Journeys vs Destinations
Or, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Treadmill”.
Ysharros started a discussion that inspired me to ponder the nature and purpose of treadmills in MMOs. Melmoth posted an article about how players prefer to skip to the end, which inspired me to wonder why games so often focus on the destination instead of the journey itself. Being the efficient gamer that I am, I found a way to complete both quests discuss both issues at once.
Our story begins ages ago…
OK, no, it really doesn’t. In fact, if this were a game, the story should properly speaking begin right now. There’s nothing wrong with backstory, but a good writer works the backstory into the main story so it’s never tedious. Poor writers often get overly enamored with the background and spend too much time establishing how the world came to be the way it is, such that the main characters could be in the straits they now find themselves in. As readers, we usually don’t want to know much about that; we primarily want to know what’s happening now (the narrative “now”, that is), to the characters we care about. I think gamers are exactly the same, and the characters they care about are, naturally, themselves.
Now, I have nothing against reading some exposition, if it’s well-written. Keep the pace steady and the tone consistent, and don’t drag on or get bogged down in too many tangents, and I’ll happily read whatever it is. I don’t however usually care that much about the quest text in MMOs for several reasons: it’s poorly written; it’s too long; it’s a minor variation on a theme I’ve heard THOUSANDS of times before; and most importantly, it’s unnecessary. It draws me away from what I really care about (my gameplay) and tries to make me care about the life and struggles of Random NPC #81022753.
Look, Farmer Bill, I don’t care about your crops. I don’t care if your daughter is the apple of your eye. I don’t care if she’s precocious and won a ribbon at the village fair for training her pig to dance. I just want to know what, exactly, you’re asking of me. You want me to find her? Sure, I might be willing to do that for you. Tell me where she went and cut to the chase.
But wait… by ignoring the setting, I’m removing the context of my quest. Without context, it’s meaningless. I’m questing, not because I care about the farmer or his daughter, but because I want the rewards I’ll get for completing the quest. Isn’t that kind of missing the point? Yes, and no.
One of the major problems I have with modern MMOs is their over-reliance on treadmills. Players are always enticed to seek out experience and loot and reputation – achievement, achievement, achievement. We’re never expected to care much about the journey itself, but rather to always focus on the destinations. Modern MMOs are all goal-oriented, to their detriment.
Look at roleplayers for a counter-example: they don’t roleplay for achievement at all. You rarely if ever get loot or experience or reputation from roleplaying; it’s something you do because it’s fun. For a roleplayer, it’s the journey that matters; the setting, the social aspects… the context, in short.
But not everyone likes roleplaying. How is this applicable to other playstyles?
At the risk of being repetitively redundant in that I’m repeating myself over and over and over… the solution is rather simple: give players more agency. To the extent that we’re telling our own stories, instead of being walk-ons in some random NPC’s story, things become more interesting to us. The more agency players have, the better able they are to do things that are innately interesting to them, instead of simply chasing predefined carrots on an endless treadmill. I cannot help but think that games with greater real agency would have the potential to be a lot “stickier”, meaning better able to retain customers, which is of course one of the main goals in a subscription-based game.
Sure, changing models e.g. from subscription-based to microtransaction-based helps change expectations, but in virtually all MMOs the treadmill still exists, and the destination is always the focus. EverQuest was up front about it when they told players “You’re in our world now”. I think though that players would honestly prefer to be in their own worlds, worlds where they could choose their own adventures instead of following some prescripted story that means nothing to them.