Vague Patch Notes: The power of the middle bit in MMOs


I knew that Tales of Arise wasn’t really working for me like its immediate predecessor when I started kind of avoiding combat.

Now, to a certain extent this is a smart thing to do in the game. You do actually have resource management to worry about between fights, so unlike Tales of Berseria, Arise is a game where you kind of don’t want to get into fights just for the heck of it. But you obviously don’t want to avoid all combat or you’ll be underleveled, so I wasn’t running from fights or anything. I just… put a little more effort into dodging combat when I could. It just felt like resource bleed I didn’t want. Because the combat just was not the fun part of the game, which felt like a pretty big problem.

I’m using this single-player game as an example because it is, in fact, a perfect display of a problem that can affect a lot of games – including MMORPGs. And it means talking about combat, crafting, gathering, and a whole lot of systems that we tend to talk about more as systems in and of themselves while overlooking the fact that these systems are not actually cordoned off from the rest of the game. They are, collectively, the middle bit of the games – and a lot happens in the middle bit.

The reason I’m using “the middle bit” is because it is an intentionally vague and dismissive term, and that ties into the point that I’m ultimately making here. When you get a new quest in an MMO, you have the introduction to what it is you need to do, and then you have running to the location. When everything is done you have the wrap-up text or cutscene or whatever and you get a reward. Everything between those two points is the middle bit.

For simple quests, the middle bit might be “running a few feet and then killing a dozen wolves before finishing it up.” Some longer quests (like Final Fantasy XIV and The Elder Scrolls Online both sport) will actually have a middle bit, then more explanation and chatter, then another middle bit, so on and so forth. The middle bit is, by definition, the part where you go and do something.

In particularly broad sandbox games, nearly all of the game is actually just the middle bit; you lack any specific reason for doing things, you’re just told to go do things. But you always have a middle bit. And if you say that my definition of “the middle bit” is broad enough to include basically all gameplay inside of it… well, yeah. That’s the point.

Because all gameplay is the middle bit. And we don’t tend to think about it that way.

It's an honor just to be nominated, maybe.

Let me use a more concrete example, and in a game I don’t talk about very often. Ryzom is a game I played briefly for Choose My Adventure ages ago, and it was one that I didn’t have a lot of praise for. This is despite the fact that, in the abstract, a lot of the stuff going on was interesting. Crafting, for example, has lots of bells and whistles and involved bits that I think is actually really cool! So why didn’t I like the game more?

Well, because crafting isn’t something I usually engage with just because I want to craft. It’s a middle bit. Many players dip into crafting because they want, say, a new sword. The start of this sequence is desiring a new sword. The end is having a new sword. And the middle is filled with so much nonsensical rigamarole and faffing about that feels so disconnected from the goal of I just want a new freakin’ sword. By the time I’m done, I don’t feel like I’ve had a fun time with the middle bit; I feel like I finally jumped through enough hoops that I get my sword.

Is everyone going to feel that way? Of course not! Everyone is different. One person’s boredom is another person’s delight. And there are a lot of times when we are willing to push through middle bits we find kind of boring in order to reach endings that we consider worthwhile. It’s why I used Tales of Arise as an example. Sure, the combat isn’t exactly as fun or engaging as Tales of Berseria, but it’s not bad. I recognize that it works. I like these characters and the game as a whole enough that it doesn’t stop me from playing.

But it sure as heck stops me from, say, wanting to clear everything possible in the game. This makes me want to minimize how much of the middle bit I have to deal with in order to get to the parts that I actually find fun. It puts the game on a knife’s edge, just all right enough to keep playing but not deeply engaging enough to make me eager to play more whenever I can.

And when you realize that these systems are the middle bit, you think about them a little bit differently.

But what awaits...

For example, I really liked the quest starts and the environments and such in The Secret World, but the middle bits? The part where I was fighting things or sneaking past things or using a handful of clues to figure out a riddle for four minutes before it became boring and I just searched for the answer? That part didn’t grab me. And that was most of the game. The amount of time I was spending on the fun parts didn’t match everything else.

By way of contrast, I generally find the story the least interesting part of Guild Wars 2. And it’s not something I usually need to focus too heavily on. Most of the game is the middle bit… but filling hearts can be annoying because the middle bit (filling the heart) can be repeating kind of tedious quests, not fighting things that give decent feedback and rewards or figuring out how to get to a vista or whatever.

Do I think GW2’s combat is the best out there? No, but it’s on the better side of good, and more often than not I cycle through each given encounter quickly enough that it never gets tedious. I don’t want to avoid the middle bits. There are a lot of ways that combat could be made more mechanically dense or more challenging, sure, but that’s looking at the system as a means unto itself rather than a middle bit you’re taking on to get through other content.

In some ways, it can be helpful to think of games as sequences of chores you have to finish up to get the next reward. Sure, that makes them sound unpleasant in a way, but that’s presuming that every chore isn’t fun. As I’ve mentioned before, I find it fun to cook. Cooking is technically a chore for me, the middle bit between “I want a meal” and “now I have food to eat.” But it’s something I enjoy doing on its own, so rather than feeling like the part before I get to the good stuff, it’s part of the good stuff.

And if a whole lot of people think the middle bit of your game is a boring slog? Well, then, you’re not going to have a game for long.

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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