Friday, October 17, 2008

"You're a Winner"

Somewhere between he 458th and 459th Pindleskin run, I began to doubt my sanity. Fighting the same boss monster in the expansion to Diablo II over and over, eyes peeled, yearning for, a glint of gold on the ground, I realized that this wasn't fun anymore. Killing the same bosses over and over for unique and rare item drops had lost the tension it once had. Diablo II like most action RPGs and almost all MMOs is built upon the premise of the slot machine. You input your time, exert a modicum of effort, and wait in anticipation to see if maybe this time a random number generator will make you a winner. And like any form of gambling, whether it be the one armed bandit or World of Warcraft, a lot of people can't get enough of it. I'm one of them.

It would, however, be a gross generalization to reduce any of these games to such a simple formula. The lore, the gameplay mechanics themselves, the community in and surrounding the game, all of these contribute to experiences that in their best realizations are greater than sum of their parts. For some, one of these elements is the primary draw, sufficient to hold their interest even with the absence of the other pieces. For me and I suspect most other players, each of the elements of the game take on greater or lesser importance as one plays it. I have been drawn back to Diablo II several times after it's release and each time I have begun playing with an eye towards the story and exploring new classes. Gradually that interest shifts towards the item system, until one day I find myself with an account full of characters that exist solely as disembodied bags for my main character.

To play these types of games for any extended period of time requires something to continually draw the player back, a carrot which one can never quite grasp or at least not enjoy for long. Seen then over the long term, the grind/gambling analogy seems appropriate. Developers know this and one can find this mechanic as a sort of universal in the MMO space even if it take radically different forms in games like Planetside, Eve Online, and World of Warcraft. The constant pull exerted by the grind and the mechanics which instantiate it, makes these games financially viable and gives the developers a chance to develop more content to feed the player base's insatiable desire. Still, there are free MMOs; this isn't just a ploy to separate gamers from a monthly subscription fee. The grind serves a purpose over and above a business model. In our modern age I suspect that these games have become, in some cases, a proxy or at least additional stage for social advancement and recognition.

But enough of the navel gazing. I'm just an average gamer, currently playing World of Warcraft and enjoying it immensely. This blog will be an exploration of issues surrounding the MMO space, particularly as embodied in my continuing experiences in World of Warcraft. I plan to take a somewhat broader, more nuanced view of the issues than some of the fansites/blogs on the internet. I hope you all enjoy the articles and please comment; I'd love to feedback in future posts.

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