How did we get here?

Ok, usual drill here. I'll ramble for more than a little on a loosely coherent subject related to MMOs and I'll end asking you good folks out there where you stand on the subject.

Today's topic? What is it that players value more? The journey through a game, or the destination they reach towards the end of it?

A topic that I see debated across many MMO forums, from both players and developers, is whether the aim of an MMO is to reach certain goals or to enjoy the journey. Essentially is it enough to have fun, or has the genre bend towards being more reward and objective orientated to the point where you could argue that the experience is fast becoming being all about the destination. It is also a debate that seems more and more relevant in MMO design these days, is the player really after the reward of reaching their destination or happy to be in it to enjoy the journey? To be honest the question is rarely far away from our thoughts as us developer types try and design MMO titles that aim to figure out how to appeal to players in the long term.

It's also far from easy to answer. A good majority of the questions we have to ask ourselves all really hinge on this question. What exactly is it that the players will find fun and what will keep them playing, and more importantly are those two things the same, or are they possibly becoming mutually exclusive of each other to many degrees?

So what exactly is the issue?

Firstly, this missive isn't really aimed at being part of the various discussions about whether a reward based culture is a good or a bad thing (which seems to be the 'in thing' to discuss in game development circles these days), rather I wanted to explore the specific challenge it presents to those of us trying to design and implement MMO gameplay.

Fundamentally MMO design has shifted to, or at the very least, focused on more heavily, a reward based structure where the experience in an MMO for many players is defined by what they achieve and not necessarily how they achieve it. That in itself is worth dwelling on for a moment. Single player games are defined by the journey through them, how well does it play, how exciting or compelling is the experience? Does it grab your attention and keep it? How well is it paced? All those questions are vital to the success of any single player game, but in an MMO where a player might sink hundreds of hours into gameplay (or even more in some cases) the question of pacing seems to get a little lost, and it is a challenge for designers. Or rather we seem to be moving towards one solution which presumes a certain mind-set amongst players and it all revolves around that key concept of pacing.

Three linked preconceptions of the genre seem to have emerged that are very relevant here and have become lodged in the public consciousness in many ways when it comes to the MMO audience.

One - That the most enjoyable elements of the game exist at the end of the game.
Two - Thus the other content exists to get people to the fun content and should have as few barriers as possible to getting people to where the fun is.
Three - Thus the 'end game' content becomes what the game is often judged on.

Even MMOs that are seemingly set-up to avoid those pit-falls manage to be judged by those same progression parameters. For example how many times have you heard someone claim that a game like EVE online for example is 'only in low sec space or beyond?' or 'only fun when you get to take part in corporation gameplay'? Even in a game like EVE, possibly the most open ended of games on the market, with the most possibilities for differing player experiences, still manages to get coupled with those same expectations. It might not be entirely fair or accurate (personally I have always enjoyed many elements of EVE that don't fall into those categories) but it is hard to deny that the preconception exists.

So why is this a challenge exactly?

Mainly because it changes our outlook in terms of development and has a serious impact on what we might prioritise and when. If the destination is more important than the journey, how much effort should you focus on the journey as opposed to the content at the perceived destination?

In many ways it might even prompt you to ask 'why have a journey at all?'...

...in fact, that is a very interesting question that raises a few intriguing arguments...

...if you don't have a perceived 'journey' would players feel a sense of progression at all? If you made all the content 'flat' (i.e. of a similar challenge level) then there would only be content and everyone would be happy right?

Probably not, since players do like to feel achievement and gain experience and thus progression (in some capacity, be it levels, gear, new abilities, status) is an important element in the equation.

...so even if you have much less of a 'journey' (say a game with no levels for example, or a sports game) you still need to have progression, greater challenges, and thus you end up with part of your game once again being unavoidably viewed as 'the end game'...and then we end up with the same challenge.

In the early days of the genre many of the games were designed for that journey to take a long time, but it was also the intention that the journey was enjoyed and was sufficient to make the player want to continue, in many ways the enjoyment though was in the social interaction as much as it was the game-play. That game-play was rarely worth the time invested if you had been doing it alone. For me at least, my early experiences in a game like Everquest were not fun because of the mechanics themselves, they were fun because I was sharing an experience with other players. It was a barrier for many people though, many people might enjoy the idea of these games, but they would much rather explore them alone. Likewise, with the demands of modern life the time taken to travel, find friends and explore these worlds also acted as a barrier to more people enjoying the genre.

So as time has gone on, we as developers have sought to address those issues, and many of the design elements that took time have been mitigated against by design. More travel options, less meaningful death penalties, faster progression, more directed progression, everything we can think of to find the right balance between an enjoyable exploration and a frustrating time-sink.

Likewise the reliance on playing together has also been reduced as even in the multi-player space the key to a wider success has been to allow players to enjoy the game-play experience alone, in particular the 'journey' through the content, only bringing in more mandatory multi-player experiences once the player has reached that 'end game'.

So the process of addressing previous barriers to more people enjoying the genre has lead, both directly and indirectly, to the way in which people view the content. The content requiring group activity is seen as more important because it is more rewarding, which it 'has to be' for players to feel progression. Thus, as the theory then goes, if you don't make the 'journey' either extremely enjoyable, or if it is too long, you will not have enough players reaching that 'end game' to ensure the long time viability of your game.

More players play these games now than ever before for just those reasons, so it is hard to argue that this was anything other than an essential evolution for the growth of the genre. It has expanded the reach of the genre...it has though also meant we design these games differently.

We have to decide whether you, our players, enjoy the journey more, or is it all about the destination?

In many ways it is a far harder choice than those faced with a single player game where the goal is to provide X hours of entertainment, where X is a very well defined number depending on your genre. It might be five hours, it might be fifty, it might be a hundred, but you know what you are aiming for. With an MMO it is potentially limitless, yet we also know that it isn't really, because to get people to spend hundreds of hours in your game over a prolonged period you need them to feel rewarded and to preferably be having something they consider fun.

In many ways that is the greatest challenge we face with our games. What should our focus be? We have to understand what elements matter most to the players, what activities will excite them to continue, and which, even with repetition factored in, will they enjoy coming back to?

What players say they prefer, and how they behave in the game also often contradicts itself, mainly through natural human traits. We want a challenge, but we also like the path of least resistance. We want to be engaged and immersed but we also want to spend our time efficiently. No one can really be blamed for those natural reactions, but they do present design challenges.

While a complex issue, it is a fairly fundamental question - do you enjoy the journey through an MMO game and world, or are you more motivated by the rewards for reaching the end of whatever progression is offered?

Personally I hope that the enjoyment of the journey always remains a part of the genre. I want our worlds to be believable and have deep well designed settings. In a genre where repetition is unavoidable to some degree in terms of gameplay, I honestly think that story, setting and immersion are important, I would always like to see players enjoy the journey through the content we create. If we get to the stage where all that matters is really that shiny sword that the dragon gives up when he dies, then I think that will be a sad day. I'll continue to hope that enough people care to want to know why you might want the proverbial dragon to give up his treasure!

The risk is that as design moves towards pleasing the majority, we lose site of what makes these worlds immersive in the first place. If all we care about is the progression and the reward what merit does actually creating back-story, setting, place and time actually have?

Likewise if we place all the 'cool stuff' towards the end of an experience are we doing ourselves a disservice? Our challenge there is that players want that sense of progression, and we get back into the cycle of judging later content as more important. You can already see many games where players breeze past well designed, fun and even repeatable content simply because they want to progress past it. It is the destination, it is calling you, it must be reached. You will be judged purely in relation to it. It is calling.

It's almost like a catch-22 situation. We might think it's cooler to just have the 'cool content' and try and overcome this design barrier as well, it is a logical solution, the next step, but then when we do there might not a sense of progression, and then is the 'cool' enough? Anecdotal evidence would suggest not...

...and thus the dilemma...

So what do you think?

Given this one has been a slightly longer ramble than usual, over to you folk out there! What do you think is more important to your MMO gaming? For you personally, is it about the journey or the destination?
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