PC Article

The trouble with MMORPGs: Grinding me down

Nick laments his rapidly declining online lifeā€¦

If game developers knew about me, they'd try to bottle what I have - I am the equivalent of MMORPG litmus; an acid test. I've played most of the big ones - UO, EQ, AC, DAOC and now SWG, and I've exhibited the same reaction to almost all of them. You see, I'm always the fish that got away.

It always starts so well. I install, register. Spend an age perusing arcane and obscure sites to find the elusive best combination of STR and DXT and INT for that uber nuking mage or damage soaking tank. I make the decision, create a character. I change my mind, re-roll and start again. I do this several times, until everything is just right. But finally, I'm happy. I enter the game world.

And am immediately lost and confused. No MMORPG ever has managed to ease me into a game. Maybe I'm obtuse, but invariably someone takes pity on me and points me in the right direction - the rat/snake/mouse/snail killing fields, where I begin to cut my level 1 teeth with the other "n00bs". In UO and EQ, this was a delight - it was all new, we were all new back then. This was before the days of power levelling and macro'ing your way to level 40 before the game was even out. No. Back then, we ALL did our time in the rat fields. But despite the obvious menial nature of the task, it is still fun. The levels come quickly, new skills are learned and used, new items acquired and the next goal is only just around the corner. This is the MMORPG honeymoon period - the time where the grind is not just bearable, it's actually enjoyable. But like the real thing, the MMORPG honeymoon can't last. The trouble with MMORPGs: Grinding me down

It begins to creep in, almost unnoticed. The levels are further apart. You begin to notice that newly acquired skills are carbon copies of the old ones, with a different coloured icon and a two percent damage increase. You start to get 'class envy' - that feeling that almost every other race/class/profession is better off than you, and that the developers have it in for you and your kind. Suddenly, you find yourself looking for groups because you're bored of soloing, or soloing because you can't find a group, or crafting because you can't be bothered with either. You try out all the little distractions the developers have put in the game to make things 'deep', only to find they're broken, bugged or plain pointless. But you're a trooper. You stiffen that upper lip and press on, certain that if you can only hang in there the good times will arrive and the game will be FUN again.

It is at precisely this point, that me and others like me will part ways with our more determined MMORPG brethren. I, you see, am a quitter. And that's why developers should listen to me, because it is me and those like me who cannot be retained after the free month. Simply put, if I'm paying for it, then it's a winner. And I tell you all honestly, I'm TIRED of quitting. I want to proudly display my level 75 death mage to all and sundry. I want to tell bored "n00bs" of how I acquired my shiny Boots of Relentless Perseverance + 2 after a three day battle with a fire giant. I want to be that guy - I have it in me, to be that sad.

But frankly, and I mean this in the nicest possible sense, all the MMORPGs out there bore me senseless after two or three weeks. So where are they going wrong? Well, if you're still reading at this point, I'm going to tell you. Here follows Nick's list of MMORPGs do's and dont's... so without further ado, and in no particular order...

1) DON'T use me as pest control: The trouble with MMORPGs: Grinding me down

I've killed them all - rats, spiders, snakes, snails, wasps, worms, beetles etc. And more to the point, I've BEEN killed by them all. I'm tired of this crap - I know MMORPGs must have a sense of progression and therefore start small, but can't I start a bit higher up the food chain? For God sake, in real life I could give most decent sized mammals a good hiding and I don't even possess a shock spell or whirlwind attack. Let me fight something bigger.

2) DO allow me to play how I like, when I like:

I keep unusual hours. It's a by product of being socially ignorant, drinking vast amounts of tea and coke and generally preferring to skulk in darkness. That is my right. So if I'm on your server with only three others at four in the morning, please let me do something meaningful with my time, and don't force me to join up with someone as obnoxious as I am to level up. That's just cruel. The trouble with MMORPGs: Grinding me down

3) DON'T make crap classes/professions:

Because I am drawn to them as the moth is to the flame. I have a history of single-handedly and without prior research, choosing as my own the class or profession that is clearly 'screwing the pooch'. The only exception to this rule is Star Wars Galaxies, where I avoided Chef by the narrowest of margins purely because Ferrago's own Rich called shotgun on them for himself. Instead, I went a medic, and spent most of my time harbouring pent up rage at the lack of tips, with a sinking feeling as I realised I'd have to heal 1,057 more people before I get another skill. This may be unfair though, because SOE have commendably and originally screwed up almost every profession, in order to make everyone equally unhappy. Now that's thinking out of the box.

4) DO play other types of games, to better remember...

That games are meant to be fun. I mean, really, there are careers that are less demanding than your average MMORPG. I'm as lazy as the next person (in fact, much much lazier) - I get up late every day and really don't do very much, but even I balk at the man hours I'm expected to put in to level my character. Come on people. I completely understand the concept of work vs reward in games. But I need more reward, and need it more often. The trouble with MMORPGs: Grinding me down

5) DON'T pretend I can 'make a difference':

We both know that your over-arching storyline is wafer thin, and that I don't amount to a hill of beans in this digital town. Drop the pretence, I can handle the empty feeling of my own non-importance. I live in the real world, remember? I'm happy with my own little corner.

My most recent foray into the online world was with Star Wars Galaxies. In fact, I was so keen I couldn't wait for the European release and secured an American copy on eBay. I am a huge Star Wars and RPG fanatic, and am only just getting over my KOTOR withdrawal symptoms, so you'd think that SWG would be something of a panacea.

To put it simply, Star Wars Galaxies is the latest in an evolving series of MMORPGs that have yet to get the basics right, and each new incarnation adds more froth on a stale and uninventive gameplay experience. Let us look at the things that SWG gets right. Character customisation is excellent. The graphics are just right, if a little demanding. The crafting is deeper and more involving than any previous game, allowing players to exist totally without combat. Of all of these, only the crafting in SWG is a real innovation and truly game enhancing. Galaxies has all the same problems of previous MMORPGs - the grind, balance issues, economic problems - but is multiplied because of the number of professions and the stilted player economy. I honestly believe that Sony must never play some of the professions they have created, because they are stupendously boring to play. As a medic, I came to the stage of sitting watching TV as I ground my way through the early skills. Macros are springing up everywhere because players are too bored to play themselves. Every second entertainer is AFK, simply leaving their characters dancing away in the cantina as they do something more interesting and productive offline. Surely a game designer's number one priority is to entertain? SOE have managed something truly remarkable - they have actively bored me, as opposed to merely not entertaining. Do you see the distinction? The trouble with MMORPGs: Grinding me down

The responses of the developers and some players to all this seem ludicrous. Macroing is severely frowned upon, and I've witnessed huge arguments in the cantinas over tipping AFK entertainers. Some players resent those who refuse to waste their time grinding. These people miss the point. If the game made this process interesting in the slightest, it would not be a problem. When a game feels more like a job than a game, it's time to quit.

Galaxies has tried to innovate, but in my opinion has moved in the wrong direction, drawing all the wrong conclusions from the lessons of the last few MMORPG years. One developer, however, is moving in the correct direction and should provide the quitters like me with a reason to finally part with our credit card details. The game is World of Warcraft, and the developer is, of course, Blizzard. WoW gets me excited in a way few games do these days. It is frankly looking too fabulous to do it justice in anything less than a full preview, but already in its pre-beta state the Blizzard design principles shine through. There are far fewer classes, but each is completely self sufficient - although obviously certain classes will perform better at certain tasks than others. Blizzard has simplified the advancement process, making it impossible to produce a crippled character, but has a complex secondary skill system that allows customisation. The whole game is designed around principles of usability, friendliness to new players, simplicity and of course, fun. This is the key point. Blizzard have stated that they want to reproduce the Diablo-esque quality of forgetting to look at the progress bar. You simply enjoy the game and before you know it, you've gained a level, completed a quest or attained some other goal. This, and this above all, is what I've missed in all the MMORPGs I've played.

The MMORPG genre is now in a critical phase. Although a select few are financially successful, none have managed to produce the kind of gameplay that will keep average gamers playing for years. Developers are trying new things to find that magic formula, each citing what the previous generation of games did wrong in an effort to justify their approach. Shadowbane emphasises player guilds and inter-city combat. Anarchy Online boasted a futuristic setting. Dark Age of Camelot offered the player vs. player experience Everquest was lacking. None of these games, however, ever sought to emphasise simplicity or fun. If I'm right, then some time next year, Blizzard will show us all what we've been missing.