Grind For This Content

The (not so) recent stink on the internet has been reviewing massive multiplayer games. Rock Paper Shotgun’s covered it extensively, in part because one of their writers got in on the act, and embraced the most dangerous topic in video games journalism: reviewing an MMORPG.

For those late to the debate, it all started when Eurogamer published a review of Darkfall Online. The review (which has been removed) panned the game, for perhaps good reason: it’s a niche MMO reliant on the allure of a harsh death penalty and hardcore mechanics to lure players. Darkfall’s developer, Aventurine, presented Eurogamer with playtime logs, saying that the reviewer had only played it for some amount of hours or other. Not enough, they said, and badgered Eurogamer until they took the review down. Following this, Kieron Gillen, writer for both RPS and Eurogamer (and fifteen other places), was asked/decided to review Darkfall. He played it for twenty hours. He didn’t like it, and published a relatively negative review (filled with criticism of the process of reviewing MMOs). The Darkfall public did not take kindly to this second chance, even if the reviewer played it for twenty some hours. It still wasn’t enough time; even in twenty hours, you could not adequately ascertain whether the game was enjoyable or not.

Fast forward to recently, and the big stink became that RealTime Worlds, developer of All Points Bulletin, an MMO/Shooter with a unique payment model, decided that they would place an embargo on all reviewers until July 6th—a week after release (and tomorrow!)*. The internet, and reviewers, were displeased. How does this keep a reviewer from playing the game for 4 hours, deciding it sucks, panning it, and publishing it later? Isn’t this just a method for a crooked developer to protect their game from horrible reviews in the first week, which would hurt sales?

Okay, you’re caught up. Now it’s my turn.

Reviewing MMOs has one major problem: they take a long time. MMOs are chock full of content. Hundreds of hours worth. An MMO is like a super elongated game, hundreds of hours for 60$ plus a monthly fee. A major time sink. Furthermore, most games in the genre require the player believe that it gets better, that if you play for fifty hours and work your way to max level, you’ll have a lot more fun with the game.

Here’s my question: why do we put up with this?

The most recent MMO I played was Monster Hunter Tri, a game you might recall I hated with a vitriol usually reserved for Banjo Tooie. Monster Hunter Tri, while a game without a monthly fee, is the perfect example of flawed MMO logic. When I read about it, the things that I found talked about killing huge monsters. Fighting these battles against colossal, unrelenting foes, thrilling bouts of combat with things that were dangerous. Demon’s Souls was a point of comparison.

And you know, I bet they are pretty cool. You may recall I never got to them, because the first four hours of the game were so heinous, so god awful, that I forced to do the boring part of MMOs over and over: collecting plants, skinning animals who couldn’t attack me, going to the same few squares over and over again to collect resources. Making preparations.

I couldn’t take it. My philosophy on the subject mirrors a quote from Spaceballs: You’re always preparing. Why are you always preparing? Just go! Why should I have to prepare for these fights? Sure, it’s more realistic, but it’s not more fun, and it’s not driving home any variety of intelligent point. It was busywork, designed to make the game longer.

When I was a kid, I loved grinding. Grinding made me feel powerful. It made me feel like a big man, who could beat the stuffing out of bad guys. Now that I am, in fact, a big man, it doesn’t do it for me. It’s like being in school. When I was in third grade, I loved doing math worksheets (warning: odd child), because it made me think I was achieving things. At some point, around sixth grade, I realized this was bullshit designed to keep me occupied for long periods of time so I was out of trouble, so that I wouldn’t ask dangerous questions the teacher didn’t know how to answer.

Grinding is like a math worksheet. You do it, and you feel like you accomplished something, but you can look at it and wonder, what were you doing that for? Wouldn’t it have been easier for the enemy to have been better balanced, so that I didn’t have to kill 100 slimes to foil them? Oh, you then realize, they did it because they didn’t have enough content, and if the game isn’t 20 hours long, it wouldn’t get good reviews, and wouldn’t sell.

Let’s think about MMOs, for a second. Let’s break them down. First, it’s a genre where about 75% of the game is grinding, and that’s on a good day. 90% of World of Warcraft is grinding. Even the least repetitive MMOs are about 50% grinding, which, for the record, is more than any video game released within the past 15 years has had**. Most of these games are filler, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I may not like filler, but some people do, and they like customizing their characters and playing social games***.

Here’s the thing, though: for most mediums, for most games, the part they care about the most is the beginning. 75% of albums feature their best songs in the first couple tracks. Books are picked up by publishers based off the first few chapters. Hell, most games are awesome for a few hours, then get bogged down as their mechanics get old. Every action game released within the past 5 years pretty much falls prey to this trope. Furthermore, game critics tend to judge books by their cover, and with good reason. Final Fantasy XIII got panned because its first dozen hours were absolutely dreadful. On the flip side, God of War III got fantastic reviews, even though most reviewers agreed that it kind of fell off in the third act. The beginning was phenomenal, which made the game phenomenal.

Now, let’s look at MMOs. Would *any* MMO claim to feature its best content in the first 20 hours? No. The best content is always found 100+ hours in, given to the dedicated player. I’ll admit, for subscription based games, this is something of a reasonable choice, as high quality content later in the game convinces players to keep paying a monthly fee. But the problem is that, for something that isn’t World of Warcraft, many people aren’t reaching that content.

That’s the flaw with the reviewers should play more than 10, 20 hours argument for MMOs. Beside it
being unfeasible, it’s a tacit admission that you have to slog through hours and hours of shit to get to anything fun. And the question is, why would *anyone* want to do that? Why should I, as a gamer (not even a reviewer, specifically; I’m a god awful reviewer), have to trudge through thousands of boring, predictable encounters to get to the good stuff. Why should I have to grind for days of game time to get to raids, the fun part of World of Warcraft, when you can solo your way to the top content, which makes the old response of Well, you have to learn your craft that much more bullshit.

It’s the same argument that was used with Final Fantasy XIII, but on a genre-wide level. XIII was supposedly good once it opened up. It didn’t open up for 24 hours, or roughly the amount of time it takes to beat Final Fantasy VI. And what’s the positive of this wait? Well, we get to play the equivalent of a mentally retarded Gears of War. Whoopee. We don’t look at it like that, but FFXIII is very much an MMO inspired game. Casual players who are there to enjoy the story would find the linear and unchallenging nature of the first day of the game to be enthralling, and then they’d be able to skip all the raid content and get to the end. Hardcore players have the patience, the developers knew, to get to the raid content.

That’s what XIII had. Raid content. Like World of Warcraft. You worked so long, learning basic skills, perfecting basic skills, and then you get to the big boys, where the world opens up and you do every raid to get some achievements. You have to work for the prize. Some people say that that makes the endgame content all the sweeter. Me? I say fuck that, I can play one of the dozens of games I have in my queue
that won’t make me wait forty hours to have fun.

Can a game be good if you have to wait forty hours to have fun? Can something like World of Warcraft be considered a good game when you are miserable from level 10 up until 70 or so? That takes enough time to play Ico, Super Mario World six times, Chrono Trigger, and Psychonauts.

MMOs want to be held to a different standard, but they’re games like any other. And if I made a game where it took the length of 50 playthroughs of Super Metroid to get to the fun, how can your game not be terrible? Why should you get bonus points for being massively multiplayer, and why should you get bonus points for launching the game terrible out of the box (which a lot of PC games (Alpha Protocol metacritic) are reamed for)?

Where is the justice in the world?

*Of course, some reviewers have gone ahead and done it already. Results, and a metacritic score of 61, have not been pretty.

**Critics exhibit A of how I’m an idiot will be Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. Which has a lot of grinding, but only in proportion to how intelligent you are in your fusion. Really, it’s how every SMT game works: if you’re smart, you won’t have to grind a lot. I grind about 25% of my time in Nocturne, because…sometimes, you need new demons.

***The new big feature of MMOs for the past 10 years has been increased soloability!, kind of fucking this point over.