Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Draw of MMOs

The other day I was posed a question by my friend, Austin, who is a mobile-games designer.

"What is your favorite part of an MMO?"
That was a hard question! MMOs are intrinsically complex, and to analyze and narrow down the individual parts was a challenge. We listed various components, from the social-interaction to task-reward cycles, and discussed the merits to each. Everyone has different tastes, and I believe it's the MMO's ability to provide several distinct avenues for fun that keeps them relevant.

Before continuing, I'd like to preface my experience with MMOs. I started in 2000 with Everquest, specifically after the Kunark expansion was released. In early 2005 I jumped ship to Everquest 2 which I continued to play until 2009. I tried Aeon, World of Warcraft, and Guild Wars too, but mostly played in the EQ universe. I'm by no means an expert, but I have a solid background from which to critically analyze exactly what kept me coming back, and furthermore, what Guild Wars 2 currently lacks.

My initial reaction to the aforementioned question was the lore. I love when games present a rich history, and the Everquest universe is exceptionally robust, full of back-story, fantastic locations, and interesting characters. I safely ruled out combat mechanics and social interaction; the former is forgettable in nearly all MMOs, and the latter was something I ironically avoided. I don't care much for direct competition, and so PvP was ruled out as well. Lore seemed a good fit at a cursory glance, but it wasn't the answer. I dug deeper, and discovered what I believe to be the roots of successful MMOs: indirect comparative competition.

Indirect comparative competition is a fancy set of words that I'm using to describe the experience that keeps me, and a lot of other players, hooked. At its core, it's competition. Humans have inherent tendencies, and one of them is to compete with each other, from overt activities like athletics to more primordial ones like finding a mate. We're hard-wired to seek and engage in competition with each other.

Not everyone enjoys direct competition with another person, however, as evidenced by the population of casual players to those who don't engage in PvP (I don't have anything but anecdotal experience to back this claim as in-game demographics for World of Warcraft haven't been released). There is a large population of players who, like myself, completely avoid directly fighting other humans; I was always more interested in cooperation against AI. Instead of directly competing with others, however, I still found myself indirectly competing through status.

This is where the comparative part comes into play. The single force that kept me playing was the desire to be better, to be recognized, to be special. Those who engage in PvP can expect instant gratification: if you're on top of the leader-board  you are, for a brief moment, the best. Special. For those that don't, they can still be recognized through status: aesthetics, titles, possessions, or even damage-per-second meters. These kind of players, myself included, constantly compare their in-game status against others, and strive to supersede their neighbors to experience a fleeting psychological reward.

This precise conclusion reveals why Guild Wars 2 failed to hold my attention. By all accounts GW2 is an amazing game that managed to, in its own way, reinvent the genre. The combat was visceral, the exploration frequent and refreshing. What it lacks, however, is the ability for players to, at a glance, look at others around them and compare themselves in a quantitative manner. Sure, there are some fancy weapons and armor but they are few and far between. There are player levels, but that progression arc hit equilibrium within a month of the game's release. When I am standing next to another rogue, I want to satisfy my compulsion to check his progress against mine.

Maybe I'm completely off-base, and that there are only a handful of deranged egos running around virtual worlds comparing their achievements against each other. Regardless, it was satisfying being able to succinctly drill down and discover exactly what drove me to play Everquest 2 for so many years: with endless content and every opportunity to compare, I could always do something to improve. Now I only have to figure out why I am so obsessed with Elder Scrolls games.

It has to be the lore.

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