That MMO “Feeling” – What’s Missing? A Purpose? What’s My Motivation?

Destiny's Edge + 1

Ever had a thought that just refuses to lay down and die?

It rattles around in your brain, tossing and turning, gnawing and worrying while you spend days trying to pin it down and articulate it to some degree.

It began with Syl’s post about a lack of purpose in our MMOs of today.

There was something to it, especially in regards to Landmark needing to link some kind of functionality and give reasons to do their various activities (for certain subsets of players anyway, who don’t seem to find the existing framework motivating enough), but it sounded… off. Not quite right. Especially when extrapolated in a general sense.

Further questioning in the comments revealed that Syl meant something like a “shared purpose.” A united vision, a commonality of purpose across players, to work hand-in-hand towards… something.

Be it taking down a raid boss together, or perhaps contributing towards building a project in Glitch (RIP Glitch 😦 ) or a monument in a Tale in the Desert, or maybe even Tarnished Coast and Jade Quarry’s dastardly goal of making sure Blackgate doesn’t just easy mode cruise into a WvW Season 2 win. 😛

Then it continued on across various Reddit and forum posts trying to express why some players really want to like GW2 but can’t seem to deal with the leveling process.

There’s no reason for it, they say. No purpose. Something’s missing, and it’s just not lack of direction or guidance. They’re running from one point of interest to another, connecting the dots, but somehow feeling disconnected with the world. Like there’s no story for the players to be the center of and our characters just wind up around the periphery clearing wasps and helping groups of NPCs do something or other.

Personally, I never had that problem when the game first launched. Everything was new and shiny and unfamiliar. There was something AWESOME to see around every corner, and something novel and cool to discover. Even after hitting level 80, I held back on 100% world completion for a long time because I was terrified by the thought of officially consuming all the content and making the world familiar. Known. Habitual. Boring.

In the lull between Living Story seasons, I have been taking my time and leveling a charr engineer the old fashioned way. While I’m still having no problems keeping apace with levels, probably because I kill everything and am not above popping a food and wrench (20%), and occasionally a 50% XP booster to go with the 18% account bonus from achievements, I started feeling…

…what’s the word… Bored, maybe.

Like something was missing.

In my case, I suspected that I was meta-gaming way too much. I’ve seen all these maps before, several times. I know their schtick and what the NPCs are up to in each of them. I could probably find each jumping puzzle entrance unaided by a wiki, going from memory alone. The personal story from the orders on is SO SO DONE before.

Always on my mind is the possibility that I could log in on one of five other level 80s to do something -else-, and by god, are there a lot of something -elses- to do in GW2 – world bosses, TTS runs, WvW, a dungeon, gather or farm stuff, etc.

Except that I’ve also repeated a bunch of these activities… if they’re not quite to the point of being nauseating, they’re at least to the point of “having been done before.”

Strangely enough, a temporary cure for this malaise was serendipitously found when I saw the “Fear Not This Night” video and decided to watch a series of all its Youtube variants in the other screen while I went around leveling.

Between the stirring music and watching all the fantastical cutscenes and incredible art and rekindling that sense of potential GW2 had when it was new, I think I recreated some of that sense of wonder and awe that I personally CRAVE like a thirsting man needs water.

theworldisjustawesome

I started feeling more like a hero, more immersed into the world again, rather than my character acting as Tool #6 for Future Experimentation with AoE Spam in WvW and Condi Builds in PvP.

There was still one more thing missing though.

And this was where I really started missing the Living Story. It was -hard- to find a story, a linear narrative that my character could get involved in.

In GW1, this was front and center. Every story mission you went on, there was this one big overarcing story that we traced.

In GW2, the stories are fractured and scattered. Yes, I could chase the Personal Story. It’s the most linear narrative we have. It’s spread out geographically though, and with level gaps that enforce pauses and breaks in between.

I could do dungeons and follow Destiny’s Edges’ story – assuming I don’t get kicked out of impatient PUGs for daring to watch cutscenes – but again, the story is broken up by dungeons and levels. Anyway, we know the story. They squabble a lot. Our character tells them they’re being idiots. They eventually wise up, kiss and make up.

The open world itself has teeny tiny storylets that are unfortunately caught in time. They’re interesting, no doubt. I enjoy the Fields of Ruin for instance, the tension between the charr and the humans and the peace treaty and the characters that are still clinging on or struggling to get rid of old prejudices. But we can’t progress those stories in any meaningful fashion.

A narrative needs a beginning, middle and end. A line. Not a closed circle that continuously loops.

So I end up stuck waiting for the Living Story – our last, best hope for narrative in GW2.

Thing is, what’s missing for me, may not what’s be missing for you.

Which led to a fevered attempt to brainstorm motivations and reasons for why people play MMOs.

(Which has, of course, been attempted multiple times by others – some far more scientifically than me.)

In no particular order:

  • To feel like a hero – to be at the center of a story, or to be unique or stand out in some fashion, via prestigious cool-looking armor perhaps?
  • To feel like one is improving oneself, eg. via increasing stats or levels, or demonstrating competency via overcoming challenges
  • To be validated or acknowledged by one’s peers, eg. earning social respect via leadership or game skill, defeating others in a competition, etc.
  • To experience a shared purpose, commonality of goal, ‘teamwork’
  • For self-expression – customisation of a character and its looks, or to tell a story or build a home or express creativity in some other form
  • To experience a microcosm of life – MMO as a ‘flight simulator’ of life, test running and learning life lessons about social relationships and interacting with people within the game (a role also fulfilled by reading fiction or otherwise experiencing stories)
  • To feel like one is in a world – interconnectedness, have real people be doing stuff all around you or roleplaying, playing someone you’re not
  • To experience constant change and bursts of novelty, “new content”
  • To discover and learn new things
  • To master mechanics and optimize for efficiency
  • To experience a story – which segues nicely into the dev-created narrative or player-created narrative debate
  • To experience emotions, such as awe and wonder from seeing fantastic landscapes or large-scaled monsters in comparison to yourself (see WoW raid bosses and Shadow of the Colossus), or triumph and victory from defeating a difficult challenge, or a sense of belonging via falling in with a community of like-minded people

I’m sure there’s more.

And of course I noticed that a bunch of these were overlapping, so to speak, and I struggled to try and categorize them in some fashion.

We could fall back on Nick Yee’s main categories of Achievement, Social and Immersion.

Things to do with advancement, power, ambition, improving of self, mechanics and efficiency, perhaps competition might fall under Achievement.

Anything to do with belonging, relationships, player interaction, shared goals, teamwork and cooperation, perhaps even competition might fall under Social.

Immersion being the grab bag that then covers things like escapism, wonder, awe, curiosity, discovery, story-seeking.

Though we end up with a last hanging thread that I might end up terming as Self-Expression – being creative, enjoying customisation, being unique, storytelling and roleplaying (which overlaps onto Immersion), standing out (which overlaps back onto Achievement)

But then I noticed that maybe, just maybe… there was something even more universal at play here.

Note the many repeats of words like “feel” or “experience” or the various emotions that get named.

We say we play a game “for fun.”

We know that this “fun” means different things to different people, and we keep struggling to neatly delineate even more and more subcategories of “fun” in an attempt to get at what we’re really after.

Perhaps we’re really playing a game to feel -something.-

Preferably not boredom.

Many don’t like to feel anger or frustration in their games, but a few others do crave some of those negative emotions, if only to make the opposite emotion the sweeter when it finally arrives after a long struggle.

Different people crave certain feelings over others.

Different games feed certain feelings over others.

(GW2, as is, is pretty good in the Achievement and Social and Self-Expression categories – they keep pushing those agendas anyway, with a stress on cooperation and community organization rather than competition or elitist domination – but they’re kind of dropping the ball on the Immersion one and I think we’re seeing some of the repercussions in the recurring complaints about stories, lore, new zones, lack of caring about roleplaying, etc.)

If we end up feeling nothing or an overall lack of excitement in a game, that apathy becomes a problem which seems to eventually lead to the game being dropped.

Thing is, who’s in control here of our own emotions?

Do developers have a responsibility to entertain and feed us some of these emotions via their game design, since we’re choosing to play their game, after all?

Will it work if we ourselves are determined to not feel anything, having already been there and done that?

Perhaps an awareness that these things are in play is what we need to cross that divide of feeling and not-feeling.

At any time, perhaps we should be picking and choosing to play games (and do activities within a game) that do reward us with the feelings we’re craving.

It’s not a one-time life choice, after all.

We can swap them in and out like watching a comedy movie when we want to laugh and watching a horror movie when we want to be scared and thrilled.

We just need to remember to do it.

NBI: To Blog or Not to Blog – That is the Question

Breaking News: Grumpy old fart pandering for relinking and pageviews takes controversial stance on starting a new blog in 2014.

He advises: “Don’t. There’s more modern means to start a discussion. And you won’t become famous.”

Sure.

If you want a lively, quick firing, discussion comprising of short sentences – there’s Twitter, Reddit and various forums.

If you want to be famous, try Youtube videos, assuming you have the face, voice and personality for it.

However:

If you want a personal platform to pen your thoughts, express your opinions and practice writing…

… AND produce content that people at work can sneakily read so they aren’t bored out of their minds…

Then

BLOG.

This post was brought to you by the Newbie Blogger Initiative 2014: Decreasing Work Productivity by 8% Annually.

GW2: Why the Current Scarlet Fails As a Compelling Villain

Nope, she's not here either. Color me unsurprised.

Much has been said about the absurdity of her genius and the amount of suspension of disbelief required to take her seriously. We won’t rehash that argument today.

Her Harley Quin personality is a matter of personal taste. Again, not the key issue, despite it being a fond target for folks who simply dislike her.

In literature, the literary element conflict is an inherent incompatibility between the objectives of two or more characters or forces… The literary purpose of conflict is to create tension in the story, making readers more interested by leaving them uncertain which of the characters or forces will prevail.

Wikipedia on Conflict (narrative)

Herein lies the true problem.

What exactly is Scarlet’s objective?

We. Still. Don’t. Know.

Without this clarity, we do not have any CONFLICT.

Without conflict, there is no tension. No suspense. And no damn interest in the story.

Players cannot oppose Scarlet’s objectives if we don’t know what she’s up to. We can’t be the villain to her hero (or vice versa) if we have no clue as to her motivations.

 

scarletsmysteryobjective

We have to stop her! Apparently.

From doing what though? Dunno. Graffiting the landscape? Wait and see, I guess.

And she’s certainly not opposing us, is she?

Despite being supposedly set up as the villain of the Living Story.

After all, who exactly is the protagonist of the Living Story?

Is it us, the players?

We began with pretty much no objective. Our destiny was to be fighting dragons and we defeated Zhaitan (but stupidly forgot to burn or even check on the body.) On to the next dragon, right?

Mysterious things happen and our objective becomes find out what is going on. Obstacles set up in our path mostly involve wading through a sea of red names with no real setbacks and collecting a drip feed of information as the writers felt like giving them to us. Certainly, Scarlet wasn’t actively preventing us from finding out what was going on. She just stands around giggling, being mysterious and telling us it’s all going to plan, toodle-loo.

Somewhere along the line, most players’ objectives have converted to catch and beat the hell out of Scarlet and her minions because they’re bloody annoying.

While admittedly she remains elusive, thanks to deus ex Arenanet, players have been galloping along a wave of success with very little ups-and-downs (innumerable Molten facilities trashed, clone armies of Aetherblades farmed, Queen assassination attempt foiled, more rustbuckets left lying in pieces, giant krait tower strewn about the landscape in even more massive pieces, etc.)

Scarlet’s visible successes appears to be several new factions-of-the-month, a dead Lion’s Arch councilor whom we’d never heard of (promptly replaced by another), the removal of Faren’s clothing, and some homeless quaggans.

Oh, the villainy...
Oh, the villainy…

We cannot suffer a story setback if we have no clue what she’s gotten away with. She could be building a giant molten toxic twisted steam dragon golem airship in her super-secret base in the Mists for all we know.

After all, she’s gotten away with murder and graduating from three Asuran colleges. In her backstory. Behind-the-scenes. Read the website, thanks.

But without visible setbacks, there is no perceived threat or tension to the storyline.

Nor are we really uncertain which of the characters or forces will prevail here, right?

Game-wise, the player is bound to prevail eventually.

Story-wise, she -could- prevail, except we don’t even know what she’s prevailing over. We’re reaching the end of the story and we still have no bloody clue.

The best villains are those we can empathize with, almost get into their skin and understand. Their motivations are clear.

They may go about achieving their objective using very questionable means, which morally, the heroes are bound to oppose, but most don’t go about what they do for shits and giggles. They have a compelling need to do what they do.

Magneto believes the war of humans vs mutants is inevitable, and that homo superior will eventually win. He’s just hastening the process and defending his kind.

Hannibal Lecter is a super-intelligent and urbane sociopath who likes the taste of human flesh and doesn’t have moral compunctions against ridding the world of stupid and rude people.

To bring it back to Guild Wars examples, Vizier Khilbron sank an entire nation. Why? To stop the charr invasion. For his god and for power and eternal lichdom.

As for his god, Abaddon, well, nevermind that he’s a murdering psychopath, he’s been -betrayed- and -backstabbed- by those dirty Five Human Gods and chucked into a plane of eternal Torment, so -of course- he wants revenge.

Minister Caudecus is wise and beloved by his supporters, especially among the nobility. He’s just politically opposed to Queen Jennah’s decisions and enough of a human supremacist to prefer dealing with cutthroat bandits than with charr.

Ajax Anvilburn, on the other hand, is a charr supremacist who can’t let go of the war either.

Kudu is researching Elder Dragons. Important research that can’t be disrupted or delayed for such minor things like moral qualms regarding the use of lesser species to accumulate further knowledge.

Mad King Thorn wants OUT. (And a joke that kills you.)

Bloody Prince Thorn wants OUT and to show daddy who’s boss.

Scarlet has no such motivation made clear, beyond apparently keeping one step ahead of the players and laughing at them. Her primary purpose appears to be trolling people. We call that a childish griefer, not a compelling villain.

Oh, and fusing seemingly random things together, I suppose. For research purposes. Because this somehow holds the key to… what? Leylines of magical energy? Did she get cheated by Zommoros once upon a time? Did she fuse her brain with an asura?

Maybe she found some really good weed when she looked into the Eternal Alchemy.

GW2: What Would You Keep Doing Without a Reward?

I was meaning to get around to this post sooner, rather than later, but the sudden news bulletin of City of Heroes closing down pushed back the schedule even further. It also means I’ve completely lost track of the posts in the blogosphere that circled around this topic, and can’t find them again, so no links for you. 😦

The basic question was:

What would you keep doing in an MMO, even if you were not being rewarded for it?

Most of the time, the conclusion implied was that one would pretty much do nothing that wasn’t rewarded, players being such min-max optimizers, after all.

What I want to point out is a fundamental assumption in the term, “reward.”

There are extrinsic rewards, such as xp, levels, a piece of gear that improves your character’s stats or appearance, gold, an Achievement, a title, a score increment, a chest you open that provides some or all of the above.

And there are intrinsic rewards, that mostly fall under the umbrella of “fun,” with the caveat that what constitutes this differs from player to player. It could be the pride in being first at something, the egoistic thrill of being able to show off something others don’t have, the pleasure of self-improvement, the satisfaction of progress on a goal or a checkmark of completion on a to-do list, the joy of receiving a gift (unexpected or otherwise), the excitement of confronting a challenge, the triumph of beating said extremely difficult challenge, the delight of learning something one didn’t know before, and perhaps even of mastery, the happiness of being in moment-to-moment flow, the wonder and awe of seeing a beautiful landscape, unsoweiter.

The truth is, one would be a very foolish, masochistic player to keep at any game if one were deriving more frustration and unhappiness out of it than enjoyment. So in that sense, nothing we do in an MMO is ultimately delinked to any form of reward.

The real questions are, in which order should the rewards be coming, at what frequency, and how does that shape player goals and behavior in turn?

The typical MMO generally makes you put up with mild to severe unhappiness as you “work” towards an end-goal that promises, or at least, affords you the hope that you will (eventually) get an extrinsic reward shiny, that will then feed intrinsic feelings of fun. If you’re lucky, you still enjoy the process so that mild to severe unhappiness isn’t present and things are still okay. But at the rate of repetition that is usually required, familiarity leads to contempt or boredom more often than not, and before you know it, there is the obligatory “grind” to get to the “good stuff.”

Thing is, chasing an extrinsic thing first for the intrinsic feeling later is dangerous. Taken to extremes, it’s like a drug. You end up chasing something for the buzz at the end, and somehow, that buzz ends up so momentary that shortly after, you’re in desperate pursuit again.

Given the propensity of humans to fool themselves into thinking situational normal, even when they’re not, one may end up chasing a reward that never comes, yet feeling more and more miserable in the meantime.

Now Guild Wars 2 isn’t completely revolutionary. It doesn’t remove the above. It’s probably unwise to, since players are used to the formula and many do need external reasons to keep playing and maintaining critical mass of playerbase is always important to a game.

But Guild Wars 2 is also quite sneaky. They’ve added on to the model by including the other order rewards can come, and mixing it up with a helping of variety and choices.

You’re moving along on your path towards a heart, a crafting node, a personal story waypoint – something explicit and linked to an extrinsic reward. Then you stumble across something unexpected. A hole in the side of a cliff that you’ve never seen before. Curiosity and novelty pop up, do you go in? Maybe you do, to feed that intrinsic urge, and before you know it, you’re on a mini-adventure complete with traps and enemies and argh-inducing jumping puzzles, and at the end, you’re pleasantly surprised to see a ‘boss’ mob with a chest containing an extrinsic reward.

You didn’t know it was there when you first started, but it is now an additional happy bonus. And it reinforces (aka rewards) that style of play, because you are now assured that there very well may be something tasty to find at the end of the rainbow that caught your eye.

Or you stumble across a dynamic event. Decision point time. Do you follow it, or continue on your initial path? Though both will ultimately yield extrinsic rewards at the end, that choice might be different from person to person. If the DE is still new and novel, or if one wants karma as a reward, or if one wants to see people, you’d take off in that direction, but if the other stuff is more pressing, then you’d continue on your way.

The jury is still out on whether the bulk of players will eventually grow bored with the same DEs they’ve seen, or avoid them due to difficulty level not being commensurate with rewards (Nageling giant, anybody?)  or whether a sufficient critical mass of players will show up just because it’s there and waypointed on the map so may as well try one’s luck to get some karma, but if you think ArenaNet isn’t aware of this, you may be kidding yourself. Their proposed solution is to change up the dynamic events, so that the new novelty factor may indeed skew more players’ decisions towards heading there.

The other question running in everyone’s minds is whether there will be enough players in the zone to even see the new DE. Well, time will tell on that front, but there are a few things that may help this. If a player chooses to remain on a single level 80 main, he still may have to level up his crafting, gather things to sell, maybe visit all the hidden chests scattered around the zones that will be eventually marked out on a wiki daily for loot or even just grow bored with the highest level zone and go wandering.

Alternatively, he’ll be in WvWvW or doing explorable dungeons, and possibly out of the equation altogether, which doesn’t bode well for the lowbie zones… except, for the presence of altholics. There are what, 8 professions and 5 races (and not enough character slots on purpose.) If you think a sizeable number of people won’t be rerolling alts to try out different playstyles, well, you’re a far more focused, faithful one-character player than I.

And guilds are account-based. Alts will be part of the same guild. What’s to stop a player from opening his mouth and going,” OMG, there’s a new something-or-other that popped up in (insert lowbie zone) here. We need help!” Now how many high levels will bother to respond, I don’t know, but between boredom, curiosity, guild relationships and helpfulness, plus the assurance that downleveling will still give valuable rewards, perhaps enough.

The one thing I’m not terribly fond of at this point is that though a player can join multiple guilds, he can only see the guild chat of one at a time. I have to say, it quite defeats the purpose of multiple guilds, which is to give one more connection points to more people and stuff going on in the world. I would have much preferred ArenaNet to limit guild joining to one-world specific (to avoid the complaints of spies in WvW) and allow for players to listen in on all guild chats at once.

A Tale in the Desert’s multiple guild feature worked that way. City of Heroes’ global chat channels worked that way. The basic point is to have multiple chat tabs linked to various groups of people for some specific purpose or other. If I can’t hear what those other folks are doing in-game, then I may as well just join multiple guilds’ ventrilo servers or something, except that would be way too much effort to bother for a loner like me. I do hope they take some time to iterate on this once the launch frenzy slows down a bit, because it’s a flawed feature otherwise and could stand a lot more polishing.

Back to rewards, since I’ve sidetrekked. What would you keep doing in an MMO, even if you were not being rewarded for it?

Here’s my personal answer.

Bear in mind, that of course I’m being rewarded, by intrinsic rewards, rather than motivated by a search for tangible extrinsic ones (which is usually what is meant by the term.)

Without the lure of crafting material drops, I would most likely not be genociding vast swathes of wildlife as I’m doing currently (I need 15 vials of thin blood for a rare, dammit, *kicks the trading post*)

But I would be going up and down and into stuff that catches my eye and spending hours trying to figure out how to jump from one pillar to another, simply because the mountain and the broken ruins are THERE.

View from atop some really high ruined stairs staring towards the Breached Wall

Drawn on by the lure of cliff bats that something may very well be up there, I lost a couple of hours to figuring this out, which eventually turned out to be the Crimson Plateau jumping puzzle.

I would, surprisingly enough, continue to rez players, often in the thick of combat, even if I don’t get xp for it and even if I don’t get any thanks for it. It’s a little odd when you consider that I’ve observed 80-95% of players continuing to shoot at a big mob because either they don’t see the downed player because they’re fixated on the mob, or maybe they’re scrambling to deal as much dps as possible so that they’ll get a gold contribution reward instead of bronze or silver.

But I see the downed player struggling, or the defeated player lying there, and I know they are praying for a Good Samaritan to help them out of the mess they got themselves into. What does it say about your server community if everyone walks on by or ignores someone in need of help? How is that player feeling right now? If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you want to be helped?

It gives me a warm fuzzy feeling deep inside when I respond promptly, and it’s even thrilling to act as a combat medic and roll towards someone right underneath constant projectile fire above your head and begin reviving. And because I play a Guardian with my fat cat butt covered in heavy armor and a hp tank bulked up by Vitality, I can even take a few hits through the revival process without going down myself.

I would, as long as the dungeon strategies do not turn rote or pigeonhole classes too much in one permanent playstyle, continue to join dungeons as time and whim permitted. I’ve actually joined two AC story mode dungeons way over-leveled and having done it once for the helm already, because I wanted to see how different teams reacted to it.  Because I like the learning process and the randomness of a PUG and figuring out to best work together and facing a challenge that allows me to demonstrate what I’ve learned and continue to seek mastery at it. The moment it becomes, bring the class built this specific way, and not the player, is the day I stop.

And most of all, I would be still in WvWvW as long as they keep the scoreboards on, because it’s a nonstop, unending, always-different-situation thrill. Novelty, achievement, teamwork and server pride all rolled into one.