I hit 90 last week on the paladin.
The funny thing is that the reputation concession to alts (i.e. 100% rep gains if you buy a token at Revered) has resulted in some strange behavior on my part. I still don’t like the paladin very much; I chose it as my first 90 because of other considerations, like how it was my only toon with max Archeology (mainly the BoA weapons). Combat as Retribution still feels clunky, especially if I miss with Crusader Strike. Exorcism, Judgment, Crusader Strike, then either Inquisition or Templar’s Verdict, then… wait for procs. Having a 6-second window to Flash of Light after a mob death is infinitely worse than a warrior’s intuitive and satisfying Impending Victory.
Regardless, since I am 90 though, I find myself doing all the dailies that I can. Not just because they are dailies, e.g. the sense that I fall further behind in my future, hypothetical endeavors, but also because I am already near Honored (or well into Honored) with these factions. It feels a waste to start leveling someone else up before getting the 100% rep boost. And thus I continue playing a class I no longer love, earning rewards I can’t use (Coins, Valor, Spirits of Harmony), for the possible betterment of a new main I haven’t even chosen yet.
Obviously I’m getting some form of entertainment, but it is not at the desired level.
On Sunday, I ran ~4 heroics with guildmates and walked out with 8-10 pieces of gear; I zoned in there with maybe two pieces of 450 quest blues and the rest crafted PvP gear. Ended up getting two Strength 2Hs, boots, chest, plus a smattering of tanking drops. As far as I could tell, my DPS on the runs was just shy of 40k, which I am assuming is decent.
Maybe the universe is trying to tell me something. In which case, let me tell the universe: make Retribution more fun.
In the middle of an epicly-long Kotaku article expressing the virtue of Dark Souls’ difficulty, the following lines jumped out and strangled me (emphasis added):
Because you repeat each section of the game so many times, and commit it so firmly to memory, you build up certain tricks and patterns. You achieve mastery, which is satisfying, and yet you always feel like something could go wrong, which is exciting.
When it comes to discussing difficulty in MMOs, I firmly fall on the “make it easy” side of the fence. I enjoy difficulty, I enjoy taxing my abilities to their maximum, but I also believe difficulty has its place; specifically, not in waiting for someone else to finally stop failing so I (we) can succeed. Games like Dark Souls work precisely because they are single-player.
That being said… the bold sentence in the quote above is perhaps the most succinct, inspired description of the mechanics of fun I have ever read.
I was listening to an episode of The Instance (#242) today and was struck in a rather fundamental way by what they said in the Mailbag segment. So much so, that I went ahead and captured the 8 minute audio exchange and uploaded it to Youtube so it could be more easily accessed. The reader email question itself was rather asinine, but it elicited a (brief) discussion on how the playerbase of WoW has evolved over time. The evolution of the playerbase, or devolution as some say, has been a frequent whipping boy of forums posters and bloggers for ages – Blizzard dumbing down the game, catering to casuals, and so on.
The thing is, I firmly believe that the argument has always been backwards. Blizzard is not catering to casuals, they are desperately trying to retain that ever-sliding core of veterans. Blizzard is not shaping players, the players are shaping Blizzard. The rest is worth listening to, but I went ahead and transcribed the most important portion of that audio clip, spoken by Scott Johnson:
[Repeating content] is a distinct downside to MMOs in general, and it is why I really enjoy a cultivated experience like Diablo 3 – like the Elder Scrolls games, like I am expecting with Skyrim, like a lot of single-player RPGs – where the wonderment and the excitement and the newness is always present. Because, unless you are freak who plays games six times through for no reason, everything is new as you consume it. Whereas in World of Warcraft, and other MMOs like it, as much as Blizzard tries, and they do the best out there to make things SEEM as fresh as possible. After a while, like that Blood Beast fight… [snip]
But again, I’m kinda with him. This is why I don’t pug much. Because I find that so grindy and so not fun. What I want … if I’m going to do that stuff, I’ll do it with my friends because then THAT is the newness of the experience. Because we’re laughing, Manny said something funny, Pootinky made a fart noise, whatever. We’re having a ball in there. So THAT is fun for me. The actual pugging of the thing for the 5000th time is not fun for me at all in the least. It is just earning money, currency to go get something. And that’s fine, that’s working as a system. But I’m kinda with him that you lose that cultivated experience, you lose that wonderment of walking into a room for the first time, like walking into Ulduar and going “Holy crap! Look at where we have to go and how we have to get there.” And then after a while you are “Oh my gosh, Ulduar can suck it. I hate this fight.”
That is reason the “vanilla forever!” mindset never made sense to me, nor the appeal to nostalgia that was Cataclysm; as they say, you can never cross the same river twice. People like to imagine that if everything had stayed hard, they would not have gradually lost interest in the game. But think about your favorite games of all time. Are those games still fun for you today? Would they still be fun to you if you replayed them half a dozen times back-to-back? You can never recreate that original experience – the wonderment and newness is consumed in the act of experiencing it. And as much as I agree with Scott that Blizzard does a lot in trying to keep content fresh by constant iteration and new boss abilities (etc), at some point you understand on a fundamental level that the Ship of Theseus has sailed, so to speak.
The “catering” is not to casuals, but to the veterans who have reached the end of their original experience and who, through boredom or social ties, are looking for more things to do in-game to fill the time while they wait for schedules to align. But why would veterans actually want extremely fast leveling, faceroll dungeons, and so on? Some of that is actually trying to capture the 80-90% of players who never finish games, sure. But the things like Justice Points and LFD are firmly for the vets. Nils suggests that Blizzard uses “ease” as a weapon in the form of competitive advantage against other MMOs (or perhaps in response to others doing it). Or perhaps in reaction to player “entitlement.”¹ I would argue instead that fun in games has diminishing returns. Running across the entirety of Searing Gorge each time you wipe in BRD might have given you a healthy respect for safe pulling in your formative years, but I guarantee that you would be sick of it four or five years later if it was included everywhere. You learned that lesson, and reinforcing it constantly adds nothing of further value to your experience anymore than would repeating grade school as an adult.
Ultimately, I feel theme-park MMOs are their own worst enemy. Nils told me once that it was in my best interests for an MMO journey to last as long as possible. If I was purely fixated on the eradication of my free time, then sure. I played WoW for over 7000 hours as compared to Xenogears’ 80 hours. But I never once, for a single moment, felt that the magnitude of fun with the former came remotely close to matching the latter. In fact, as is the case with any novel or movie or TV series, the extreme danger is that efforts to elongate the experience instead poisons it². More becomes less. Instead of cultivating a complete experience with a beginning, middle, and end, the theme-park MMO model demands an open-endedness at odds with its progressive narrative.
Perhaps this is merely a sign that (theme-park) MMOs are not a genre meant for me. I do not think that is entirely true though. The genius of MMOs is that they appeal to and accommodate a huge variety of players with different interests – as vapid as questing seems to be to vets, it was actually an endearing experience the first (few) times. Instead, I think designers should embrace the end of their games, incorporating a more conclusive experience while leaving the door open for an encore. Or the after-party.
¹ Entitlement is a word so abused by bloggers and commenters that it has lost most of its meaning. Entitlement should not be synonymous with the expectation of a fair exchange of value. Nor should it denigrate legitimate instances of design criticism. It’s honestly getting to the point where you cannot say something is superfluous or inelegant without being accused of feeling “entitled” to, you know, better design.
² See: Lost, Rescue Me, every Terminator movie after T2, every Alien move after Alien 2, etc etc etc.
I was reading Stabs’ post about treasure hunting in Diablo 3, how the typical gold farmer strategies won’t work and so on, when I see Nils in the comments say:
While reading this something inside me cries out: “Why don’t you just try to have fun??”
You seem determined to optimize the fun out of it.
The first question that popped into my mind was “What if you find optimizing fun?” And Stabs replies:
@Nils Ah we’re getting back to the question, what is fun? All I can say is, for myself, I’m hyped that I’ll be able to play D3 for money, it was a game I’d have played heavily anyway, I’ve always loved theorycraft and numbercrunching, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane D2 mechanics and I believe I’ll have an utter blast doing this.
I can’t really defend optimisation to someone who considers it not fun. I do suspect that you’re swimming against the tide.
If you listen to the PC Gamer podcast I linked you’ll hear them argue very persuasively that D3 is a game where everyone is a gold farmer but then go on to talk about how much fun it is to play. They’re not mutually exclusive.
I think the only fun I’ll intentionally sacrifice for optimisation is alting. I usually mess around with lots of different classes and builds when I get a new game. With this game I’ll be rushing to the end.
I have heard the phrase “optimize the fun out of it” from Nils and Tobold and others, and it was not until Stabs’ unapologetic response that I realized how asinine the phrase is to begin with. Optimization is fun. I am not going to hedge that with “can” or “to some people” because you have to fight stupid declarative statements with Objective (Self-) Truth. If you find optimization fun, then it is. Period. If you don’t like it tomorrow, then it is not fun, until such time that you change your mind again. If someone finds something different fun, they are wrong. Unless you agree with them. Is that not the implied premise in these fun discussions? Are we not justifying our favorite colors (red), flavors (peanut butter), or meals (taco salad)? I hate steak. Do I ask why people ruin their dinners with slabs of tough, bloody cow muscle? Of course not. And not just because I prefer taking a perfectly healthy salad and smothering it in greasy ground meat, nacho chips and sour cream.
I do not judge because I do not live in a solipsistic bizzaro-world where Fun is some objective Form straight out of the works of Plato. Have you read Gevlon at Greedy Goblin lately? He “refuses to nihilistically believe” that two people playing WoW can have different goals, motivations, desires. In a Battleground, he rages at the people fighting on the bridge instead of guarding a flag like he is; they are M&S (moron & slacker) for not winning in the most efficient manner. I was not aware winning was more important than having fun, but he covers that too by saying winning is the only way to have fun in the first place. I am not quite sure how he handles games like The Sims or Second Life – possibly you are M&S for not playing winnable games to begin with – but Nils, Gevlon, and Stabs all played WoW at some point in time so obviously someone was doing it wrong. Right?
The Dark Heart of the Matter
The underlying problem with “what is fun?” posts is not just because fun is a subjective thing. The underlying problem is that none of us can really be sure what fun even is to ourselves. That is, strictly speaking, an absurd statement. But the psychological fact of the matter is that human beings are damn near incapable of accurately predicting how they will feel in the future. Feel free to read along at home the article entitled The Futile Pursuit of Happiness. A choice excerpt:
Much of the work of Kahneman, Loewenstein, Gilbert and Wilson takes its cue from the concept of adaptation, a term psychologists have used since at least the 1950′s to refer to how we acclimate to changing circumstances. George Loewenstein sums up this human capacity as follows: ”Happiness is a signal that our brains use to motivate us to do certain things. And in the same way that our eye adapts to different levels of illumination, we’re designed to kind of go back to the happiness set point. Our brains are not trying to be happy. Our brains are trying to regulate us.” In this respect, the tendency toward adaptation suggests why the impact bias is so pervasive. As Tim Wilson says: ”We don’t realize how quickly we will adapt to a pleasurable event and make it the backdrop of our lives. When any event occurs to us, we make it ordinary. And through becoming ordinary, we lose our pleasure.”
It is easy to overlook something new and crucial in what Wilson is saying. Not that we invariably lose interest in bright and shiny things over time — this is a long-known trait — but that we’re generally unable to recognize that we adapt to new circumstances and therefore fail to incorporate this fact into our decisions. So, yes, we will adapt to the BMW and the plasma TV, since we adapt to virtually everything. But Wilson and Gilbert and others have shown that we seem unable to predict that we will adapt. Thus, when we find the pleasure derived from a thing diminishing, we move on to the next thing or event and almost certainly make another error of prediction, and then another, ad infinitum.
You can probably draw a line from that concept and connect it with Cognitive Dissonance, and especially the sub-set of that: Effort Justification. This is extremely relevant in MMO discussions about what is “fun” and what is not for what shall be readily apparent reasons:
Dissonance is aroused whenever individuals voluntarily engage in an unpleasant activity to achieve some desired goal. Dissonance can be reduced by exaggerating the desirability of the goal.
Oestrus from The Story of O and Nils from Nils’ MMO Blog both wrote about this dissonance in their
(hopefully cynical) “What is fun?” articles. Both Nils and Oestreus argue (in effect) that fun is the resolving of the dissonance that is doing a long, arduous grind for an ultimately meaningless reward. After completion, you convince yourself that the journey was meaningful, and magically you retroactively have fun. Your brain does this because it refuses to believe that you could be so dumb to have spent all that time voluntarily being miserable, ergo the reward must have been worth it. And the sad thing is, this works. Nils even has a series of posts talking about how “great games enslave you,” not through riveting substance or fun activities (which is really salt that ruins the larger shit soup), but by pulling a Lucy and moving the football before you get to it, every goddamn time. I may be paraphrasing here.
In their defense, I do believe they are talking about great MMOs specifically, where “great” is defined as ones that keep you pressing levers for food pellets as long as humanly possible. It is the same definition of greatness, incidentally, that makes America’s Funniest Home Videos one of the greatest television shows of all time. Better than, you know, The Wire, The Sopranos, Dexter, etc etc.
On the Other Hand…
The good news is that your inevitable, happiness-based existential crisis may be unnecessary, and here is why: Think about your favorite games of all time. Now… were any of them MMOs? I am guessing no. For me, my favorite games are Xenogears, Final Fantasy 7, Final Fantasy Tactics, Chrono Trigger, Super Metroid, and so on. I quit playing WoW a few weeks ago after four years, and I have 7000+ hours logged; not only is that more time than I spent playing those listed games combined, it is probably more time than I played in the entire SNES era. And yet WoW will never occupy a place on my favorite game list. No doubt I had some memorial experiences, but the vast majority of those experiences were social ones that could have existed just as easily elsewhere, like in EQ, Rift, LotRO, Warhammer, etc etc. There was nothing specifically exclusive to WoW to merit associating the social triumphs with the quality of the game itself. Moreover, the very principals Nils attributes to “great” MMOs sours my memory of the WoW-specific moments of genius – Sunstrider Isle was an absolutely amazing starting experience, but it and other experiences are diluted by ~6920 hours of merely Okay gameplay. Just like a movie or book or blog post (like this one) can overstay its welcome via lack of editing and meandering structure, a game too can ruin itself by unnecessary extension.
It is for this reason that I believe the future of the MMO market is heading towards a more single-player Show & Tell experience. This was not possible when the payment model was pretty exclusively subscription-based, but now the stage is set through the legitimization of alternative payment models (F2P, but also Diablo 3 RMAH, etc) to allow developers to go back to crafting experiences with defined beginnings, middles, and ends. The end of the story is not always the end of gameplay, of course, which is where the Show & Tell comes into play. MMOs will be less about Lucy taking away the football at the last moment, and more about showing her how far it can fly.