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.

I mean, sure, there’s no mechanical comparison. The mechanics of both are different. You jump on things in one, and in the other there’s an overcomplicated UI directing you to do a million things at once. No, by comparison I mean in the goals, and in how they are played. They’re entirely different, and while I see the practical reasons, I feel they could easily inform each other.

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.


  1. Fernando Cordeiro

    Well, I suppose the only way to implement a good challenge-based gameplay on a MMO is by having different games inside the game. I mean, MMOs are about communities and the easiest way to appeal to the biggest number of people is by setting your challenge to the lowest common denominator.

    The point of the MMO is never the challenge. It is the leveling up. The badges you can show off and that moment when a golden arrow is shot from you like you so much power it is escaping from your pores. MMO are like high school. The football game itself doesn’t matter. What matters is the cloud you amass among your peers by doing stuff like winning that game or collecting the “I got the hottest chick in school” badge or the “I have a fake ID” badge.

    Hence why the MMO focuses not on the difficulty of getting such icons, but their available number.

    If you want to make the ‘quest’ challenging, one deduces it must also become exponentially more varied, so you don’t alienate the many who doesn’t like, can’t handle or simply doesn’t have the time anymore for such hard quests. In a sense, I believe the future of the MMO genre are achievements points.

    All Microsoft needs to do is allow our avatars to ‘level up’ and become more kickass versions of ourselves and the world is theirs.

  2. Tom, what you’re describing is something that I’ve been toying around with in terms of game ideas…at least, how to solve the issue of providing a dynamic, engaging experience which involves live players.

    I think that Tom did say that what he’s describing isn’t the current point of MMOs. What *is* the point should not be.

    • Tom

      Yeah. I mean, I love leveling up. Leveling up is pretty much what I came here to do. I like feeling like I’m more powerful, and I can take things on. My problem comes when I’m leveling up solely for the chance to level up again, and now be on even footing with slightly more experience rich mobs. This isn’t productive or cool to me. I want to level up to see new, exciting challenges, where I have to work together with people and kill things. I want to get new abilities, and be challenged for having them. I want the difficulty to scale up after level 15, basically, instead of stopping.

  3. Great points! I will be checking back here often!

  4. Fernando Cordeiro

    But that’s the point, Tom. If the new challenges are too hard for people who didn’t level up yet or to different for people not used to games, a big part of the audience will be alienated and without a big audience, MMOs die.

    Adding new challenges is not enough. You have also to create more mechanisms that keep those challenges attractive to everybody.

    • Nonsense. I defer you to here:

      as well as here:

      Pretty much highlights everything that I think is wrong with modern games–mainly, that drive to appeal to EVERYFUCKINGONE. Its getting stupid, I think. Get AN audience, period, work to make them stay. Everyone else can go fuck themselves, because the game isn’t for them. Don’t be afraid to be mildly complex. FF13, your 20 hour tutorial was ridiculous. Go die in a ditch.

      • Fernando Cordeiro

        These articles only refer to either games in general or RPGs. Neither of those relate to my point. I’m not saying more casual gaming is good or bad here, mind you. I don’t care about that discussion; I simply play Ikaruga instead.

        I’m saying that having to appeal to many people is one of the tenets a good MMO has to fill in order to survive, as MMOs are, by definition MASSIVE Multiplayers. Without a plethora of users, the world is empty, servers are turned off and the game dies.

        In order to appeal to the biggest number of people of your audience, logic dictates that some sort of maximum common denominator must be determined and used.

        This is what I tried to explain: how can we make challenges that does NOT appeal to EVERYFUCKINGONE to a genre that requires EVERYFUCKINGONE to survive?

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