Recapturing the mystery that makes MMOs worth playing
By Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
In the most recent edition of the offbeat gamer webzine The Escapist, Laura Genander's article "Drudgery" speaks to boredom, what she feels is the inescapable fate of the MMORPG gamer. "The only challenge left is staying awake through hours and hours of leveling," says Genander. "We call it 'The Grind.'" This longtime staff writer at MMORPG.com goes on to confide that she continues playing for the socio-political aspects of playing; the ability for one player to affect the playerbase at large. Our reasons for continuing to play after the game aspect has worn thin have been examined ad nauseum; to alter an old political campaign slogan: it's the community, stupid.
But I am interested in why MMOs have come under fire ever since the wax and wane of EverQuest's popularity as fundamentally boring exercises in one-upmanship. Is shinier equipment and keeping up with the uber-joneses really the best we can hope for, or is there some fun to be had along the way, too? Can the experience between logging in and logging out matter at least as much as the stats on your character sheet?
I argued yes once before, in describing the thrill of an EVE Online fleet battle victory and later, the agony of defeat - losing a very expensive ship in a ill-thought out duel. No game of any make or model has endangered my emotional health like EVE Online. Ever. I can't put too fine a point on it; if you want to experience the vicissitudes of sheer excitement and terror in an MMO, subscribe to EVE Online, mine for a month, get yourself a decent cruiser and a spot in a PvP corporation, and go start some trouble with your new friends at your side.
But, statistically speaking, all of you play high-fantasy, fundamentally "cooperative" MMORPGs, so we'll envision orcs and elves when we say "MMO" from now on in this editorial.
In MMOs, we don't expect the adrenal minefield of a single-player first-person shooter (FPS) - cautiously padding through corridors before frantically sweeping the assuredly danger-ridden open spaces like a nervous police academy recruit. By and large, MMO types aren't into trigger-happy, twitch friendly games. Most of us have sown our wild gaming oats, sad but true. Yet Genander's right about the grind - those looking for that kind of excitement will last about 20 minutes in the traditional MMO (Tabula Rasa and APB might change this…we'll see). But, I confess, I love fragfests in small doses. I recently downloaded Half Life 2 to see what all the Episode 1 fuss is about, and it's a fun change of pace - though, since my System Shock 2 days, my endocrine system can handle only about 20 minutes of panicky flailing and firing at a go (one classic comment from a spectating dormmate: "I think it's dead… 20 bullets ago"). In retrospect, maybe it's a good thing that asthma kept me out of the Marine Corps officer candidate program; I'm guessing battles with Al Qaeda militants last longer than 20 minutes, and bullets exist in finite supplies in southern Iraq. I digress.
Nor do MMORPGs typically offer the contemplative, everything-in-its-place joys of a sim game or builder-style RTS / TBS games. If you enjoy lining up the peasant houses and governing resource production ratios while you mass units for the coup de grace against your opponent, or gliding along the path of success in a sim (where the most you can do is not screw up), be aware that MMOs only offer these kinds of seemly pleasures in small doses, if at all.
Not that MMOs don't involve strategic thought; on the contrary, coordinate a raid and you'll find out that executing a plan to defeat a boss mob is like any real-life leadership scenario - you'll need about 30% instructions and 70% ability to cope with the entirely human propensity for your teammates to do whatever the hell they want to, despite the instructions. In a way, that's part of the fun - while you're human guinea pig in The Sims 2 might disobey your radial command from time to time, he or she can't be reasoned with (or publicly humiliated when their wayward actions lead to predictable results). In like manner, your teammates can weigh in on the plan and contribute to the success or failure of the plan.
So, if MMORPGs offer neither pupil-widening, white knuckle FPS excitement nor the obsessive-compulsive satisfaction of a sim, what keeps us coming back for more? At least some of us are healthy in mind, body, and spirit, and healthy people don't habituate things that aren't enjoyable. As a rule, if it's not fun on some level, you won't keep at it for very long. Some of us have been at this for more than seven years; we frame some of our life experiences by what MMO we were playing at the time, what virtual world friends we shared that part of our lives with.
If it's a little depressing nowadays that you have to think for a bit about what's enjoyable about playing an MMORPG, if you're feeling kind of burnt out on MMOs (but single-player games just feel lonely), take heart. To me, the promise of the MMORPG is just below the surface. MMOs don't reach out and grab your emotions by the collar, they simply offer the tacit promise that you'll get out most of what you put in. It's not an emotion; it's not just a short-lived thrill, it's the full emotional spectrum. All the shades of humanity are represented: from the jerks, to the freaks and dorks, to the attention whores, to the close friends that, when you finally meet in person, you would have never pictured yourself getting to know.
When it comes down to it, it's that mystery - that uncertainty - that keeps us emotionally engaged. If you avoid spoiler info and figure out the MMO-standard 300 hours of content on your own, you'll gain a lot of fulfillment from solving mysteries on one level. But you can get bored or frustrated with content - when it comes down to it, players can consume new zones faster than developers can crank them out - but the possibilities to meet new people with similar interests in a relatively low-risk environment, that's golden.
So why is it that the smaller MMOs usually provide a better framework for this kind of casual interaction? If you've stuck with me this far, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Email me or post in the Ten Ton Hammer forums, and thanks for reading!