The MMO and Risk Versus Reward
It’s been an interesting span of weeks for those of us interested in game design as a thing, not just as a process. We’ve been given access to not only Guild Wars 2’s design manifesto, which lays out the many ideas ArenaNet are following in their development process, but also a pair of articles from Edmund McMillan about some design aspects of Super Meat Boy.
All three of these articles are pretty profound, even though I wish Edmund went into a little more depth. What I find interesting, though, as a fan of MMORPGs like the original Guild Wars, is in comparing them. Quite simply, there’s no point of comparison between these two genres, platformers and MMO’s, and this leads me to wonder why. You’d think the concept of risk versus reward, of difficulty would exist, and coexist, between the two mediums, but you’d be sorely mistaken.
The biggest difference is in their assessment of risk versus reward. Platformers are all about this. You can tell from both of Edmund’s articles, in that they’re both, in their most basic, about risk versus reward. The central mechanic is jumping, to get to the goal, or to the optional goals, through an absurd series of hazards. There’s no shyness about peppering the way to the goal with absurd, deathly traps, because if you die, you just come back. It’s okay. You’ll die, and you’ll enjoy death, because the game doesn’t really make death bad.
MMORPGs have the exact opposite approach, and here’s what I want to focus on. They aren’t difficult. In fact, they seem afraid to challenge their players, even though their death penalties are often as lenient as those of modern independent platformers. The basic gist of any MMO, even at high level, is if you know how to play your class well, you’ll do great. The emphasis is much more on execution than obstacles.
To put this in metaphorical form, imagine a platformer. It’s barely even a platformer. You’ve got a long, flat ground, with the goal on a raised platform. You have three platforms between you and it, arranged like stairs. The task in front of you is pretty easy. The problem is, that you control awkwardly. Left goes right. Up goes right, too. All the jump buttons go right. It’s only if you press them in the proper order that you jump.
This metaphor’s a little silly, but if you’ve ever played an MMO, you’ll probably see the connection. The task isn’t difficult. It’s what you do that is. You have so many buttons, so many options, that it makes the risk figuring out how to use your character, and the reward being having a functional character. I’ve neevr played World of Warcraft, for instance, and thought, “This situation is tough. We might not get out of it, and we need to be prepared for anything.” No, my thoughts have always been, “If I do x amount of damage per second, and no one else fucks up, we’ll win.”
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a good MMO. They do the reward thing very well, usually, in the sense that they cleanly lay out the hook in front of you. You know you can be an awesome character, and you can do it by killing seventeen skeletons. Do that, and you get new spells, and become much, much stronger. Hooray!
The problem with MMOs, the first problem, is that there’s not enough risk. They don’t feel the need to challenge you, as a player. They’re willing to challenge your ability to work as a team, but that’s different from making a compelling experience for one to three players questing. I’ve never run into a quest in an MMO (and I’ve had very high level characters in three different games) where I was really challenged by the meat of the thing, except maybe in the sense that I wasn’t strong enough for the mobs.
The other problem is that MMO’s are solved games, in a sense; there’s very little magic to them, once they’re reduced to numbers and grinding factories. If there’s no risk, and you can tell exactly how many things you need to kill, and what your DPS needs to be to make a situation survivable, then what’s the point? World of Warcraft is appealing to a lot of people for the very reasons it is unappealing to me anymore: everything, every quest, every specific mob, has a wiki article dedicated just to it. There’s no exploration, because everything has already been made into a commodity.
So, this brings us back to Guild Wars 2. They talk a good talk, but they’re really talking the exact same talk every MMO has talked since day one. The thought of a whole zone working together to bring down a larger than life mob is compelling, and I’d love to do it, but it plain and simple won’t happen. You know why? Because someone is going to figure out how much HP it has, how many members of a group are necessary to take it down, and they will film videos of what you have to do to make it work. They will find five other people who know how this works, and they will come in and destroy it. More groups will follow them, and no newbies will ever get it. Really, all it serves to do is put high levels in a zone with low levels.
And the descriptions of weapon powers are cool, but it’s what all MMO’s do, just rendered a bit more organic. How is forcing your mage to put up a firewall every fight to let archers shoot through it any different than having your druid cast their 12 second haste buff on the fighter when the fighting starts? It’s a little more tactical, but not a whole lot. It’s a baby step.
What I want to see, what would make an MMO fun again, is dynamic combat. Something like the director from Left 4 Dead. Something that sees, hey, these guys are experts who can do these raids mechanically, let’s throw some additional mobs in. Let’s have a branching path. Let’s make a system complicated enough that, sure, it could be found out, but no one’s going to put the time into figuring it out. Let’s put the risk back into the reward.
It really brings it back to my central argument in nearly every post: control. I don’t like being in control when I’m playing a game, because it takes the fun out of it. I want to react, not dictate. I want there to be surprises, for there to be things I’ve never seen before happening. Not just plot trees I haven’t been down, but dynamic, procedurally generated encounters designed to mess with me. That’s what would make an MMO exciting. I don’t want to go into a raid thinking “I am going to have to frost shield the tank and firebolt the mobs, but not too much”. I want to go in thinking, “I have all these powers. These are useful in various situations. Let’s see what comes up.”
Because then, I think, we’d get some of that thrill that comes from playing the little independent platformers with lots of spikes.