Friday, April 18, 2008

When a game becomes a job

Tobolds had an interesting comment on this blog about gaming attitude.

The increasing acrimony [between casual players and hardcore raiders] is probably just an effect of burnout. MMORPGs are curious in that many people don't stop playing when they stop having fun; instead they keep playing with a more and more negative attitude, complaining all the time on the official forums. And as Ontherocks remarks, the negativity is directed badly at other players. Not only casuals vs. hardcore, but also mages fighting warlocks, or other classes crying for somebody else to be nerfed. It is an illusion that you could have more fun if only fun was taken away from somebody else. World of Warcraft certainly has balancing problems, but these are more due to the impossibility of balancing classes in a way that they are equivalent but different in solo play, group play, and all the various forms of PvP.

I’ve noticed this before as well. I think a lot of the drama that exists between players (or entire guilds) is in large part because they’re not finding the game fun anymore. Everyone loves when a game is all new and shiny. You have no idea what’s going on - around every corner there are new surprises and adventures. Leveling brings new skills and ways to play your character such that even when asked to kill yet another ten boars, you’ll race off to do it because you can kill them in New! and Exciting! ways.

Then you hit a wall.

The wall could be the level cap, or a questing dead end or a game mechanic that changes your class so you’re not able to do the things you used to. That’s when you start trying to rationalize continuing. I suspect that the longer a player has played a given character, the harder that wall will hit and the less likely they are to start over. Most players will just try to struggle through it … and get pretty irate in the process.

LotRO is my third MMO (after City of Heroes and the World of Warcraft) so I’ve been there before. As a result, I have made some general observations in an attempt to maximize my fun and not have to deal with turning a video game into the worst-paying job I’ve ever had. These won’t work for everyone, but they have helped me to keep my head screwed on straight.

1) Try new locations. When I’m starting to get down about leveling a given toon, I’ll start looking for a new place to play in. The North Downs was getting pretty old for me, so I went over to Evendim for a bit. Sick of the Barrens? Try some of the higher-level stuff in Silverpine or the lower-level stuff in Stonetalon. Sometimes all you really need is a change of scenery. I’m an explorer by nature anyway, so looking around in a new area can be fun all by itself.

2) Try a respec. This doesn’t work all that well in LotRO as the specs (traits) aren’t all that pronounced at lower levels, but in a game like WoW, it can make a big difference. Even if someone else says your new spec is totally stupid, who cares? If it’s fun, it was worth it. I respecced my arms / fury warrior to fury / arms and that’s what kept my interest alive through to 70. Flailing away with two weapons and near infinite rage was a blast. When you change the way your character functions, you change the way you interact with the world and it basically changes the game for you.

3) Read the quest text. Too often, I’ve caught myself just ramming through content. Depending on the game, there could actually be a lot of interesting stuff going on behind the scenes. So you were asked to kill ten boars. Why? Why boars and not wolves? Is there some other objective involved? Reading the text tends to get me more personally involved in the story. I’m not someone out grinding boars for XP, I’m killing them to save the good people of wherever from the dreaded boar disease of somethingorother.

4) Establish “for me” time. It may seem odd in a video game to set aside time to do what you want to do, however, so much content is driven because the company is telling you to do something that sometimes it’s just nice to tear off and do something because you want to - even if there’s nothing in it for you other than to say you did it. In LotRO during Open Beta, we couldn’t go beyond level fifteen. One thing I really wanted to do is see Rivendell. To get to Rivendell, you need to pass through mobs that are level thirty-five or more. I went anyway and now it’s a regular thing for me. All my alts make the trek to Rivendell after the level fifteen class quest. Go places you’d like to see and see them. As a burglar, I’m constantly going places just to go. I was sneaking around Annuminas (a level fifty area) at level thirty-five. I sneaked my way out to the Council of the North base in Angmar around level forty-two. It’s fun to push the boundaries of what should be attainable and go places you want to go just because you want to.

5) Hang around / level with friends. One thing that I enjoy a lot is gaming with like-minded people. They can motivate you when you’re down and the company can help make dreary things fun. Killing 500 wargs gets old fast, unless you’re also chasing around your silly minstrel friend who doesn’t seem to realize she’s not a tank.

6) Know when to let go. If you’ve tried to make things fun and it’s just not working out, maybe it’s time to try something else. Even if it’s just for a little while. I know too many other players that will cling like grim death to a toon just because it’s their highest one. “My main is thirty-five so I really should focus on getting him to fifty before rolling another one.” Says who? I got my guardian in LotRO up to thirty-seven and decided I didn’t like it. So I created a hunter and got him to thirty-three and THEN created a burglar who became my first fifty. You can’t always tell right from the get-go what class / race combo you’ll really enjoy so don’t be afraid to experiment.

It also could be the game itself. For better or worse, LotRO is what it is. I find it fun and that the good outweighs the bad. I roll with an awesome kinship on a fun server. Not everyone is so lucky in their friends and not everyone will like the game. WoW is a great game, but when you've played all the classes and the races and seen what there is to see, that's pretty much it. Many people are not fond of the PvP system they have or the raid-till-you-drop stuff at endgame. For many, level seventy equals done. I’m always a fan of trying new games - by all means keep looking to find one that’s fun for you.

And while I’m on the subject, video game companies should make accessible free trials available for their creations. I don’t mind chat restrictions to keep the spammers at bay, but make sure your trial is open enough that I can actually see everything in the game. My biggest gripe about my EQ2 trial was that I couldn’t get a house. Not a huge deal, but at the same time it would have been cool to see how a “house” in EQ2 worked. Even if it had limited furniture options, I could still mess around and see what kind of system it was. Got a game involving space ships? Let me fly one! Now! I don’t care if it disappears after I log off or it’s underpowered or whatever. Give users a taste of how cool your game can be and they’ll plunk their money down for subscriptions.

It’s also worth noting that players will likely have to let go of the games you’re playing at some point. Either because you’ve done all you’re interested in doing (like me in WoW), because the game becomes a hopeless grind (like CoH became for me) or because the game company says “that’s it folks, thanks for playing” and then closes it down.

7) Listen to what others say but listen to yourself first. It's your money. It's about to become the gaming company's money. The only important question is: are you having fun? If you’re not having fun, then it’s not a game anymore. Following the advice above, you may find the fun again. If not, it’s time to let go: either of the class you started or of the game itself. There’s nothing wrong with playing a game and then deciding it’s not for you. There’s something fundamentally silly though about sticking with a game you started hating a long time ago.

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