One of the beautiful things about MMOs fundamentally is the persistence of the game world with a dynamic playerbase coming and going as suits their interest and inclination. The more years I put into MMOs, the more stark some of the genre’s contradictions (any my reason for enjoying them) become:
MMOs offer a giant world for players to explore. Most players, however, stay on the beaten path, try to develop their characters as quickly as possible and bypass or discount significant portions of lore and content. As a matter of fact, MMOs that don’t sufficiently “lead” the player are derided as pointless sandboxes (roll file footage of sandbox debate). To top it off, MMO worlds actually aren’t all that big.
MMOs offer the opportunity to interact with thousands of other players all over the world. So what do most players do soon after joining a game? They join (or form) an exclusionary tribal group such as a “guild” or equivalent so they have a subgroup identity eschewing contact and interaction with said thousands, except where necessary. Of course, a game without the bleating thousands of “others” is “empty” and “lifeless.”
MMO economies and gameplay require player interdependence to advance in gameplay. Increasingly however, MMOs are catering to the solo minded player, or at least enhancing solo play to attract and keep the casual player in a meaningful gameplay experience.
MMOs provide opportunities for greater group advancement through player cooperation. Of course, too high of a player cooperation requirement and the game becomes “carebear.” Ironically, MMOs have increasingly developed more and more PvP systems to grow the playerbase and in most cases, creating almost a completely alternate character advancement path.
Not so ironically, most MMOs haven’t figured out how to foster legitimate altruism and cooperation. Most frustratingly for me, the vast majority of games simply wont allow anything close to a true mentoring experience between a more developed character and a more junior one. Most gear can’t be handed down for fear of disruptive economic impacts. Most games effectively block the grouping of higher and lower level characters to avoid disruptive effects of power leveling.
Ironically, all of these effects often conspire to actually make it pretty difficult to consistently have a meaningful group experience. The one area where all MMOs seem to fail is to provide a mechanism to maintain parity among an elective peer group. It is ordinarily only through heroic efforts that players who want to explore an MMO world as a consistent group can do so.
I happen to play regularly with a small static group of players across multiple geographies that I’ve known for a long time and genuinely enjoy spending time with (online or otherwise). When we launched our current endeavor, we all understood and imposed rigid play limits on ourselves. We had all had guildies or game friends fall behind or leave us in the dust as a result of different play budgets, play styles and resulting differential advancement rates.
In the vast majority of games, very quickly the distance becomes insurmountable and the laggard either becomes a castoff or drops out of the race. As I’ve ranted before, this fundamental “fourth for bridge” problem is largely an outgrowth of what are now fundamentals of MMO design:
- use rock-paper-scissors character archetype to maintain balance and create interdependence,
- spread the population out to avoid crashing the server, and
- make advancement exponentially more difficult as development progresses.
So, in order to advance, you should group. In order to spread the population out, you need a reason to send players out of the starting areas. To make it attractive, each kill of type X should have a diminishing return on player advancement (i.e., level 1, 100 xp, level 10, 100,000 xp) which then requires more difficult mobs in more difficult zones so as to avoid stomping the noobs. It’s a vicious cycle.
It seems crazy that if someone in a group like ours which plays on average about 4-6 hours per week as a group (an almost zero outside of the group) risks falling off the train when RL constraints cause them to miss an instance run or a night’s organized questing. Why should we be forced to stand down while someone is busy, ill or on vacation? To me this is a significant stumbling block that the devs are going to have to confront sooner or later. For my group’s sake, I hope its sooner.