Where’s the Beef?

I was dreaming about computer games again. I was not asleep at the time, but that’s no matter because my thoughts were about as far from reality that computer game makers will ever dare to tread.  I’ve asked around to some of my mmorpg playing friends for their thoughts so I thought I would also do the same with the rest of you.


If you recall from an earlier post, I don’t play mmorpg’s anymore because none cater to me as an infrequent player.  Which is silly because a player like me would still pay the monthly fee but hardly ever suck down any cpu time.  You’d think that would be how you maximized profit.  Still, sometimes I wonder what it is that keeps me away other than not having enough time in the day to participate at a useful level.  My earlier post made the point that I just did not play enough to advance through much if any of the content of the game.  But now that I think about it, these games don’t have content.  None at all.  And I guess that’s what keeps me from booting up.


I know that may be a shocker to some of the actual game designers out there.  I’m not disparaging the incredible work that goes into the art, the client, the server, the general game mechanics, et al.  It’s just that the actual content, the itty bitty dribbles of plot injected primarily as ‘quests’ leave a lot to be desired.  It’s not that they are bad per say, just that they are either too little or too inconsequential.


How can this be so?  Well, for one, there are generally a few thousand people on your server at anyone time that have already accomplished that particular quest.  If somehow you ignore the websites with all the secrets revealed, ignore all the chit-chat discussing the how-to’s and what-for’s and really, truly try to go it alone, you usually still end up in some dungeon somewhere trying to complete a task with a hoard of other players already in the process of doing the same.  You can’t close your eyes.  You can’t help but complete it without much mental effort, following the lead of everyone else.  With everything already solved, your only real challenge is your deft finger clicking. These games devolve into level-quests, where the players rabidly click on the mouse button in rapid-fire motions, drooling uncontrollably, waiting for the pellets to drop.  This is not content; it’s just random conditioned response.


A real game is something that continues to challenge.  I’m not a chess player but I’ll use an analogy to it.  You might think the ‘content’ of a game of chess is the set of rules that make up the game.  It is not.  The rules define the playing field, not the challenge.  The challenge is the other player.  If you are under matched, you will trounce the other player and will have no fun.  An online mmorpg without real content is like playing a chess game against a toddler.  Because you are not competing against one another except for bragging rights.  You are playing against the pre-canned quests that are easily analyzed by thousands of players.


It is incredible irony that you are actually playing a game with thousands of other actual people all at the same time and are not truly challenged by any one of them.  Sure there are things like player-versus-player combat.  But this is hardly a challenge.  It generally goes to the player with the most beefed up character.  Some games encourage mass battles against teams of players, defend a stronghold or lay siege to one.  This goes a little way toward making the game a tad interesting, but its just a combat simulator with no real twist or turn except for which particular spell the enemy casters will employ.


What we really need is an online game that puts the control of content into the hands of the players directly.  Imagine a MMORPG that is like a massively multiplayer version of Dungeon Keeper, where individual players (given some status) are actually capable of hollowing out hills, building dungeons, deploying traps, fielding monsters and hiding treasures.  Of course, this would all cost the building player in-game monies or equivalent to be able to do this.  But think of it.  There would be an endless supply of original content, challenges posed by players against other players.  “Hey, I bet you can’t take on my keep.  It is killer!”  “The first one to the bottom wins the burning sword of neputopia!”  Maybe the builders earn points depending on how many heroes fail at the task. 


This kind of challenge would solve the PVP pettiness that plagues most online worlds.  Challenges would be set, but players would still have to choose to take them on.


Now that would be something.




Comments (7)

  1. Ivan Towlson says:

    Have you seen Richard Bartle’s book "Designing Virtual Worlds"? One of the things he talks about is player-originated content, though he thinks of it mainly in terms of the "elder game." He does identify quite a few implementation issues in terms of content quality, intellectual property and so on. Well worth a look.

    That aside, I agree with your take on MMORPGs — so much potential, turned into a repetitive mechanical rat race. The amount of intrigue, variety and depth of challenge you could have with thousands of players is unbelievable. And what do we get? Reheated Fantasy Setting Number 18 with cookie-cutter characters and computer-moderated generic dungeon bashes. Bah.

  2. Daniel Jin says:

    MMORPGs in the market today are nothing more than a fancied up version of MUD on those old BBS boards. keystrokes are replaced by mouse clicks, scrolling text replaced by colorful graphics, but they are essentially the same thing. I agree, game designers can only do so much with original content. to overcome this limitation, the control has to be put into the gamers’ hands to generate endless content. provide a rich backdrop, throw everyone into one big world instead of these parallel shards or zones or whatever they are called in different games, and let the players make up the story for each other. easier said than done though.

  3. Scott says:

    Daniel, I disagree to a certain extent. I think the current MMORPGs are even LESS interactive than the old MUDs. If you played some MUDs enough you were eventually given enough access to design certain parts of the world. Effectively putting the inmates in charge of running the asylum. This was great! Plus the fact that there wasn’t any graphical content, or if there was it was viewed offline, meant that the players had to use their imagination more. This lent itself to lots of in-game story creation.

    The only games I’ve seen that let the users build and DM their own worlds have been the Vampire:The Masquerade game that came out a while back and NeverWinter Nights. While neither of them can be seen as MMORPGs, they do at least allow for lots of re-playabilty and user driven story creation. I’ve heard that you can create a persistent world with NWN, but I haven’t logged on to any to see what they are like.

  4. Valorie Osterman says:

    I think what you say is pretty true. However, I must say that I find playing Asheron’s Call really neat. I’ve been playing since it started (3 years ago? Maybe 4?) and I still mostly play the first character I ever rolled. Some months I play 100+ hours and some months I play 4 hours, but since content is updated every month, something is different every time I play. Even old dungeons get revamped every year or so. There are many people who do the whole "play a gazillion hours, only play the most powerful character in the game" thing but they are like an oil fire: burn intensely and then they are gone.

    The really big thing for me that makes AC special is that the developers actually listen to the player base. That doesn’t mean they don’t do things everyone says they’ll hate, but if, after we try it we still don’t like it, they frequently modify or remove the feature. The developers work hard to balance cool stuff between powerlevelers and casual players, and between individual players and group players.

    AC will be a difficult game to follow in my eyes.

  5. I’ve posted a response to this entry in my own Blog, here: http://www.thespoke.net/MyBlog/BHPaddock/MyBlog.aspx

    Let me know what you think!

  6. damien morton says:

    I used to GM role-playing games akin to dungeon master; one player would be given a certain amount of resources to design a dungeon, while the other players would plumb said dungeon.

    I havent played MMO games very much, prefering to play FPS games such as BF1942. I did, however, play Planetside for about 6 months. What was interesting is that Planetside, in the period of 6 months, managed to release a very small amount of content (two vehicles, really) compared to the various mods for BF1942. Admittedly, we are talking about 2 different games, but Planetside is billed as a massively multiplayer FPS while BF1942 is an FPS with a massive amount of players.

    What I realized is that no companies creative department can possibly compete with the imagination and creative capabilities of a community of players measured in the tens of thousands. I can picture a truly innovative MMO company which dedicated itself to guiding and seeding the creatvity of its players, rather than trying to control them. A difficult and dangerous path to take, but possibly no more dangerous than limiting the creative potential of a game for the sake of simple control.

  7. The Younger Brother says:

    God help me gain the strength to stop playing Asheron’s Call. I too have been playing this bloody game for 4+ years. The only difference between AC and crack is that AC only costs $12.95 a month.

    Valorie I don’t agree with your assessment of AC and I think it actually falls right into the bleakness of MMORPG’s that Matt talks about. Sure they add content every month, but there is nothing random or unique about it. It is fixed for everyone and within hours of new content being released a majority if not all has been mastered to the extend you can read all about it on a cheat site. People actually attempt to get recognition for being the first one to post all the ins and outs of new content before anyone else.

    If a quest or new content is really overly hyped before the servers are updated you can bet for the first week the new dungeon or quest will be camped which makes it by far too simply to complete with many people all playing follow the leader.

    Then after you do the new content in the first day or two after the update you’re pushed back into nothingness for another month until the next pellet pops out of a hole in the wall and you repeat the process.

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve done the same quest over and over with absolutely no variance between each run. The only difference might be with the people I fellow with during the quest.

    What is missing from AC is the ability for the community to effect the game. People need to be able to create content or at a minimum alter the landscape. Towns should be able to grow from nothing while old ones rot away. Caves and tunnels could be dug and through magic, critters could be conjured up to protect rooms or areas outside.

    I think there needs to be a radical shift in the way MMORPG’s are designed. A step away from the fixed creation or towns, dungeons, quests, treasure, weapons, and armor to a more free form world where the people do all the creation and all the game designer really does is provide the resources and game dynamics to make it all happen.

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