Curing A Game-Hopper’s Disease
by Dan Repperger
If you play any MMO , there are a few conversations you’re guaranteed to have with your guild mates. One of them is the inevitable comparison between this MMO and its competitors, followed by a defense of why you’re pissing away hours in this world instead of that one.
I had this exact conversation while playing Warhammer Online last week, and while working through my well-rehearsed talking points, a powerful, simple, and previously unspoken truth came out: these games are pretty much all the same. And for all of the nuance I want to nitpick into existence, there really is no good reason to be here instead of there.
Pop in just about any MMO, and you’ll go through a rather predictable process. Let’s start with character creation.
First, choose male or female. It doesn’t really matter which one you pick. Even though research has pretty clearly shown differences between men and women in our physique, thought processes, socialization, and biological make-up, we have to live with a cognitive dissonance that dictates equal must also mean identical.
Second, pick a species. You might get a few unique game powers, but for the most part, we’re just talking about appearance and perhaps some minor attribute bonuses. You’ll be picking from options like strong and dumb, lithe and fast, small and stout, or human. That last one is always the perfect average of the game. There is no reality in which we are the largest, smallest, fastest, or strongest of God’s self-aware creations. Which race you pick will be heavily influenced by your impending career choice. You can either pick the race obviously meant for your profession (the ogre warrior), an obvious mismatch just to prove it can be done (the pixie warrior), human because you’re a Genus-level bigot, or such-and-such because it’s the only character model that doesn’t look like donkey ass on legs.
Third, pick a profession. This comes down to whether you want to take damage, deal damage, or heal damage. There might be a truly unique class in there that has gobs of game-bending utility powers. This will inevitably annoy other players, since such things can’t be easily put into numbers during forum wanks, leaving you to bite your nails each week as you pray they don’t nerf you into uselessness despite the mob calling for just that.
Speaking of which, expect all of the classes to change in relative power levels from month to month. No matter how long the game is out, the developers will never figure out a perfect balance. Picture every class sitting on a carousel, in which one side is ultimate power and the other side is asking, “Why did you include this class again?” This will go round and round and round, and every class will take its turn in every position.
You may be told the commodity of this game is skill or resourcefulness. It’s not. The only thing that really determines who wins and loses is time. You see, these games survive on monthly fees, and the only way to be sure you keep coming back each month is the nagging feeling you’re not done yet. You’d like to think it’s because you have genuinly new things to do, but in truth, you just have the same old stuff to do in vaguely new places.
You’ll start at level 1, and the focus of the game will be gaining more levels. That is until you reach the maximum level, at which point you progress through similar tedium that yields gear instead of experience points. This process sounds boring, which it often is, and the entire game will be designed around it. Features like immersion or socialization will languish indefinitely on the drawing board so they can stuff in more treadmill.
The game will launch in a questionable state. Fortunately, when the next game drops, the old one will be patched up while the new one is limping along, and the short memory of most gamers means you’ll forget just how bad the previous game was at release.
The developers will slate tons of really cool features for the month after launch. Most of these will never be made. MMO developers keep less promises than politicians.
And all of this will continue until the next big game is announced, which will be heralded all throughout its development as the <insert this game>-killer. Surely it will have 10x the features and no problems of its own. This never turns out to be true, at which point you can either drag yourself back into your old game (only to find your guild gone and everyone passing you by in power) or keep trading out games like a neurotic perfectionist who just knows his next girlfriend will be the right one.
Let me pause here to say that I realize there are some exceptions. For example, games like UO or EVE don’t follow the level treadmill model. And even the generic hack ‘n slash fantasy games focus their energy in slightly different ways, bringing out some noteworthy diversity that may help you pick the right game. But having played many, many different MMOs, I feel pretty confident that my commentary applies more often than not.
With so much harsh stuff to say, do I hate MMOs? No, not at all. I’d stop buying (and playing) them if I did. This journey of self-discovery was not a realization that I hate an entire genre, nor that I can’t appreciate why some of these facts are true. Instead, I came to a very different (and liberating) conclusion, which I hope you’ll understand to be the central thesis of this article.
The one and only thing that gets me playing game X instead of game Y is the number and quality of friends I have there. In all honesty, I’ve been generally happy with nearly MMO I’ve ever played. If my entire guild quit Warhammer tomorrow and switched over to City of Heroes, Warcraft, Everquest 2, etc, etc, etc, I’d be just as happy there as I am now. I can finally put my wallet down and stop pretending the next game will be just right. Instead, I can happily exist in my current pasture, dead grass and all, accepting this game — and all of its competitors — for what they are.