Something has changed about the MMO experience in the past six years. Chances are you probably haven’t even noticed it but you can probably feel it just the same. MMO critics and veteran players all suspect there is something amiss with today’s MMOs but can’t quite put their finger on it.
Part of the answer to this riddle may be that the intentions, goals and objectives of MMO companies have changed from being primarily about creating a world of adventure to creating an amusement park. MMOs have become all about delivering short bursts of “fun”. Making sure you the player is entertained at every moment has become the holy grail of game design.
Design based on delivering instant gratification for the masses has replaced a philosophy of hard won satisfaction gleaned from the rigors and challenges of survival in a dangerous virtual world. This change of design focus has fundamentally altered the MMO experience for the worse.
So how did this happen?
From Fun to Adventure and Back Again
To learn the answer and to establish a point of reference, we need to take a time machine back to eleven years ago when MMOs like Ultima Online and EverQuest rocked the video game industry to its core. These new multi-player online games unexpectedly raised the stakes to new levels. No longer was a video game all about having fun and amusement. It was something deeper, visceral, engaging and transcendent; an experience within a world.
As I look back on my 4 year stint with EverQuest it is clear to me now that was never about the pursuit of fun. It became my passion and my hobby. It took every skill I had to survive and advance in a world beset with danger, mystery and hardship. The rewards of adventure is adventure itself. And that was enough for me.
Adventure is for Adults
First we need to rediscover why we are here and why we even care about MMOs and virtual worlds.
But, let’s examine what adventure means. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word adventure as:
1 a : an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks b : the encountering of risks <the spirit of adventure>
2 : an exciting or remarkable experience <an adventure in exotic dining>
I daresay the majority of people who enter MMOs today would prefer to be immersed in a virtual world of adventure than deposited into a theme park of amusement and fun if offered the choice. Sadly, that choice is not available in today’s market. Instead the player just follows along the predetermined storyline that the quest designers lay out in front of them. Never questioning, never deviating from the golden path.
Real adventure is not scripted, nor is real heroism. When you really stop to think about it, there is something noble and worthwhile about adventure as great deeds and experiences beyond our imagination are possible even if experienced virtually. More importantly, these accomplishments and experiences are our own — not the property of the quest designer.
When one thinks of the memorable feats throughout history, mythology and literature it’s hard to think that any of those heroes had were motivated by the desire for self-gratification otherwise known as “fun”. To heed the call of adventure means to put oneself at great risk and to make sacrifices for some greater good or cause. Frodo and Sam’s quest to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom was not motivated by fun. Instead they were motivated and inspired by a selfless sense of duty and honor.
Fun is For Children
My problem with using fun as a criteria for designing MMOs is that unlike adventure it lacks the potential to transport the player to a place beyond mere self-gratification. Experiencing fun for its own sake is shallow, meaningless and lacks purpose and possibility.
The production of fun in a video game is all about inducing a sense of unearned euphoria and delight within the player. It’s all about creating highs but with no commensurate lows. It’s a violation of the basic law of the universe that says there can be no pleasure without pain, no light without darkness, no harvest without planting, no reward without risk.
So let’s look at a definition for the word fun:
1 : what provides amusement or enjoyment; specifically : playful often boisterous action or speech <full of fun>
2 : a mood for finding or making amusement <all in fun>
There is a chasm of difference between the definition of fun and the definition of adventure. Once you consider the full impact of both words you start to get hints at why things have gone terribly wrong for those of us that desire a deeper, more mature MMO experience.
Both pursuits seem to be characteristic of different levels of maturity. While fun can be experienced by grown adults, it’s something that is more appropriately aimed at children and teenagers. Contrast that with the notion of adventure which is often thrust upon both willing and unwilling adults.
There’s also big gap in the level of seriousness of both pursuits. Fun is seen as lighthearted amusement while adventure is seen as more sober and solemn endeavor fraught with danger and risk. Even the idea of a quest which has become a major building block of today’s MMOs seems more at home with the concept of adventure than fun. Nobody goes on a quest to amuse themselves.
How Adventure Got Replaced by Fun
The MMO experience that kept us playing for hours on the edge of our chairs got replaced in a bait and switch scheme concocted by a new breed of MMO companies like Blizzard. We showed up in worlds like Azeroth looking for adventure and instead were fed a banquet of mechanics designed to appeal to a wider demographic. MMOs at their inception were much more then just a series of fun mechanics haphazardly sewn together; they were created by people with a consistent and cohesive vision for a world — not a game.
Eventually the notion of a world gave way to the game and the sense of adventure gave way to simplistic fun as the quest for more subscribers and more profits became the overriding design philosophy.
Despite the fact that Blizzard could not have made WoW if there was no EverQuest (their own words from the EverCracked documentary) WoW is in no way a spiritual successor to EverQuest.
Hannibal Lecter Deconstructs Blizzard
The key to understanding why MMOs are they way there are today is to understand Blizzard itself. In the film the Silence of the Lambs Hannibal Lecter quotes the great Roman patrician Marcus Aurelius and provides us some insight:
Lecter: “First principles, Clarice. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask: What is it in itself? What is its nature? What does he do this creature you seek?
Blizzard has a clear track record of making successful video games. This is their true nature. The battle plan for the World of Warcraft was to make a fun game disguised as a MMO. Let’s be honest here, the “world” part of World of Warcraft is window dressing and was never taken seriously or given proper respect.
Making a game is far less lofty process than making a virtual world. When you create a game it absolves the creators of the higher responsibility inherent in creating a world. Tolkien created a world, Blizzard created a game.
Blizzard uses an internal design philosophy called concentrated coolness. Everything must be larger than life and have the capacity to amuse and enthrall the player. Everything that Blizzard puts into WoW must pass this “fun” test. Instead of focusing on long term goals of what’s best for a MMO, the concentrated coolness process becomes the goal unto itself. WoW has essentially become a patchwork collection of cool and fun mechanics instead of a coherent virtual world. In applying this theory they have missed the point entirely and eviscerated the MMO experience.
The Goal Determines the End User Experience
Words have meaning. The terminology you use can’t help but influence your final product. When your design vocabulary is constantly punctuated with words like “fun” and “coolness” as a recent Cataclysm Press Event interview with Blizzard Lead Designer Cory Stockton demonstrated, then you have an insight into the heart of the problem.
If your intent is to amuse and titillate players with constant injections of fun and rewards (with little tangible risk) the result will be far different than a MMO that has adventure and survival as its ultimate goal. The mission statement of the MMO whether it be fun or adventure or variants of each is the final determinant of the end user experience.
This is precisely why WoW is completely different than EverQuest. Both were designed with vastly different goals in mind by people with different visions, outlooks and backgrounds.
Welcome to WoWville
But let’s accept that many adults today are chasing the dragon of fun; at least they have thousands of video game titles from which to satiate their hunger. Yet for those of us that seek high stakes online adventure there are barely any choices.
For me this is boils down to the failure of broadly targeted MMOs to appeal to mature adults. Those of us that aspire to higher notions of adventure and challenge have been starved out by the dominant Disney kiddie culture more recently epitomized by FarmVille and Free Realms. (Things have gotten so bad that even Brad McQuaid of EverQuest fame has decided to make a social/casual game.)
Even worse, we have come to accept and delight in sub-standard MMO content and mechanics. Real virtual adventurers have few if any niche based options that appeal to them that are created with a WoW budget. All they are left with is a one size fits all MMO model that is designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator of player. Somehow every other form of entertainment including broadcasting and publishing has expanded by offering a myriad of choices and niches for people to explore — all except the MMO industry. Welcome to WoWville.
Video Games Have Helped Create A Culture of Perpetual Adolescence
I’ve thought a lot about what has happened to MMOs lately. Some of the conclusions I’ve arrived at are not pleasant to consider.
There is something unseemly about the pursuit of fun by grown adults. As a MMO veteran of 11 years, this is not what I signed up for. Part this problem is societal and a reflection of the pervasiveness of our youth culture where people today just refuse to grow up — aided and abetted by their enablers in the entertainment industry. Somehow the purpose of life has been reduced to finding ways to endlessly amuse oneself. Regrettably, our generation seems to be trapped in a culture of perpetual adolescence.
Thirty years ago people used to be ashamed of “playing video games” and being a gamer. When I see what MMOs have degenerated into and the current scourge of mindless “social” gaming on Facebook, I’m starting to wonder if that sense of societal shame was well placed.
Regarding My Personal MMO Journey
When I was a young adult I recall a few films that literally changed my life. Those films were defining moments for me and my world would never be the same. As I walked out of the theater I felt a sense of enlightenment and empowerment; a feeling that anything and everything is possible. I’m not ashamed to admit that MMOs changed my life in a similar way.
As MMOs have continued to deteriorate over the years my articles have reflected the sense of gloominess and despair I feel about the state of things. At one point I used to really believe in MMOs — that was before the money people who control today’s MMO production took over. Perhaps I was naive and foolish as I once used to see MMOs as places of awe and wonder. The illusion is gone and the veil lifted. I now see the soulless money making machinery that is behind the curtain. The potential for greatness this genre once had is but a fading memory of what could have been.
I believe in a product design philosophy where you focus on creating a great product and then success follows. Anomalous companies like Apple operate like this; they create quality products they believe in and the public follows. Today, it’s all backwards in the MMO game industry. MMOs are primarily designed to appeal to wide demographics with the goal of making money first and making a masterpiece second. I’m sorry but I don’t find a mass market McDonald’s hamburger appealing when what I really want is filet mignon.
I am under no illusions that that many may fail to appreciate the subtle and not so subtle distinctions between the notions of fun and adventure. I understand too that the average MMO player has quite different expectations than what was typical 10 years ago.
Players today want to log on and experience a concentrated blast of shock and awe in their limited play session time. They want it all and they want it now. Everyone expects to be treated like hero without having done anything heroic and companies like Blizzard are only too happy to placate them.
While I was a video game designer, I always held the creation of fun (for the player) as the highest virtue. Keeping children and teenagers amused by my scripting was the number one priority of my craft. But fun should not be the exclusive mission statement for all MMOs. Instead of A Theory of Fun for Game Design we need A Theory of Adventure for MMO Design.
MMOs like WoW are more game than they are a virtual world. The World part of “World of Warcraft” has been more of a marketing gimmick than a legitimate passion of the Blizzard developers. It’s clear these guys are gamers first and foremost. They see MMOs through the primitive prism of fun and coolness. Virtual worlds are too experimental and metaphysical for them as Blizzard Lead Designer Jeff Kaplan has stated on numerous occasions.
The true culprit that blocks the pathway leading to real adventure via MMOs is the confining notion of a “game”. Since the highest virtue in a video game is the production of fun, the end result will always be World of Warcraft. The intrinsic limitations inherent in video games are not expansive enough to allow for the greater virtues of virtual worlds such as freedom, ownership, community and of course adventure to blossom. This is why I am so unceasingly critical of Blizzard; they have single-handedly gutted the meaning, purpose and end goals of the MMO experience. Instead of going forward, we’ve gone backwards.
Until the Blizzard design and goal philosophies are exposed, ridiculed and made obsolete by an innovative MMO company who is serious about creating a genuine platform for virtual adventure, we will be forever stuck spinning our wheels playing mere games.