The very earliest games ever created (long before the digital age with evidence of some games even in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia) all had an element to them that made them intriguing and engaging. No matter what mechanic was employed, be it strategy, chance, speed, or something else, there was some manner of skill to those age-old games, be it physical, intellectual, or both. Games of old employed a feature that required players to engage themselves and offered a core ingredient for replay-ability and retention: mastery.

Game Mastery and Real Experience

No matter what game you look at, whether it is a physical sport, a board game, a card game, or even most video games - the most successful, entertaining, and addictive games all have some aspect of mastery to them. The more you play them, the sharper you get and experience (which takes time and effort) gives you an advantage over your opponent. It doesn't matter if that opponent is a person, computer controlled AI, or even the game mechanics themselves. The more you play, the more you know, and the more mastery you have established over the game - whatever mechanics it employs.

I would argue that many games today are lacking this essential ingredient of skill and mastery, particularly MMO games. Experience has become an artificial thing in these games. It literally has become a progress bar and indicates nothing about real experience within the game other than time-invested. Somewhere along the line, MMOs lost their edge. These games have lost their sense of "mastery".

That is likely what has led to the rise in high-level raid content and PvP battlegrounds. Those are the only two avenues of game-play where a player can experience the overarching mechanic of game mastery. In most EQ/WoW-model MMO games, these are the only two types of content that pose any significant challenge where players need to lean on game mastery and real game experience they have developed over time. Virtually all other aspects of the game require no mastery - they just require all the time and effort a person typically spends acquiring mastery through their playing experience.

That's all fine if the general content is actually helping build game mastery and skills that will be useful somewhere else.

For players that aren't particularly into the Raiding aspects or the PvP aspects, the majority of most MMO content doesn't build any useful mastery that is needed, making a lot of that time and energy feel like work (a.k.a "the grind"). When there is no deeper essential mastery behind the content, it only offers us face value - which means zero replay-ability. If you've experienced it once, why go through it all over again if it doesn't offer a meaningful experience? A few games use clever mechanics to allow the content to feel slightly different if you pick a different origin class, race, or something else - but many don't even do that.

Treating the Symptoms Instead of the Illness

Some developers have seen this replay discrepancy and instead of treating the illness, they've only attempted to treat the symptoms. Achievement systems are typically a bright red flag that warns me of poorly designed games. Granted, not every game that has achievements is lacking depth and mastery for the majority of its content; but the way in which achievements are employed is very telling about how lacking a game's deeper mastery might be. I look at most games' achievement systems as sort of a long-term "grocery-list" to fill out. It's a checklist that helps give a player some small incentive to keep playing.

That should be unnecessary, if you really think about it.

If a game is modeled properly for continuous long-term play, the intrinsic mastery of a game's mechanics and systems should provide all the replay-ability one needs. Especially when you consider that persistent MMO games have the benefit of adding additional content over time (which we are now seeing even single-player console games do via XBox 360/One and PlayStation 3/4). It's just a pity how many games are relying on DLC to keep players tuning in, rather than just building a game with enough natural depth and mastery to keep players involved an invested to begin with. Downloadable content should be extra, not essential - but for most game that employ it, I would argue that is not the case.

Making Current and Past Content Relevant

I've always been impressed with Magic: the Gathering in its ability to continually shift the standard meta game and also keep plugging new cards into a massive legacy collection that alters each and every format of the game all year round. It's almost that perfect synergy of renewing the old while also dramatically altering the present with new and relevant content. I don't feel like many MMOs (if any) have taken notice and tried to replicate such a system in a 3D persistent world. If any have tried, they've failed miserably.

I can't think of any current MMO title that has newly injected content that affects anything other than the high-end PvP and Raid content. WoW's Cataclysm expansion probably comes closest, but that's still a symptomatic band-aid rather than a causational healing. I'm waiting for an MMO to provide regular recurring content that builds and requires mastery over the game and serves as a real and meaningful experience.

If a game has to tell me that I'm gaining experience, they're doing it wrong. Period.

Game mechanics that provide a meaningful experience by their very nature would keep me coming back to learn more, get better, and achieve more without an awkward grocery list of achievements that revolves primarily around time (which is a commodity I have very little of these days). The simple fact is that I'm growing older, I've got a family, more responsibilities, and less time to spend playing - which means that mechanics revolving entirely around time investment are always going to be a turn off.

Too Much Time Investment is a Problem

It's gotten to the point now where I almost don't even want to touch a game where I see heavy time-intensive systems and no real in-game experience to be had. I just don't want to get sucked into a system where I am clearly at a disadvantage. On the other hand, games which do have skill and very challenging content that my earliest playing experience will help give me an edge in, those are the games I look at as compelling and worth investing in.

I'm not saying that's easy or that I have a clear solution to it, but at least recognizing this is an issue is a great place to start.

More than anything these games just need a reinfusion of skill and mastery into the general game-play experience instead of tucking that behind a massively dull and boring grind that by its very nature puts me at a disadvantage to those who have more time than I do. I think if more designers improved the early day-to-day content, they'd find a lot more people like myself lining up to buy-in, pay subscriptions, and use their micro-transaction shops. There's just no incentive for someone like me to do that when the majority of the experience I want is gated behind time I just don't have.

Providing cash-shop options to bridge this time disparity isn't a solution to the core problem we're facing here: that the majority of MMO games early content is un-impactful, meaningless, and so boring that most players are trying skip through it.

Final Thoughts

Cut scenes, written dialogue, and other narrative methods will rarely get in the way of a user's gameplay if it was actually meaningful to the cohesive mastery of the game, which I suppose is another argument entirely I should reserve for the next edition of the Gravity Well. There are far too many MMO's out there calling themselves "RPG"s, when in reality, the narrative and context of those games' story and their characters have so little impact on the greater game mastery experience itself that they have no business using that term.

All they're doing is watering it down and stealing its meaning - the same exact way the term MMO has gotten watered down by games that do not have a massive, persistent online world. It all needs to stop, lest all relevant games we enjoy get buried behind a sea of games actively abusing and misusing labels to try and increase their awareness.


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Last Updated: Mar 15, 2016

About The Author

Alex has been playing online games and RPGs for quite some time, starting all the way back with Daggerfall, EverQuest, and Ultima Online. He's staying current with the latest games, picking up various titles and playing during his weekly streams on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings with both MMOs and MOBAs being feature plays. Hit him up on Twitter if you have a stream request for Freeplay Friday! Two future games he's got a keen eye on are Daybreak's EverQuest Next and Illfonic's Revival.