Daily Elysium: The Grind

I've got a great new idea for a game; it's called 'The Grind'.  It will be a tremendously immersive experience, with jaw-dropping realism, deep economic model, and reality bending paradigm shifts outside of the box!  When you start the game instead of a main menu there is your virtual supervisor, Lou, to criticize you for slacking off lately and maybe who tells you that you're playing the game an extra hour today just to get caught up with everyone else.  Then, as the game starts, you're presented with a list of misordered numerical data which you need to transcribe into spreadsheet form over four or five tedious hours, while Lou occasionally appears on screen and tells you what a terrible job you're doing.  After finishing your assigned sheet you deliver your work to a department head who promptly informs you that this was not the sheet she was after, and that the data was all wrong, and human resources can get someone competent at the snap of her fingers so you just better go back and get it right, by God!  Doesn't this sound like fun?

Of course, in my overtly sarcastic game design I've forgotten what really should be the mantra of game development: Games Should Be Fun.  Unfortunately, it seems like a lot of game developers have forgotten that as well these days.

In our unholy quest to realistically replicate the world in the digital landscape of our thinly disguised destruction daydreams, we seem to be ignoring that it's the real world we're trying to escape in the first place.  I think Pyro touched on this point recently with his scathing critique - he likes it when I call him scathing; it makes him feel edgy - of the MMORPG genre, and you want to know something, folks?  Pyro is right!  MMORPGs, by and large, aren't fun games, which is not the same as saying you can't have fun playing them.

Lately, several of us have been traveling the lands of Everquest's Norrath in an organized weekly group.  We've been having a fantastic time as we huddle in dusty corners wading through more corpses than you'd find behind a Georgia crematory.  The surprising, and perhaps sad, thing is that the actual fun is not had in dealing that death, or exploring, or organizing our tiny battles, but in the exchange of our self-proclaimed witty banter.  In the long run, the software is only the skin and the excuse by which we congregate, and it is during the short silences when we get down to the business of actually playing Everquest that we have the least fun.

The problem is, Everquest is not a game.  It's not even really a pastime as much as it is a diversion or perhaps a task.  And so it goes with many games, not just those in the MMORPG genre.  I'd argue the same of games that eschew fun for the sake of realistic difficulty.  Games like flight simulators packaged with manuals that would give an unabridged dictionary an inferiority complex; that make the apparently not-so-simple act of maintaining flight on a mildly breezy day so complex that one needs a Ph.D. in aerodynamics just to operate the flaps. 

I'm reminded of Lum the Mad in his first experience playing World War II Online, perhaps the achetypal response to developers who replace fun with complexity.  The chat transcript of Lum's journey into developer Cornered Rat's nightmare vision of ten thousand infantry all standing around trying to figure out how to aim their rifle (link) conveys nicely, I think, how any average player feels when they realize fun was never a consideration for the game they've started to play.  Also it contains the classic line, as Lum tries to figure out how to fly his plane, "I WILL TAXI TO VICTORY". 

I hear gamers talk about skills, about how through diligent work they've mastered the AWP kill, or dogfight multiple bogeys in Falcon 3.0, or craft designer silk wookie pants, and I increasingly think, why would you work that hard on a game?  In the end, the point of every game should fundamentally be to have a good time, and the value of any given gaming experience is only measured in how much you enjoyed the process.  And, I'm sure, for some small segment of the gaming population crafting high end items to accumulate in-game wealth is a laugh-riot from start to finish, but it appears to me that most of the gamers with the most 'skill' for any given game are the ones most bereft of any starry-eyed love for the actual software.  Development of 'skills' - and I persist in using quotes around the word in an effort to highlight how very not a skill gaming really is - seems to steal the light from our eyes, hollow out our cheeks, and leave us resentful and cynical shells. 

It's just this simple.  Think of the most fun game you've ever played, and think of the pure feeling you had just being in the game.  Not trying to finish, not trying to develop your character, not struggling through frustrating level after frustrating level, but simply enjoying the software itself. 

Now, think about how very few games you've played that give you that feeling.

- Elysium


I think about that feeling often lately, it happened in Half Life more than any other game for me and now you can see why the release/delay annoucements pull on me emotions heavily.  I think I will find myself excited and curious when the game finally launches but above all things I will probably get "lost" inside the game for a few hours and that is what I want.  I want to come home from work sometime in November (please release then) and hopefully start playing and then realize it is 10pm and I missed dinner again.  I want that, I expect that and I hope....I hope....

"Pyro is right!" - Elysium

I'm going to have this tattooed on my ass. That way I can win any argument by mooning people, instead of just thinking I've won.

Ah yes the SOE way of doing things... allow your players to generate their own content, it is the most cost effective method, if they quit because of lack of content point out how they are burned out looses who don't have enough Friends to make the game fun :).

I have a rule of thumb that I measure any given thing in a game with and that is, "If it's not fun, then it has no business being in a game" waiting for a buss/boat etc for long minutes comes to mind for some reason. Now I understand different strokes for different folks to a certain degree, somebody might enjoy crafting 500 pairs of wookie pants so that they can then make the .02 version of said pants (Now with pockets!) but what I get really cranky about these days is the type of design that REQUIRES me to have the .02 version of the pants to be able to reasonable play the game, not fun. Why do I have to go go a cantina in SWG to loose battle fatigue? Because some dumb ass decided they where so cool that they had to force people to go to them to appreciate their concept of coolness. Look where that kind of design leads, hey and look we will FORCE down time on a whole population so that the entertainment class will have a purpose. That's right will take fun away from everyone in the world, so another class can be considered usefull... shouldn't this create a red flag somewhere? What the hell is fun about that for me, and how is giving me return on my entertainment dollar (well it's not since my account peters out in a few days and I'm to busy moving to even try to play that type of game, ah time sink, it's own problem). What's fun about having shelp raw materials back to town so somebody else who has made 5000 pairs of troll pants can make me something with their finally homed skills, is the amount of 'work' and 'time' proportional to the moment of fun of getting said troll pants? is it still worth it when you turn around and notice that every other troll of your level has the same pants? Ok sorry, I'm just plain rambling Elysium touched on allmost every sore spot I have with MMP's :p.

I think griffon forgot to mention how bugs can cause enough grief that they become player deemed rites of passage.  Years later, when the bug is fixed, all the players become elitist because new players havent passed these rites.  (EQ Hell levels)

I remember spending weeks upon weeks in UO hating every minute of mining (GMed my miner!) and then spending more weeks upon weeks blacksmithing (GMed my smith). The funny thing is, there was no satisfaction, merely relief. I think I quit about 2 weeks after that. I really wish I could have that time back, and that might very well be the biggest reason I haven't played an online RPG since.

As for the most fun I ever had gaming, talk to me about some early PC games (Lemmings, Space Quest, F19 Stealth Fighter, etc) I played them to death and enjoyed it! In my opinion, realism has gone too far. I don't care if the friction of the road on the tire is perfect in a physics sense, I just want to drive fast and have fun. Which is probably why I playing hardcore racing games on the PC is the last thing on earth I want to do.

Developers: A good rule of thumb is that if it takes days to weeks to become merely decent at something (be it crafting special pants, driving in NASCAR, or flying an F16) at THE BEGINNER level, then I am going to hate your game! Or maybe I just have issues. *shrugs*

Well let's not get carried away here, there is such a thing as pacing.  I'm going to be the sober voice of reality here and say that there were times in my favorite games ever that weren't particularly fun at the time.  You can't have some simplistic rule like, "If I'm playing the game and think something isn't fun, it should get taken out!"  for the same reason that you can't review a game after playing for 2 hours.  Solving puzzles can be frustrating, but that frustration, if managed well, leads to greater fulfillment when the puzzle is solved.  While I certainly agree that some of these MMOs sound horrible (I've avoided all of them for these very reasons), I can see how someone could get some satisfaction from working for a reward.  The fact that your self-discipline was strong enough to push you over that hump to reap the benefits can be a great feeling. 

Then there are things like travelling.  Walking around in Morrowind could get annoying, but I thought overall it was pretty cool because I could find random things I wasn't looking for and be pleasantly surprised, I got a much better sense for the geography of the land which made me a better player down the road, and it greatly added to the atmosphere...arriving at my destination town just as the sun came down really made me feel like I had been traveling and that I had gotten somewhere.

So, yeah, things have gone too far down the work path, and most of us, it seems, just don't have the time one needs to invest to enjoy those types of games, but I do think this phenomenon evolved in a perfectly natural way.

I am wondering if a MMO developer will ever create a persistent world game such as UO,EQ,SWG etc. that completely throws out the traditional "grind" of gaining skills... gaining experience or any facsimile thereof which has to do with "grinding" in order to further the power of your character.Imagine a MMO where everyone logs in with that level 50 character from the get go... Instead of an endless grind to make your character more powerful, have tons of quests and achievements to conquer. There could be tons of quests, puzzle quests, quests where you have to find crafty ways to kill a difficult set of NPCs and such. There could be diverse PvP options and meaningful "raids" of creatures on towns that you'd have to fend off in order to save the town from actually being ruined and such.There would be no grind, no complaining of how "high level" players have access to all the good content or are whooping on "lower level" folks... Imagine the game would be loaded with end-game content that players can start experiencing from the beginning... just tons of achievements to pursue. Instead of logging in and grinding away to get that next bubble of xp or the next best skill.. you could log in and accept a fun personal kill quest, or hunt with a big group or get right into PvP... instead of having to "level" and "work" for it. The whole design would have to be turned upside down I guess... You could have achievements+ fame/ranking + money pile up on your character instead of gaining levels...Just a thought, I think it would be real interesting if someone could pull off a fun and compelling MMO involving no levels or xp grinding that could hold ones attention for months/years.