Lately, I have been playing Eve Online. For those of you who don’t follow my every move on this website (and for those two of you who do, you’re awesome!), Eve Online is a space based MMO. Unlike other games, the skill training system is based on real-time training, which continues when off-line. Therefore actions in the game: killing spaceships, trading, etc, do not yield experience. So while I have been only tepidly interested in the game, and not playing, my character has been training, basically at the same rate as an active player.
As a result of having a nearly six month old character, I can fly all sorts of awesome ships, which makes the game fun. However, because I haven’t been playing–just training, I have no money–money is only earned from those activities in the game itself. Being a huge hypocrite, I went and bought some in-game money to afford the awesome ship of my choosing and the sweet equipment to pimp my space-ride. You see, the really fun part of Eve Online is the PvP: you can take down other players, blow up their star bases, etc. But to do this, you need money. And to get money, you need to do what is generally boring: mission running, blowing up NPC ships, or mining.
As a result, I was visited by a sense of deja-vu from my World of Warcraft days. When I was end game raiding Naxxramus, I would need to pay for quite a bit of various potions (called “consumables”) in order to get the necessary character stats for end-game content. Because I was a hypocrite back then as well, I would buy gold, or mooch off my guildmates, because farming gold took too damn long and was boring as sin.
What does this trips down memory lane have in common with my new MMO? In both MMOs, one niche and one mega-popular, you have to dump play-time into boring and repetitive activities in order to get in-game money. This money is then used on the actual fun parts of the game–in one case, PvP, the other, high end PvE. You have to pay to play. Except with in-game money. And you’re already paying out of game money. It’s a double jeopardy of time wasting. This is great for geeks with no life. It is however, less optimal for busy Generation Y members who enjoy gaming along with working hard in good jobs and sleeping with women.
This is what ultimately makes most MMOs suck in the long term. In order to participate in the meaningful PvP or end game content, you have to spend excessive amounts of time grinding to finance the fun. This ratio of unfun:fun can be 2:1 or even as bad as 10:1. It’s a bad entertainment model when you have to “work” to enjoy the fun aspects. I already do that. It’s called work. I do it 8 hours a day (minimum) to pay for the fun things in my life (video games, hookers, cocaine). I shouldn’t have to repeat this formula in a video game. But I used to, and at least 15 million gamers worldwide in the MMO market still do.
Hopefully, the next generation MMO games will find a better model. Hope may be in Mythic’s Age of Reckoning, which is supposed to have PvP with experience gain and cash rewards, potentially offering fun that (in game) finances more fun. I would make an ultimatum that future MMOs, in order to succeed, must find a way to eliminate grinding. Unfortunately, MMO players have shown that they are tolerant sheep, willing to devote countless hours to character building with minimal amounts of what the broader gamer community would consider fun. Given this is the current “state of the art”, exemplified by World of Warcraft–and for a really narcissistic example, look at this blog. This fine blogger (made finer by linking me) read my old WoW end game article and commented how even with the expansion, the fundamental mechanics of grinding are the same.
Given a tolerant community and a blockbuster game built around time sinking in World of Warcraft, there is little incentive for the gaming industry to advance and change things.
Although I agree with those developers in spirit, I think their models suck as well, since puzzle content is very hard to scale in an MMO. Most concerning of my admittedly quick Google search is that I haven’t seen any of the current developers say anything to the extent that their current model sucks.
This is really a shame, because one reason many of the non MMO players I know stay away is the grinding aspect. There is talk of how MMOs need to better cater to the “casual” player: it may be that instead developers should focus more on being fun, and less on being casual. After all, fun appeals to more people. Perhaps being jaded from grinding so much isn’t something a “casual” player worries about, and therefore I’m off base. On the other hand, it may be that WoW doesn’t have any casual players, since the game has been around so long most everyone is level 70 and therefore forced into hardcore grinding one way or another.
So instead of a demand to MMO developers of how things should be, I issue a plea. Stop making your games’ time sinks based around grinding. Every stage of the game, from level 1 to 6 months after max level should be constant entertainment. Sure, there should be work and effort required–nothing should be free, and people should be rewarded for their efforts. But don’t tier your content: don’t have grinding to subsidize fun PvP, or grinding to subsidize end game PvE. Instead, focus on perpetually fun games: find ways to leverage your player base and create scalable PvE and PvP that can consistently deliver. We know people can make MMOs that are boring. Surprise us with something better–when we pay $50 for your software and $300 a year, we deserve it.