Vague Patch Notes: Mandatory content and game design in MMOs

Gusts 'n' stuff

Let me tell you about my second roommate in college. He was named Kyle, and he was benefiting from the fact that I had a PlayStation 2 (which tells you a lot about when this was happening.) Whether or not he derived any benefit from the existence of my Metal Gear Solid 2 demo disc, on the other hand, was debatable because he did not understand the game in the slightest.

To Kyle, MGS2 was one of the most difficult action games he had ever played. He struggled to make any progress as he got into enormous firefights with soldiers at every opportunity, and he once wondered aloud how you were ever supposed to get anywhere in the game with this many enemies and such lethality in their shots. My explanations that this was not how you were supposed to play the game, that it was entirely geared around avoiding fights at all costs, fell on deaf ears. Kyle had decided what he wanted to do with playing the game, and no matter how hard the game insisted that he needed to be sneaky, he was going to rush forward shooting people.

He never did beat the demo.

I’m starting with that example because I assume basically everyone reading this knows that there is a right way and a wrong way to play MGS2, and what I am describing is indisputably the wrong way. The game tells you this repeatedly and then will gladly stonewall your progress unless and until you start learning how to hide and at least make some efforts to stealth around or at least run away. This game is going to force you into stealth whether you like it or not.

Do you dislike that gameplay loop? Then quite frankly, you are going to dislike MGS2. It’s not forcing you into playing that way because Hideo Kojima found it funny to watch players walk into gunfire. It’s telling you what the game is going to be right up front, and if you don’t like that in the first couple of screens, you are not going to be having fun if you clear the tanker and get to the Big Shell and are confronted by more things you don’t like.

All of this is taking the long way around to discussing something that MOP’s Bree brought up in a recent Daily Grind about MMOs forcing you to play certain kinds of content. I realized that my response to that was, well, a column’s length of writing because the truth is that I don’t think it’s a bad thing necessarily. The question is when you’re being forced to do something, why, and what that communicates.

By way of an example, let’s talk about The Secret World.

I realize that in this article I raise the prospect of someone liking the combat in any version of The Secret World, which is really quite funny.

Very early on in TSW, you are going to be forced to do investigation missions. These are missions where the solution is found not by killing seven zombie rats but by collecting clues, thinking for a bit, and then using that to solve a puzzle. (Or by just looking up the solution online, but that’s a different issue and not germane to this discussion.) Some people are going to see that and think that it’s really cool when you have to search phonebooks and in-game lore to ascertain your next objective, and some people are going to look at that and immediately decide that this is boring and dumb.

The people in that latter group might get annoyed that the game is forcing you to do this content when they aren’t interested in it, but the thing is that this is the game. This is a core part of what makes TSW itself. Right at the start of the game you are being told that you should expect some of the game’s content to have little to no relation to killing stuff and a lot of relation to thinking out a solution to a puzzle.

If you don’t find that fun? Well… get off the ride now, friend, because while it’s valid not to like that, it is definitely a core part of the game, and it says so upfront.

Far from being bad design, I consider this good design. The game is telling you right away that this is a core feature of the game, and if you don’t enjoy it at the start, you’re not going to suddenly start enjoying it after the next few dozen times. This is the game. If you don’t like your movies full of weird characters with quirky interplays talking a lot, you don’t watch films by the Coen brothers; if you don’t like hamburgers, you don’t go to Five Guys; and if you don’t like puzzle missions, you don’t play TSW.

By contrast? Let’s look at WildStar, which also definitely had an intended play path. Players were expected to do the raids, which were led into by dungeons. And the game told you this… at the level cap, after you could easily have played the entire game and gotten invested in playing without ever jumping into a dungeon. The first dungeon I did in WildStar was so miserably unfun that I never did another one while leveling because it was optional.

Only… it wasn’t optional. Again, this was the expected arc of the game. Sure, there was some open-world content I could repeat – I could do some crafting – but I was expected to get in there and do dungeons to unlock raids. And if that had been mandatory at level 15, I would have left the game around then because it would have been clear that I’m just not going to enjoy the game.

So here's the deal.

You might note that this is a bad outcome and that it would lead to more people leaving the game. But therein lies the problem: WildStar had dungeons that were tuned too high and weren’t fun to play. That is the problem. Instead of fixing these issues and making things easier, the designers decided to hide them by not making this content mandatory until you slam up against it at the maximum level.

Do I mind when an MMO forces me to do a certain sort of content? It depends. If that content is introduced at a reasonably early point and is, in fact, a core feature of the game? I’m fine with it and generally thankful. Sure, there’s no assurance that I will actually enjoy it, but if the endgame is sniping other people in no-security PvP zones and I have to be exposed to that early on, I’m going to think much more fondly on the game. If I don’t want that to be my gaming experience, but you’re telling me up front that I won’t enjoy that, then we have no issues.

But if the game is forcing me to do content when it hadn’t for the entirety of the game up to this point? When it’s decided that the time to tell me what it wants to be is “after you are hopefully already invested?” That says to me that the developers know what they have on offer isn’t very good or fun. And that’s what I have an issue with.

Or, in other words: It’s not the endgame itself; it’s the sudden shift at the end.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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