It is always of great interest to me when I visit forums and read about what other players want out of MMORPGs. It does a lot to make me realize that I represent an ancient, out of date MMO philosophy. Some of the design features that players point out I fully understand. Others confuse me to no end. The one I’m talking today is the request for “no gear grind” at the end game. That is just something I don’t understand. Either I don’t get the meaning or I have an extremely different view of what an MMORPG is.
What is a gear grind? My assumption is that these players mean the constant effort to achieve new tiers of gear after they’ve reached max level. There is certainly a whole spectrum when it comes to this. World of Warcraft, with its complete gear upgrades multiple times per expansion and massive inflation, is probably a culprit. I can agree that such a system would seem oppressive and annoying. Too much gear replacement is not fun and does ring more true to the analogy of the carrot on the stick. I’m a bigger fan of the slower gear replacement that EverQuest exhibited. Some items would last an expansion, others two. A few very rare and very awesome items might last three or more. Everything you got two minutes into a new expansion wasn’t automatically better than everything from the one before. If you had done well before you didn’t reach that point until the later half of the content. That is how I like things. I don’t like my achievements to be immediately washed away.
On the other hand I have to ask a simple question. If you didn’t have gear progression what would keep you playing an MMORPG? Some would say alternate advancement points. OKay, I’ll buy that but there isn’t any difference fundamentally. You’re still just continuously playing for an upgrade. Others would say that you just play to play. To that I would say “yeah, right.” I know very few human beings who would continue to play a game that is born in repetition with the only reward being fun or play. Yes, you would have fun doing everything once or twice. After the 10th time you’re going to unsubscribe and if you believe otherwise you may be lying to yourself.
What is an MMORPG without progression of some type? In the simplest terms I’d say it is a game you play for about two or three months. After that you move on to the next game and then the next. Gear (or any type of) progression is essential to the genre. If you want to keep players engaged you’ve got to give them an additional reason to play until the next content patch. That reason has to be beyond fun, friends or some other random notion. A “random notion” that is on the move lately (and I’m certain someone will make a comment about it to refute my premise) is story. Story is the key to Star Wars the Old Republic. It is the PvP of the next batch of MMORPGs. Just like developers thought that PvP was the wave of the future and created a bunch of average to failed MMOs I imagine we’ll see a similar situation with “story.” Yes, I’m going to pre-refute the refute.
Boys and girls, story alone is crap. Yes, I said it. Don’t mistake me though. Story is extremely important. Look at it this way. Think about your favorite game with the most awesome story ever. In my case I absolutely loved Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic. The story was great and I stayed interested the entire time. I couldn’t put it down! Picture that game in your mind. Hold onto it. Feel the flow good cheer about it. Become one with it. Are you there? Excellent!
Now imagine that same game but it costs $15.00 a month. Imagine that you play it three hours a day, four days a week, each year. Let’s build on that notion. Bring into this fantasy that the company that makes your game only adds about eight played hours of story to it every quarter year. Are you going to tell me honestly that you and the average human being are going to continue in that system? You’re not. You might want to fight me on the “story is crap” issue but you know as well as I do that you’re not. That is why if the Old Republic is only relying on story it will be awesome for a few months and then a subscription you cancel once you’ve seen each story. Story has a low replay value. Story brings no surprises on the second or third time through. It just isn’t enough on its own. You need something else!
That something else is progression. The feeling that you are more powerful today than yesterday. The vision that in two weeks you’ll be more powerful than you are today. It mirrors life. You finish junior high and then high school. You get a diploma. You go to college (or not) and in time you get a degree. You find a job and advance. Who wants to work at McDonald’s for 40 years? Not a lot of people. Not a lot of people enjoy repetition and it is most obvious in MMORPGs. It is even more obvious in the stories they tell. That is why it is only one of “four pillars.” Otherwise you have to accept that every story ends the exact same way, “The End.”