Twelve starving men sat down at a table. Before them was placed a sumptuous banquet. Then one of the men protested: “I don’t like salt…”. So in order not to offend him the others agreed to remove the salt from the table. Then another man exclaimed: “I detest pepper…”. So in order not to anger him they all consented to remove the pepper from the table. Each remaining man rose in turn and protested yet another ingredient until there was nothing left on the table. With nothing left to eat the twelve men died of hunger.
Sound familiar? That story is a metaphor for the disintegration of MMORPGs in recent years. One by one, mechanics and features that have caused the slightest inconvenience to players has been removed or watered down as thoughtless subscribers unconcerned about the long-term health of their MMO cheer from the sidelines.
It was while reading Keen’s superb series of articles entitled Old MMO Mechanics that I Like and You Probably Hate (which was inspired by an article at We Fly Spitfires) where I fully realized how much this genre has been so utterly devastated by MMO companies eager to pander to new subscribers.
MMOs are dying a death of a thousand cuts as the unintended consequence of meddling game designers eager to “improve” their MMOs by dumbing-down their mechanics has eviscerated the end user experience that made MMOs so unique. The sense of challenge, danger and mystery has been replaced by a feeling of entitlement, security and predictability.
Putting a Smiley Face on Death
The most egregious change symptomatic of this new philosophy of convenience-driven gameplay has been the trivialization of the death penalty. Because of this, death has been rendered meaninglessness in most MMOs. Players lose any respect they had for dying and death itself. Failure has a token cost of a few coins.
Death and any semblance of unpleasantness or player accountability for that matter have become persona non grata in our sanitized theme park MMOs. When’s the last time you even saw a player corpse in a major MMO?
By death what we are really talking about is the concept of risk. This can be distilled even further: dying in a MMO is all about risking the investment of your time.
Or at least it used to be…
Why We Need to Bring Risk Back
Look at any serious endeavor, sport or game. The ability to risk is what separates the men from the boys. The potential to lose everything is what makes high stakes games worth playing. Real risk makes victory taste sweeter and defeat more frustrating. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Without any measure of true risk, rewards become inflationary, commonplace and pedestrian. When failure has little cost, players stop experiencing fear and its wise lessons. Learning to evaluate and mitigate risk also makes us better players as we will do all we can to avoid the consequences of losing.
Risk is the mother of every good and worthwhile aspect of MMORPGs. Challenge, community, camaraderie, player interdependence, socialization, immersion, respect for the world, respect for loot, respect for character progression — all are nourished from the wellspring of risk. Risk is what brings a virtual world to life and gives it immediacy and substance.
Years ago it was common to see debates about the relationship of risk versus reward on MMO discussion forums. Even the players back then rightly understood that you need sufficient amounts of risk to balance out rewards. Those players thrived on danger and even welcomed it. No longer. Rarely do we even speak of such matters as the prevailing game design philosophy seems to be KEEP THE PLAYERS HAPPY and WELL FED by:
- bestowing players with unearned praise and status
- granting easy character progression
- de-emphasizing player ability and skill
- distracting players by showering them with loot
As players eventually lose interest in MMOs and stop playing because of the constant watering down of the fundamentals the remaining players who are stupid enough to put up with it become the majority. If a restaurant that caters to vegetarians starts putting more and more meat on the menu it’s only a matter of time before the original patrons (vegetarians) will no longer patronize the restaurant. This is exactly what has happened to mass market MMOs as short-term design decisions has created and attracted a complacent, coddled and indolent player population.
In many ways the MMO player-base has become like the fickle mob in the Coliseum of ancient Rome; the MMO companies are much like the emperors: eager to appease the crowd with unhealthy distractions of bread and circuses. Anger the players at your own peril!
Of course we can blame MMO companies for these changes as per Richard Bartle’s astute observations that they need to recruit a constant influx of new players to keep their MMOs financially sound. But there is another reason for why MMOs have become so disappointing and vapid. I’m going to provide some answers and reveal the culprits in Part 2.