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The MMO Lull
November 30, 2005 | Ryan Fritsch

Whether you are a player or a hater, I think World of WarCraft (WoW) fatigue is settling over the community of massively multiplayer online (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 gamer's 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 its 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 the extended play required to accomplish it caused your marriage to break down). Just read the WoW message boards: they are stuffed with level 60's quitting in droves. They blame boredom, but that's 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?


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