Having My Cake And Eating It Too
What can I say, I have a knack for seeing and appreciating complexity. At the same time, the gift often feels a lot like a curse. There are very few occasions when lots of complexity is a good thing. Being an engineer, or architect, for just a couple examples. However, if my time in the Marines taught me anything, it's how badly I dislike monotonous work and therefore: any higher education that involves math or science.
It's not that I don't like math and science, I love them. I just don't like being required to do the same routine and time-sapping problems that you get with "required" homework. Just give me the book, teach me the tricky concepts that a person might struggle with on their own and give then me a test. I don't need no stinkin' homework!
Complexity is King in AN M.M.O.
Complexity is the greatness of the MMO genre. Complexity is what makes these artificial places feel realistic, and therefore: believable. All the different systems and sub-systems and features that go into these digital worlds are what make up the substance of the game. Going back to our cake analogy - they're the bread, and the polish is the icing (and hopfully that whipped-cream kind of icing).
Crafting, exploration, social systems, combat (PvP & PvE), story, housing, etc. They all make up the substance of the MMO that we really come to eat. Sure, the polish helps it all go down and adds to the addiction, but really we eat it because we're hungry and because we're craving the substance. We're going to keep eating too, especially if the polish is good. We need that in MMOs if they're going to survive as long-term, persistent places where we can embark on lengthy endeavors that stretch far beyond the shorter scope of most other games in the industry.
All that I've stated above? Good complexity.
Now... what you're about to read next is... bad complexity. Very bad complexity.
Sometimes developers totally go overboard - or worse, they don't even know what kind of product they're pitching and they just keep ramming crap into it. Why? Because it's an MMO right? All the other MMOs are doing it. So why not us? Again I say... bad, bad complexity. In life, never do something because other people are doing it. Never. Never, ever... because ninety percent of the time you're just going to look like a jackass. The other 10% of the time, you're eating cake, cause who doesn't eat cake when everyone else is? Even if you're already full, you know you're going to be getting down on that cake!
Developers in the MMO side of the gaming industry, have a tendency to try and do things that other games are already doing. The caveat is that they're trying to do them "better". Honestly, with a decade and a half of tweaking and adding to the same damn model we've known since the original EverQuest, there isn't much "better" left. After all, who thinks a fifteen year old cake still sounds delicious? Not me. I want something fresh. I want something tasty. Sure, it can be familiar, but it needs to be new - and original. Don't cut up chunks of the old cake and use them as filler.
Make a new freaking cake!
Kind of a Love / Hate Thing
If you've been reading this column, then you're probably aware of my return to World of Warcraft after nearly a decade away. While I am playing the game and having some fun - it has a lot more to do with a lack of other options than it does WoW actually being that good. Really, I'm feverishly awaiting the Wednesday update for Landmark, which although raw and unfinished, is kind of like licking the cake batter off of the spoon. No it's not cake yet. No it isn't going to fill me up; but it sure as hell is tasty! And already it's making me want the finished cake even more.
WoW has some issues right now - and some big ones. Despite all the slimming down and streamlining - my character has still got skills pouring out of his ears that I still haven't been able to reign in. The sheer amount of abilities and cooldowns is a bit overwhelming, especially when you consider the PvP side of combat - which is of course the best kind of combat.
Perhaps it my long stint in the MOBA genre that has taught me to hate classic MMO combat. The tab-targeting I don't hate, but not having a convenient and nearby key for all the skills I might need in the heat of combat is very bad. What can I say, I'm a very competitive guy - and my tighter playing schedule hasn't tempered my need to win and to be the very best at all times. I hate that I can't hit the exact ability I want to hit, right when I need it.
I hate it with a vengeance.
Finding the Proper Balance
We're not going to escape complexity. In fact, MMOs demand complexity. However, the delivery still has plenty of room for improvement. Having 50 or even 100's of different abilities is not necessarily the problem - all those things add tons of delicious depth to the combat system. Having access (or even worse, requiring access) to all those abilities on the drop of a dime in the thick of intense combat...?
Very much a problem.
Instead of looking at my abilities as a simple weapon or set of weapons I can unleash on my opponents, instead I'm looking at a 50-piece Swiss Army knife of choices, each with its own specific uses and circumstances. In my last edition of the Gravity Well I talked about how the evolution of technology is changing the MMO genre, and a big part of that change is instant-access. Not having instant access to a specific ability when I need it is both frustrating and painful, and it takes away from all the good things WoW combat has going for it.
It's why I believe WoW had to implement the "Proving Grounds" system for high-end dungeons and raid content. It's separating the egg-yolks from the egg-whites, so to speak. People who just don't have the knack (and by knack I mean keyboard setup, macros, and key-memorization) to operate everything as flawlessly as is sometimes necessary, are going to hurt the experience of others at that level. That's a lot of wasted time investment, which is why they made that change. The fact that the system needs additional prerequisite support is a clear indicator that the system needs a total overhaul to truly be intuitive and streamlined.
As high as I am on how great WoW looks, and how accessible it is at the entry level - the complexity of late-game and competitive play is certainly not for everyone. That's why raiding is a relatively niche pursuit despite there being an awfully large group of people that enjoy competing in intense combat (look at the RTS and MOBA crowds as proof of that). The "shinies" play a big role too, everyone wants the uber loot - even if they can't quite play up to par (another reason WoW has implemented systems to make raiding more accessible, or at least easier versions of it).
The Bottom Line
No matter how you slice it, the fact remains that we need complexity in MMOs, but much more than that - the complexity needs to be served in a simple and intuitive way that doesn't bog down the game. Old school Dungeons and Dragons players feel the same way about all the modern rule-sets in the tabletop realm as well. Has D&D added a lot of great content to their table-top RPG? Yes. Have they done so at the cost of creating an overwhelming mass of rules that has now actually become a barrier to entry for new players? Sadly, yes again.
I see the same thing happening to WoW and to EverQuest, and to just about every other MMO that's been good enough to survive Father-Time thus far. They won't survive forever. Eventually they'll reach a point where all the complexity becomes too big a barrier for entry (or for progression, an equally damning factor for any MMO) and when their current player base gets tired of the same old taste. I recently got to play again in a static EverQuest group with a few friends who had never before played the game. The UI and the sheer amount of complexity to the game was incredibly intimidating for them and needless to say, we only made it about 6 weeks before the group decided to move on.
World of Warcraft looks appetizing, as it is much more polished than some of the earlier surviving MMOs - but it too is growing stale. It just doesn't taste as delicious anymore. It still looks nice, as they've done a great job adding preservatives and slapping on fresh icing... but it doesn't make my mouth water to think about. No MMOs currently on the market today really do. I'm just eating it because I want dessert and the bakery hasn't made anything fresh for a while.
I'm just in a holding pattern, half-heartedly sucking down the old delicacies like the MMO gaming glutton I am; hoping one of the bakers finally brings out a fresh dessert. Ideally it would be a new lip-licking recipe that I've never even tried before. Landmark and EverQuest Next are showing signs of greatness, which is why I'm following them so closely... but they're not quite ready yet. I've tasted the batter, and it is promising; but the reality is that they're still in the oven. They've got all my favorite ingredients... but you really don't know what it's going to be like until you taste the finished product.
If you've made it this far, than you must be a glutton for my thoughts... or maybe you just really like cake! (I wonder if the image below is helping satisfy that need, or just cruel and unusual punishment?) Let me know what you think in the comment section below, whether it's about the article or maybe about your favorite real-life dessert!