Tasting the Dirt

Wolfshead has started a discussion of risk in MMO’s, titled “The Emasculation of MMO’s: Part 1 – How Convenience Replaced Risk”.

That title alone irritated me. There is an interesting issue here, but by using the word “emasculate”, and by later on saying “…the ability to [take a] risk is what separates the men from the boys…” he gives a gender to the problem.

Yes, those are stock phrases, but the job of the writer, even a blogger, is to use words well, not to fall back on hoary, outdated cliches. That happen to be wrong, if in a subtle way.

Let’s get back to the main issue. Wolfshead thinks that one ought to be scared while playing an MMO. He decries game companies that are “eager to pander to new subscribers”. And they should get off his lawn, too.

Here’s the thing. I like risk in a game. I play EVE for goodness sake, and every time you undock your ship, its cargo, and your implants are at risk. That’s time and money at stake, and it really doesn’t feel good to get ganked, be it by NPC’s or PC’s. But that’s what gives it the thrill.

So that’s an idea I agree with Wolfshead about. A game structure that associates more risk with more reward is a good one. I think there’s another idea lurking here though. I personally like games where your success is not merely predicated on hours spent, but where the brain behind the keyboard matters. EVE, in pvp at least, often has the property, though it often isn’t tactical, but strategic.

However, I don’t think my experience is universal. Larisa responded to Wolfshead’s post by describing the fear she felt as a low level character in WoW, trying to kill the Defias.

Psychochild gets into the act, both in Larisa’s comment section and on his own blog, making the point that risk isn’t the same as difficulty. With all due respect, I think that’s a distinction without a difference.

Failure is the biggest risk for many. It isn’t about how much they lost but that they failed. Emotionally, it can be hard to take, to the point where some walk away from situations where there is a chance that they might fail. Which is a shame. I personally believe that the greatest learning, the greatest growth comes only when one is experience a significant amount of failure. Dying, no matter how you slice it, constitutes failure.

Here’s the thing. Fear abates with repetition. It’s called systematic desensitization. So a veteran player like myself will feel less fear from a situation with equal risk than a new player would. Furthermore, I’m pretty sure that the “volume control” on fear varies widely from person to person out of the womb. And life experiences other than MMOs can result in some desensitization.

So there’s a big range of responses out there to the Defias bandits, going from “OMFG, these guys are going to rip me up! I’m never going to figure this game out!” to “Yawn!”. At heart, game companies are entertainment companies, and their job is to make money by entertaining people, not by scaring them so badly that they run off. Making things easier for customers, especially at the beginning is not “pandering”, it’s their job.

I don’t really think there’s one MMO out there that can satisfy everyone. And recall this, the MMO that was going to go “back to basics” with an increased death penalty, more meaningful (read time-consuming) travel, and more elaborate crafting was a crashing failure. This was not because Sony sabotaged it, if players had flocked to it, rest assured that they would have devoted more resources to it.

In the end, I think there are far more interesting evaluative scales than “how big is the death penalty”. I would suggest “How unpredictable is the game play?”- noting that games with a pvp element have a big advantage in the unpredictability department. But to some people, that’s not a good thing. Another, more interesting scale is “How much scope is there for creativity?” Or put another way, is there more than one way to do things? Can different people with different resources and different interests interact with the same content in differing ways? And also there’s “What’s the balance between gear, character level/skills, and player expertise?” Does the game have a risk-reward structure or a time-reward structure?

4 thoughts on “Tasting the Dirt

  1. With all due respect, I think that's a distinction without a difference.I disagree strongly. Look at a lot of the comments on these articles, and you'll see that the core assumption is that more risk has to result in greater difficulty. I think it's also important to make the distinction from a design point of view that the goal isn't to punish players, but to enhance the experience. As Gordon pointed out, EVE online has a lot of risk and it's enhanced the game for him.Failure is the biggest risk for many.I think one problem here is that a lot depends on perspective. I rarely look at dying as “failure” in an MMO because in a short time I'll be back on my feet and ready for another go in most circumstances. Even a night of wiping to a raid boss isn't necessarily a failure if the group has learned to get a bit further in the hopes of eventually getting the boss down.Here's the thing. Fear abates with repetition.Yes, but fear can be rekindled if you get shaken out of your routine. I think this is ultimately what having more risk is about. Instead of going along on autopilot because “death” is essentially meaningless, you take things much more seriously. If you choose to slack off and do encounter failure due to your sloppiness, it can put the fear right back into you. I think this is one of the big draws for PvP, in that you can't just go on autopilot in most cases; your enemy will be unpredictable because its a human.And recall this, the MMO that was going to go “back to basics” with an increased death penalty, more meaningful (read time-consuming) travel, and more elaborate crafting was a crashing failure.We can argue this point until we're blue in the face, but I'll disagree that the gameplay was the primary reason for Vanguard's failure. From every account I've heard, the game was unfinished with no hope of launching in a stable state. It wasn't Sony sabotaging it, it was the managers not doing their jobs and supposedly in one instance almost completely abdicating responsibility. Even though I'm sure there are some people who put in a heroic effort to even get the game launched, let's not pretend that the launch was smooth and the game was judged by the market purely on the merits of its gameplay.I wonder if you're just getting a bit too set in your ways, elf. ;)

  2. I rarely look at dying as “failure” in an MMOYou are a veteran. Noobs do not, in general, have this attitude. Raiders are pretty much veterans. The attitude you describe is a valuable one, and it is something that is learned.Yes, but fear can be rekindled if you get shaken out of your routineIt sounds like we agree here.I'll disagree that gameplay was the primary reason for Vanguard's failure.It sound like you maybe know more about it than I do. I played it early on, and it was slow at times, and I hated some of the artwork, especially that used to portray redheaded elves. But I wouldn't have described it as broken. But maybe I wasn't that early to adopt it.I'll give you this point, anyway.I'm wondering if you're not getting a bit too set in your ways, elfThat's redheaded elf to you, human! And I'm entitled to at 3000 years old.Actually, isn't the “bring back the death penalty” crowd the ones who are the reactionaries, not me?

  3. You are a veteran. Noobs do not, in general, have this attitude.At which point have I advocated this as being something we should subject newbies to? I've pointed out repeatedly that people can experience less penalties in existing games. I firmly believe that increased risk is something appropriate for veterans.It sound like you maybe know more about it than I do.I followed the launch story. Kill Ten Rats posted about one bit of gossip. I've seen how dysfunctional teams can be. Perhaps there's some exaggeration, but without first-hand knowledge I can't say.That's redheaded elf to you, human! And I'm entitled to at 3000 years old.I don't care what color your hair is if you're going to be a stick in the mud. ;) And, age has nothing to do about it.And, no need to be insulting just because you don't understand what I am. I'm a Xeochicatl.Actually, isn't the “bring back the death penalty” crowd the ones who are the reactionaries, not me?If you've gone down a dead end, sometimes you have to go backwards in order to get back on the right path. ;) Have fun.

  4. I think it depends on the player, it's too simplistic to say veteran vs new. I've a veteran player — I started in EQ a few months after launch. I played DaoC at launch for about a year before returning to EQ, and I've been playing EQ2 since launch. I also played Guild Wars, LotRO, and WoW at various times. I even took another tour of EQ about 2 years ago for Nostalgia.Yet — I don't feel a need for more risk. I don't miss the death penalty. I don't miss repeated wipes and the risk of corpse loss. I do miss downtime a bit (it was way more social) but I don't miss not being able to solo or duo. Is it perhaps a difference between those of us who are more casual and simply group, and those who raid? It's the raiders I hear talking about risk the most, after all. yet even that doesn't seem to hold entirely true — I have friends who played EQ at launch, yet they've been playing WoW since IT launched, and raid there when they never raided in EQ. They don't seem to want more risk either….

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