November 18, 2017
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Hambone's Sassy Takes

The Lull

by Ryan "Hambone" Fritsch

Whether you are a player or a hater, I think World of WarCraft fatigue is settling over the community of MMO players. We've all heard about this game endlessly since January, especially on the Mac where it has no real competition. Every imaginable form of analytical vivisection has been splayed open on the gamers operating table: class balance, server stability, content updates, instanced time-sinks, useless secondary skills, hacks and exploits, yada yada yada. But i've got one more for you that is almost never discussed and yet effects all MMOs: cadence.

Every Song has a Beat

Every MMO I've played has a rhythm, a sine-wave of highs and lows. Most start out fast: boom boom boom, you are level 10. At some point most MMOs slow down, and most of those slow down permanently. The dreaded feeling of "grinding" for experience sets in with no looking back or looking forward (in the short term). WoW has been a different experience from most MMOs I've played because it's cadence hasn't slowed until late in the game, usually around level 50 of a 60 cap. This is a good thing from the perspective of both the hardcore and casual player, but is still inescapably present.

Looking back over my play of MMOs from the last couple of years, what hasn't killed my interest in a particular MMO are the things traditionally discussed as flaws in the genre. "The grind" can be fun and relaxing; repetitive gameplay can be mitigated by rare and unique loot drops; ugly graphics are often forgivable as “style”; and the morons who inhabit the server are half the fun (or at the very least, we’ve all been the moron once or twice). Instead, what has always killed my interest in an MMO is “The Lull”.

The Lull occurs when I have to make a choice between playing for the fun of regularly leveling and getting stronger, or playing just to get to the cap. This isn't "grinding" per se, but rather the pursuit of experience points for long periods of time without the short-term reward of leveling-up to maintain motivation. The Lull hits at different times for different players because we all have our own rhythms. For the working stiff time is of the essence: any level taking longer than a few one-hour play sessions might be too distant a goal to be worthwhile. For an unemployed student in the summer, The Lull might only hit when attaining a level requires more than a few sunny days wasted indoors.

The Lull also represents a change in the whole cadence and pacing of the work/reward mechanic that got you addicted to the game in the first place, and hence presents a problem. All of a sudden there is a pause, a deep breath, a necessary leap of faith. Sometimes The Lull is marked by spending a week or more just messing around in the game by playing with secondary skills, wasting time in PvP, helping out weakling guildmates, or just checking out little bits of missed content here and there. Unmistakably though, you are spending that time thinking about what to do: do I go on? Is it worth it? Am I having fun? This is the period in which the play habits that fit your other commitments are being tested against the cost of taking the game "to the next level".

Either way, this decision can be reduced to a purely rational one that will screw you. If you quit the game you'll feel like a quitter no matter how meaningless you tell yourself it is, and will likely come back again later, quite possibly by making a brand new character to recapture a sense of motivation and stimulation. If you decide to go for the cap you will eventually hit it. And I guarantee you, it will be the biggest disappointment of your life (or second biggest if it caused your marriage to break down). Just read the WoW message boards: it is stuffed with 60's quitting in droves. They blame boredom, but thats just the symptom of winning a hollow victory. So we beg the question: why is The Lull such a common feature in the MMORPG genre?

Paying the Piper: Cadence as Profit

In designing the MMO, the producer makes a purely economic and demographic decision about where The Lull should go. They want to keep as many players paying for as long as possible, but can not produce infinite content. If they could, there would never be a level cap, and there would be no need for The Lull! The Lull is thus chiefly an economic decision whose placement attempts to keep the cadence of play acceptable to the maximum number of people for the maximum amount of content. Shaped like a cresting sine-wave of sound, The Lull is a point on a curve that represents fewer and fewer gamers, and who's end is the infinity of an asymptote (given some people play forever). It is a basic efficiency equation between economic producer and economic consumer that resonates differently in each individual. As MMO design guru Richard Bartle puts it in Designing Virtual Worlds,
"one of the problems of levels is that content has to be available... virtual worlds that don't change much and don't persist much have to be sufficiently broad and deep that players take an age to explore them... [such virtual worlds will] be costly (because new content has to be created) and wasteful (because old content isn't reused)" (at 356, 253).
It is pretty easy to see the myriad of ways that WoW has taken this formulation to its natural conclusion and optimal balance. Just about every single one of Blizzard's design choices is influenced by this fundamental reality, from multiple skill systems to rest-state bonus XP to mutually exclusive Alliance/Horde content. All of these merely mask The Lull, but do not destroy it.

In fact, every gamer expressly contracts NOT to violate The Tyranny of The Lull when they agree to Blizzard’s End User License Agreement. By banning the real-life sale of virtual equipment and gold, Blizzard is keeping the gamer from by-passing the delicate mathematical cadence that it has pre-determined for the game, and in the process, makes inescapable the need to level as an end in itself. As gamers flagrantly violate this rule every day on eBay and through virtual currency trader IGE, we get hints that the World of WarCraft is a game predicated on concepts that are outdated. Indeed, Blizzard's business model has never been to innovate, but to take established genres and perfect them. WoW is no different. Why waste all that money on R&D and in marketing a strange new genre when you can waltz in with its finest example years after the foundations have been laid? Why not instead invest that money in creating compelling, high-quality content? In many ways, the very essence of the economic bargain that defines everything in WoW reflects the economic bargain that is the essence of the Blizzard business model. Art imitates life.

Which brings us to the fundamental shift occurring in MMOs right now. There are two ways to take The Lull out of MMOs. The first is through removing or minimizing the whole gameplay concept of "time invested = wealth and power". The second is through player-made content. Examples of both concepts already exist in action.

Changing the Tune: The Future of the MMO and RPG

Games like Guild Wars get rid of The Lull by refocusing gameplay around a deep system of PvP combat. Gamers quickly hit the low level 20 cap, and optimal equipment is neither hard to find or buy. As a result, players spend no time pursuing the idea of leveling, which is reduced to more of a graduated learning process than a full-time occupation or end in itself. Shadowbane has achieved the same result in part by design and in part through duping exploits (my evidence being anecdotal), but either way the players don't much care since victory can't be bought when everyone has the best equipment.

The second approach is more interesting, and more compatible with many traditional RPG themes such as narrative and exploration. Games like Second Life or There exist purely through the creativity and interaction of players, who are nevertheless engaged in many RPG-like activities like acquiring property, exploring, and getting rich (the perpetuation of Neverwinter Nights relies largely on player-made content too, but even it's most robust private servers can't really be classified as "massively multiplayer"). Players can even play parts in each others stories, or roleplay an assumed identity within the highly scriptable engine. To a large extent however, these games reduce the players reliance on the middle-man producer, who is in turn relegated merely to maintaining servers and developing new options in the game engine. What thus becomes most important as the driving engine of this new game is not the tightly controlled cadence of a mathematical efficiency curve, but intellectual property. "Pay as you go" is replaced with "pay as you create", which, surprise surprise, nevertheless remains the property of the game producer, not the playing creator. As Linden Labs, the producers of Second Life, recently asserted:
Should virtual property be treated as real? It’s moot; what’s happened in common law is that it’s been determined to be real. Case closed. (The Guardian, July 14 2005).
Mr. Linden would have us believe that intellectual property is a settled, apolitical issue. It hardly is. As peer-to-peer file trading illustrates, ideas and creativity and culture want to be free from constraint and openly shared, not centrally controlled by a corporate profit motive. The flexibility, vibrancy and accessibility of future MMOs will be closely tied to the kinds of copyright and digital rights management legislation passed in the here and now.

Conclusion: WoW as Swan Song

The foregoing is a reflection of the fact that I have hit The Lull in WoW, and that the level cap looks a long way away (for the second time, of course). Collectively we've hit The Lull in the MMO industry as it realigns around intellectual property as the site of profit. The experiment at Linden Labs is only one aspect of the same phenomenon that drives eBay sales of virtual swords and Sony to establish The Station Exchange for EverQuest goods. In this regard, WoW may be the best -- and last -- example of its kind of music.

-- Edited July 19th, 4PM, for clarity and content

Posted on July 15, 2005 at 11:32 pm
Luxor

I recently reviewed Luxor for IMG. It is an extremely boring arcade puzzler with uninteresting, repetative gameplay and a meaningless scoring system. Games that require no skill grant no fun, unless you ride with the Bejeweled crowd (which itself is better than Luxor). It also cost $US20, which is ridiculous for what is essentially a java rip=off of PopCap's game Zuma. The graphics were pretty though, and the animation fluid.

The best part of reviewing Luxor is that it game me plenty of chances to use the term "balls" in a review, something I encourage more of.

Read the whole review here. Because my review has to reflect the interest of the broader gaming public (or does it?), some of whom actually enjoy repetative, mind-numbing games, I gave Luxor a 6 / 10. In my happy little subjective world though, it is more like a 4: competant and not broken, but dull as hell.

Posted on July 15, 2005 at 3:33 pm
Ultratron

Ultratron is one of those simple games you keep coming back to. A fun and addictive spin on the tried and true Robotron genre, it features a retro visual style, a decent number of power-up combos, a score multiplier system, and lots of opportunity to strive for that "perfect game".

Read the full review posted recently to IMG here.

Posted on July 15, 2005 at 3:29 pm
Jammin' Racers

I recently posted a review of DanLab Games' "Jammin' Racer", a fun take on catoon racing and welcome addition to the slim racing options on OSX. It's got tight control, support for lots of input devices, and blazing speed. A bit more randomness would have made the game great, but as it is, I gave it a coveted 8 / 10.

Check out the full review here.

Posted on July 15, 2005 at 3:25 pm
Review of "Kill Dr. Cote"

Kill Dr. Cote is Justin Ficarrotta's entry for the 2004 uDev Games contest, and it truly kicks ass. I'd recomend that you just download it now to begin the fun, but I'm going to put the link at the end of my review so you don't stop reading. I'm selfish and narcissistic that way, but if you indulge me, I will promise to be gentle.

Kill Dr. Cote inherits its gameplay from the SNES title SmashTV and its style from the GameCube's Viewtiful Joe. These are both very, very good things. As is the simple premise: you've got to kill Dr. Cote, but he hides behind wave after wave of robotic cyborg killers. The other unfortunate circumstance is that you are trapped in an octogonal arena with no escape other than your lightening reflexes and trusty blaster weapon.

Kill Dr. Cote is an action-packed arcade blaster extraordinaire, full of power-ups and shoot first, think later gameplay. Particularly well executed attacks will cause a chain-reaction of destruction, appropriately animated with huge explosions and rewarded with huge points. This gives the game that same high-score chasing addictiveness that made MAFFia a uDev Games 2002 winner. It is also incredibly fast-paced, which makes it a great pick-up-and-play title to fill a spare 5 or 10 minutes of your day.

In the interest of critique, I think the game would gain a little depth if there was more control over the chain reactions, and if there was the ability to switch between weapons rather than just using one at a time. But on the other hand, I wouldn't want anythign to detract from the furiously-paced gameplay.

Slick presentation, excellent gameplay, lots of style and substance, three gameplay modes, five difficulty settings, and a stack of unique weapons. What more is there to say? Download this game from MacGameFiles right about here.

Posted on November 19, 2004 at 8:17 pm
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