A few months ago, The Outline ran a piece on Red Dead Redemption 2 titled I don’t wanna do my video games chores, and holy heck did that ever resonate with me. Author Joe Veix enumerates all the petty chores that his character is expected to do, from bathing and brushing his horse to buying groceries and eating beans.
“This is the standard experience of playing a so-called Real World Game, which other than RDR2 includes games like Horizon Zero Dawn (2017), and No Man’s Sky (2016) before the developers actually made it interesting. It’s a genre that prizes size over depth. It’s usually open-world, pretty easy to play, has a medium-length main quest that’s typically bolstered by an endless series of pointless side quests and collecti-quests (Collect every trophy! Capture every animal! Step on every plant!) to bolster its total playtime. A Real World Game also prizes supposed verisimilitude at the expense of fun.”
The thing is, in both single-player sandboxes and MMO sandboxes, sometimes the “chores” are what make games feel so realistic in the first place, as opposed to Yet Another Lockbox-Bedecked Looter Shooter. So how do developers synthesize the desire to feel realistic with the boredom of realism? For this week’s Massively Overthinking, I’ve asked our writers to reflect on the problem from a conceptual standpoint and consider how their favorite MMO “chores” avoid it.
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): At least for me, it’s easier when the game feels like the chores lead to something social. For example, I can be a gatherer in a themepark mmo and have fun if all my mats are suiting up my guildmates in an efficient way regular mob grinding can’t.
Sandboxes do this better in my opinion as the warrior types lose or break their gear and have to choose between fighting or crafting. Darkfall and survival games like Conan Exiles especially help to highlight this with world building, as crafters can literally house and feed you so you can fight, and enemy players are drawn to your crafter friends so they can skip their own chores.
However, it’s also really easy these days to get killed and give up on these games because there’s so many. As odd as it sounds, Animal Crossing often handles chores better. You can slowly accumulate foreign fruit, water your flowers, or hope to find a new fossil for your museum, or help/trade with friends.
While many Facebook games try to do this as well, Animal Crossing also features the ability to create pixel art that can be displayed or even worn, which increases customization and attracts art types who can help support the social types. Sadly, warrior types have nothing to do in AC. ArcheAge felt like it had it all until it changed its business model and felt mishandled by some of the publishers.
Andy McAdams: It’s interesting to me because those little things are what really ‘sell’ the game for me. While somewhat subjective, I think chores in games need to add to the experience. For example, in WoW having to craft my own rogue poisons and apply felt good and meaningful – it added to immersion in the world and helped me suspend disbelief but did it in such a way that it also added to my experience of playing a rogue. On the other hand, not many games deal with the chore of what it’s like to need to use the restroom in the middle of the woods because while it might add the immersion and suspension of disbelief, it definitely wouldn’t add to my experience of playing the character.
I think it also needs to be a light touch kinda thing. Chores are at most, a slight diversion from whatever else you want to be doing. If you make the chore to onerous to maintain, people are going to be annoyed that they spend more time off doing stupid chores than they do just enjoying the game. I think the rogue poisons worked for me because I had to *think* about having them, and had to remember to go buy them or craft them. That was really it. For the most part it was super light touch, just flavor — except when I forgot and I’d go to add a poison and not have it. Suddenly… things weren’t quite so happy. That was a fun feeling, forgetting to the chore and adjusting what I was doing to meet with my forgetfulness.
tl;dr – It needs to add to the experience (pooping in the woods doesn’t add to my MMO experience), and it needs to be light touch to be good.
- Worst: Chores that exist first and foremost to waste my time, either to keep me subbing or encourage me to buy something from a cash shop. A lot of the more pointless MMO travel falls into this category, but I think lengthy boat rides and multiple hops on starships to get where you’re going sum it up.
- Grrr: Chores that are just a design kludge. Having to find an NPC to level up, change your difficulty modes, get new spells, or adjust your costume is really not strictly necessary, even if it’s easier to build it that way.
- Sigh: Chores that focus on realism is in the service of actual immersion. Fine, we need wood to make fire and water to make soup. Fine, we need to stable our horses.
- OK: Chores that balance the economy. OK, it really does need to take a week of work and time to bake enough food to feed an entire PvP army. Yes, the entire armorcrafting profession would be broken if gear didn’t decay.
Unlike the author of The Outline’s piece, though, I am much more likely to accept immersiony chores in single-player games. I will put in Elder Scrolls mods, for example, that create proper fast travel for when I want it, but I don’t always use it. And I often run mods that improve the eating experience, add sleeping requirements, and make horses realistic. But that tends to be why I’m in a single-player RPG in the first place: to waste time roleplaying on my own terms. MMOs, by contrast, use time as their primary commodity, so I don’t appreciate when they waste mine without my permission unless they have a really good reason.
Now if you need me, I’ll be out back tending my factories. I can’t let the SWG Legends PvPers go hungry.
Mia DeSanzo (@neschria): I used to hate anything that felt like chores. For instance, if some quest required me to raise a crafting skill, I would drag my feet like a 12-year-old going to clean their room. I still resent having to build a base in No Man’s Sky in order to unlock tech.
But when I log into a game like Black Desert Online, I usually have a long to-do list, and I enjoy checking things off that list. I joke that I have to brew beer for my workers so that they will farm the wheat I need to brew beer for my workers. That is true, but I have an army of workers producing a lot of different materials. Is it a chore? I think it is by definition, but I enjoy it.
Of course, I also loved playing The Sims, which is entirely built around making your little people literally do chores. I always thought that was a strange concept, but if you are the type that likes to check things off your list, I guess it makes sense.
If it feels like I am being forced to do something that is not fun for me so that I can unlock fun things, I resent it. If I signed onto the game for the chores, I enjoy them.
But I think one way that a game may avoid it is to “gameify” it a bit. I know that sounds funny – gameify chores in a video game. We might be going full Inception now. Here’s what I mean, though: If I need to plant a garden to yield some crops that the local magic-man needs before he teaches me magic missle, the game needs to somehow make that fun. I don’t want to log in, get a bucket, fill it with water, dump it on the veggies, and then move on. Rinse and repeat every day for a week. Make it somehow interesting. Minigames where the better you do, the better the water you get is and the quicker those plants grow. I know, better water – but it’s a game we can have magic imbued better water!
Tyler Edwards: I’ve never been someone to crave realism in my games. I play them to escape reality. So in-game chores mostly just feel like, uh, chores to me. I’d rather be slaying dragons and talking to NPCs than worrying about when my character ate last. I think the closest I’ll come is that I do like the idea of gathering and crafting being a viable way to earn all of your gear, or maybe even the only way.
I like Sam’s mini-game idea, too. WoW’s farm in Pandaria was a bit like that, and I enjoyed tending it, at least for while.