The absolute bane of my existence is time: the fact that time marches on and drags us all with it, or that we never seem to have enough time to accomplish everything we want, or that everything we are able to tackle takes time to complete. Time, they say, is Nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once.
Never is the thorn of time more apparent in my gaming life than in the MMO genre, which is a genre that requires players to devote a whole bunch of time to the journey from a lowly peasant-destined-for-greatness, through the trials of some of the most Dangerous Worlds Ever Conceived, to become the eventual celestial bad-ass that is your overall goal.
My problem is that I tend to get bogged down in the middle, and only rarely do I ever manage to get all the way through to Maximum Badassitude. I’ll admit that my addiction to “new” is partly to blame for me wandering off to something else, but there’s also what’s affectionately referred to as “the grind” — that point between when you’re done learning the ropes and that point when you’re official in the “end game”. That stretch is like the Route 66 of MMOdom: A really long, empty highway where there’s nothing to do but drive, drive, drive.
With all of the chest-thumping that MMO talking-heads do about how “the game doesn’t start until the level cap”, why do we have such massive intervening content? Why can’t we just shorten the distance between learning the game and Galactic Dominance?
In the early days I can totally understand that player retention was a big reason why these games wanted to elongate the trip from levels 1 to cap. In order to do that, players had to maintain their subscription, which meant that companies had a pretty steady revenue stream (until speed runing and guild twinking became institutional mechanics). The longer it took to reach that “promised land” of gear grinds and raiding, the more financially attractive it was for the operator.
Now that we’re awash in a sea of free to play games, what’s the strategy? Retention is always going to be key because no operator wants their game to be a ghost town, but without the ongoing revenue derived from a subscription, the weight should shift from tethering people through grind, to a model of “what can we offer that will actually appeal to the player base”.
Cash shops, the continuously maligned addition that keeps the lights on at MMO HQs around the world, aren’t a reliable revenue generator on their own; they have to offer content that compels a crowd of people who refuse to/cannot pay a monthly subscription to spend money. People can spend just as much money in one day at a cash shop as they would in one month with a subscription, so the idea of forcing people to keep paying in order to reach a developer-and-design-promoted goal (“end game”) could give way to making people want to stay…assuming designers can come up with ways to appeal to people who aren’t just interested in the end game.
Wildstar and Everquest 2 (and others) have housing, and a lot of people like that. Crafting and player interdependence could be another mechanic; most games have stupid crafting (mechanically and philosophically) and when everyone can craft, it’s kind of pointless. Bring back Star Wars: Galaxies level crafting, where players need to play the mechanic as they would any other aspect of the game and where “crafter” is an actual class-level occupation. Those are just two examples that we’ve already experienced, but we could introduce more. EVE Online‘s corporate operators could be full time job (for some, it is), but needs to be less boring. How about Pokemon-level husbandry? Maybe some institutionalized role-playing opportunities, like allowing players to buy limited real estate to open a business in a city (a la Recettear).
These are spaghetti-against-the-wall kind of ideas, but the point is that with a shift of focus from retention-cash-squeeze to compelling-reasons-to-stick-around-and-spend-money, we can shorten the grind and expand the opportunities to offer systems that players of all kinds can find fun.