Friday, July 6, 2007

Nice MMOs Finish First

WoW is obviously the most successful MMO of all time, and even if half the player base left tomorrow, it'd still be far and away the most popular. WoW is to MMORPGs what Halo was to shooting games, only much more so - many, many people who do not play MMOs or even videogames in general play World of Warcraft. WoW clearly did and is doing a ton of things very right.

One major thing that WoW does that I think makes it a winner is that there are very few points of frustration. While some aspects of the game are challenging, everyone can level at a fairly steady pace; there's no such thing as being 'just not good enough' to make it past level 46 or whatever. There's no getting stuck (until maybe your guild is raiding, and players who are that far in are usually very entrenched).

I've played games (not modern MMOs, but text-based MUDs) where dying hugely crippled your character. You could lose all your money and gear and several hours worth of experience, if not more. I can tell you that I've burned through a huge number of MUDs, and have never stuck with one even though I always enjoy them to start. Obviously there is no MUD in existence that's a fraction as good as WoW is, but the primary reason I leave is because of how unfriendly the systems are. WoW wisely took a painless deaths approach, where you only earn a small repair bill and a corpse run when you kick the bucket. I can tell you that dying in a game where death is a big deal is a -huge- disincentive to continuing to play at all.

WoW, for the most part, doesn't let you REALLY screw up. Decisions you make as an inexperienced low-level character don't doom or even slightly gimp you later on, as is the case in many games where players manually allocate points to stats. A character's race is primarily a cosmetic thing, as stat differences and racial abilities for the most part have relatively little influence. Sure, every human priest wishes he was a dwarf instead (or now, a Draenei), but it's not like you ruined your character by making a wrong race selection.

Blizzard's official reason for disallowing PvE to PvP character transfers is that there's an uneven leveling environment, which is true. I suspect that there's a stealth reason also behind the rule, stemming from a desire for regret control. I suspect that in many cases Joe Stabbystab, who originally rolled on a PvE server, and who now wishes to transfer to a PvP server so he can gleefully gank him some horde isn't the PvP badass he thinks he is, and would regret the transfer. Player regret is bad for the game's health.

Now, I'm not saying that a game will be more successful if you remove all opportunities for regret and its cousin, frustration, because I believe that players like it if their decisions matter - for every bad feeling that comes with having made a bad choice, there's a potential good feeling for having made a good one. There are many cases where they already do, such as profession choices, spec and gear choices, and the entire realm of money management. WoW's winning plan is to make very few choices totally permanent.

In addition to producing fewer that's-it-I'm-quitting moments, limiting frustration, regret, and massive sudden disappointment (You're dead! There goes all your gear!) also lets players just play the dang game. I like being able to explore or try crazy things knowing that even if something goes horribly, horribly wrong, the absolute worst thing that can happen to me is that I have to spirit rez. You know what's not a good feeling? Desperately racing back to your corpse, hoping that it hasn't been totally looted.

WoW wins because WoW is friendly. No matter how h4rdcor3 you are, experiencing routine setbacks and periodic disappointment and frustration can be grating and erodes a desire to play. WoW manages to be very friendly without being kiddy or unchallenging, and has ridden the formula to unprecedented success.

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