Dude, Who Stole My Community? Confronting the Inertia of MMO Players

We all come to MMOs and virtual worlds with grand expectations. For months before a MMO is released we experience the hype about how this time it will be different. We salivate as we see the trailers and read the marketing copy about how you and your friends will be transported to a world of wonder and magic — a world of adventure and excitement awaits where anything can happen.

At first it’s all good, after all it’s a new world. You are seeing new amazing locations, battling new monsters and meeting new people. But after a few years the honeymoon is over and logging on to our favorite MMO feels like wearing a comfortable sweater. Players settle into their routines and even worse they start to like it and even expect it. Don’t you dare go changing things or else you’ll face the terrible wrath of the players.

Anyone who remembers the reaction of a significant number of people in the WoW community after last year’s zombie event can attest to this. Quite a few WoW players were outraged and indignant that they were “inconvenienced” by the zombie invasion and let Blizzard know in no uncertain terms. Isn’t the underlying premise of MMOs like WoW supposed to be a “world at war”?

Why is it that as a MMO starts to age that players seem to embrace predictability and routine and reject dynamism and variety?

Rethinking the Zombie Invasion

What piqued my interest in this topic was a few threads on the official WoW forums about the zombie invasion “live” scripted event that took place in WoW before the release of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. One thread in particular caught my eye. Atheniae dares to make and “Emper0r has no clothes” observation about the nature of the WoW community:

Before the last expansion was released, I felt very disappointed about World of Warcraft. It was not the content or the developers fault. It was the WoW population, the people who play the game, that let me down.

It seemed to me that each time Blizzard introduced a change, for better or worse, the majority of people were adverse to a change at all. However, there was never that much complaint, normally those affected cry louder than those who are not or do not care.

However, the zombie event revealed something that I had only slightly suspected about the WoW player-base. They cannot break the monotony of the game, for even a day or two. The daily actions of WoW players to me has become: Gold Grinding, AH, Gold Grinding, AH, Gold Grinding, AH, raid, AH.

It seems that all MMO communities eventually end up like this. We become like grouchy old codgers sipping lemonade on our virtual porches and we scowl at the kids who throw a ball on our lawn. How dare that anyone or anything changes our routine in the slightest.

Over time we willingly trade the feeling of wonder and excitement for the security of the daily grind and the routine. We become like the cast of Cheers. We show up in our favorite MMOs each night, occupy our virtual bar stools and embrace the insanity of tedium and repetitiveness.

Why Unpredictability Matters

I loved the zombie event. It was nice to finally see some chaos in a world that had become all too predictable and stagnant. Almost everyone was affected by it and most certainly everyone was talking about it. And here’s the good part: finally at last a real enemy — the Scourge — to unite all of the races of Azeroth!

It may come as no surprise but I also loved the panic and confusion caused by the Corrupted Blood Plague incident all caused by a disease originating in Zul’Gurub actually spread to players throughout the rest of Azeroth. For me that was a shining moment of emergent, unscripted glory for virtual worlds. However soon Blizzard put an end to the mayhem and Azeroth reverted back to its safe and comfy former self.

These kinds of events are worthwhile because they relieve players of the monotony of daily life in a MMO. This is even more pronounced when you take into account the highly scripted nature of the content in WoW.Β  People need to be challenged more often in MMOs. It’s not just a matter of the traditional challenge of skill, rather it’s the challenge of dealing with and processing variety, randomness and new situations.

The problem is that change and dealing with the unexpected can thwart the player who views his MMO like an amusement park.

After the Love Has Gone

I believe the part of the problem is that as the world starts to become more familiar and safe we lose our wanderlust and passion — we start to become jaded and immune to the world around us. After all “exploration” is a finite as far as content is concerned — at least until the next patch or expansion. With nothing left to explore we turn to becoming super achievers and embrace the min/max philosophy which makes us grind all aspects of the MMO more efficiently.

Slowly we fall out of love with our virtual world but somehow we stay addicted to the grind. We in effect make a Faustian bargain with our virtual world; we replace what should be hours of danger and excitement with the comfort of predictability. We become like the husband and wife that can barely tolerate each other but we stay together because we feel safe and secure with the devil we know.

Creating and Supporting a World of Unpredictability

The root of the problem is that MMO devs fail to establish and promote a culture where players are kept on their toes. From its inception you need to infuse your MMO and your players with the expectation that they will be living in an unpredictable world where anything can happen. And it has to be more than just marketing speak. The MMO company has to make a serious commitment to communicate to players that they are going to be immersed in a world of danger and change — they should always be on guard, constantly looking over their shoulders.

If players start viewing your MMO as a *job* then you are failing as a MMO company. Most players already have enough routines in their live — they don’t need it in your MMO. Your job as a MMO developer is to provide your players with virtual world full of fun and excitement not bland predictability.

However if you don’t want this kind of world then at least have the guts to put this on the box:

Warning: This virtual world is full of predictable and safe gameplay. Things rarely change here. You will most likely fall into a daily routine and your experiences will rarely change from day to day. If anyone or anything disrupts your fun please contact our helpful Gamemasters. Please stay safe and have fun while you are a guest in our world!

5 Years Later: Still No Live Quests and Events in WoW

Clearly with Blizzard there has been absolutely no real support for the notion that a MMORPG is a living breathing world. Instead of embracing it, they run away from it at full speed. They have conditioned their players with the exact opposite — a cornucopia of predictability where mobs always respawn and questgivers never change.

It’s an outrage that they still have not run one live dynamic event after 5 years. Shame on them. I suspect that Rob Pardo or someone at the top of Blizzard’s design team must have had a bad experience with a overly zealous EverQuest GM running a live event and the unfortunate result is that 11.6 million players will never know what it’s like to be a part of one of the most thrilling and exciting facets of a virtual world.

What a missed opportunity this is for Blizzard when this kind of experience should be a unique selling point for a massively multi-player online role-playing game of the caliber of WoW.

Not only have they refused to run live quests and events they have refused to support role-players who are the lifeblood personified of virtual worlds. One great role-player has the potential to bring more worth and life to a virtual world then 100 greedy achievers.

Conclusion

You get the player community you deserve. Feed them with a steady diet of lopsided achievement based gameplay, a predictable world that never changes and heavily scripted quests and the result is a community of unambitious, apathetic, stodgy players who are resistant to change but very eager to complain and riot in the streets when they experience any form of inconvenience.

Even worse they have become resistant to the notion of true fun as they’ve forgotten what attracted them to this MMO in the first place. As Raph Koster seemed to be saying in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, when the brain stops learning people stop having fun. It’s hard to imagine that players are having fun doing the same bland repetitive tasks each day.

If the zombie invasion of 2008 taught us anything it is that thanks to the timidity of MMO companies who have failed to consistently deliver a gripping world of excitement and immediacy it’s the players who’ve become the real zombies in MMOs. Friends don’t let friends become well-behaved zombies — even in MMOs.

-Wolfshead

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