I’ve been contemplating the meaning of MMO life a lot lately and I’ve come to a realization. We need the grind to come back. That is the next evolution in the MMOs we’ve come to love. I recognize that right now a huge portion of you have read no further than that and are furiously writing a comment about how I’m wrong but hear me out. I think you might actually agree and, if you don’t, you still have the opportunity to comment. Let me explain what I mean by grind, though, before we get too deep.
The term grind traditionally comes from EverQuest. It means sitting in a place and slaughtering countless mobs for long periods of time to make a little bit of experience. It has a notoriously bad connotation and I can see why. You put in a lot of work for a little progress and a single death could take hours away from you. We still do the same thing today but instead we call them quests. I am not part of “we,” though. I call these things chores. Boring, mindless, pointless, chores that your boss gives you at work because he sees you sitting still for one minute and cannot handle that fact. Eleven out of every ten quests are dull and we don’t even respect them enough to read the text. Developers know it so they just color the map for us. Talk to Skippy the wonder rat and run over here. Quest done! That is totally so much better than sitting in a dungeon and killing monsters! That is an entirely different article. To get back on point, in this case when I say grind I am referring only to the speed at which you level. My point is that we need to level slower.
The attitude that has become prevalent among all players these days is that the game starts at max level. This notion used to be reserved only for the super elite like myself (I am no longer a super elite by the way). By that I mean those of us who invested our time in raiding competitively. Everything prior to that was fluff for the masses. We cheated ourselves the great experiences between 1 and max so we could get on to what we deemed fun. That was okay for a small minority of us. That is disastrous for the average player. The average player probably doesn’t want to throw away the majority of their free time dying to a raid mob. It is because of players like me that everyone assumes level 1 to max is worthless and for that I apologize.
As guilty as my ilk and I are in this regard developers have fallen into that mentality too. MMOs are designed to have really interesting beginnings so you become hooked but as you progress content starts to noticeably thin. Middle content is a very low priority behind end content because it is so transitory. Why spend a ton of hours designing a mid level dungeon when players burn through those levels in two days or less? Why indeed! After all, designers need to spend those cycles working on end game content to entertain the huge sum of average players capping out at alarming rates. The cycle is vicious and self supporting.
It seems that this all is justified by the idea that leveling fast makes a player happy. Leveling rapidly and reaching max level fills us with glee! Right? As far as I can tell, and someone may disagree with me, the answer is no. In fact it seems like they’re less happy. I knew hordes of mid level EQ players who were thrilled to explore the massive world and experience all that it had to offer. They could find neat places, dive into a few different dungeons per level range, and generally live in Norrath. This and more was available at release mind you. I’m not talking about ten years later. I’m talking classic EQ1 and then maybe the Kunark addition. These players were typical and many never reached max and they never cared. I’ve also seen horde after horde of average players cap out in MMO after MMO and complain of being bored or having to just grind gear to do anything. Then, when the next game comes out, they go repeat the process there. This is turning into an almost parental situation. You can’t always let your kids have what they want. Sometimes you have to give them what they need. What players need is to realize that MMORPGs, for the majority of them, are a journey, not a destination.
I think it is time to set the clock back and slow down those dings. MMORPGs need to adopt the Dungeons & Dragons model once more where the game is less about reaching the next level and more about enjoying the ride. If it took longer than two days to cross the mid levels we’d see more time invested there. If there were more interesting things to do in the middle, players wouldn’t shot gun through them so quickly. Death won’t set you back hours anymore so progress will always be forwards. Why then do we cling to this new tradition of easy levels and top heavy games?
My assumption is that everyone assumes that grinding means people will lose interest. They assume the WoW players won’t stand for it. To anyone who believes those two things I have something to say. WoW players do not matter. Everyone assumed that when that game hit 11 million players that would bust the industry wide open. Other games could do the same or draw those players off. That has not happened. WoW players jump on new MMOs for three months or less and leave. The market of non-WoW MMO players is still growing at a small rate and those are the people we need to develop for.
In evaluating my last point I’m sure someone will use Aion as an example as why my idea won’t work. I’d argue that Aion better fits my argument than the counter point. Aion has more of a grind than western MMOs, which players complain about, but it offers nothing compelling in the mid levels! Based one my earlier points I have to say of course it is a grind! They took the dull, chore-based system we have now and made the levels slower! Who wants to do that? The game is on a single rail and doesn’t allow you to deviate. As such, this example unjustly classifies the grind. If you’re going to use a grind you have to commit to it and Aion just didn’t. Not in the way EverQuest and other early MMOs did.