Give Me Dessert First

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I played World of Warcraft for the first time last summer, when the game was about four years old. I played City of Heroes a few months later. Despite the fact that these games were about the same age, my initial experiences with them was radically different.

My first WoW character was a Night Elf. I think I played for about two hours before I saw a single other player, which is pretty amazing in a game with umpteen million subscribers. Human contact was exceptionally rare in the first ten levels or so. WoW has a massive user base, but a vast majority of them are leveling characters or raiding in the end-game (as if this game had an end) instances. There is a saying among the hard-core WoW players that “the game begins at 80”. (Or whatever the level cap is up to these days.) A good bit of the content is back-loaded, and you must play for days or weeks to get to the richest parts of the game. You earn your way into the fun content. I found I needed to hit level ten or so (which can take a few hours) before I could even get a sense of whether or not I was going to enjoy playing a particular character class.

In City of Heroes, I saw other players right away. The newbie zone was a lag-inducing crowd. (Even ignoring the fact that the initial spawn zone is also the hang-out zone for high-level characters.) People are constantly creating new superheroes, and the content for the first five levels is some of the highest traffic areas of the game. The game is front-loaded with content, so often the best stuff is early in the progression, and the later game is a bit of a grind.

Champions Online takes this front-loaded approach to fun even further. You can blow through the tutorial zone in well under half an hour once you know what you’re doing. After that you get your travel power, which will let you fly, tunnel, swing, or leap around the world. This is roughly equivalent to getting your mount in WoW, and you get it in the first hour of the game. You get to start kicking butts and feeling like a superhero right away.

For me the meat of the game – the content – consists of cool new stuff. New powers to wield, monsters to fight, places to go, instances to visit, and game modes to play. Like any greedy gamer, I’m always looking forward to the next content cookie.

I can’t speak for all players, but it seems like the old-school MMO games made you grind through the levels to get to the fun stuff. The newer ones – and especially the superhero ones – give you the fun up front and let you experiment with different character concepts and power sets. If you find one you really love, then you can play onward to the more repetitive sections of the game.

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If you’re into an MMO for the content, then the hero approach is a lot more appealing. It focuses on giving you lots of fun as soon as possible. In WoW, I quit once my main character reached his late 30’s. I looked at how long it was going to take to level up and get to the next area of the game and see the next group of monsters, and realized that it was all uphill from here. And this is after they’d already sped up the level progression in the game.

To a certain extent, many MMO old-timers are really annoyed by this attitude, and are also offended by the trend to give gamers more fun for less effort. I can kind of understand that. If you had to work for hours to get your level ten powers, days to get to the interesting areas of the game, weeks to get your mount, and months to get to the high-level raiding, then you’d probably be irritated when the developer starts handing out those same rewards like Halloween candy to anyone who can successfully navigate the login screen. It’s not fair that us newcomers get to have dessert without having to eat our vegetables first. But maybe this new trend isn’t ruining the game. Maybe it’s just fixing a long-standing issues that have been sucking the fun out of the hobby. Maybe the problem isn’t that newcomers are getting rewards too fast, but that veterans had to wait so long.

“Players are lazy and want the game content handed to them on a silver platter”, is the usual gripe. Which sort of introduces the question as to why this is a bad thing. We’re here to be entertained, after all. We can see a pretty clear trend going from the early days of Everquest, where you had to grind for hours just to unlock a bit of content, to Champions Online, where the game begins handing out content by the armload as soon as you log in.

This trend has two downsides: For developers who want to give away more content sooner, then they need to have a lot more content in the game. The old-school grind was there partly because of the old tabletop preconceptions the games brought with them, but also because they just didn’t have that much stuff to offer. The game needed six hours of grinding between rewards to keep players from hoovering up all the content in a couple of sittings. The other downside is for players, because once we enjoy a game without a lot of grinding, going back to those older titles is like taking the bus to school after you’ve learned to drive. “Man, I can’t believe I ever put up with this.” I enjoyed WoW at the time, but I don’t think I could tolerate its plodding progression after being spoiled by Champions Online.

Don’t think of it as handing out goodies on a silver platter. Think of it like having a bigger meal with less filler. More fun with less work. More cake and less vegetables.

Shamus Young is the guy behind this movie, this website, this book, these two webcomics, and this program. He got all the way to level 30 in Champions Online without needing to grind once.

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