Tuesday, August 5, 2014

MMO Guilt

I often try to make distinctions, mostly imagined distinctions, between new and old schools of play in MMOs. One of the areas where I see this break is in the realm of MMO guilt.  The old school player picks a single game and plays it exhaustively, and any time spent on any other game represents time lost from his first love.  He perceives himself "falling behind."

 Justin and Bree were talking about this recently on the Massively podcast and it made sense of what I sometimes feel.  


The Tyranny of the Main

For the MMO player, the currency of the game is more often time than it is money.  One of the reasons why players didn't play more than one MMO might be this feeling that they were taking time away from their main characters, who could be that much more awesome if the player were exclusively focused on them.  Twelve to fourteen month dead zones were times for players to catch up on anything they hadn't completed in the current expansion, usually things that were perhaps more boring and often repetitive.

In the Post-WoW era, the question is turned around completely.  The new understanding is that I'm only going to play this game as long as it's interesting, and that gives the developers a finite window in which to require me to do things.  A six-month reputation grind for an obscure faction probably isn't getting done before that window closes and players move on to more exciting gameplay.

The new school has replaced MMO guilt with MMO expectations.  Players have options and the burden is on the writers to make their games compelling, not on players to find something to do.

Investment and commitment

Of course, in this war of escalation the developers can also say, "That's fine.  This reward is only for the truly dedicated" but in doing so they are risking that players will gradually become less and less invested in their game.  Investment says that players who put significant effort into a game are more likely to put additional effort into that same game, so as not to "lose" the effort they've already committed.  MMO guilt makes them keep playing to continue to justify the hours already played.

But player investment is balanced by game reward.  It isn't only hours played, but rewards earned that tie players to games.  If developers put more and more rewards out of the players' reach, players realize that they aren't giving up all that much by leaving.  In other words, they feel less guilt at the thought of leaving.

When I only lived in WoW, it made sense to make sure I got all the cool stuff that it had to offer.  But the more I follow the lives of other characters -- experience other MMO narratives -- the less I absolutely have to have the latest bells and whistles, and the less that MMO guilt has a hold on me.  Developers have to walk a fine line between devaluing things by making them too easy, and overvaluing things by making them cost too much time so that the player doesn't even bother.

The other thing that ameliorates MMO guilt is what I call "saturation."  Very simply, if the game only has 25 mounts and I've got them all, I'm going to be well motivated to get any new mount that becomes available.  On the other hand, when I reached up over 100 mounts on tap in the mount interface, I just didn't feel the same need to obtain that 101st one.  The same thing is true for me with regard to pets, faction rep, and a whole host of other things.  The endorphin response is saturated.

MMO guilt is a tool developers use to manipulate players into staying loyal to a particular game.  In the new era of broad gamer choice that power is diminishing, and that is a good thing.

This is my fifth installment in the Blaugust challenge to post once a day for the 31 days of August.

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