Sunday, July 13, 2008

Time Sinks, Grinding & Lasting Playability Without Poopsocks

Last time, I wrote about the difference between sandbox and theme-park MMOs, as well as which style I prefer. For a player with my beginnings, the answer was obvious. But I’ve sure done a lot of complaining, haven’t I? Guilty, there. I suppose one could think about this series of letters as a kind of charcoal rubbing. Put your e-sketch pad over my posts, and fill in the whole thing with broad strokes. The negative space from all my curmudgeonly ramblings turns into a picture of a more Krib-friendly MMO. There’s that ponderous metaphor you were asking for. Plus a new theoretical game that will be published only in my mind’s eye.

What is this thing so far? Well, it’s certainly a sandbox. Players have the ability to contribute physically to the world, and their contributions are at least as important as the original design. In this place, players and developers are going to work hand in hand. Evolution is going to be a joint endeavor.

The result is that there may be some random wackiness. However, it isn’t going to be full chaos either. There will be a theme, and some gentle guidance. As mentioned previously, there needs to be something to play. There will certainly be quests, things to do. There will be character differentiation. Crafting. MMO archetypes will be discussed in a later post though.

But will there be leveling? Just how long is it going to take for players to get leet? Isn’t the underlying purpose of virtually any competitive multiplayer game to keep popping those levels so you can kill scarier and scarier monsters and pwn sundry noobs?

How can I expect you devs to make any money if everything in this game is instantly accessible? Won’t subscribers get bored in a month? Just where does that hamster wheel fit in here?

Well, I can tell you how I wouldn’t do it.

More on Vanguard, and how it eventually broke my spirit

I’ve already written about how Vanguard was the last MMO before my break(down). About how I woke up one day, and knew that I couldn’t do it anymore. But why exactly did that happen? It might be useful to consider, because the bulk of the answer has to do with leveling. And it’s hardly like VG uses a unique model there.

When I played VG, nobody else in my crew did. At least not for very long. They poked their heads in, but we never really had enough of a group to do anything. In addition, the haphazard, wacky way that we play when we’re together was particularly poorly suited for the sort of game that VG is. That is most true on the free-for-all PVP server, which was where I wanted to be. Having missed the old generation of MMOs like UO and Shadowbane, I wanted to experience FFA.

In spite of the fact that I’m a lousy PVPer who mashes buttons when the chips are down and has intimate experience with getting wtfpwned, I had to try it. Gut check-type thing, maybe. Actually, it was fun. Never feeling safe gives you a jolt of extra adrenaline even when you’re just going to the bank to drop off some Worg hides you won’t be needing yet. Sure, there will be some idiots who kill you while you’re browsing the Auction House. But if you have backup and can learn to not get flustered, you’d be surprised at how well quality FFA works.

I was never killed at a crafting station, and I appreciated that. Even ganking guilds didn’t do it. Sure, I was killed at the Auction House. But I remember that fondly, because the first time it happened, I spawned back in and went right into stealth form. I was angry, I had the advantage of first attack, and I killed the guy something like six times. The next time I saw him at the AH, he waved at me. Got to represent.

The Let Us Police Ourselves model can work, and it opens things up for a lot of player creativity. Guild Councils to lay down the law. A new set of etiquette to learn. The ability to kill a fool because he’s text spamming. It all worked okay until the speed hacks and other exploits started getting prevalent. Brad was asleep at the switch. Doesn’t even bear talking about; we all know what happened to VG, and it’s been discussed ad-infinitum. Anyway, it’s one thing to get ganked. It’s another to get ganked by a speed hacker, suffer item decay, and know the Powers That Be have precisely zero ability to prevent that sort of thing because they are out of money, resources and ideas.

Before that happened, there were about four months of daily gameplay. As I mentioned, I had to find a new group. I did. I researched them, and they had thoroughly dominated Shadowbane. Like, for real. Unfortunately, they weren’t in with numbers (smarter, probably). But there were enough of them to grind with, and they were dead cool. So for about 120 days, we leveled hard together.

Leveling hard was the only way to get anywhere in VG back then. My understanding is that they’ve smoothed out the curve. But at release, you were looking up at a ladder that stretched into the sky. Sure, there’s something to be said for enjoying the journey as much as the destination. But if the journey is as long as VG’s you’d better get a fast train. You’d better go out where the water is deep, and swim.

That’s what we did, and I hadn’t played with a crew this professional before. It was new, not hearing random chatter on comms when we pulled. Everyone knew what to do, and they made me better. They made me want to concentrate: on the careful structure of each pull, on my surroundings, on not wasting heals. When we got ganked mid-pull (inevitable in a game with no instances and on an FFA server), they stunned me with how good they were. Quality PVP was something I had not experienced much of, and it is a craft.

We made steady progress as the months marched on, but it was intimidating how slowly that XP bar moved. What was Sigil thinking? Didn’t they have any other strategy to keep us playing their game? On an FFA server you have to level, because you won’t be able to walk from A to B, else. In hindsight, it was probably a bad combination.

So I got tired; I quit. In the end, I prefer my motley crew. They have more fun, and there’s something to be said for not taking things so seriously. I’m glad I got to experience the flip side, but it isn’t for me. It’s not why I quit though. I did that because I was leveling for its own sake, which is really what that whole style of game is about. You’re locked out of what you most desire as a lowbie, be it loot, pwnage or prestige, so you have to get on the wheel.

The agony of grinding

Let’s face it: there isn’t anything fun about repetitive action. Grinding is like going to the dentist, you do it because you have to. Along the way, you cease to play for any other reason. If you log in and don’t pop a level, you feel unfulfilled. If you’re sidetracked, you get frustrated. Eventually, you get there. That’s always satisfying, isn’t it? Actually, it can be like a gamer orgasm.

But once you’re on the mountaintop, something is missing. This is because you’ve been living on the ladder for so long that you can’t conceptualize any other way to play. Congratulations: here are some sunflower seeds. Go and bury them in the corner of your cage. Don’t worry, the expansion will be here soon. Ten more levels in that.

I watched in SWG as an incredibly brilliant and diverse skill-based character system (which admittedly was buggy as a college frat house) got wiped out by this phenomenon. Sure, there was some grinding involved in mastering your chosen professions. In that, Galaxies was very traditional. But once Jedi hit, people tore apart their characters. Guys that had been known for certain templates suddenly turned up in Theed cantina, AFK dancing. Painful to watch. And talk about a grind. Enjoyed mastering two professions? Just wait until you have to do all of them.

The grinding model has ruined more games for me than I can count, but the most glaring example is Pirates of the Burning Sea. This is because I am, how do you say this? A huge Age of Sail fan. I have read all 20 of Patrick O’Brian’s books. I’ve seen Master & Commander five times. I played the everloving daylights out of Pirates, both the old and new versions. I keep a shrine to Trafalgar in my home. The fanboy list goes on.

Flying Lab gets more credit than I even know how to give for creating a gameworld based on the Age of Sail. Gameworlds, though, (at least the genre aspect of them) are a topic for a later post. What’s relevant here is how stupefyingly boring it is to run instanced mission after mission, and watch that XP bar tick slowly upward. Sure, you can PVP for your levels too. But that’s a riskier proposition, and you’re probably not going to have the guts or financing to do it all the time.

Ship combat in PotBS is slow by nature. It works incredibly well, but is best in small doses. Let me say from experience that when you’ve killed your 500th consecutive British pirate hunter, each time having to beat upwind to firing range over the course of five full minutes, death is better than continuing. PotBS is a game that really would have benefited from the Eve model.

Time-based leveling, and other alternatives to The Wheel

It practically goes without saying that responsible adults do not mix well with games that are heavily grind or time-sink oriented. Jeffe wrote in one of his posts about corpse runs, and I’m inclined to agree. I have mentioned the loot ladder in WoW, and it is of this flavor as well. To get anything worth getting, you have to sign away your real life and join a cult of lightning bolt spamming automatons whose sole purpose in life is to save the necessary DKP for the Blade of What The Hell Did You Just Hit Me With. And your crowning humiliation may be that to attain your goal, you’ll probably have to kowtow to a sixteen year old Lithuanian high school student with a sizable angel dust problem who has bad days when he’s off his epilepsy medication.

Loot ladders aside, our responsible adult is even more alienated when it comes to traditional grinding. He doesn’t even get a nice sword out of it; he simply continues the futile process of trying to keep up with his guild-mates. Oh yeah, and he gets fourteen stacks of Greater Yak livers to sell on the AH for three silver.

We’ve all guilded with that best gaming bud who has several small autistic children, and an ongoing home renovation project. Our friend falls further and further behind, and by the time we’re going after Worbus, the God of Phat Lewt, he’s alone in a Teamspeak chatroom soloing Lesser Reticulated Shmendricks and weeping silently into his microphone. And we miss him.

One of my gaming friends likes to say that as an adult, you have to police your own playtime. If you don’t, it isn’t the game’s fault that you’re turning pale white, that you’ve lost your job or girlfriend, that you have arthritis in your N-52 hand. This is truth. It’s also the lesson that our missing buddy has learned. But to learn it, he’s had to lock himself out of meaningful gameplay. Nobody but college students, high school students and quadruplegics wins in that scenario.

This is why Eve’s model is so compelling. There simply isn’t a way for someone to get too far behind, unless they forget to log in and switch skills. It is literally possible to spend six months training an upper level character, without actually playing. One could spend that time having Tantric sex with supermodels, or building a working motorcycle out of popsicle sticks. If you really want to get crazy, that person could actually play while leveling, perhaps becoming an in-game reporter who covers shennanigans in 0.0 space.

The fact that not having to grind opens one up to a host of other more fulfilling game activities is priceless beyond measure. Of course, there need to be other activities. Eve doesn’t make that very obvious to new players, and I hear that many of them go slowly insane, mining the same asteroid over and over again. Eventually, they leave the house and walk out into traffic.

Once one gets to 0.0, it’s a different game though. Eve’s politics are almost completely player-created. There is only one server, so if you missed it in Eve, it’s because you weren’t paying attention. There is one game history, and one social fabric.

If I can say anything in criticism of time-based leveling, it’s only that time is an insurmountable gap. If one were to enter Eve today, they would find a gulf between themselves and the longer-time players that they can never hope to close. It’s still eminently possible to have a lot of fun, and Goonfleet proved this by showing that a swarm of a hundred tiny frigates can take you down just as hard as three larger vessels. The picture below was found by way of Something Awful, and I think it sums things up pretty well.

As James over at Kill Ten Rats says:

If you are the one guy who tackles the scout … you will see the whole EVE blogosphere light up with news about the battle you were in, because it significantly changed the politics and economics of the game for everyone. And that’s really cool.
But if you don’t want to be a tiny cog in a very large gear (even if it’s a meaningful cog), you’d better have a great idea or know the right people. There isn’t really a sandbox element to Eve other than the way that all of the territory is player controlled, so you can’t make your name creatively by building something unique (like in Second Life or Galaxies). Still, Eve’s model is one that I really would like to see more of.

It worries me that the game is mostly perceived by mainstream gaming as a niche product, because it needs to be imitated. If somebody with real commercial clout did a time-based leveling game, it could work. Just make sure you give the players enough tools and content to distract themselves from the fact that they aren’t pulling groups of Spotted Vulriches over and over. They might just wind up doing something entertaining.

What are we left with?

In the end, I can appreciate the necessity of leveling systems, as opposed to simply giving us all the content at once.The first reason is obviously good design. Unless you’re a full-bore sandbox game, you can’t open things up that wide. At least not in any way that I can see. Players need to feel a sense of progress during their long stays in any virtual world. That is not a bad thing.

The second reason is, of course, that you devs need us to keep subscribing. How else do you pay for your five-year development cycle? Is it an accident that the most innovative MMO of recent years is modestly scaled? In an industry that only rewards big hits, they had to do it that way. They could never have maintained a bigger infrastructure, because players simply weren’t used to titles like that. CCCP never fooled themselves into thinking that Eve could be mass-market.

I’m getting into game economics, and that will be a separate post. But I’m going to continue beating this Eve horse (wow, there’s a horrible thought) because I can’t stress enough that traditional grinding needs to be phased out. As an adult, I don’t wish to spend all my in-game time repetitively. I won’t. It gives me hives. Time-based leveling is an alternative. Both of us get what we need.

I wracked my brain while writing this, but couldn’t come up with any major alternative to the two leveling strategies I have named. Sure, perhaps there are some hybrids between them. But nothing that is clearly a viable third category. As I mentioned, there is PVP leveling. but it is genre-specific and hasn’t been used much in games that have real MMO-style depth. Planetside did it, but that game doesn’t have the scope of a true MMO. Huxley will do it, and hopefully that game will be released. Warhammer Online will incorporate it, and I’m very interested to see how that works out.

In the meantime, I’m open to suggestions. I hope that all 17 of our readers comment and tell me exactly what I’m missing here. I’m very open to the alternatives, as long as they don’t involve killing 500 Vampire Wombats.


jeffe said...

Bravo. You just gave me 20 more things to write about.

Mason said...

Nice work Krib. Reading your post reminding me about how much I really did enjoy OG Galaxies. The leveling was never boring, trying out templates was a blast, and there were enough carrots in the skill trees to make it fun. It's too bad you never played lineage 2...

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