900,001; Or How Tiny Tower Killed WoW
The frustrating thing about canceling your subscription is that you never end up doing it for the reasons you want to have done it for. All of us have those little wedge issues that crop up in the process of an evolving game design that we disagree with on fundamental levels. Cash shop antics with the Sparkle Pony/Disco Lion. Heroics being too easy or too hard. Justice point gear and the availability thereof. Premium subscriptions. Racials, class balance, paladins getting nerfed into the ground every patch/not getting nerfed enough.
I had a whole post titled “The Unapologetic Grind” ready to go, talking about how the malaise that seems to be spreading in the “community” has more to do with the transition of the badge system into an “empty bar filling” system that both encourages you to grind way past your normal limits (just… one… more… bar…) and injects feelings of inadequacy when you inevitably fail to fill them. Indeed, the first day that my guild failed to hit our maximum XP cap was the day I could point to as the beginning of the end.
But… when you get right down to it, the answer is always simple.
I first came across Tiny Tower a few weeks ago after hearing Scott Johnson and friends talk about it on The Instance and The Morning Stream, two rather hilarious podcasts I have listened to for months. If you have never heard of Tiny Tower, it is a “F2P” Apple app that is objectively a pointless waste of time. There is nothing skillful or strategic about any of the gameplay, and obviously there is no plot to speak of. It exists on my iPod only because it stimulates my nucleus accumbens in a completely vapid way: it tricks my physiological drive to multi-task into believing that the accumilated time spent playing has any meaning. And yet I have not deleted the app. It is still on there.
The philosophical question of whether anything we do has value or meaning aside, WoW engages in this same remote, psychological pleasure-center stimulation. And why wouldn’t it? It is an MMO with a monthly subscription. The difference between creating enough content to occupy people for a month versus creating content it takes a person a month to complete is the difference between bankruptcy and a sweet raise. Think about those Tol Barad trinkets you spent 30+ days “earning.” That they required 125 marks and Exalted reputation was entirely arbitrary. It was not about creating content, it was about creating a time wall that needed to be dismantled brick by brick by repetitive activity which creates an illusiary value to the end-product. Something you have worked towards accumilates value that simply getting it right away would lack.
In WoW’s defense, there is actually an end product there: a trinket that you might be using the rest of this expansion’s lifespan. Games like Tiny Tower have latched onto the notion that you do not even need the end-goal, do not need a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Worse than that though, these designers have realized that the individual actions do not have to be entertaining either. These are sandbox games without the sand; play replaced by going through the motions of play, yet triggering the same biochemicals as if you were having actual fun. And having thus deluded you into believing your participation has value, they tweak the “gameplay” to make even this seem reasonable*:
Seriously. I am waiting for a Steam deal on Limbo because $9.99 is a tad higher than I would prefer, and yet I was musing on how much could be accomplished with 1,000 Tower Bux… at the low, low price of $29.99. Philip Morris has nothing on these “F2P” assholes.
As my friends started logging into WoW less and less, the weakening social ties to the game gave me room to stand from my chair and really examine what I was doing. The taste of daily quests soured in my mouth. The AH was still fun… but it was the deals and strategy and the profit, not the tedium of listing, undercutting, emptying the mailbox. Sure, I could (further) automate those actions, but that is like automating chewing to speed tasteless digestion – it misses the point. The one activity I enjoyed for the sake of enjoyment was PvP. But when I became Honor capped on my warlock, BGs ceased to be amusing nearly instantly. “If I’m going lose 5 games for every 1 win during Twin Peaks holiday, I may as well do it on a toon that has use for Honor.” In other words, character advancement and fun had been so inexoriably linked in my mind that I questioned whether they could even exist independantly. Tiny Tower demonstrated that I would do something unfun for even the vaguest of rewards, and that was when I realized I was not actually having fun in those BGs. Or rather, it was no longer immediately clear that I was.
A lot of these sort of posts smack of “I quit WoW and so should you, for these reasons,” but that honestly is not my intention. I think there are some definite missteps that the designers made in Cataclysm, and I would be happy to debate those at length any day of the week regardless of whether subs are lost or gained. The fact of the matter though, is that if I was still having an engaging social experience in WoW I would probably still be paying $15/month. Without friends, WoW falls to the merits of its single-player experience. When that single-player experience is no longer fun, it falls finally onto its time soaking skills. And in the arena of time soaking, WoW cannot hold a candle to “games” like Tiny goddamn Tower.
God save us all.
*Obviously anyone who has played this “game” will go on about how they haven’t paid for anything. I haven’t paid for anything either. But any time you looked at that Bux screen and did not laugh at the designers’ overreach is a time you ceased to “beat the system” and became one with it. Nevermind all the stupid iTunes band previews or Youtube videos you watched because they gave you “free” Bux to do it.