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.


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.

3 Things to Play or Not Play a Next-Gen MMORPG

Can you guess the MMO?

Keen’s got one of those ubiquitous lists up and is inviting everyone to give their views about what they’d want or not want in a next-gen MMO.

Honestly, I dunno how this is ever helpful for developers. Ask ten bloggers or commenters what they want, and they’ll give you twenty different perspectives back, most diametrically opposed to each other, and possibly end up starting a few flame wars in the process.

I’m not very picky. I’ll play most anything once to give it a shot. In that sense, typical questing or sandbox/themepark doesn’t bother me one whit. Graphics-wise, I can deal with ASCII and text all the way up to super-photorealistic, and even give uncanny valley a temporary free pass until I’m absolutely creeped out and have established other reasons not to play.

On the other hand, I realized I don’t stay long in games that violate the following principles:

1) Going Solo Must Be Viable/Valued Playstyle

Note this does not preclude the option or choice to group. But if I have no time to waste in a particular gaming session to find other players, or simply don’t feel like interacting with others that day (for those games that automatically assign you to pickup groups,) I want to still be able to enjoy your game’s gameplay solo and make reasonable progress towards my goals / victory conditions in the game.

I enjoy my autonomy and locus of control in a game. Being forced anywhere, or to do anything I don’t want to do, interferes with that drastically. After a while, I don’t put up with games that hamfistedly do that instead of subtle positive encouragements to do different things, and I’ll take the ultimate step to regain my autonomy, aka choosing not to play your game (and pay you.)

2) Design Should Foster Pleasant/Decent Social Relationships Between Players

Most players will no doubt smell a Guild Wars 2 influence here. Certainly in terms of next-gen MMO tweaking to ensure -by design- that players are encouraged to cooperate and at least tolerate each other’s presence in their vincinity, rather than be antagonized or dropkicked unwillingly into ultra-competitive mode, GW2 has been much talked about.

While I really enjoy GW2’s style of design, I just want to point out it’s not the only way of establishing this criteria (for fear of the next fleet of MMOs just blindly copying what works.)

A Tale in the Desert, a game I still support, by a mix of accident and design and slow iterative evolution has a carrot-stick model that also seems to work. The small size of the community establishes meaningful name recognition, exerting underlying pressure to behave or be ostracized from the game. Players are forcibly reliant on others in some aspects (but not all, so there’s still stuff to do if one is alone) inducing completionists and veterans to be nice or at least build cooperative networks. Solo being viable here is debatable, but worked around by paying extra for the privilege, aka buying a second account to give yourself an extra set of hands, which I feel is a fair enough financial model.

This is as contrasted with a game like Eve Online, which I’ve tried twice and was somewhat intrigued, but ultimately couldn’t buy in to the model of paying monthly for the privilege of possibly being preyed on by anyone who felt like it and had more friends/time/power than thou, while fostering your own network of allies to do the same to others. That sort of nuclear escalation can only end badly in the long term.

Reality may indeed be that the glass is half empty and half full at the same time. I want games that highlight positive behaviors in order to encourage it, rather than glamorize the negative and make that habit-forming.

3) MMO Should Return Equitable Gameplay Value For Price Being Asked, as Compared to Other Games on Market

Okay, this general statement is cheating, I know. It’s very subjective, what is good gameplay value to me is different from what others prefer. But it’s the best way I can summarize the final decision to play or not play a particular game.

It encompasses what you’re supposed to do in a game, and all your options for doing stuff. Personally, I like killing mobs (mindlessly, meditatively and methodically, or with good tactical use of skills and positioning, preferably alone or with tools under my control aka henchmen/heroes), exploring, building, minigames, and certain kinds of team/objective-based PvP. I don’t mind crafting, collecting, achievement hunting and vanity dress up but am not completionist about them. I enjoy experiencing a good story and narrative. I tolerate with some neutral sway playing in a group. I’m open to some vertical progression like levels, but I wouldn’t mind leaving it in a heartbeat to focus on lateral goals like mission/story unlocks, optional challenges and so on.

It takes into account the pricing model of the game. How much am I supposed to pay monthly to enjoy doing the main bulk of the stuff in-game? Can I choose not to pay for a time and still have a viable good experience, if I don’t necessarily need it ALL, NOW? Can I use in-game currency (or time invested in playing the game) as a viable alternative to real life currency? Can I leave and come back after a time, without feeling like I’ve lost out completely and it’s now impossible to catch up with anyone?

(For the record, I’m comfortable with $0-20 monthly. Yes, yes and yes, are the answers I want to hear to the other questions.)

Then finally, does another game on the market give me better return for the same cost or less? If I keep thinking how I’d be better off playing another game, while I’m playing your game, well… Yeah.

As for what I don’t want, there’s possibly some consistency and repeats, if you flip them and compare them to the want list.

1) Holy Trinity Co-Dependency

First of all, it’s been done. To death. I love an MMO that gives me an interesting twist, a new take, an innovative feature. I hate MMOs that fall back on the same lazy tank/heal/dps standard combat.

I loathe the co-dependency involved. I’m big on being able to act as an autonomous party. Needing a pocket healer to keep me alive is not at all part of that plan. Being a meatshield that can’t do any real damage at all is gimped. Choosing squishy dps, you end up having to wait for two other suckers to take the less wanted roles.

Screw all that. If I’m a good player, I want to be able to juggle my skills and positioning and react with good timing and situational awareness to do damage, help and support other players as needed with the overall goal of taking the mob down. If I’m a less good player, I’d like a good player to be able to step in and catch me/save the day with the above, while still contributing a valuable, decent amount to the overall cause. I especially would not want to be the sole cause of a group’s downfall if I’m not as good playing the game as a baseline average of players (that just sorta long-term whittles out your playerbase as the elites group together in insular groups and everyone else is discouraged from joining in.)

I’m not at all keen on the super-specialization of builds/roles/functions a player is expected to perform when joining any group. That leads to cookie cutter builds and gameplay expectations. Deviate and be scorned.

Eff that. I enjoy the flexibility to choose melee or ranged or even dance back and forth between them at short, medium, long ranges as appropriate to the combat. I enjoy the freedom of a well-timed skill that saves someone’s butt (including my own.) I enjoy being able to kill stuff at a good pace when I want to.

2) Forced Group, Endless Hamster Wheel Progression

I’m cheating, I know. It’s two things. But since they often blend the two into *coughcough* raids, I feel justified to lump them together.

Forced group has been explained before. I find it very distracting and situationally chaotic to have too many people in one place at one time. Even worse if I feel pressured into the situation in order to progress further with the game. It’s a bloody game, I play to relax and enjoy myself – if I wanted that kind of performance anxiety and stage fright and excessive mental effort, I’ll go make a speech at an auditorium or do a public performance and get paid for it or something. Remember, I’m paying the game to entertain me, not torment me.

The hamster wheel of running in one place to get nowhere at all is a model that needs to die with subscription games falling out of vogue. The bottom line of that design is to keep you subscribed to the game. “Work” so hard defeating this foe, that challenge, “earn” a pretty reward, and what do you know, the baseline gets redrawn, and you get to do it all over again, and your reward is now considered trash. Go get the next uber sword, now, there’s a good donkey.

Ultimately, all you end up with is an increasingly smaller group of people who faithfully chase these goals and become elite and insular, and everyone else has fallen by the wayside (or chosen to stop, turn around and walk in the opposite direction giving you the middle finger… or simply meandered away somewhere else.)

3) Non-Compatibility with Older Computer Systems

Beyond those, I’m not terribly picky, so it was a bit of challenge coming up with number three. I settled on the point that could literally, stop me from playing your next-gen MMO.

I’m eventually going to upgrade and rejoin the ranks of ‘serious’ gamers who have stellar rigs with phenomenal graphics cards, CPU and memory out the wazoo, which will then make the point moot from a selfish standpoint (until two years after that.)

But my current situation gives me a lot more sympathy and understanding for those that presently don’t have the option to upgrade – kids dependent on parents, broke college students, people with families to maintain on a limited budget, out of work folks, people in less privileged countries, whatever.

I’ve been systematically crashing out of a number of games, including GW2 and TSW, as the programs happily exceed the 3MB RAM limitation on Windows XP systems while loading the next graphically-intense zone. GW2, at least, doesn’t crash if I have everything on its lowest settings and still looks decent, which suggests they must have taken it into account – even if Steam shows WinXP users are 15% of their population and dropping. It’s still 1 out of 10 players, y’know. Designers give worse drop rates to treasure tables and still assume players chase them.

I could always go out, pick up Windows 7, spend an entire evening backing up stuff and installing a new operating system… Just to play your game.

Or I could… play a Steam game, play a browser game, play TOME4 (or another roguelike, gogo ASCII and pure gameplay,) play Minecraft, play Civilization (and all its sequels and clones), play a game from GoG (old games, hooray for lower system requirements), hell, play Skyrim (it doesn’t crash and it’s graphically gorgeous) and basically play a game that plays nice with my geriatric computer.

No accounting for personal taste, eh?