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Housing Madness

For the most part, I attempt to resist the urge to indulge in housing systems in MMOs and other games. These are good features and I am very much glad that they are implemented. In fact, I have expounded on the benefits of Show & Tell mechanisms for years.

The problem is that my efficient and logical exterior is but a bulwark against the roiling pit of madness that lies just beneath.

Perfectly logical.

Perfectly logical.

You see? Decor items are too valuable to a vendor or as an AH object for me to “waste” learning. There are a few items that slip through the cracks (in my psyche), sure, but I can solve that problem by scaling them up to the maximum. Everything is all good here, thanks.

Or at least it was until I checked a reputation vendor and noticed they sold some decor at 60 copper apiece. Then… then, They came inside.

This sort of thing amuses me. Amuses me greatly, indeed. I already have visions of a house plot completely enclosed in metal, like a Borg Cube. Or perhaps more accurately, the inside of the Lament Configuration from Hellraiser. I am near-cackling already, simply by imagining the look on the faces of visitors; they know not how far the jabbit-hole goes.

The answer is that it goes all the way.

Luckily for everyone involved, I am far too close to my goal of CREDD funding via in-game means to afford to bring my sinister plan to its dark fruition. I have Dyes to peddle, commodities to exchange, crafted items to vendor. The time for living room skull pits and such is not yet nigh.

166 Human skulls. All legitimately obtained, I might add.

166 Human skulls. All legitimately obtained, I might add.

Err… not yet again nigh.

Wildstar Housing, Balance

This Penny Arcade is pretty much spot-on.

I have not personally succumbed to the housing endgame, but I absolutely see the appeal. My present domicile is named Function Over Form, and is primarily centered around having my own Mining and Garden nodes for resource gathering. Any decor that isn’t worth vendoring is placed as amusingly as possible, scaled up to the maximum. As it turns out, the scale on most of these items figuratively and literally go to 11.

I enjoy the view from my 30-ft couch.

The view from my 20-ft couch.

If you were looking for more serious housing endeavors, examples abound. I especially enjoyed seeing the DIY jumping puzzles. The craziest, most underrated part? You can visit other peoples’ houses. You don’t even need to know them in-game; as long as they have opened their house to the public, you can stop by, and perhaps harvest their resource nodes (more on that in a sec).

Here is the method to do so, and please pass it along:

Won't you be my neighbor?

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Wildstar is by no means the first MMO with player housing. I was questing with a few friends on Vent the other night, and one friend actually complained that EQ2’s housing system was more intuitive. I’ll, uh, take your word for that.

Carbine has done something really clever here though, in elevating the Show & Tell aspect by combining it with Challenges and resources. I have my low-effort housing solely to be able to low-effort mine resources every hour or so; the Shardspire Canyon FABkit in the back similarly allows me to complete an easy challenge for a shot at additional goodies every 30 minutes.

But see, you can get a list of a few dozen people who have opened their houses to the public and check out their setups. If they too have resource nodes or Challenges on their property to complete, you have an incentive to essentially cold-call them to become Neighbors. Collect a big enough list, and you can probably farm all day just in other peoples’ houses.

Maybe that doesn’t seem all that social. I will tell you though, that it got me to add a random stranger to my Friend’s List so I could talk him into letting me farm his creepy, albeit very committed Plushie-themed house on the regular. I’m already trying to come up with a naming convention to indicate people willing to 50/50 their nodes into a… well, a “neighborhood,” to our mutual benefit.

The fact that there is a Zone Chat specifically for people in their houses is goddamn brilliant, by the way.

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Having said that, I now have a 2nd character parked at level 15 with very little impetus to move forward. It is difficult to shape into words why that is the case, as I even enjoy my Medic main. As others have mentioned, by level 15 you will have unlocked your house, your mount, and will have opened up enough abilities to get somewhat of a grasp of what buttons you’ll be spamming for the next forever.

Part of the problem is commitment issues. Mobs don’t die in 2-shots anymore, so you better like who you’ll be grinding with. Is Medic really the best for me? In trying out the other classes though, let me just say that Carbine is going to seriously need to work on the ESPer and Engineer (I’d say Warrior too, but I’ll give it another shot first).

The Engineer problem is pretty straight-forward: the bots suck. Not only do the bots suck damage-wise – which is a big problem when they constitute 2 of your very early ability selections – but they have pathing issues too, which can lead to aggro issues. My Engineer is level 8 and it just doesn’t feel fun, and none of the upcoming abilities sound like they will be fun either.

The ESPer problem, on the other hand, is a complete breakdown in the class design. I can’t speak for it’s endgame performance, but there is almost nothing I like where I’m at. It is currently the ONLY class to have it’s “primary” builder require being stationary, which makes it worse than useless in PvP. Flag carrier running away? GG. Target runs out of your telegraph? Now they’re 35+ yards away and you’ll never hit them with anything. GG. Then you have it’s R ability with its… stay stationary to gain an absorb shield, interrupt armor, and PSI points? Only useable in combat? Let me just say that using that ability in PvP just leads to pretty much instant death, even in the lower brackets.

Medic was more fun, but PvP is a crazy mess.

Medic was more fun, but PvP is a crazy mess regardless of class.

I’m mentioning PvP a lot with the ESPer as that is largely how I leveled with that toon. The Aurin/Mordesh starting area is abysmal, and meanwhile PvP is pretty outstandingly rewarding and fun. It takes around 3-4 games per level, and you pretty much consistently get 300-400 PvP currency per battle. The PvP gear has some “useless” stats to make it weaker in PvE, but you can unlock usable shoulders that will likely last you a half-dozen levels or more with pure PvE stats. Otherwise, you must rely on opening the PvP loot bags rewarded at the end ala GW2, to similar effect (read: none).

My goal with the ESPer was pretty much to heal exclusively, and in that area it is kinda okay. Most of its healing abilities are actually targeted (and stationary), which reverts the game back to WoW-mode; I moved the team window down to the center of the screen and basically used it like Healbot. I ended up unlocking a standard telegraph heal in the teens though, so I was able to be a bit more mobile as a healer.

So, yeah, ESPer, Engineer, and likely Warrior are about the three weakest classes at the moment. Carbine is on the record for saying that classes will be buffed up to the top level rather than top-tier classes being nerfed, so we’ll see exactly how they plan on solving this balance issue. I don’t see any way out for the ESPer other than making the level 1 ability a mobile cast though.

Revisiting Single-Player MMOs

Keen has a post up entitled “MMORPGs are not Single-player Games,” which laments the direction MMOs are heading as evidenced by The Elder Scrolls Online having a 100% solo “main story.” I am not particularly interested in talking about TESO, but rather this paragraph (emphasis mine):

If it’s so important to your game that the player be the hero in the story, why are you making a MMO?  MMO’s suck at being single-player games.  Did you skip SWTOR?  What makes MMO’s any good at all are the multiplayer elements.  Take those away and what are you left with? A game worse than the one you could have made if you actually made a single-player  RPG.

Well… do MMOs suck at being single-player games?

It may be easy to answer in the affirmative, and in some respects I would agree. Undoubtedly there are concessions made in an MMO that are irrelevant in a single-player RPG. Daily quests, for example, exist as “content” to get people to log on at regular intervals and maintain social ties. The related notion of paced content (i.e. weekly resets) is also an MMO staple that makes no particular single-player sense. Even normal quests are likely more generic (and numerous) than they would have to be.

But in a very real sense I consider the average MMORPG these days as a much better single-player game than the average RPG. There are two main reasons why.

1) The gameplay is often more satisfying, for longer.

The example I used in Keen’s comment section was The Witcher. Here is a 3rd-person action-RPG game with hotbars and talents and exploration and quests and so on. Basically, a mini-MMO, if you will. As I detailed in my review, The Witcher’s combat system is terrible. Way worse than even Warhammer Online’s janky PvE gameplay. While I considered the storyline/setting to be somewhat of a redeeming factor, it could very well be that something like The Secret World or World of Darkness (assuming that is still a thing) or some other MMO eclipses it even within its own specific niche.

I would never agree with someone who would suggest that stories in RPGs are irrelevant, but let us be honest here: most of your RPG hours are spent in combat. RPGs don’t necessarily need gameplay deep enough to last 1000 hours because the story runs out in 40-100 hours, of course. But there is nothing worse than getting stranded 2/3rds of the way through an otherwise good story with gameplay that has ran out of steam. MMO combat systems, even the ones that feel “off,” convey a depth far beyond the average RPG. They have to.

Keen responded with “length isn’t related to quality,” which is true enough in a general sense. After a while though, one must admit that voluntarily playing the same game for 1000+ hours is perhaps indicative that fun is being had. I would not trade Xenogears’ 80 hours for WoW’s 7800 hours, or for the rest of my Top 10 RPGs for that matter. But for the Top #11-#120?

Absolutely.

2) Show & Tell enhances the single-player experience.

I truly believe that Show & Tell is the future of single-player gaming. If you are not familiar with the concept as I use it, this quote (from a year ago) sums it up:

In this light, I do not particularly think the trend of companion AI or whatever is necessarily bad. Having played Minecraft for a while now, I have reached that plateau where you want nothing more than to show off the cool biodome tower you built or the Pit of Doom you dug or the cross-Atlantic powered railroad to someone, anyone else capable of appreciating the amount of effort/vision it took to do so. Of course, the thought of trying to do what I have done on a multiplayer server where anyone could wreck my house and steal my materials at any time is mortifying. I want a Show & Tell, not a group assignment. I want a single-player MMO.

And also:

Repetition is required for communities – people are more asocial in LFD precisely because you aren’t going to see anyone again (unless you have a ranking system, of course). We can, however, condense the process via Show & Tell. What this means in a general sense is instead of blooming into a flower in front of others over time, you do hours and hours of blooming beforehand and invite others into your garden. […]

But that’s just it: players generally have a preternatural desire to express themselves any way they can. Player housing would not be about having somewhere to chill out waiting for a LFD queue, or even arranging your trophies and armor sets in aesthetically pleasing ways. It would be about designing and decorating a virtual space for others to look at. You already know the meaning behind that piece of gear that’s been sitting in your bank for the last four years. Other people don’t know, and deep down I believe it is a common human desire for said object or achievement to be recognized and acknowledged as something meaningful.

Show & Tell can be (and has been) implemented in bad ways. I am not a huge fan of arbitrary Achievements, for example, and I think focusing on the latest gear rewards is a bit crass. Transmog and costume options, on the other hand, are much better. Being able to invite you in to see my living room skull pit in Skyrim?

166 Human skulls. All legitimately obtained, I might add.

Would have been epic. The mere possibility of being able to eventually post the above screenshot, and having someone able to appreciate it on some level somewhere, generated dozens of hours of additional gameplay. In a single-player game. MMOs generate gameplay in this fashion all the time, of course, and I am here to confirm that it works for single-player games too. And, by extension, MMOs that are played as single-player games.

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So getting back to the question at the top, I say: MMOs can (and often do) make excellent single-player games.

Keen openly wondered why this “mystery demographic” is getting catered to by MMO developers at the expense of “MMO identity.” I would say: where is the mystery? The vast majority of MMO players today are single-player MMO, erm, players. Less than 20% of WoW players raid; what are the other 80% doing? How many EVE players never make it out of high-sec space or never engage in consensual PvP? When you look at graphs like this:

This technically qualifies as a Rorschach test in six states and the District of Columbia.

…what do you see? Did 5+ million social MMO players crawl out of the woodwork in a single year? I don’t think so. Rather, Blizzard tapped into the latent single-player market by letting said players solo at their own pace all the way to the level cap. That was Blizzard’s biggest innovation.

Are social players more valuable to the long-term success of MMOs? Absolutely. Can studios focus exclusively on such players, ala Darkfall etc? Of course. But in so doing they leave literally millions of dollars on the table. And so the reason we see a “dilution” in the MMO identity is precisely because developers are seeking out the most profitable piece of that Venn Diagram – the intersection of single-player and MMO – by trial and error writ large.

The age of single-player MMOs has arrived. And for the majority of gamers, this is good news.

SWTOR Retention Predictions

Discussing retention in an MMO without accounting for social ensnarement is like discussing weight loss without accounting for calories. It is something so fundamental that I have to imagine that the only reason it is not brought up is because it is taken as a given. And yet I have now read multiple blogs talking about SWTOR’s lack of retentive capacity based on story, story, or even god forbid, gameplay with completely straight faces. Here is Gordon from We Fly Spitfires:

And this, unfortunately, is BioWare’s big mistake. They sacrificed on so much in order to squeeze in a fully voice acted ’story mode’. It’s why there are so few classes, so few starting areas, limited racial choices, a small number of Flashpoints and Warzones, and only a single line of progression for each side. Likewise, once the shine of the story mode wears off, you realise that the gameplay is pretty generic if not shallow and outdated. Nils has a good write-up on the subject and, if you agree with him, you’ll probably also come to the realisation that WoW’s gameplay actually has a surprising amount of depth to it (at least in comparison to The Old Republic).

To get this out of the way, WoW’s combat definitely does have a more visceral cadence to it than my experience with the SWTOR beta. At least, it does once you pass certain level thresholds with a given class. Rogues before Cheapshot are hideous. Paladins were garbage for years until multiple class revamps later. And so on.

Having said that… really? Are we seriously to the point at which we are holding WoW up as an example of compelling gameplay as if Cataclysm never happened? Even if we agree that there are two (or more) different definitions of gameplay taking place – the moment-to-moment, and say, the minute-to-minute – I am here to argue that while they are helpful, they are ultimately secondary at best.

Retention in MMOs come down to the people. Daily quests are not compelling gameplay. Heroics are not compelling gameplay. Grinding mobs is not compelling gameplay. What is compelling is that you are doing things either with or for other people. These otherwise asinine activities are utter tripe on their own, divorced from the Show & Tell aspects. When I did 20+ days of daily quests to unlock the exalted Tol Barad trinket on an alt, it did indeed feel good to work towards something tangible. But what made the trinket tangible? The PEOPLE. The knowledge that my geared alt would be useful in a guild raid situation, that some random person could appreciated the amount of investment that went into earning it, that it was useful in the context of other people.

So tell me, exactly, what it is about SWTOR that prevents such meaning from possibly existing in whatever arbitrary trinket they have at the ass-end of a huge endgame grind. We have all endured unfun things in WoW either for the promise of fun later, or because friends make it fun to do unfun things together. What is the difference here? And perhaps more pointedly, if compelling gameplay is the defining factor for retention, why aren’t we still playing WoW? I did not quit WoW because the gameplay changed, I quit because the game ceased to be fun. Great gameplay is not enough for long-term retention. Nor would I even say it’s required. It helps, no doubt, just like voice-acting and emphasis on stories helped get feet stuck in doors of people whom would have never gave yet another MMO a chance. Whereas moment-to-moment gameplay has to compete against every new game released, your social circle is a lot less replaceable.

SWTOR could very well end up flopping due to lack of retention. But if it does, I’m betting the traction loss comes not from lukewarm gameplay or limited instances, but lack of guild infrastructure, social incentives, RPing opportunities, and the other touchy-feely aspects of the game. In any case, considering SWTOR needs 350k-500k subs to operate in the black (even counting the Lucas cut), predictions of its eventual demise are a little ridiculous unless you believe it will be less successful than Rift (currently at ~475k).

Fixing MMOs: The Social Solutions

Last time, I talked about the problem surrounding traditional MMO social structures, or the lack thereof. Today, let’s come up with some solutions.

Increase Mobility

One of the most radical ideas (or so I thought) turned out to be top suggestion from multiple people in the comments of the prior post: reduce or eliminate the tyranny of the server. I believed this to be radical because on the surface of things, de-emphazing servers necessarily destroys server communities; something that LFD is almost universally recognized as accomplishing, right? Yes… and no. The problem is Blizzard only went halfway. If a friend plays on Maeiv and I am on Auchindoun, why can’t we play together? RealID is making baby-steps in this direction, but the hemorrhaging community does not have time for that baby to grow up into a paramedic and stop the bleeding.

Here are some methods that could work:

  • Free, unlimited character transfers, aka the nuclear option.

Not particularly practical (Blizzard would lose a lot of money besides), but it is technically an option. It may encourage mass migration, give shelter to ninja-looters and the like, and other such social upheavals. Ultimately though, it may be better than to simply allow people to fade into account cancellation when they feel trapped in a server “community” they no longer enjoy (and don’t feel like gambling $25 escaping).

  • Free, limited character transfers.

Say, 1 character move a month with the option of purchasing more if desired. This would prevent mass exoduses, while still allowing friends to follow each other around in a measured way. It would also allow someone to “test the waters” of a server in a more meaningful way than making a level 1 toon and observing Trade chat.

  • Eliminate named, permanent servers entirely.

Essentially, set up the servers like an ice-cube tray and as each server fills up, it spills over into the next server, and divide it all into game regions. One huge benefit of this would be to allow there to always be a steady population of people leveling in every zone for group questing, etc.

Example: if I went to Borean Tundra right now, there may be 1 person questing there on Auchindoun, and maybe 5 on Maeiv, and 50 on Tichondrius. Under this methodology, there would be 56, up until an arbitrary cut-off. And if the cut-off is 100, I would have it start transferring people to a second zone instance at around ~70 so the 101st guy isn’t off by himself. The key would be to make it subtle, with no load-screen or anything. With phasing technology it should not be a problem.

Of course, if you find you enjoy spending time with someone, how will you ever find them again if there are no specific servers? This brings me to my next overarching social solution:

Introduce an informal ranking system in LFD (and elsewhere).

This suggestion needs its own entire section. Ranking people in the LFD system is frequently suggested on the forums, but the point of my ranking system is different, and it isn’t even technically a “ranking.” On the forums, people believe that being helpful/geared/experienced should be rewarded with faster queues and being grouped with similarly good people. That is actually self-defeating. It is in the community’s best holistic interest for there to be 1 experienced/helpful player in every group – letting all the cream rise to the top simply makes the bottom groups congeal into a hardened lump of terribleness. I believe players need to know what they can aspire towards before they understand what social behavior the designers want to encourage.

So, essentially, my informal ranking system would be the equivalent to a Facebook Like or Google +1. This feature is something that a player will have to initiate themselves (there is no post-dungeon survey), possibly through right-clicking a player’s portrait. What the +1 does is make it more likely that they are grouped with that person in LFD, and/or otherwise present on that player’s server (under a fluid server dynamic) in the future.

That’s it. There are no rewards for having the most Likes, nor any visible indication of how many you have. Giving this +1 to someone does not notify them, nor does it add them to a Friends List (although it will let you easily do so on your own). I briefly imagined something like a title or special effect to occur if you get 100+ Likes or whatever, but it is important that there be no incentive to game the system. It’s not a democracy, it’s not a popularity contest; it is a more generalized form of self-selection.

More Show & Tell

Under the traditional MMO social model, you are frequently limited to appearance, actions, and incidental text to communicate your personality. “Err… but Az,” I hear you say, “isn’t that basically everything?” No, sir or madam! In an MMO, your appearance is limited to the gear you happen to be wearing (or a costume, if you are lucky); your actions are entirely limited to the location and time in which they are performed (typically dungeons or raids); and incidental text just happens to be whatever you have said in a particular channel, on a particular topic, at a particular time.

While you can certainly develop impressions of a stranger, especially if you encounter them in an unique or extreme circumstance, kinship generally requires time precisely because it’s difficult to give an accurate representation of one’s character in a single sitting. Traditionally, the “solution” was enforced grouping and the pre-LFD dungeon situation in which placing voluntary strangers in close proximity for long durations was supposed to spontaneously generate communities. This “worked,” just like placing soiled rags in the the 17th century lab’s corner “worked” at spontaneously generated rats.

Repetition is required for communities – people are more asocial in LFD precisely because you aren’t going to see anyone again (unless you have a ranking system, of course). We can, however, condense the process via Show & Tell. What this means in a general sense is instead of blooming into a flower in front of others over time, you do hours and hours of blooming beforehand and invite others into your garden. Some MMO methods include:

  • Player Housing

Blizzard has strongly resisted the demand for player housing because they are afraid of players sequestering themselves away in instanced communities. Which, of course, makes sense in the 17th century spontaneous generation sort of way. How can players envy each other if they aren’t AFK outside banks and auction houses on the Flavor of the Patch mount?

But that’s just it: players generally have a preternatural desire to express themselves any way they can. Player housing would not be about having somewhere to chill out waiting for a LFD queue, or even arranging your trophies and armor sets in aesthetically pleasing ways. It would be about designing and decorating a virtual space for others to look at. You already know the meaning behind that piece of gear that’s been sitting in your bank for the last four years. Other people don’t know, and deep down I believe it is a common human desire for said object or achievement to be recognized and acknowledged as something meaningful.

Player housing is something that can easily be half-assed and end up making the game worse, yes. It will take development time and resources to make work right. If I cannot put that Light of Elune potion I’ve held onto since level ~20, four years ago, under a glass with a little plaque explanation, then I would consider player housing a failure, for example. But if you ever walked into a house with something like prominently displayed, you would see a facet of my personality that you likely never would have unless the topic somehow came up.

  • Character/Guild Bios

To an extent, Blizzard already has this in the crippled form of the Guild Finder. Which, incidentally, you cannot even use unless you happen to be guildless.

The idea behind the Bio screen is to have a sort of poor-man’s player housing without the instancing. A simple whiteboard allowing curious passerby the ability to see what you are all about. Beyond the obvious player ramifications on RP servers, I also imagine it as a way to perhaps allow you to highlight which of your in-game achievements are your favorite, or other demonstrations of skill, perseverance, or luck. Or, hell, as a way of passively advertising your WoW blog. Unsavory characters may use it to transmit keyloggers and such, but it really is not so different than what happens in text form already. And besides, Bios would require you to be actively inspecting/looking someone up, rather than getting it forced upon you Trade Chat style.

Conclusion

This is running pretty long already, and about to be buried in BlizzCon news besides. The sort of bottom line here is that most MMOs are woefully stuck in the Dark Ages, and need to catch up to the emerging trends and zeitgeist of the day – specifically in the realm of social tools. For as much as I despise Facebook and “social media” in general (for their nefarious ways), it is worlds easier being able to locate and interact with new people from multiple locations with similar interests as yourself, while flexing your Show & Tell muscles all the while.

The sort of subscriber revolt going on in Cataclysm had many causes, but I strongly believe the #1 reason had nothing particular to do with LFD or difficulty or boring grinds per se, but with the sort of cascade effect that happens when the underlying social structure has been weakened by those (and other) things. In other words, I think LFD and hard heroics and boring grinds can be fine as long as you have the social tools to keep people together in the midst of it. A return to the vanilla/TBC model without a LFD would have been equally disastrous IMO, unless social tools were added too.

If you have critiques or alternative ideas, let me know in the comments below.

The F-Word

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.

The Single-Player MMO

Syncaine made a very interesting footnote in a recent post:

*It’s a multi-layered joke. One: Immersion is a long-running inside joke. Two: While I jokingly say that I’m looking forward to playing an MMO solo, the sad truth is many today hope for just that in their Massively Multiplayer games, and SW will make Cata look like a sandbox. Three: Barrens chat will look tame compared to SW general chat in the first month or two. Not only are SW nerds the worst nerds of all, but you just know every Huntard is going to take their unique brand of ‘gaming’ to SW and making the most (worst) of it.

I do think it is an open question about whether gamers actually want an MMO versus a single-player game with (optional) MMO components. Unlike Syncaine however, I do not think people playing MMOs as single-player games is “sad” at all – it is more indicative of the lengths gamers are having to go to find meaningful entertainment. In other words, I think it is a lack of quality games that have driven this segment into MMOs in the first place.

This is not to say there hasn’t been quality single-player games, but rather there are not enough being put out. Outside of the game-crippling bugs and sloppy design in several areas, Fallout: New Vegas was absolutely amazing and I spent 70 hours in there, loving every minute. I spent a similar amount of time in Dragon Age: Origins. Portal 1 & 2 both fantastic, both over in ~10 hours. So… that is 160 hours out of the 20 I play each week, or amusement enough for about two months. What about the other ten months?

I quit smoking when I bought WoW, joking I would trade one addiction for another. I have not smoked in 4 years.

My 4-year WoW anniversary was last weekend, having started 8/17/07. Adding up all the days /played across my toons, I ended up around ~322 days, or 7,728 hours. Depressingly that averages out into 5 hours a day, every day, for four years. I played more when I was unemployed for a year, of course, but it is still shockingly bad. Then again, that also equals $0.087/hour as far as entertainment goes. Or imagine buying a $0.99 app and getting 11.38 hours of gameplay out of it. I find it unlikely that I would have done something (more) productive with my time had WoW not existed, so with that in mind perhaps I should be instead celebrating all the money I saved by switching to Geico playing the everliving hell out of WoW.

I have heard and agree with many people who suggest that WoW will be their first, last, and only MMO. Although I am a storied veteran of games that require other people to play with, e.g. pen & paper D&D, split-screen Goldeneye, Magic: the Gathering, etc, the common denominator was a group of people you enjoy hanging around with. In the absence of friends, WoW is a pretty shitty single-player experience once you reach the endgame. And while this problem can be “solved” by making new friends, actually shifting through all the bullshit is a lot of work* for the payout of challenging gameplay that comes in the form of hoping people that are not you do not screw up, e.g. raiding.

In this light, I do not particularly think the trend of companion AI or whatever is necessarily bad. Having played Minecraft for a while now, I have reached that plateau where you want nothing more than to show off the cool biodome tower you built or the Pit of Doom you dug or the cross-Atlantic powered railroad to someone, anyone else capable of appreciating the amount of effort/vision it took to do so. Of course, the thought of trying to do what I have done on a multiplayer server where anyone could wreck my house and steal my materials at any time is mortifying. I want a Show & Tell, not a group assignment. I want a single-player MMO.

And until then, WoW (with liberal playing of Steam games) will have to suffice.

*As outlined in this three year-old Cracked article, which is still pretty dead-on.