Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Easily Distracted

I'm just not very good at levelling up in MMOs, I'm afraid.  It's not that I don't like them - I do - but something about the leveling process fails to captivate me.  I know it's supposed to get me hooked - just one more quest till the next level, just one more hour till the next reward - but I guess there's just something missing in the area my brain that controls that area.  I have had the same experience in every MMO I've played, from the original EverQuest to my most recent trial of Aion.

It's not that I can't level up - I do have characters at max level in EverQuest II.  But it's not something that I do for the sake of doing it, it's just something that happens while I'm doing other things, unless I really force myself, in which case it's a chore, not compulsive fun.  (The closely related task of gearing up is equally yawn-inducing to me.)

Of course, these days it doesn't help that after spending 10-12 hours at work on EQII, it's really not extremely appealing to come home and spend another few hours staring at more of the same.  When we're working overtime at work I find myself much more tempted to do other things besides play computer games when I get home - reading, cooking, even cleaning.  Still, I did log in last night thinking I really should get my dirge the rest of the way to 80 while I still have the bonus XP from my 80 wizard. (In EQII, once you have a max level character all other characters on your account get an XP bonus so they level up faster.  However, the max level cap is going up with February's expansion so I'll lose that bonus soon.)

As usually happens though I did a few quests but soon got distracted.  In this case it was by someone in the general crafting chat channel who was low level but trying to do a harvesting quest in the Kingdom of Sky zones, which are higher level than he was.  He was clearly having trouble figuring out how to harvest safely.  Far more interesting than levelling up a dirge!  I hopped on my lower level monk and headed up there, and offered to give him a little tour of the safe areas where low adventure level players can get to.  Of course, the reason he was up there was a quest that I myself created, so I suppose I was technically responsible for his predicament in a way.  But I used to give harvesting tours long to harvesters in distress before I was hired by SOE anyway.  And I can't think of any MMO I've played in the past 10 years where I was actively excited by leveling.

There's almost always something more interesting to do than plain old XPing, in my experience.  Sometimes I hear a newbie in the chat channels who needs some help, and I go and do that.  Sometimes I decide to decorate someone's house.  Sometimes I help random people or guildmates with quests.  Sometimes I go crafting, or exploring, or finish off some collection quests, or some achievements.  Often I'm tempted to make new alts, since I really enjoy trying out new race/class combinations and thinking up new character appearances and names and backgrounds.  In Aion I've gone through three alts so far without getting any of them to 25 yet.  In City of Villains I can't even count how many villains I made, none of whom reached 30.  In WoW I managed three alts, even though I quit the game in frustration before any of them reached 20.  Champions Online was so broken it actually forced me to quit the alts before I wanted to, so that probably doesn't count, but even in Conan I had two going and that was painful indeed (one of them was a female bear shaman, the most broken possible combination at launch).

I know this is fairly unusual; MMOs are full of people who seem to enjoy leveling up just for the sake of leveling up, and it's practically the basis of gameplay in many of them.  I guess I'm fairly unusual in my lack of interest (or maybe other people like me just don't tend to play MMOs).  I still have lots of fun doing other things when a game permits me enough lateral options to have a broad gameplay experience, and EQII in particular is very good at supporting lots of different play styles.  Still, I sometimes feel as if I enjoy MMOs despite of their core design, not as part of it.  Now that I actually work in game design it makes me wonder how I would design a game that isn't so leveling-centered, and what aspects of MMOs I would actually make the core of gameplay if I were trying to appeal to people like me.  I like exploring, I like the social interactions, I enjoy the creative side, and the crafting (as in making useful stuff for other people) aspect.  And I'll generally choose any of those over XP leveling any day, as they're just more interesting to me.

Perhaps it's wrong to think of making separate games at all; perhaps it would be better to think of ways to integrate the different play styles better into one game world.  Perhaps they're just two sides of the same coin and could support each other solidly.  I sometimes feel EQII is almost there in the way it allows crafters to level up separately from adventurers, but there isn't really a true interdependency either.  In EQII it's more like two independent systems running side by side in the same world, and while that's good in many ways, I still feel there could be a better integration somehow.  Though at least it's better than most MMOs; too many try to force the different play styles together in ways that don't really make a lot of sense.  For example, in WoW you can't tradeskill without going out killing things for components, and exploration is pretty much impossible at low adventure levels as aggro range increases the larger the level difference.  In Aion your crafting skill is capped by your adventure level.  So if crafting or exploring interests you but killing things does not, well, these games are obviously not going to be ideal.  In a real world context it makes no sense - how good I am at cooking or sewing has absolutely nothing to do with my skill in karate or hunting, that's nonsensical.  Yet so many games try to force the two to relate in some way, and of course it feels awkward and forced.

I hope that as MMOs continue to mature and develop, we'll start to see more developers moving away from this forced dependency and lazy assumption that leveling is all that's needed to make gameplay fun.  EQII was a great step in the right direction (as was Star Wars Galaxies) but it's been 5 years since either of those and I'm just not seeing anybody else moving in that direction yet.  Is it a nasty catch-22 in that the current generation of game developers entered game development through their enjoyment of leveling-oriented MMOs, and therefore assume that everybody else must love them too?  Or is it just that the 500b gorilla of MMOs, WoW, is not particularly innovative in any area, and therefore new game developers (and their investors) are nervous about trying anything different?  I don't know, but I'm going to keep hoping (and poking and suggesting, where I get the chance) that future MMOs will try to broaden the types of game play options available.

(In an unrelated note, having stated my pessimistic predictions for STO in the last post, I felt obliged to sign up for the open beta now it's open, and so I'm currently downloading the patcher in the background.  We shall see ... though, judging by the snail's pace this download is crawling at, it won't be tonight.)

(Update: this comment by Zubon re: STO open beta made me nod agreement.)


  1. Old UO did a lot of what you want. There was no levels just skills which were gained by using them. Often by sparring with other people. The social apsect of the game was huge due to the free for all PvP. Crafters made almost everyone's gear because the dropped gear was rarely better and chances are you were going to lose it anyway ;) .. The most popular people always seemed to be the ones who devoted themselves to being merchants. I really miss that game.

  2. As long as the cash cow is the stats-lover geek ("Woot I could maximize my DPS by 0.9%!?"), leveling seems the core mechanics. But actually, it is not the core mechanics for WoW, you reach level 80 pretty fast. The majority of the game lies in instances or PvP, but it's end-game fighting anyway. Or ... if you look at Greedy Goblin, he's basically a solo player, and he toys with the auction house really often, has reached the gold cap several times, etc. Not for the fun of reaching the gold cap, but for the fun of trading and selling. I do not think crafting is something he particularly enjoys, but he used the game slightly differently than what was expected, and it ended up a totally different game of economics.

    I think the first MMO to really gather in the same virtual world all kinds of activities (socializing, leveling, trading/making money, entertaining, ...) and providing incentive structures and rewards for ANY of these activities will have a really big number of players

  3. Earlier this evening, while crafting some provisions, I was musing on the absence of "randomness" in the item portion of EQ2. Recipes produce endless carbon copies of whatever you want to make. Loot seems to be pre-defined as opposed to being randomly generated from pre-established sets/ranges of attributes. I was stuck wondering just what the considerations and trade offs were when the decision was made by the EQ@ creators to go one way or another vis a vis random/deterministic in game item attribute assignment.

    Is there some forum or another anyone could point me where that issue is discussed/debated ?