Tuesday, October 26, 2010

MMOs and Unethical Game Design

In a talk at an indie developer conference a year or two ago Jonathon Blow (creator of Braid) described the design philosophy of the MMO genre, "unethical". His reasoning was that the games were built on simple, monotonous game mechanics that the player engages in hundreds or thousands of times and to hide this, MMOs create a trail of bread crumbs to entice the player to continue. Keep playing, here's a new level and ability. Keep playing, here's a new sword. Keep playing, here's a new area to explore... and so on.

Now one could argue that most games have similar designs. Here's a new gun in this FPS. You've unlocked new tracks in this racing game. Here's a new level and ability in this RPG (although this one has a definitive end). So what explains this discrepancy? Well the end i just mentioned in RPGs may have something to do with it. So may the complexity of the base mechanics of the game. A good example is Bayonetta. I'm a couple levels from the end of the game and every time a fight ends, I'm still a little befuddled as to what happened, and part of that is what keeps me playing (It's what i refer to as a 'I have a smile on my face and i don't know why' experience). I think ultimately what distinguishes the way an MMO keeps players playing with its trail is a sense of immediate gratification.

For my examples in the MMO space i will be referring to World of Warcraft (WoW) mostly, as that has been my main MMO experience. In WoW, when you begin, the levels come at you fast. In fact, when you first begin any MMO, everything is overwhelming. Playing from levels 1 - 10 is meant to be fast and easy, mainly to entice the player to continue playing. You learn the basics of the class you've chosen, have started some quests, and are beginning to get into the story if you're so inclined (at least in WoW I've found that following the game's narrative rests solely on the player's initiative). You've started exploring the world and especially once you leave your starting area, the scope of the playable world can be quite awe inspiring.

The immediate gratification starts to wain a little around level 30. Much of the world is open to you, you've experienced most of the quest variety until you reach the expansions, and you've encountered both good and bad experiences with other players. What makes someone continue at this point now that the crumbs are further apart? It's the time you've put into your character. You've grown attached to him or her. You may be in a guild and now have a group of people you play with. You've levelled up some professions and are playing the auction house. You enjoy queuing for dungeons or the battlegrounds.

Basically, the simple crumb trail you were following around levels 1 - 10 has split off into multiple crumb trails. Not only that, but you now have roots in the world. MMOs are after all a social game, and whether that's just getting attached to your character or being part of a larger community, there's a reason for many players to stick around (and of course there are those who just create another character and experience the early portion of the game all over again).

So yes, the mechanics and design choices that MMOs are founded on can certainly be seen as unethical (probably the stickiest part of this argument is having to pay monthly for such an experience), but considering the scope of the game space, the choice of play (even if it is all based on the same mechanics), and definitely the social aspect (which lends itself more to time spent in the game than the game itself), the MMO has certainly shown its strengths, its weaknesses, and earned its place amongst the rest of the videogame genres.

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