Recapturing Wonder

A long while back, I posted an article called “Seeing Through the System,” in which I talked about how after a while, anything cool and new has the tendency to become old, stale and routine — even MMOs:

“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.”

Today, Wolfshead wrote a post about “Chasing the Virtual Dragon and the Search for Wonder” in which he expresses frustration that that sense of wonder has left — and he would love to recapture it:

“Reading O’Brien’s take on Tolkien makes me feel that perhaps it’s not so bad after all to want to experience a sense of awe and wonder. Could this inherent human longing be a divine gift? Has God instilled in us this supernatural yearning for heaven? Why aren’t virtual worlds doing more to tap into this innate human need to experience wonder? Could it be that fantasy virtual worlds have failed to realize their fullest, deepest and even cosmic potential?”

For him, the failure is on the part of the game designers.  For me, it’s on the part of the gamer.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, as usual, but the problem for people afflicted with this depressing viewpoint remains: You want to reclaim the wonder, fun, adventure and sense of newness that you used to have in MMOs, but can’t figure out how to do it.

Do we wait for developers to finally figure out some magical formula or create such a revolutionary game that it kick-starts our imaginations again?  Or should we be more pro-active about it and take steps in our gaming habits and mentality to work our way back to where we used to be?

One of these I cannot do; the other I can.  I like to think that I still feel a sense of wonder and adventure when I play MMOs, because I certainly don’t feel jaded or cynical about them.  I’ve seen players engage in so-called “immersion projects” to help them pull away from the numbers game and re-engage with the world of the game.

What do you think about this?  Can we ever go back again?  Are we asking far too much on behalf of the developers to bear the burden of installing wonder when we’re not willing to do our part?

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16 thoughts on “Recapturing Wonder

  1. pasmith April 22, 2011 / 10:59 am

    Sure we can go back to it; the challenge is that we either have to do it alone, or find like-minded souls. It’s hard to daydream and let your imagination run free when all around you people are broadcasting a numbers game, y’know?

  2. sente April 22, 2011 / 11:14 am

    It depends on player personality a bit, I think. If the mindset is always that the player should beat the game and that developers are just people meant to set up onstacles for the player to beat, then it probably will be difficult to change that. Then it is perhaps better to just go for something completely different game-wise.

    As long as playtime just becomes execution of elaborate dispensers for reward pellets both players and developers risk to take the games in a direction that will lead to a decline of the genre.

  3. Paeroka April 22, 2011 / 11:18 am

    I left my kinship in LotRO and formed a new one with friends to ‘get away’ from the numbers game. I was told that they’d eventually like all their officers to raid and raiding is what I don’t want to do anymore. I found that raiding took the fun away from WoW for me. It wasn’t about logging on and deciding what I’d like to do, which character I’d like to level and which zone to explore… or which nonsense to do. 😉 It was about doing dailies, getting gold, buying pots and making sure that the equipment is “up to date” (gemmed and enchanted properly etc). It became a game of numbers instead of a world I was travelling in.

    So, in LotRO I don’t want raids to spoil the game for me. I don’t want to be running after the perfect weapon.

    And my main principle will be to do things that are fun. Even if that means I’m only riding through the Shire taking screenshots of every corner. Fortunately, the people I founded the new kin with think the same way. So I am not alone. We play differently and we like different things in the game. But none of us are after min/maxing our characters and it’s refreshing to have such an atmosphere and gave me back the fun I had when I first started LotRO (including ooohing and aaaahing at the pretty scenery). I’ve even started reading the occasional quest text now! 😉

  4. pasmith April 22, 2011 / 11:24 am

    Got any room in that Kin, Paeroka? Sounds wonderful to me!

    (Don’t get nervous about the comment stalker… I’m only kidding…not really a LOTRO player these days. But if I were then that’s exactly the kind of kinship I’d be looking for.)

  5. Jeremy S. April 22, 2011 / 12:49 pm

    As cynical of a monkey as I’ve been, I actually try to stay optimistic and I enjoy my play-time very fully.

    At this point, I think it’s mostly up to the players. We just aren’t finding the genres we really want. I said this elsewhere but, it’s like someone up and decided to remove mystery novels completely from the bookshelf. Mystery lovers are now using great ingenuity and energy to find books in popular fiction that have enough mystery weaved into them to satiate their hunger.

  6. Skron April 22, 2011 / 1:20 pm

    I believe we can still find wonder in MMOs. But, like you said, it’s also up to the player to search for it.

    LOTRO was my first MMO and, back then, all it was about was just getting gear. As a gamer who has roots in table-top and BioWare/Black Isle RPGs, I didn’t like the MMO at all.

    When it went free-to-play, I tried my hand at it again and went at a slow pace this time. I gathered materials when I can, I took the time to read the quests, and explored the world. Suddenly, the game opened up to me and sucked me right in. 4 years after I played it for the first time and I just realized how beautiful the game was.

    So, yes, there’s still hope.

  7. PeterD April 22, 2011 / 1:35 pm

    Sadly that inability to recapture the “sense of wonder” one got when playing an MMO for the first time is a basic part of human neurology. As our brains experience things they become less interested, using past experience to fill in the blanks of our current experience. This changes with age as well as experience, which is why children feel a sense of wonder so easily compared to adults. The more MMOs you play and the older you get, the harder it will be to experience any sense of wonder with new games you encounter. The threshold of “newness” required constantly goes up. The chances of you ever recapturing that first MMO feeling are almost non-existent. This isn’t a failure of game design or even the gamer, it’s simple human brain chemistry.

    The only sure-fire way to recapture that sense of wonder would be to play after smoking marijuana 😛 One of the primary effects of marijuana is to reduce the threshold of newness that causes a sense of wonder — this is why potheads think everything is so cool 😛

  8. Arieltalia April 22, 2011 / 2:45 pm

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve been in a bad way recently because I just can’t seem to get into *any* MMO anymore. Rift has turned into a loot/raid game. 😦

    What’s interesting, I find, is that the last time I experienced that same wonder in a game was in Dragon Age 2. Perhaps Old Republic’s storytelling mechanic is the way to go? Honestly, I’m not even putting much hope into that thought at this point. 😦

  9. paeroka April 22, 2011 / 3:21 pm

    @Pasmith: Actually, yes, we’re open for more/new members. But we’re on a European server… if you ever do decide to play LotRO *and* want to play on a European server, you’re welcome to message me. 🙂

  10. Tesh April 22, 2011 / 3:27 pm

    As over at Wolfshead’s place, I point to the “gamification” trend. There’s certainly a fair share of blame to be laid on the shoulders of devs who try to goad players into treadmills. At the same time, yes, players absolutely need to take control of their experience and attitudes. That’s the beauty of games in my mind; the fun stuff is there in the middle between dev and player. A fully scripted game is little better than a movie, and a pointless sandbox is soulless. The fun stuff happens when devs and players share the reins.

  11. Stabs April 22, 2011 / 11:14 pm

    You can go back but you just have to open yourself to it.

    It’s like watching a kid’s film. If you watch Snow White at 7 it’s amazing. Watch it at 17 and it’s naff. Watch it as a grown up with a 7 year old and it’s amazing.

    Even though grown up you is sophisticated enough to realise that Snow White is a very basic plot and the animations are technically very dated you can get into a mindset that helps you find the fun again, fun you had once grown out of.

  12. Jonathan B April 23, 2011 / 1:25 pm

    I think Skron hits on a big part of things, when he talks about his experience with LOTRO.

    If you approach the game as a competition to win and/or a set of achievements to reach, you’re not going to get the sense of wonder, because stopping to “smell the roses” gets in the way of competition. If you’re on a race track, you don’t pull over to admire the sunset during the race. Most people at a Nascar race probably never notice the sunset except to consider how the temperature changes will affect the cars. It’s not that the sunset isn’t there and isn’t beautiful…it’s that they’re focused on the race.

    There are games that just plain won’t support a sense of wonder, because the designers haven’t put any real effort into story and atmosphere and scenery. But on games where they have, and I would classify LOTRO as one where they have, it’s up to you to choose to focus on those things.

    Even the sometimes-maligned pie and mail quests in the Shire are a chance to see the story…to realize that the hobbits by and large are concerned with the next meal and whether the mail is running on time and only those on the borders are really aware that evil things are stirring somewhere around them. If you’ve read the books, or even if you read the right quest texts, you know that the Rangers have long kept the Shire secured against evil, and only now as they are drawn into events around the return of Sauron and the Ring is the Shire beginning to be exposed to the rising dangers.

    Game designers can put a whole world there, but they can’t often force you to look at it. You have to choose to put your focus there.

  13. Wolfshead April 24, 2011 / 2:14 am

    I agree that we as players need to do much more. We need to take more responsibility for what goes on. After all we are “actors” and yes “role-players” in a big cast of thousands production called a MMORPG.

    But who can deny that most players sit back now and just follow the quests. The quests really don’t seem to be optional as we are intended to do them. From the minute you log on your level 1 character there’s a questgiver standing a few feet away only ready, willing and able to suck your autonomy away from you.

    Players have become spectators more than they are participants.

    Who is to blame for this?

    I fault the developers for forcing us to walk down that golden path of advancement. Sure you don’t have to do any quests but how many people actually have the courage to buck the system and play that way?

    Companies like Blizzard are all about providing the storyline and narrative for players. There is no real freedom for players because the outcomes are predetermined. Everything is fixed. The big villain always dies at the last patch of every expansion.

    The devs are the gods of every MMO they make. They create the conditions and incentives that influence behavior. If a MMO is turning out badly, then they have to take full responsibility. The buck stops with them.

    Regarding the loss of wonder. I agree that as Koster has said in his Theory of Fun book, the brain tends to deconstruct systems and problems; the brain works to kill our fun by removing the veil of mystique.

    MMOs are old news now. All of the mechanics have been completely decoded and everyone knows how to get the maximum amount of benefit from the least amount of effort. The problem is that this kills the sense of wonder. So developers need to find new ways to change the equations and increase immersion.

    If anything the trend in MMOs is to reduce annoyances and hardship; we are going in the wrong direction as we seem to want to placate the lowest common denominator out there.

    What happened to the idea that in virtual worlds we could change things and impact our worlds? Why can’t we found and build towns and cities all from a simple campfire? We can’t we create religions, politics and science in virtual worlds?

    This is what I mean when I say we have lost the potential. MMOs are in a terrible rut right now. Where are the visionaries?

  14. Dblade April 24, 2011 / 1:13 pm

    The disillusionment is because we realize min-maxing is all there is to the genre now. The idea that MMOs are more than that was an illusion, created by our experiences with our first games. This was often based on the fact that those same games had small, homogeneous communities which selected idiots out.

    Now, we see them for what they are. You can’t see wonder in something so small and reduced like the MMO experience is.

  15. Jonathan B April 25, 2011 / 10:13 am

    @Wolfshead: If you really want to create religions, politics, and worlds in a game, you mostly need to head to the MU* text-based community. Some of these have extensive coded systems and are really no different than an MMO without graphics, but there are others where coded systems are largely limited to combat and competition points where players need an arbiter between them, and since you write a description of all you do and say, you can be more creative than a system that everything you might do must be handled by code.

    Star Wars Galaxies apparently had player-built cities before the legendarily bad reboot. I don’t know of many others that have tried it. You need enormous coded zones if you’re going to allow millions of players to plunk down ever-larger buildings. That requires tons of code and tons of graphical elements. And all of it has to be done in a way that attempts to ensure that rendering all the things players plunk down on your grid won’t bring supercomputers to their knees. It’s not impossible, but it is challenging, and the more detailed your graphical environments, the more dificult it becomes to make player-manipulable worlds that will still fit in with the detail level.

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