25 Apr 2011

Playing Cards at the Carnival

Confession time: I like to take my time when levelling characters. I’ve tried levelling at breakneck speed and it just isn’t for me. Nowadays I prefer to take things at my own pace – I have a bunch of alts that still aren’t at level cap in Warcraft, while in Rift I’m only about two thirds to cap nearly two months after release. After all, what’s the rush?

Spinks recently highlighted an idea that the Everquest 2 developers are kicking around, where experienced returning players could trade cash for a max level character. I agree with her that the concept feels like a bad one, but that it’s getting difficult to justify why.

There’s a great analogy someone once made that compared MMOs to the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Basically put, if the films followed the same path as many MMOs then the opening twenty minutes would be about getting the ring to Mount Doom. The rest of the first film and the remaining two would all be about getting the ring into the volcano. Feels slightly skewed, right?

Endgame content has become such a pivotal part of MMOs that there’s a ton of work and effort poured into keeping people playing once they hit the cap. Once all the stories have been played out through questing and levelling, there’s only a few hooks left. The biggest one being variable ratio reinforcement – get players to keep performing the same actions and give them a reward each time, with a low chance of something special. There’s a similar thing at play in slot machines and card games – you keep playing in the hope of that big payoff sometime in the future.

The trouble is that people tend to get wise to reinforcement tricks fairly quickly, especially if there’s a pattern to them. The trick then changes to looking for ways to distract players from the nature of the game. Reputation grinds, heroic modes, even new professions are all there to make it more palatable to run that raid dungeon in the hopes that your loot will drop tonight.

While us poker-playing endgame raiders are sitting round the card table, playing our hands and finding out if we’ll be taking home the pot tonight, a literal carnival of delights has sprung up around us. Considering that some of us have been playing the same game of poker around the same table for the past six years, having the carnival here to keep us entertained during a run of bad hands is quite welcome. But isn’t this just sugaring the pill?

I’m not sure that giving players a fast-track to endgame is the right answer, but it does show the split nature of MMOs. On the one side there’s the RPG game, rich in quests, lore and story. On the other are the various multi player games including dungeons, raids and PvP. While you can do both at the same time there’s a general understanding that you play the RPG game first then switch to the multi player game at the end. It’s a tried and tested formula, but is it the right one?

For all my gripes, Blizzard does at least seem to be looking at ways to refresh older content and bring the storyline with it. Patch 4.1 brings new chapters in the Zandalari storyline, while 4.2 will usher in the return of Ragnaros. For me though, I’d like to see them go further with intertwining the multi and single player games more closely. What that looks like, I have no idea as yet.

I don’t play Warcraft (or any MMO) for endgame. For me it’s all about the story, the experience, the world, the lore. It’s like being allowed into a secret garden created by the developers and told “Go play”. Endgame is just the hold music I listen to while I’m waiting for more story, made more enjoyable by having good company.

These days though, it feels like I’m in the minority. With much of an MMO’s design and emphasis tuned around the long-haul experience players will have at end-game, am I one of a few that still plays for this type of content? Will MMOs in the future follow the first-person shooter model, throwing raids together through matchmaking systems? Or will they switch to a rapid episodic model where levels, zones, quests, dungeons and raids are bundled more tightly and released more frequently? It’s too late to change anything for Warcraft, but will something like this be incorporated for Titan?

If you could, would you skip to endgame?

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