There’s a common school of thought when it comes to restaurants: if there are a lot of things on the menu, chances are none of them are good. It’s the old “jack of all trades, master of none” idea made tangible. A restaurant with a bevy of items from all different cultures is doomed to fail because it doesn’t specialize in anything.
We have talked a lot about MMOs on this site in the last few weeks. In most of these debates, I’ve kept myself on the sideline because I’m not an MMO aficionado. I’ve played WoW, SWTOR, and The Secret World, but I’ve only ever played them for a month at a time, and I’ve never gotten to the point in any of them where I’m in what would be considered the “end game.”
However, in hearing people talk about what they look for in an MMO and reading about people’s reactions to recent game releases, I’ve come to a conclusion.
The MMO mentality is ruining games. There are simply too many things on the menu.
To be clear, it’s not the genre of MMOs that are harmful. If anything, they are allowing millions of people to be involved in gaming that wouldn’t otherwise engage in it. Having more people playing games is a good in and of itself.
What has been harmful, however, is that there’s an idea now that for games to have value they need to essentially be eternally replayable. Complaints about Diablo 3 have been centered around its perceived lack of what I’m terming “foreverability.” There have been complaints from people who played the game for over 80 hours that there simply “isn’t enough to do.” On its face, this complaint is absurd. What these gamers are looking for, though, is something that isn’t really feasible. They’re looking for a menu that has unlimited pages.
The underlying motivation behind wanting games to be bigger can be traced back to the explosion of popularity of World of Warcraft. It’s a huge moneymaker for Activision/Blizzard, and other publishers have been taking notice. The problem is that this idea of an unlimited playtime has extended to almost every genre in gaming, and we’re seeing the need to be “foreverable” in previously-focused genres such as shooters, adventure games, and others.
The problem with this is that MMOs are meant to be played forever (it’s the only way the business model makes sense) and are designed as such. What has been happening in other genres is an expansion and dilution of experience in order to provide something that lasts forever. Instead of specializing in one thing (like a great steak), developers now feel the need to try and provide a little bit of everything in order to cater to an ever-increasingly demanding audience. In Skyrim, for example, there is a system in the game that randomly generates quests as the game progresses, providing a literally unlimited playtime. However, these quests are repetitive and don’t do anything interesting because of their generic nature. It’s shoehorning an MMO mechanic into a game that typically offers a completely different experience.
Games that are not MMOs generally excel in one of two key areas: mechanics or story. Super Mario Brothers is a timeless game because of the narrow focus of its mechanics and the execution of its level design. That game is forever playable not by intention, but solely based on the power of its mechanics. Mass Effect is replayable because of the depth of its story and the decision making process. It’s probably not a game that could be played forever, but there are enough permutations of choice to last a very long time for players who want to experiment and explore.
This dilution of design has made some games generic, repetitive, and boring. Oftentimes, we see tacked-on multiplayer or unnecessary mini-games that seem to be added only to give the impression that the game offers more stuff , when games should be focused on doing a few things well. Take, for example, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Adding an unnecessary (but awesome!) multiplayer component in the preceding Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was not enough new in Ubisoft’s eyes. Instead, the team added a worthless tower-defense mini-game to a game already buckling under the weight of its far-too numerous mechanics. The original Assassin’s Creed was repetitive, to be sure, but the structure was focused and it had a definite gameplay loop that, with a little fleshing out, could have been satisfying. Assassin’s Creed 2 was amazing, but it started the series’ movement toward falling into a concept called “feature creep.” Just because the restaurant across the street has a chocolate fountain doesn’t mean that you also need one. Focus on what you do well, and execute it.
The interesting thing about this whole issue is that the game that developers are copying (WoW) isn’t actually a game filled with a variety of mechanics. There are a few basic quest types that get experienced repeatedly, and in the end-game, there’s actually a finite amount of content to experience. What makes WoW so compelling is the strength of its core mechanics. Those mechanics are so strong that they basically gave birth to a decade worth of imitators who try to copy the result (timelessness) without realizing the reason behind that result.
I’ve complained before that games are getting too big, and the increasing demand by gamers for games that are longer, wider in scope, and the same price as other games is an unsustainable model. Decrying games like Limbo or Journey because they are 2-3 hour experiences is missing the point of them. They are strong because of that narrow focus. Journey is cut to its purest mechanics, and the game spends its entire 90-120 minutes constantly giving players something new and wondrous to experience. Had Journey ballooned into a 10-12 hour game, it would have become joyless and repetitive.
One of my favorite games of this year is Spec Ops: The Line. It’s not a long game by any means, and I understand that when people pay $60 for entertainment that they expect something worth that money, but I urge gamers to also appreciate games that don’t waste your time. Spec Ops had a story that was taut and well-executed. It didn’t offer any unnecessary diversions or sidequests. Everything that happened was in service of the story they wanted to tell, and it was refreshing. Imagine if your favorite movie took a lengthy detour into something unrelated to the main plot simply to fulfill some perceived “necessary” running time? LittleBigPlanet for the Vita is the same way. It offers a multi-course meal of variety and delight, but it can’t offer a 20 hour main quest without repeating itself and wearing out its welcome.
If we want designers to give us something interesting and engaging, we need to give them leeway to not only focus on 100 hour epics. If the ability to play a game for 100 hours comes as a byproduct of how strong its mechanics are or how interesting its story is, then that should be a plus, not a requirement.
We need to re-calibrate our expectations for games and realize that we should value the experience over the time that we put into them. Games aren’t jobs, they aren’t substitutes for life, and we need to understand that there’s a place for the MMO-mentality.
It’s called an MMO.