I can feel the MMO burnout setting in, like a growling creature lurking in the back of the room, waiting to pounce. Anyone who has played knows what I refer to. It starts with you “having” to do something in game. Then you start logging off for longer and longer and play more solo-oriented games instead. Eventually you stay on only because you are needed in your guild, at least until you go on sabbatical. Everyone has it, a fact that is somewhat indicative of how much time we spend on the games. It really does become a second life, an odd concept. But that’s for another time.
A story: I was once reading a manga, one of the .hack series (don’t remember the subdomain or whatever the term is for it) when I came across one of the little stories that are housed in the back. This one had the rare item collector character fawning over some super-rare set of wings that a guy was showing off. It turns out that he hacked his way into having the wings, a fact that the collector got pissed about. To teach him about loot, she took him on an incredibly difficult cavern run in order to reach a really rare staff. The moral of the story is that things aren’t worth anything if you don’t work for them, yadah yadah yadah, but the story gave me pause. I thought, Now that is a game that I would like to play.
One of the biggest problems in MMO gaming is the entire idea of a random drop system. It works for relatively trivial mobs, but the endgame of an instance/cavern is the problem.
Let me explain. For those of you who have played Oblivion, let me ask you this: what’s one of the most entertaining and addictive things to do in the game? That’s right, exploring all those sunken mines and ancient ruins. Why? Because you always knew that there would be at least one thing in there that you would want, a thing that would *always* be there, regardless of timing or whatever. There was always something to drive you to search just a little more to find that fancy bling. But that’s the thing, there was a goal to your exploration, because taking the initiative to explore would almost always benefit you. Thus, you explored every nook and cranny, taking in as much of the game as you could, and it was all for the better. Who can forget the vampire plants hidden away in that guy’s basement? Or the nord going insane after you silently assassinate everyone else in the manor party? It’s the flavor that really makes a game worth playing.
And that’s why MMOs fail me. On the surface they seem to be made for exploration, there’s huge maps, many tunnels and nooks, diverse travel methods, all of it. And yet, what’s the difference between one hole and another? There’s no real benefit to exploration outside of grinding up to the top level and then searching for crafting ingredients. I crave the cave with the staff, or a sword or MacGuffin, I don’t care. I want little places that are completely separate from any quest lines or raids, places housing treasure untold that rewards adventurers. It doesn’t have to be the same item every time, but at least give the explorer a token for his troubles. I don’t care how you implement it, you NEED to find a way to make the players want to dive into every cave they find.
Of course, the other issue that MMOs have, that of all of the flavor being worn down into nothing more than numbers. Nowadays most people play games like WoW on autopilot, with DeadlyBossMods and information sites removing all the mystery from the game. To be fair, those things are both necessary to beat the upper-level bosses, that’s true. However, imagine being the first people to try to kill the Lich King, before all the information got dumped on the net. Yes, you would probably fail again and again, but you would get an experience unlike nothing else, an experience of something truly new.
Look at it this way: for those of you who play upper level WoW, think back to every single time that you’ve fought Lord Marrowgar. Now tell me this, have you ever looked UP? The ceiling in his chamber is a giant spire with all kinds of fancy stuff. It’s really quite beautiful. Now, I almost wrote this off as my unawareness of my surroudings, and I would have if I hadn’t mentioned it over Vent to my raid buddies. I kid you not, most of the raid had never taken the time to look up, and the chat was filled with oooohs and aaaahhhs for a while. Are we so blind?
I dream of the game where exploration is worthwhile again. Someday, maybe. We’ll see.