I am going to put forth a theory today in the Vague Patch Notes column. It is potentially an odd theory, and as sometimes happens, it is not a theory I have thoroughly workshopped or even a theory I am wholly convinced is accurate. But it’s an interesting theory to consider, and I think it merits chewing on for a bit.
For starters, at the core of the vast majority of MMOs is some sort of combat system. This is not inherently surprising or even all that weird. If we look at MMOs as fundamentally meant to simulate heroic fiction (frequently in the fantasy genre), well, most of those stories are in no small part about people with sharp bits of metal going off to meet lots of interesting people and kill some of them with the aforementioned sharp bits of metal. And a lot of MMOs stop there.
But what makes an MMO any good is all of the stuff that has little to nothing to do with that narrative. A good combat system is good, but if you don’t combine a good combat system with good writing and good group content, your MMO isn’t going to rise above a niche title.
“Well, that’s obviously not true,” you say to your monitor for whatever reason. “There are a lot of games that are intensely shallow in various ways, like Elyon and Star Wars: The Old Republic, and those games have or had crafting and stuff, so obviously side content wasn’t enough for them!”
And you’re right! These games have other side activities. But I want you to think a little bit about those games, and since it took me five minutes to remember what Elyon’s name even was and I never played it all that much, I’m going to pick on SWTOR here. That game I do know, and if you know it, I want you to tell me: How do you play through a planet in that game?
The answer is pretty simple. You land on a planet and get a cutscene. You are then directed to either a central hub or the first area to explore. There, you get an overview of the main story of this planet and what your specific class is trying to accomplish. You go to an area and kill everything you need to, sometimes going to the next area, where you have to choose between precisely three options (“be stupidly nice,” “be inoffensively generic,” “be a rampant jerk for no reason”) and watch the cutscene play out. Continue until you reach the end of the hallway, at which point you go to the next one. Repeat until you’ve saved/ruined the planet. Back to the ship now.
Back in the day, you would also pick up a bunch of sidequests with no real story or overall impact. These days, you don’t even have to bother with that because the designers realized those sidequests were boring, and so they just made them optional. Probably the right choice, but still.
Once you are done with a planet, you are truly done with it. You don’t even need to go back to an old area to farm materials; you can just send extra companions to go get old materials if you didn’t find enough for crafting. This is also how crafting happens. Everything is set up to allow you to do as little pointless side content yourself as possible, leading to you just following a pretty line and then finding out that oh, neat, my companion brought back a rare material I can make into a new thing, that’s fun.
Heck, you can’t even really just freely explore these zones. Taris is a series of small little squares scooped out of a larger map. Even if you wanted to go exploring, you really can’t. Sure, you have side activities, but it is difficult if not impossible to avoid the sense that those side activities exist only because it would feel weird if the game didn’t have these side activities. Why is there crafting? Well, MMOs need crafting. What’s the emotional investment in crafting? Who cares.
By contrast, City of Heroes launched without crafting. Heck, it launched with nothing but missions that involved going somewhere and beating the stuffing out of criminals. A lot of the time, the best way to level just involved turning on a random mission generator and taking on random missions. And yet the game did stick to the ribs because, well… every single zone had its own enemies, its own feel, and its own stories to explore. Beyond broad level ranges, you could do them in whatever order you wanted.
And when it did get crafting, you got a real sense that the crafting had been produced with an eye toward making an interesting and deep crafting system where your actions mattered. You wanted to go farming certain enemy groups to get the materials you needed. It added in the ability for players to make their own missions.
In other words, when you feel as if your progress is bespoke on some level, that everything is a diversion, then your experience feels richer.
I’ve been thinking about this a bunch as I look back at games that have successfully stuck to the ribs. The original Guild Wars had a single strict narrative to follow, yes… but it had a whole world to explore, other quests that were vital for skills, and perhaps most importantly it made leveling so perfunctory that it was easy to not even realize as you were doing it. “Oh, look at that, I’m level 20 already. Time to focus on my build and collect new skills.” It did not have a straight line you had to follow or a straight line with a couple of optional detours that you’d never take because the straight line was more efficient anyway. You didn’t even have to play the relatively linear storylines in order!
And then I think about games that have slowly eroded their diversions. I think about how World of Warcraft was on the cusp of morphing into a game that didn’t really care how you earned gear with a variety of means to get the currencies for tier sets, crafted enhancements and items that people wanted and had utility, and various daily minigames… that slowly flattened all of that to channel players into the narrow path that the vanilla game had always had but hadn’t successfully locked in.
I think about the fact that as I write this, I’m playing Final Fantasy XIV sitting in a zone devoted wholly to minigames because I want to earn the currency for a mount, not because it’s the only way to get a mount (I have like 50 mounts) but because I want this one, and my entire play session today hasn’t actually involved killing anything. No dungeons, no raids, just jumping and dodging and playing a rail shooter and playing a card game to earn currency.
Then I have to think for five minutes to remember what Elyon was even called. I’m sure players liked it, and I’m sure it was someone’s favorite game, but at the same time it just did not stick out in my memory at all – because it didn’t have diversions. It didn’t have a reason for me to just go do what I wanted. It was always, from start to finish, a pretty line.
Those things feel like linked clauses when you lay it out like that.