Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Elder Grind and the Incredible Shrinking World

It’s like eating ice cream.  On most any occasion, ice cream is an excellent thing.  When you eat an ice cream cone after a hot day in the sun, it gives you a rush of exhilaration that refreshes you.  Sitting down to a banana split for the first time can be an eye-opening and very satisfying experience.

But, as usual, if you eat ice cream for a while, it becomes ordinary.  The rush is gone.   So you try to find ways to intensify the experience again.  You might give yourself a huge serving and try to eat a quart at a time, or crank up the intensity with a double fat Ben and Jerry’s chocolate espresso,  or eat it twice as fast, nearly inhaling it in your enthusiasm.  MMO participation, recently, has taken on these same qualities.

It’s like 7-Eleven on a hot day and trying to slam down a 44 oz Slurpee, but only ending up with a brain freeze.  Or worse, like a drug addict increasing the dose to get the same high.  People have leveled to end game in 20 hours or less.  And then complained about the resulting burn-out and let down when having reached it.  Soon, they are leaving to find another game so they can repeat the process.

There is nothing at endgame. Or rather, what’s at endgame is vastly different from the game that preceded it.  This is where things stop being like a novel and start being more like Mario. 

Ideally for me, when I play the questing game it is as if I am a character in a fantasy novel, living out the stories in each zone.  I'm experiencing the collaborative narrative that the player and the game designer make together. 

At end-game, however, this dynamic changes. You transition from the developing story slowly unwinding before you, to a place where you are mostly doing repetitive tasks:  grinding the same instances, raiding the same bosses, completing the same daily quests.  This mode of existence is more like an arcade game, repeating the same levels of Mario over and over, multiple times per week.  It’s like being required to play the same 5 levels of Angry Birds every day.  This is what bloggers mean when they refer to MMORPGs being “gamified”.  The balance has switched from Role Playing to Game.

And this is literally what many players said they wanted.  This is the logical result of disparaging the leveling and questing game as “grinding.”  They found it tedious to level yet another character to 90, and so Blizzard minimized that portion of the game.  Leveling became quick and easy.  Annoying challenges were removed, whole zones were rendered unnecessary.  Heirloom gear, referral bonuses, and now xp potions all conspire to accelerate your travel to end game and the elder grind.

There was a time when you could find characters of all levels within a guild, questing and exploring and grouping for mid-level dungeons.  Now, I would guess that 75% of active characters are at max level, and another 20% are the alts of max level players.  There’s no need for someone to ask the guild for help on a tricky quest, no need to ask advice on where to find this piece of armor or locate that herb.  You’ll outlevel this or that item in a matter of hours so why worry about it?

The overall effect of this is to compress the game into the singularity of the maximum level.  World of Warcraft, after 4 expansions, has vast spaces to travel but the actual size of the game has become smaller.  Our collective vision has narrowed to a few capital cities and a few zones in Pandaria.  Nothing else really matters.  And this is true even as I try to level new characters.  Crickets and tumbleweeds are my only companions in Netherstorm or Grizzly Hills or Deepholm.  And even I find myself returning to the capitals periodically.  New starting areas are now once-only zones, restricted to specific races.

Instead of playing World of Warcraft, I'm really playing a game called Mists of Pandaria.   Rather than an expansion, it is more truly a sequel.

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