Experienced Points

The Playground Model


Did you ever notice the uneven distribution of kids at a typical playground? Let’s say there are masses of kids on the climbing equipment. There are fewer on the swings, but it’s still a crowd. The slides have just a small handful of children. Only one or two on the merry-go-round. And nobody plays with the spring riders. (The spring rider is the one with the little animal on top of a strong spring. I actually had to look that up. The kid gets on and wobbles forward and back until they fall off or puke. Wheee!) Apparently, most kids would rather stand around and wait for a swing than hop on a spring rider.

If playgrounds were constructed by the people who design your typical MMOG, this would be seen as a design flaw. They would “fix” this problem by forcing kids to play with the less fun stuff before they’re allowed access to the more popular toys. The playground would be built like a linear obstacle course. You’d need to grind on the spring riders for 10 minutes before you’d gain access to the merry-go-round. After 15 minutes on that thing you’d be able to have a go at the slides. And so on.

Newbie: Man, this playground is boring.

Old Timer: You just have to stick with it. It’s really fun once you get to the climbing stuff.

It’s the old World of Warcraft mantra: “The game beings at 80”. (Or whatever the level cap is up to these days.)

Let’s look at the average MMOG playground and what sorts of amusements they hold:

Solo Play is slow paced and usually has a little bit of story and characters to keep loners engaged.

Group Play is loosely organized play, usually in some sort of instanced location. You throw a random smattering of classes together and stomp around in a ruin. Players tend to skip over the quest text, and they don’t waste time gathering a lot of resources because this would hold up the rest of the group.

Raiding is a rigorously organized team-based endeavor that requires a careful balance of classes and a lot of cooperation. Raiding usually demands a solid block of uninterrupted time and some strategic planning beforehand.

PvP is competitive play. (Aside: It’s always tough to balance this in a game where power is determined by levels and players spend most of their time fighting AI-controlled monsters. Solo players might want lots and lots of meaningful and varied choices for how they can build and play their character. PvP players will want all of these choices to be perfectly balanced against each other. Good luck with that.)

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Exploring is one of my favorite activities, although as far as I know only Lord of the Rings Online formally acknowledges it as such. LOTRO has exploration deeds that you can earn for fully scouting areas of the game. I actually go out of my way to sneak into dangerous high-level areas in a lot of games, just to have a look around. Sometimes I get picked off, but I enjoy the sense of adventure and seeing the sights.

Crafting is a casual activity. You can do crafting while watching TV or socializing with other players. It’s basically something to do with your hands.

Gathering appeals to the treasure hunters, the beach combers, the pack rats and hunter-gatherers. It soothes the parts of the brain compelled to “get stuff.”

Grinding is not an activity. Grinding is what you get anytime the game requires you to overdose on one activity before it allows you to move on to whatever it is you actually want to be doing.

When people talk about “grinding,” I think many times they’re just talking about having unwanted gameplay between themselves and the fun. Perhaps they’re having a good time crafting, but suddenly they hit an arbitrary cap and have to go gain 10 more levels before they can meaningfully do more. For them, the next several levels of solo play will be grinding. Or maybe they want to engage in PvP, but they can’t do that until level 20. Or maybe they want to start raiding, but that isn’t available until the endgame. Or maybe they just want to level up on their own, but the game forces them out into the PvP areas of the world.

To be fair, games are getting a lot better about this, but I think there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Designers are gradually warming up to the idea that not everyone needs to be force-fed every part of the game. In my list above, every type of gameplay will have people that hate it and others who see it as the reason they play the game in the first place.

The most common excuse is that designers add lots of filler so that people will keep playing. But does that really follow? Is making the game less freeform and fun really the way to keep people engaged? What if you just let players run free on the playground? Maybe they would still sample all the content, but do so in their own order and at their own pace. Maybe it would take longer for them to get sick of the game if it didn’t have so much “filler” gameplay.

I don’t know if a playground style MMOG would be a success, but I know I’d be there on launch day.

Question: What gameplay drives you to play an MMOG? What parts do you dislike or avoid?

Shamus Young is the guy behind the Shamus Plays series here on the Escapist. You should go read that right now.


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