getting bored, and it’s a space of roughly the same size in any MMO.

  10. Tizzy says:

    I really hate when developers presume to dictate *how* a game is to be played. The games I got most value out of were precisely the ones where I was allowed free rein or a good illusion thereof.

    But then again… I’ve never played an MMO! Maybe the other readers can enlighten me there: I assumed that a lot of the gameplay would emerge from the interaction with the other players, but it seems that strong guides from the devs must be necessary to avoid turning the sandbox into the kittycat’s box…

  11. Sheer_Falacy says:

    Just because you don’t PVP doesn’t mean you don’t want game balance. I mean yeah, in solo play it’s not a huge deal if a hunter kills 4x as fast as a warrior (unless your only reason to play a warrior is to have a max level warrior). But in raiding balance changes who can do what they want to do and who gets left behind. You just have different balance decisions to make, some of which are completely incompatible with the PVP balance decisions you need to make, which leads to Interesting Times.

  12. Mr_Wizard says:

    Lets hope they get it with the eventual Elder Scrolls MMO. Its already a property of the singleplayer games, to enjoy it at your own pace. Lets hope they keep that when they jump to online.

  13. Kdansky says:

    Is it really “fun” to do every single quest in WoW, when 80% of them are way below your level and tons of backtracking through known regions? Is it fun to kill the same boss one hundred times so you can finally get that one axe which you always wanted but never actually needed? Is it fun to kill twenty billion mobs to get 50 different mounts which all do exactly the same? Is it fun to have 100 factions at maximum reputation which has no further effect? If you think that’s fun, you’re either insane or a liar. Laundry and housekeeping is more fun than grinding two thousand skeletons.

    You (and many other people) misunderstand why people play MMOGs. They do not play them because those games are huge fun. They play them because it’s another way of showing off. Instead of having a new car and driving it loudly twenty times around the block each saturday, the MMOG crowd farms shiny purple epix and stands around in Dalaran for everyone to see. Not that anyone cares, but ape-subroutines are hard to ignore, especially if one is not conscious of them (and that would be the vast majority of humanity).

    The designers seem to have understood that (or not, but they figured out which kind of game keeps people paying monthly fees) and therefore we will probably not see many MMOGs which do not follow this formula. If there is no grind, then you cannot have your (hollow) achievements (in the Steam-Achievement sense and also in the “max level” or “currently best item in gear slot X” sense), which would invalidate all reason for the crowds to play the game. Why are there Achievement servers in TF2? What is the point of getting an amusing achievement (“kill three pyros with your melee weapon”, “accidentally kill an invisible spy while sniping”) by forcing it in a cheating environment? Yet people grind those achievements like maniacs.

    The game that is by far best at having tons of hollow accomplishments which can actually be achieved by even the dumbest person on earth, because there is essentially no challenge involved in nearly all of them (there are exceptions, hard mode and such, but less than 1% of all the WoW-players actually even try those) is the most successful: World of Warcraft.

    Close to 150 days /played in WoW (started during European closed Beta), then started to realize that nearly every other activity is more fun and/or more useful. Been there, done that.

    1. Drexer says:

      I think that you are approaching this from a far too simplified prespective. I can easily ask aswell if it is fun to repeatedly kill opponents on the same maps and gametypes on TF2 and most people would say yes. Because the fun is based on the challenge, even if you’ve done it once before.

      As an example:

      In my physics lab classes, we’re doing experiments that have been proved time and time again, basing ourselves on data and methods tried many times before; however, to be there and control the instruments while acquiring data, to plot the graphics and study the best way to reduce the error, to correct mistakes that we ourselves make and watch the dots follow the formulaic allignment is one of the most fun moments of my whole week. It is also the most tyring six hours though.

      As such, just to end this: IN YOUR FACE BLACK BODY RADIATION! A perfect formulaic adjustement!

      1. Kdansky says:

        For me, it is about the challenge, you are right. That is why I play TF2 and not WoW. Because in WoW, only the top raiding content is challenging, anything else is ridiculously easy. Most people are not there at all for the challenge:

        – AFK in Alterac Valley.
        – Doing 1000 DPS (or less) in a raid despite being decently geared. You can do 3k in blue gear at level 80 with any class if you use your skills right.
        – Farming reputations.
        – Collecting 50 mounts.
        – Doing all Quests.

        Nothing of this is remotely challenging, but far more people do it than raid the lates dungeons (plus there is hard mode). In fact, you can watch TV while doing it, or not be in front of the screen at all. Blizzard has given out numbers that less than 1% of all players go for the challenging content.

        TF2 on the other hand is more like chess: Always the same game, always a different game. And always a challenge.

    2. acronix says:

      It´s fair to point out that somet people don´t want to show off, but want their prefered fantastic archetype character to look cool/nice for personal enjoyment. And some other just want something they can play (even if they don´t consider it much fun) while socializing. Those two things are impossible to achieve in any other game, except for RPGs and RTSes with multiplayer, and even then you lose the “massivity” feel(some people just want other people to be around while soloing, for example). I guess we can blame that last part on our grouping instinct. But as I said, FPSes don´t let you have a talk with others (unless you have a mic, capability to speak, don´t get distracted by the action), and RTSes have the problem that not many give you the “customizing feel” you get in and RPG.

      So I think there are at least four reasons to play an mmog: achievement (as you say: which goes from wanting to have all purple items to), socialization (from plain conversations with strangers and friends to forming a guild to hang out) characterization (which goes from getting a character the equipment it needs to look like a gothic knight to roleplaying it) and likeness of the background (which is the less common).

    3. Heron says:

      If you think that's fun, you're either insane or a liar

      I’ve been playing LotRO again lately. I went and did every quest in the Shire I could find, even though they were way below my level. It was pretty fun.

      Why did I do this?

      Because I like collecting deeds and titles.

      From your perspective, all I was doing was this:

      Is it really “fun” to do every single quest in WoW, when 80% of them are way below your level and tons of backtracking through known regions?

      And this:

      Is it fun to have 100 factions at maximum reputation which has no further effect?

      I’m not going to take screenshots of my deeds and titles and show them off to people. I’m a solo gamer as much as I can be. Sure, I’ll set a title on my character, but it’s not to show off; I try to stay in character for the area I’m in. If I’m in the Lone Lands I’m not going to run around with the Shire’s “of the Quick Post” title, regardless of the bragging rights (or lack thereof) that said title bestows on me.

      You’re telling me I’m either insane, or a liar.

      I propose a third option: you and I derive enjoyment from entertainment in different ways. I derive enjoyment from completion; you derive it from (as you mentioned in another post) challenge.

      I find challenge frustrating when I’m just trying to have fun. It just gets in the way. Sure, there are times when I want to play a challenging game, but not most of the time.

      Feel free to call me insane if you wish — or even a liar — but you’re really just admitting your silly belief that the only correct way to have fun is your way.

      1. Kdansky says:

        Which of these two sentences makes sense:

        “Yesterday I played soccer for two hours, it was great fun.”
        “I own five houses. That is fun.”

        Having something cannot be fun, because it is not an activity. I would argue that your “fun” is not fun at all, it’s just following said ape-subroutines. You’re not doing it consciously for bragging rights, but subconsciously so. If there were no achievements and no counter that tells you you have completed 100% of X, would you still do the activity even though the activity itself is boring? Take a step back and ask yourself: “Have I enjoyed the last hour of grinding level 15 skeletons, or am I just following some urge to collect useless things, just like that other guy follows his urge to show off his car? Would I rather do something else?”

        There were some very rare people that did grind their reputations to ridiculous levels before the achievements, years ago (“insane”, as I put it). They were incredibly rare. The activities have not changed since then (if anything, they became even more boring by getting easier), but suddenly, everyone and their grandmother tries to have Booty Bay Exalted. Because it’s fun? No. Because it’s for imaginary bragging rights.

        1. Heron says:

          Having something cannot be fun, because it is not an activity.

          It’s not having the five houses that’s fun, it’s getting the five houses.

          Have I enjoyed the last hour of grinding level 15 skeletons, or am I just following some urge to collect useless things, just like that other guy follows his urge to show off his car?

          Have you enjoyed the last hour of shooting crappy TF2 players, or are you just following some urge to waste time as a Heavy? (See, unlike earning achievements, you don’t even have anything to show for your time.)

          My point is this: achievements give some people a sense of direction and accomplishment. That’s important in a game. I don’t understand why you think this is such a bad thing.

          1. Kdansky says:

            Have you enjoyed the last hour of shooting crappy TF2 players, or are you just following some urge to waste time as a Heavy?

            It is quite possible that I do not enjoy the game of TF2 I currently play if there are no decent players in it (or if I dislike the map). I then usually switch servers, or call it a night, or wait a bit for a better game while practicing a class I am bad at, such as Spy or Scout. I am fully aware that I dislike the waiting, but I sometimes put up with it because I know that opponent selection is not really something I can change by myself. If you want to ride a great rollercoaster, you might need to wait in line for a while.

            See, unlike earning achievements, you don't even have anything to show for your time.

            I was hoping you would say that. Because this is where you are utterly wrong: We both have absolutely nothing at all to show for our efforts. In my case, I actually did not make any “effort”, I was just playing a game, and the exhilaration of winning or losing made me laugh and cry, and I was having a great time during it. Then I close TF2. I am fully aware that I do not get a lasting reward for playing TF2.
            But you got even less: farming Furbolgs in Winterspring is just boring. You just did if for the shinies. Essentially, you were working, but what did you get for your fifty bored hours? Seventy five pixels telling you that your character is now called “Furbolg king”? How low do you value your time? You lie to yourself if you think you have something to show.

            I realized a while ago that my day job is usually more fun than farming achievements in WoW, because the activity (writing code) is more interesting. And I get paid for it to boot!

            That is why achievements are horrible: They make people waste their time, instead of having a good time. People then believe they have something to show for it, but they do not. If you want to have something to show for your effort learn a language, learn to dance, or acquire any other skill. Even raiding hard mode can count, because you learn teamwork. Only then you have to show something for your time, because those results are real and significant.

            And if you are there for the socialising: Meet the people in real life, play some cards or board game and/or have a beverage of choice.

            1. Jarenth says:

              And if you are there for the socialising: Meet the people in real life, play some cards or board game and/or have a beverage of choice.

              Given that most of the people I played WoW with back in the day live in different parts of the continent or world, this is rather hard.

              For a lot of people, playing MMO’s is just about hanging out with your friends. It doesn’t matter if I’ve ever seen them face-to-face, or if we have something to show for our time: it’s hanging out with your mates what counts for us. If I go play pinball at the local pub with my friends, I’ll have just as much an end result as when I go raiding.

              Not everyone is in the MMO game for social reasons, to be sure, but you can’t just discount it offhand like that.

    4. Blackbird71 says:

      Bitter much?

      Not that I entirely disagree with your points, you still make some pretty broad generalizations about MMO players that come off as rather insulting. I’d suggest backing off of the “holier than though” attitude a bit; just because you don’t find some activity fun doesn’t mean that no one else can think it is fun either.

  14. neminem says:

    “Is it really ‘fun’ to do every single quest in WoW, when 80% of them are way below your level and tons of backtracking through known regions?”
    No, it is not. That is why when I want to get an alt to 80, I do it as fast as possible, except with breaks to complete every soloable group quest possible, because, unlike the majority of the quests, those are actually difficult and fun. I agree, the grind to the levelcap is less than entertaining.

    “Is it fun to kill the same boss one hundred times so you can finally get that one axe which you always wanted but never actually needed?”
    Yes, actually. Well, sometimes. It is if the people you play with are fun people to be around, which they are in my case, and if the fights are well-designed enough to keep you on your toes even if you know them well, which I’d say ICC did a pretty good job of (ToC, on the other hand, was boring even the first time we did it, so that doesn’t really say much).

    The other stuff you mentioned, no, they’re not fun. That’s why I pretend they don’t exist, as they’re unimportant to the thing I enjoy doing (raiding).

    So, yes. I *do*, in fact, play WoW because it’s fun. (But also, obviously, I agree completely with the assessment presented in the above essay – it’s fun at the endgame, so now I’m basically stuck playing the first character I got there, unless I want to do a huge amount of grinding to get a second character there, and then a second huge amount of grinding to get that character geared for raiding. I would certainly have *more* fun if I could raid in more different ways without such an enormous grind, yes.)

    1. Kdansky says:

      I also did what you did, and I had (tons of) fun with it. When I finished all the interesting things, I canceled my subscription. For Blizzard, I’m a lost customer (and you will probably do the same at some point). But luckily, others can be more easily baited.

  15. Pickly says:

    In a friendlier (As in, without the angry “WoW kiddies” crap) version of what Kadansky said: A lot of grinding problems are side effects of making games for achievement types. Unlike what I sometimes see in certain arguments , to me achievements for exploration and such are actually a symptom of the problem, since it’s a way of keeping achiever types happy with other activities. (solutions would be stuff like reducing leveling times, removing some crafting requirements and reducing grind on those, etc.) (Personally, though, I don’t mind achievements like these at all unless they are necessary for some gameplay features.)

    For me personally, my favorite part of these games is to try out different character builds, so I always end up playing lots of characters to cover all the classes (If it’s a game with classes, which are the ones I’ve played so far.), so my big grind annoyance is long leveling times (Or really, leveling time at all, and this includes “skill up” gameplay also), and restrictions on skills that mean I get little time to actually try them out. Guild wars is the only game I’m doing at the moment (though I have been playing it spottily recently), though it could be improved as well.

    1. Heron says:

      to me achievements for exploration and such are actually a symptom of the problem

      How is it a “problem” to make the game appealing to the types of people (like me) who like achievements/deeds/whatever-they’re-called?

      In LotRO, it’s completely optional to do any of the exploration or kill-a-bazillion-orcs deeds. Suppose they removed all the exploration deeds. Would you argue that the game would be somehow improved by this removal? If so, how? If not, then why are you calling the inclusion of those deeds a “symptom of the problem”?

      1. Pickly says:

        I’m saying its a symptom of the problems of achievement minded gameplay dominating other types of gameplay.

        As I said in the parentheses, I don’t mind those types of achievements specifically, unless they have gameplay effects. What I do mind, in general, is how extra level grind, unlocking times, etc. are included in the game to keep achievement types happy, as these interfere with other styles of playing and reduce their fun. Exploration achievements and such are not a problem on their own, but are a result, or sign of, this larger issue.

  16. RTBones says:

    I prefer to game solo, but enjoy MMOs for their environment and the story. When I played WoW, I used to explore areas that were way above my level, BECAUSE they were way above my level – it was a challenge just to stay alive. I never understood the whole “you need this ingredient for this recipe so you have to go kill XYZ creatures 20X your level” mentality. The times I would get to points like this, I would do something else. When grinding is part of the story (or gets me to part of the story), I’ll do it and not necessarily like it because I know the payoff is more story. But grinding just to grind — eh, I’ll do something else until I can get back to it. If I get a quest that “suggests” XYZ number of people, I’ll try it solo, and if I cant get it done, the quest just goes hanging.

  17. Binks says:

    Just commenting. You mentioned exploration as something you enjoy and that only LOTRO acknowledges it. CoH/CoV have badges for exploring (standing on specific important areas), they’re probably a bit more grind-y than LOTRO’s system (never played LOTRO) but they’ve been in there since day 1 pretty much and can offer some mechanical benefits if you get enough of them.

    1. Heron says:

      Champions Online has some exploration achievements as well, but unless you look them up online you don’t know about them until you’ve done them. (At least, that’s the way I remember it… I could be wrong.)

      LotRO, on the other hand, tells you the whole list once you’ve visited one of them (and some of the places on the lists are usually places you’ll go anyway if you’re doing normal quests). This lets you know, “oh, there’s still two more interesting places in this area”. I find this much more fun than Champions Online’s way of doing things.

  18. MogTm says:

    Imagine a playground so large that you and all your friends could swing at the same time without ever having to take turns or wait. What’s more, this a a park that you go to on the weekend; there’s no teacher blowing a whistle at the end of recess so you can swing or slide or climb until you decide you’ve had enough. How great would that be?

    Thinking about it, I’m not sure the answer is quite as obvious as it may first seem. Personally, knowing how much I love the swings, I might end up swinging until I was well and truly sick of them. Only then would I move on to the monkey bars, my next favorite activity. Soon enough, I might have gotten sick of everything in the playground and decide to call it a day and head home.

    It very well might be, however, that if I’d had something pushing me on to the monkey bars before I was sick of the swing, i’d be eager to return to the swing just as soon as I could. So long as I enjoy everything on the playground, I might end up having fun a lot longer if I had something pushing me to move on and try different parts of the playground.

    In a real playground, crowds serve this role — others are waiting for the swings, so I’ll decide to get off even when I’m still having fun because I know I can come back to swing some more after someone else has taken a turn while I play on the monkey bars. MMO’s don’t (need to) face the same constraints on resources and, even if they did, there is not necessarily the same social pressure to give others “their turn”. So I think a nudge toward doing something else can be helpful.

    Where MMOs go wrong (in my mind) is turning that nudge into an order. What if, instead of *requiring* that players get better at combat before they can craft more, games just rewarded doing a little of both. For example, I’m imagining a situation where I can keep buying materials from an NPC and slowly but surely increase my crafting skill and turn a small profit. OR, if I don’t mind the combat side of the game, I can level up a bit more until I can kill a more difficult foe that drops rare materials that let me increase my crating skills that much faster.

    In this system, I’m never forced to play a game that I don’t want to but, just as the people waiting for the swings do, there is a little something encouraging me to try different ways to have fun. What do y’all think?

    1. acronix says:

      It sounds good. BUT. Once the people get to know the system of the game, they´ll start comparing which way is faster of the two: is it faster to but the materials from the vendor or is it faster to kill for the drop? Once they find out, they´ll make guides and recommendations when asked about the one they discovered is faster, and almost everyone will drop the other. In this case, most would probably go for buying the stuff, since you don´t need to:

      a)Travel to the location of the drop.
      b)Lose time killing the mob.
      c)Lose time struggling with other players/opposite faction to kill it.
      d)Dealing with the frustation if it doesn´t drop always.

      Which means that those that like crafting over combating will go the “vendor way”, but also those who like combat more, because it´s faster to level up the vendor way. Maybe if the rare material drops always, then people would go both ways: because one is free (but tiresome since competition gets accentuated) and the vendor because it´s easy (unlees money in that game is difficult, in which case they may decide to go for the free one, even with fierce competition, but most likely will drop the craft if it get TOO fierce.)

      However, having both options is better than having only one.

      1. Felblood says:

        Where things would really go wrong is when someone figured out the optimal way to grind and started demanding that everyone in their party or guild grind that way.

        Some people are going to just buy things, or mine their own ores, even if it isn’t the “best” way to do it. Protecting these people from the optimization oriented players is critical to keeping the overall strife levels down in a game.

        Maybe it would be best to combine the two methods with population pressure. The more people are buying, the better it is to go mining. The more people go mining, the better it is to just buy.

        The miners and the buyers will tolerate each other, because one makes the other’s work more effective. Plus, it leverages the network effect that is the major selling point of an MMO.

        I’m reminded of an MMO I used to play (a free to play, pay to win sort of deal). In each zone, there were two types of monsters, each of which dropped a particular type of item. There was a fixed chance for each monster that spawned to be one type or the other, and a fairly low maximum number of monsters in each zone.

        Different character classes needed different items to gain new spells and prestige classes. Rarely would you need to kill crabs, but end up needing to kill a bunch of bugs to get them to spawn, because there was typically another group killing bugs on the other side of the zone.

        Often, a class that needed crab dropss would team up with members of classes that needed bug drops, because they knew that the bug hunters weren’t interested in taking their crab jibblies.

        Even when no formal alliance existed, the bug hunters and the crab hunters were polite and respectful, because each knew that the other was helping to feed them a stream of the monster they actually wanted. –Basically, doing the part of the job they wanted to skip for them.

        This system was trippily unrealistic, and there are much smoother ways to achive the same effect, but it illustraits the mechanical side of what you would need to do quite clearly.

        1. MogTM says:

          There are two distinct possible complaints that I feel are being merged here: (1) The game gives only path of advancement and player choice is destroyed vs (2) the game gives only one path of optimum advancement and player choice is destroyed. This second line of complaint is really what is alleged with comments like, “[players will] start comparing which way is faster of the two … [and then] almost everyone will drop the other.” This is true, of course, if everyone is determined to level in the most efficient way possible.

          However, this is a property of maximization that would hold true in other games as well. It is clearly true that there is one and only one set of choices in Dragon Age that allows the PC to maximize their rewards of XP and treasure. However, the fact that there is only one “maximized” path through the game does not mean that there is no player choice.

          Similarly, in an MMO, so long as there are multiple viable ways to advance, it should not matter that there is one that is objectively best. So long as they are all approximately equal, players remain free to chose the path they enjoy most.

          Some players will always choose the quickest path, but that, by its self, is an exercise of player choice.

      2. Kdansky says:

        That is why I claim people go for achievements because they want to subconsciously show off: They figure out the fastest way to get their result, even if do not actually like to do it that way. In the end, the result itself is pointless.

        1. Heron says:

          What if the achievement itself is the goal?

          For example, I don’t care to advertise to the world, by displaying the title “Galadrod, Pie-runner”, that I wasted two hours of my life running pies around the Shire.

          But I like having the title in my list of accomplishments.

          In the end, the result itself is pointless.

          You may not find it entertaining, but your opinion doesn’t render the activity pointless. Some people find games like TF2 pointless, because (to them) it’s little more than a respawn-shoot-die-respawn-shoot-die grindfest. But surely you would protest that TF2 isn’t pointless?

          Why can’t entertainment in and of itself be the point, regardless of the method through which that entertainment is derived? Just because you don’t like something doesn’t mean other people are crazy for disagreeing with you.

  19. JB says:

    Diablo, isn’t that game nothing but grinding? At the same time it’s lots of fun and one of the more popular games.

    1. Heron says:

      No, Diablo is nothing but looting. There’s a subtle but important difference ;)

  20. silver Harloe says:

    http://www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm – trying to have a conversation about MMO psychology without a thorough understanding of this article is ridiculous :)

  21. Galad says:

    “I'm still fantasizing about a gameworld which simply doesn't presume to tell me how to have fun.”

    Well, I can tell you one such world where I don’t think I’ve ever been told how to have fun, but it’s a browser-based MMO. While it has several merits I haven’t noticed in other browser-based MMOs, I don’t suppose it’s your cup of tea. One of these days I’m finally going to write a review about it on the escapist *shrug*

  22. ehlijen says:

    The problem is performance pressure.

    If you can go play with anything in the playground whenever you want, it’s very easy to find out whether those are real swings, slides and swing riders (we had a swing rider in our backyard and it was awesome!) or whether they are just close imitations that aren’t actually as much fun.

    By saying ‘use this for a hundred hours then you get to look closely at this’ the game designers can retard (in the original meaning as a verb) the point of time at which the player realises that he’s not actually enjoying any of the toys and leaves, thus getting a few extra months of cash out of him.

    Let a player try everything at once: Instant success or loss
    Let a player only try things after a certain amount of time: Eventual success or loss but in the meantime money.

  23. Mario l. says:

    I was thinking about a similar system Dice adopted for a completely different game.
    In Battlefield: Bad Company 2 there are some pins and insignias you can achieve on-line, only using specific weapon or doing certain things (kill so many people with a rpg or a shotgun, revive your friends, damage vehicles). You are not forced to do them, but if you want to progress faster, you should, since each one grants you many skill points.
    So there’s an incentive to use weapons or adopt tactics you wouldn’t use otherwise.
    Sometimes I hated every single moment I spent doing those things (e.g.: I hate sniping), other times they grow on me, and I discovered in this way, other playing style, I wouldn’t normally be bothered to experiment.

    My point is… do things you shouldn’t normally do, should be incentivated, but not compulsory.
    A solo player may discover to like some PvP, or a raider may fall in love with the crafting system.
    But I think that this can happen only if you are not forced to do what the game tells you to do, but rewards you if you decide to vary your game style.

  24. BaCoN says:

    I really need to sit down and point out that both WoW and Warhammer: Age of Reckoning have exploration based ‘achievements’ and rewards. WAR, as well, especially rewards you for taking the time to dig through the MASSIVE lore and background of the setting.

    I DO play WoW, because it’s fun, for me. Or, rather, I perceive that it is fun, because I am successful, and my success in the game is relayed as immediate rewards, in the form of gold, levelling, gear, achievements, etc. I also play WAR, because I find the game insanely challenging, and the PvP system is WAY cooler than WoW’s, if you ask me.

  25. John Lopez says:

    Grinding is the cheap way out for a MMO. Asking a player to do the same quest or area over and over again is great when you are looking to “extend content”, which is a euphemism for “we don’t have enough content, so what we have will become annoyingly tedious”.

    The downside of this is as described here (and many other places). I takes you out of the story flow and turns you into a serial murderer who’s motivation is tchotchkes.

    The downside to leaving the grind out is the criticism of Star Trek Online: you can reach the top end in a relatively short time, at least if you put in the obsessive hours normal for other games. Personally I have enjoyed it: I play the game when I want (a few hours here and there, still haven’t reached admiral yet, but I’m running 3 characters) and make noticeable progress, but it means the “MMOs are LIFE” crowd were top level withing the release week.

    Even with multiple captain specialties, ship types and Federation Story Mode vs Klingon PVP Mode the lifestyle MMO players were “done” in two weeks. So I understand why the grind is added: it helps retain the lifestyle MMO players, which are also a core demographic. Still, I’m happy not every game forces that style upon us casual gamers. (Dungeons and Dragons Online is another that works very well at a casual level.)

    EDIT: Regarding Diablo. I have stolen the Third Person Looter title for Diablo style games because it helps explain why the game doesn’t lose charm quickly for some; it is a slot machine where you pay in enemy corpses to spin the wheels. Take away the loot progression and the game would fall very flat.

  26. SnowballinHell says:

    Ok, I may be a weirdo here…But I prefer crafting to anything I’ve ever done in an MMO
    I haven’t really enjoyed any MMOs (and I’m going all the way back to Ultima Online days, the most recent I’ve played is Champions Online), mostly because any pursuit in crafting meant a pursuit in fighting. Does needing to know how to sew mean you have to know what the inside of a bear looks like?
    I liked to make things with my hands, and the enjoyment came from selling them and seeing other people put them to use
    I may also be weird because when I am forced into a combat situation, I instantly pattern myself in a support role almost exclusively…but any healer I’ve played had to learn fighting skills in order to stay alive to receive better healing skills
    I’m not nearly skilled enough to PvP so I stick only to PvE, but every MMO balances for PvP?
    No MMO has been able to hold my attention for more then a few months, but I would never discount a new game if it looked promising

    P.S. nothing I enjoyed about playing MMOs involved leveling…as long as I feel I’m contributing to the people around me, I’ll keep playing

  27. Josh R says:

    Well I played Both of runescape, in which every quest was vastly different and Rappelz, where every quest was the same.
    And when I did play RS, all I did was grind and pvp…
    So Maybe I’m just odd.

  28. Sean w/o an H says:

    Had a quick story about bring an explorer:

    One of my favorite moments in World of Warcraft happened unwittingly, when I accidentally jumped my lvl 6 troll over the starting area hills and into the bay that leads to the Stranglethorne Vale (!).

    Now, being a WOW newbie, I had not quite figured out the hearthstone concept yet, which meant that i spent quite a bit of time exploring the city and contemplating just how to get back to where I started. I eventually trekked across the desert area to the north before dying and getting ghosted into an enemy-controlled graveyard.

    I eventually deleted that character (because I was stuck somewhere I couldn’t hearthstone out of), but it turned out to be one of the most engaging moments of emergent gameplay i’ve ever experienced. Shame I never kept those chat logs.

  29. SolkaTruesilver says:

    Some of my greatest WoW moments were of exploring. I once had a lot of fun going around visiting every single area of Ashenvale Forest as an lvl 19 orc warrior, with a bunch of 18-17 Alliance following me around and helping me kill monsters for the fun of it. We couldn’t talk..

    I died maybe 5 times, but I managed to explore it all! Lots of fun..

    But the funniest moment was when I got my mount at lvl 41 (I spent a whole level farming gold…). Oooooh boy. In about 2 weeks of running around, I had explored the whole Plaguelands (both of them), the Burning Steps, the Alliance starting areas (except kindergarden), etc… It was so fun trying to avoid huge monsters, Alliance guards. I tell you, trying to get into Stormwind to have it appear on the map, and getting flagged PVP for your trouble, it’s fun as hell!

    I also discovered off-the map islands near Menethil Harbor, and I used those to summon a whole PvP raid. Then I ordered everyone to swim underwater with Water Breathing to sneak up on the Harbor and kill everyone.

    Sadly for our raid of lvl 40-50s, there was a team of 5 lvl 60s waiting for us, ’cause they gathered there to go to Grim Batol. Darn…

  30. Tesh says:

    I’ve written about this many times, coming at it from different angles. I really like what you’ve done here, Shamus.

    May I suggest that a significant part of the “prerequisite” sort of gating design is rooted firmly in the subscription model? If you can con players into thinking that the good stuff is later, whether or not it really is, you keep them playing, and more importantly, paying to do so.

    Guild Wars, with a different business model, has far less of this sort of problem. It’s the only MMO I know of that you can even start with a level-capped character on day one, albeit PvP only. (If you like PvP, why grind through the leveling content to get to a level playing field at the level cap?) I submit that such is very strongly influenced by the fact that they are selling content, not time. When you do that, you can simply let players play the part they like out of the gates, *because you don’t have to monetize their play time*.

  31. NotYetMeasured says:

    What you’re describing is the basic gating mechanism for Master tier crafting in LOTRO, Shamus. The decision was made that you needed to be ~L40 (or get help) in order to master a craft. I’m not sure why, exactly. My first thought is gold-farming but crafting is probably not the best way to make coin in LOTRO anyway, so I doubt that’s it.

    The devs even poke fun at themselves with the NPC text in the equivalent quest for Tailoring (The Thickest of Skins, Part IV). Spoiler containing the relevant text: http://lotro-wiki.com/index.php/Quest:The_Thickest_of_Skins,_Part_IV

    As far as “impossible or effortless,” that pretty much describes all of LOTRO crafting doesn’t it? I’ve actually had a lot of fun with the Master-tier quests, either soloing them as soon as I possibly could, or doing what you did. Isn’t it fun (as a change from the usual routine) for the game to be about not getting one-shotted for a few minutes? It’s true that the quest is essentially trivialized by grouping with a capped character, but that describes most open-world content, doesn’t it?

    Crafting is just a side game to the main action, though. Here are some of the things I don’t like about the system, which come from the same philosophy that created your dislike:
    (1) even though Moria made a nice addition of Craft Guilds so that you got superior crafting ability through…crafting, the craft guilds have already been marginalized by the fact that the best recipes come from the latest reputation faction, which means they are only usable by players that are adventuring at the level cap.
    (2) the other best recipes come from rare world drops. So it doesn’t do you any good to be the best cook in the shire. Access to top recipes is controlled by the Royal Order of Balrog-Kissers, who have beaten a certain raid or farmed a certain level of mob.

    I understand #2: There are lots and lots and lots of Supreme Master, Kindred Craft Guild crafters, and many, many of those are probably Kindred with the latest rep faction, too. How do you create crafting results that are sufficiently rare as to be valuable? It would be nice if rare recipes or rare crit ingredients dropped out of the constant toil of crafting, but the crafting system just isn’t that complex, so they just used the loot system instead.

    I don’t really think crafting in LOTRO is fun enough to do for its own sake anyway, though. The results (sense of achievement or value of output) are about the only reasons I can think of to do it.

  32. Blackbird71 says:

    I have to say that the sandbox style of gameplay is one thing that the original Star Wars: Galaxies did really well (not the current version). You could play the game any way that you wanted, and were never required to do things or gain skills you didn’t want to use. If all you wanted to do was craft, you could build levels entirely on crafting without needing to be skilled at combat. You could likewise build a character solely on combat, or on medical skills, performing, politics, etc. Even better, you could build a character on your own custom mix of these activities however you liked. If you ever got tired of your chosen activities, you could easily leave them behind and do something completely different.

    Unfortunately, some people seemed to think that this level of freedom was a Bad Thing, because it meant that there wasn’t a whole lot of direction provided for you. You had to be self motivated to create your own direction and goals, because the game would not hand them to you. Because too many people wanted to be told how to play (and SOE made teh mistake of listening to them), they were given a linear level system with no skills crossing between classes, and a straight path of progression to follow like any other MMO. Take the playground in Shamus’ example, and now imagine that someone put up brick walls in between all the playground equipment, ensuring that you can only ever play on one piece of equipment instead of running around between them all however you liked. After experiencing the freedom of a full playground, it makes things pretty drab and dull by comparison, doesn’t it?

    On the note of exploration being part of a game, forget achievements; Earth and Beyond actually had exploration account for 1/3 of the potential XP you could earn. As I recall, this XP could be earned in a few ways. The most straightforward was to go and explore regions of space you hadn’t yet been too. You could also pick up exploration XP through the mining of asteroids, or by taking missions involving surveying and sensor equipment. Being more of a combat character than a miner in that game, I got most of my exploration XP just by going out and seeing the sights. I think more MMOs ought to give you real credit for exploration and discovery, none of this “one more fancy title to stick in front of my name” nonsense. But to do this, it has to be at least somewhat difficult to get places; it’s not much of exploring if you can instantly hop all over the map.

    1. Tesh says:

      Speaking of fast travel, I’ve always thought Guild Wars does it right. Explore “the hard way” to get the exploration XP, and then be able to warp around later to get on with playing.

      Then again, I’m not convinced that turning exploration into yet another Achievement vehicle (granting XP) is the way to go. It’s just going to annoy the hardcore Achievers, and Explorers explore anyway.

  33. Artillery_MKV says:

    I know City of Heroes is old enough to be passe these days, but they’ve done a lot to address just these issues. The original sidekicking system, and now Supersidekicking (everyone in the party sidekicks to the leader) make sure you can play fun content all the time, rather than having to grind.

    Yes, the game has issues (PvP, I hear, is not good, and the combat system could be more challenging), but it remains the only MMO I go back to time after time.

  34. Mr Mister says:

    Bit late to post, but would Guild Wars 2 count as this style of game?

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