Seeing Through The System [repost]

This is a repost from my old WAAAGH! blog — and one of my favorite posts of all time.  It mentions WAR as an upcoming MMO, but really, you could substitute any title in for it.

One thing I love about kids is that they’re easy to impress: a $1 treat from an ice cream shop, a little slight-of-hand, a wonky ghost story, a special trip to somewhere they’ve never been before. The corollary of that is that adults are much, much harder to impress, and that’s because of one thing: they have learned to see through the system.

It’s honestly one of the suckier things about growing up, in my opinion. As our imagination slowly withers away and the cost of the “toys” that will please us increases, I have to wonder: what killed the magic? I’m reminded of that scene in Knocked Up, where the dad, watching his kid play with soap bubbles, says, “I wish I had something in my life that made me that happy.” Soap bubbles to a kid are wondrous, near-magical creations — bubbles to an adult are mildly amusing, but quickly dismissed as something we’ve seen dozens of times before and have little interest in any longer. We’ve seen through the system: we know how the bubbles are made, what entertainment value they hold, and what functions they perform. We break everything down with our intellect, until nothing remains.

I think it’s very much like that in video games, especially MMORPGs. There’s always a lot of concern among veteran MMO players that the next big title they pick up won’t feel as new or special as that first game that captivated their hearts. And frankly, that’s probably what’s going to happen. It might be good, it might be great, but something will be missing. Something intangible that seems lost forever. They’ve seen through the system to the base elements of the game, the mix/maxing of stats, the nitty gritty theorycrafting, the best path to power level, the enormous wealth of information they’ve absorbed and memorized until there’s nothing new under that game’s sun. For them to go from that game and into another one, expecting a repeat performance, is almost laughable. They’ve gone too far, and they’ll have a lot less time to enjoy the new, wide-open, magical feeling of a game before they fall back into the stat-crunching tactics of the previous one.

What you’d really have to do is to engage in some sort of memory-erasing venture, eliminating the knowledge of any MMO beforehand so you can experience this one all tabula rasa.

I hate to bring his name up again, but Richard Bartle’s interview with Massively is a great example of this. Designers, more than anyone else, see through the system because they design the system. They’re too close to it, too used to breaking a game down into its core components, dissecting it until it’s just a heap of data and functions quivering on a table. It’s that much harder for them to have “fun”, because fun in this case is not seeing the system for the details, but seeing it as an imagined world full of adventure. I kinda feel bad for devs, because while they’re creating these awesome games for us to enjoy, they’re stripping away a lot of the fun experience for themselves in doing so.

If seeing through the system is really key to high burnout among vet MMO players, and they can’t erase the memories of the past, how can they go into games like WAR and fall in love with the magic all over again? Is it even possible?

I think it is. I really do. But I think it’ll be a path less traveled by most.

The first step is to lower your expectations for WAR. I mean, really lower them. Kill them. Extinguish them. Don’t go into release with the attitude of a child at Christmas who has a mental list of all the toys they need to get to “make them happy” — be that kid who’s just excited that there’s a pile of gifts to open and enjoy! I’m not saying we shouldn’t have standards for WAR, but some of the expectations people levy on this title are bordering on ridiculous. Let me be the first one to tell you: there will never, ever, ever be a game ever made that will satisfy all of your expectations for a “perfect” game with all those anticipated toys. As a gamer, you are ridiculously blessed to live in a time where technology and vision has resulted in some of the most exciting, open-ended, adventurous games in all of human history. Why are you going to ruin that by stamping your foot and pouting that you’ll never play it if a /dance emote won’t be put in?

The second step is to reclaim your imagination. Trust me — you still have one. MMORPGs actually help to foster imagination, which is one of the more beneficial results to come from playing one. So spend some time getting in touch with that thing in your head that dreams in the waking hours. Read some fantasy or scifi or adventure books. Write a short story, even if it’s the worst thing in the world — it’ll be for you, from you. If hooking up with a role-playing guild for the first time sounds like a path to re-sparking your imagination, go for it. Whatever it takes, learn to make more with your mind of whatever you encounter in life. It’s okay, even if you’re an adult.

The final step is to stop. Stop rushing ahead. Stop getting in the mindset that MMOs are like a footrace with some definitive finish line that you must reach before all others. There’s no race, there’s no finish line — there’s just a bunch of fools speeding past content in order to ruin the game faster for themselves than any others. Give yourself permission to ignore levels and just have FUN. Slow down, enjoy the journey, try new things, finish everything in an area before you move on, explore, be social, help others, and ignore the pressure that you, the game and others put on you to level up quickly to reach “the real game”. One of the things I’m going to love about WAR is that “the real game” starts at level 1 — there’s so many things to do from the beginning, it’d just break my heart to skip it all because I felt compelled to hit other content that might just let me down in the end.

If your self-worth in a game is tied to your levels, your ranking, your gear, then I truly pity you. Mr. T pities you too. Some of the happiest folk in any MMO I’ve played tend to not be the uber-geared high levelers, but the ones who have been slowly meandering through the game, doing whatever strikes their fancy, and — wonder of wonders — avoiding burnout because of it.

The system is there, and when you see through it, you’re finished. You might linger on for a while, but really, it’s just a matter of time. The trick is to be Peter Pan — you never want to grow up, you just want to go on adventures and be happy with where you’re at forever.

20 thoughts on “Seeing Through The System [repost]

  1. theerivs December 3, 2009 / 11:03 am

    Man I loved WAR when it first came out. I remember my first PQ, the wizard summoning that goes awry. I loved WAR. But the magic disappeared the wonderment of a child, turned into the cynicism of an adult.

    But I will go once more unto the breach…again…and again.

  2. tarisai December 3, 2009 / 11:06 am

    and did they listen? IDIOTS!

    I remember on the WAR forums (not the official one, the other one that was WAY better) that a guy was spelling doom for WAR ’cause it had no immersion and nothing pulled him.

    All he did was collect all the quests in an area, skipping quest text and getting them done and cashing in the XP. During this process he was preaching the absence of immersion…

    Eh?

    When I eat a meal, I take my time and savour the tastes and textures. I often look at what’s on my fork before I take a bite – it just makes the whole experience more pleasant and worth while. Really taking the time to appreciate a culinary delight.

    This guy must just open his trap and fist whole turkeys down his throat so he can go take a dump before anyone else at the table…

    Makes no sense to me.

    I think this relates to your post?

  3. Daxius December 3, 2009 / 11:37 am

    Hey Syp this was my fav post on WAAAAAAAGH! I had a few greenskinned posts over there (cant remember my name) when I was gung ho for WH. I’ve bounced around from MMO to MMO always trying em out looking for what keeps me interested or different features. I always go in with kind of a double viewpoint:
    one) This is something that is completely new that I haven’t experienced before and should be judged on its own merits and how they match to my gaming personality
    two) Play the game that the devs created, not the game(s) I’ve played before.

    I think its alot better to make a decision about a game on about how it meshes with your gaming personality instead of how it may or may not be like game X or Y.

    And for the record you made me think my eyes were going wonky on me with that snow that I didnt notice till I started typing.

  4. Capn John December 3, 2009 / 11:55 am

    Syp, why did I need to be reminded of this? Oh yeah, because I’d forgotten all about it 😀

    Since quitting WoW I’ve been looking for the next game with WoW’s wow-factor but nothing has it. Wizard101 was fun for a while, and quite a while at that. Seriously. W101 was a very fun game, and probably because it was nothing like WoW.

    DDO (now in its free incarnation) was also fun, briefly, but didn’t hold my interest as long as W101.

    I dipped into WAR for one evening but I made the mistake of not really reading the Quest Text so it didn’t suck me in like it should have. I’m going to have to do the right thing by it and try it again, especially after that horrendously huge download that will otherwise have been for naught.

    Allods Online was a stunning game. Looked fantastic. Similar to WoW, but a little bit different, too. But playing not much more than glorified Whack-A-Mole was not enough to keep it going. Being unable to Invert the Y-Axis (for Pilot-style controls) really did not help, either.

    But WoW was my first love, my first MMO, so in the end not even a new game by Blizzard will be able to wow me like WoW itself did…at least not until we have full immersion virtual reality 😉

  5. pitrelli December 3, 2009 / 12:03 pm

    ‘The final step is to stop. Stop rushing ahead. Stop getting in the mindset that MMOs are like a footrace with some definitive finish line that you must reach before all others. ‘

    This is exactly why Im enjoying Fallen Earth so much, I dont feel pressured and Im not constantly checking out my exp circle to see where I am.

    Great post 🙂

  6. Fuzzy December 3, 2009 / 12:08 pm

    Man, I thought I was going crazy when I started seeing white spots on your webpage. And omg Syp is totally telling us to play Tabula Rasa 😀

    Oddly enough, I was thinking the same thing this morning with regards to music. As kids, we come across our first boy band and think they’re the bee’s knees, buying all of their merchandise and gushing about their awesomeness with our friends.

    Then we grow up and realize that this is all one big cycle because our sample space of boy bands has grown over time. New name, new faces, and possibly a new musical style, but we’ve been down this road before and know that they’re just another “band of the month”. On rare occasions, some bands may leave lasting impressions on the musical landscape, like the Beatles.

    Feel free to substitute “boy band” with “mmorpg” and “the Beatles” with “World of Warcraft”.

    Right now, I’m giving the Saga of Ryzom another chance. I tried it once a long time ago, but I wasn’t as interested in the style of gameplay that it had to offer. Plus my laptop couldn’t really handle it.

    Now, after about two years of FFXI/WoW/DDO/Dofus/Fallen Earth/Allods Online, I’m looking for a world to run around in and not just another leveling treadmill.

    Incidentally, the games that best fall under this category are EVE, Fallen Earth, and Ryzom. DDO and CoH are close seconds, but they’re more of a therapeutic session where you get a gang together and have a jolly good time beating up on things for an hour or two. As for EVE and Fallen Earth, I don’t feel like sci-fi at the moment and Fallen Earth still has that linear feel to it, plus Ryzom does a better job in terms of exploration/node hunting and crafting.

  7. Vesta December 3, 2009 / 12:10 pm

    Great post, though it prompts me to wonder why you’re not playing WAR any longer? Was it that you saw only the system? Was it that you allowed your expectations to rise beyond the games ability to satisfy you? Have you become fickle and succumbed to the growing wave of MMO tourism? In light of this post, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

  8. Fuzzy December 3, 2009 / 12:36 pm

    Also, the tl;dr version of Syp’s secret to MMO happiness:

    1. stop hyping up MMOs
    2. stop plowing through MMOs
    3. start doing new things in MMOs

  9. toxic December 3, 2009 / 1:43 pm

    To be fair Tarisai, nobody actually reads the quest text. No reason to. It’s 95% generic fantasy boilerplate.

    No, the problem with WAR was that, ultimately, it just got f’ing boring. Knock down a door. Knock down another door. AOE. Battlegrounds that got increasingly bizzarre and unplayable as you progressed. It was just a mess. They tried to make a pvp game, but the f’ed the pvp up pretty bad.

    I still think a game like it could work. But they will have to do more to make the pvp experience truly fun. As in something you want to do, just cause. Don’t need gear, or xp, or rep, or any of the other bullshit mmos throw in there to get people to do stuff; you’re just there to have fun. Once an MMO hits that sweet spot, that’s when WoW will be crushed like a can beneath a speeding locomotive.

  10. Tesh December 3, 2009 / 2:34 pm

    Speaking as a game dev (an artist more than a designer, but I dabble), the ability to see a game through a noob’s eyes is a valuable ability. We often have people come in to playtest our games just to get that “fresh eyes” feedback.

    Consequently, increasing your ability to imagine and role play is valuable as a designer, since you can approach a game as a player might, not as someone seeing through the system. Both viewpoints are valuable, and learning to switch (or blend the two) at will is one of the key skills to learn as a designer.

    Too many designers never learn it.

  11. David Bass December 3, 2009 / 2:36 pm

    This is EXACTLY what I’ve been doing with The Old Republic. No hype. I will not get caught up in it. If it’s a good game, then awesome. I will buy it and play it. If it’s not, so be it. Getting extremely excited about a game is fun, for sure, but it’s nearly impossible for games to match their hype these days.

  12. angrygamer09 December 3, 2009 / 2:40 pm

    Look at it this way, WAR is down to what now, 2 servers?

    Should be able to find someone to group with at least.

    (I kid of course, but more merges just started. Further proof it failed miserably and is still failing)

  13. toxic December 3, 2009 / 3:35 pm

    Quest text in this day and age seems so archaic. Well, more incredibly cheap than archaic. But also archaic. Cheap & archaic. Quest text underlines the fundamental problem in MMOs; in theory they are the the video game version of tabletop gaming. But only very weird people can manage to CARE about the RPG portion of the game while you have 10 DAYS of questing to even reach max level. It’s not really an RPG, at least not anymore than any other video game, and that’s why 95% of players don’t treat it that way.

  14. capnjohn December 3, 2009 / 3:56 pm

    I remember reading an article not too long ago (wish I could remember where) about designers watching beta testers who kept throwing themselves at some unbeatable monster & repeatedly dying (or something like that).

    The article was (IIRC) being written by an observer who was equally amazed at the astonishment of the designers who couldn’t understand why the beta testers/gamers kept getting killed because that had never happened to any of their staff who had play tested the game, who had naturally known the monster was unbeatable and likewise knew how to avoid it.

  15. Kelly December 3, 2009 / 4:02 pm

    For me, it’s been all downhill since my DAOC days. I had a blast in that game up until I day I quit to join WAR for something new. I enjoyed WAR, but the rest of my guild didn’t and they returned to WOW. I had never played WOW, but I went with them this spring and after six months,

    I have to confess it bores me to death. The best part of DAOC was the open RVR. In WAR, the BGs were pretty fun and the open RVR wasn’t too bad. In WOW, the PVP is a total bore. I could care less about collecting pets and mounts achievements and that seems to be the point of the game. I think I’m doomed.

  16. Sven December 3, 2009 / 4:09 pm

    Personally, part of the immersion I felt with my first MMO (EQ) is that in the beginning much of that game was intentionally left vague. No mini-map to show you where to go, no quest longs or question marks over npc’s heads. And only the vaguest incarnation of an external database trying to catalogue everything. That type of game doesn’t exist anymore. Nor will it ever. I’m not convinced that I would even enjoy that kind of game againg, if one came along.

    You can’t get away from seeing the system no matter what game you play because it’s flayed open for all to see. It’s in every piece of equipment you pick up that lists it’s 20 statistics down to 3 decimal places.

    How do I get passed that?

  17. Fuzzy December 3, 2009 / 5:24 pm

    @Sven
    You can always choose NOT to look at that external database trying to catalogue everything. But if the game doesn’t reveal its information, someone will eventually figure it out and share it publicly because that’s their way of enjoying the game.

    If you’re trying to restore the status quo of everyone stumbling in the dark, it’s not going to happen, especially with all of these silly Web 2.0 tools at our disposal.

  18. Angelo Crapanzano December 5, 2009 / 1:56 pm

    Some of us have grown up. We are not children any longer. There are so many fantastic things for grown ups that we don’t have to play with toys. There are so many exotic places to see and visit. However, if your finacial status or work load does allow you the freedom to travel, then you can go to exotic places through books. I also liked you idea about writing. The nice thing about writing is that it redevelopes your sense of imagination. Writing also appeals to me because in writing I can choose the exotic places to visit.

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