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?'... 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. 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 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?


AmandaP said…
interesting read as always. For me it is ALL about the journey. I have never been max level in any MMO I have played (I got close in CoH). If a game isn't interesting to play and have a good setting I am not interested. So those games that are top heavy really turn me of. I am probably in the minority though
Anonymous said…
I guess for me it is the destination. I am a loot whore and a power gamer :p

Recoil said…
Why couldn't you guys focus on both? Make great content for the mid or low levels, or early experience and also provide the end game crowd with theirs? Surely someone is capable of delivering both?
Waldgeist said…
I'll approach this from a philosophical viewpoint. How much weight does a goal have in a finite lifetime, in the context of infinity? To me the only important goals in life are goals, that improve the present "journey". The same applies to games. There are goals in games, that are worthwhile, that improve the journey itself, but in general I don't like achievement, simply because it has no worth; it's an illusion to keep people playing.

On the other hand, I think most people enjoy achieving goals, because our whole culture is build around goals. Advertisement, insurance companies, banks, the state, everyone wants us all to keep running uphill, be unhappy, be afraid, so we keep on consuming, keep on paying and stay brave citizens. Don't think, consume. I know this sounds dramatic, but ultimately that's the goal. There is no evil masterplan behind this though, no one single evil entity to blame, it's human nature.

The people heading the larger companies controlling the market and the advertising are the same achievers. They earn millions, but even they can't get enough. Everyone wants more. Excess for it's own sake.

Enjoy the ride while it lasts, is my mantra, because it doesn't last forever, for no one.
Anonymous said…
Well as the leveling curve is becoming shorter and short (case and point Champions Online, i caped in a weekend) its the end game, it where i spend most of my play time in i see the leveling curve in today games as one giant long tutorial for game, slowly giving you the tools of game and class. The early game needs be good, the middle of the game needs be decent, and the end game needs be epic and very good. Im also disappointed on how Simple T3 is in AOC.

Former legacy of steel raider
Price said…
It is an odd thing, I consider myself a powergamer, but many of my most treasured MMO memories come from what you refer to here as 'the journey'. Maybe I only think I am a powergamer!
iBrock said…
AoC was my first MMO and as I was a new player and as AoC was a new game in 2008, in July of that year I created an account and started an AoC player journey. The experience of seeing the game develop, change, improve, and evolve has been for me a largely rewarding experience and part of the pleasure of being an AoC player. In the early days, there were fewer quick travel options and so you had to plot out a day’s activities to be efficient and that in itself was a challenge that created player-investment. It took me a year of weekends (mostly as a solo player) to finally level a character and even at that, I’d skipped the crafting quests and went back and completed 2 tradeskills trees simply for the fun of it. Now I’m enjoying raiding and more social play.

That being said, I’m leveling a second and third ‘toon and I’d like to see more ‘stop and smell the roses’ type content: yeah the mountain sunsets and jungle godrays are great (I’m playing in DX10) and there are some fantastic instances and so on. Yet in replay, I seem to want to move faster except when I find an area I didn’t get to do the first time round. Likewise, when I find an item that I really like, I cling to it (e.g. I had the Coronal Jerkin from lvl 32 to lvl 55: at the end, there may have been better items but I wanted the item cz it was somewhat unique.) I intentionally played a less efficient construct just to keep an item that was less common.

My wife (an avid player of Elder Scrolls V: Oblivion a more firmly sandbox game) has tried AoC too, and although she gets the fun in the social elements, she’d probably only become a hardcore player, if there were more pure exploration, crafting, and player housing (with furnishing and customizing, as her content) not actually for the purpose of RP server type-play, but just as an alternative to pure combat play.

No sir, endgame is not the be-all and end-all: I’ve never tried the siege mechanic (and won’t until it’s smooth) and PvP may not call out to me soon; but in my second foray through AoC, I’m moving faster … even though I’d tell others to enjoy the trip.

My point is this; MMO’s like AoC run on a problem solving mechanic: players are constantly trying to figure out how to level quickly, so as to get access to different play areas that offer different (not always more efficient) choices. If AoC (or games like it) wants to slow players down, then try to offer mechanics that encourage localized ('local' to a space and a level range) activities. It could establish non-crucial activities for problemsolving that actually attract some players to linger in a level-range, to savour that aspect of the game's enviroment. For example, player housing or crafting quests that offer little or no XP (although would offer much renown pts) and which keep some players just wanting to linger within a level-range and play more like they will at level 80 (gathering, grouping, and doing instances) would do this. Maybe a player would enjoy setting up a crafting supply shop (selling rough leather) or a cottage near Conarch, and never want the lvl 80 guild villa. Having played ES: Oblivion myself, I enjoyed scavenging to furnish the cruddy houses as much as or even maybe more so than, I did the main Oblivion gate quest.

To end, I think the good MMOs of the future, will give choices and options for different players to pursue different game play styles all on one server: some playing the linger-and-savour game and others playing the race-to-the-top game: if such a game is balanced correctly, the various player groups with different play styles should support each other.

Love the game! Looking forward to RotGS … You’re doing an outstanding job!
Temporel said…
I think the mistake here is to ask "players". Players is a broad term. So the answers will of course be everything. Even for MMO players. I think trying to appeal to all MMO players is a no-go, the genre is evolving like other games (hear MMO of each different genre for each different part of the market, for each different kind of player base).

Right now MMO's have a journey to high end and the high end itself. Sometimes they use the same mechanics, sometimes they don't. Personnaly, I'm more looking for a single player experience that is not single player (hear I'd be happy with playing single player games in group) and is what I look forward to. So the journey is very important to me. Not only because I like immersion (and it is the key factor here, good story telling through wall of text don't get my attention) but also because that's what MMORPG's were first meant to be (remember the RPG here ;)). But with the current trend I come to ask myself the question if I'm really an MMO player (I played many of them but I usually quit before high end, a couple of exceptions aside)

So I disagree with the first linked preconceptions in that regard. I'm an MMO player (as I play mmo so let's say I'm) who doesn't like high end content because I hate redoing things (exceptions to this if I don't feel like I'm redoing them but most high end content is about redoing things to get a rare reward which I dislike) and high end content is a sort of end to content in my opinion (suddenly story telling comes to an end).

But I agree on the third because people who stay along after the ride is done (and most players now do the ride very quickly considering only high end counts) expect that it's where the game begins or at least where the game should be solid because that's what will keep them occupied for months or years (when the pre-end is only a matter of weeks)

As of all the content "flat" I think it's a good idea if you give the progression to players from a different perspective.

I think it's wrong to make the content solo playable because it hinders the quality of group play quite often (a game that is too easy isn't as much fun). People don't have time to find groups if they dont' have one but they'd not mind that much if the groups were made for them I think (as long as you're aware of how the game works). Star trek does this, APB plans this. (NPC's or players). But it's true that a game need solo content (so that if among a group someone plays more he can still have fun with or without advancing )
...(to be continued)
Temporel said…
...(continued, sry size limitation)
As of reward, I think we're all running after them. And for high challenges you need high reward. I tend to not like games where the reward is generic or unworthy. Although I won't do the challenge just for the reward (except if it's really good looking hehe. How many times I did Main System for that specific helmet >_< ) but because a story/quest would have brought me there. Also it's more fun if the reward drops (sort of feels like a unique chance) rather than a quest reward (everybody get's it, reduces the uniqueness feeling).

Maybe a game shouldn't try to please the majority but have solutions to bring to players who like high end and another game for players who like the journey. Each with different kind of content.

In AoC I saw many players skip the fun dungeons to reach the high end. But it's true that once pass the level you don't have any incentive nor challenge to do them. That's where a content flat game gets interesting.

Aion for example is the example of what to avoid. The journey is long but uninteresting (take first 10 level and redo, just like in WAR but in a very very slow and unrewarding way) but it allows people who made it to feel "special" because of it's length. doesn't mean ofc that the game isn't solid (just that it doesn't appeal to me).

And Lotro is a game that has a great immersion value but lacks some of the rewarding effect of advancing (and is also a bit limited by the very setting that made it shine)

So the best is to make a journey game (which I hope TSW will be) with flat content and mechanics to keep players interested aside of that journey (could be pvp for some, crafting, housing, or new mechanics but they need to stand aside from the reward/journey mechanic).
or to make an high end game (what most MMO's tend to become, a fake journey just to reach the usual high end) but not try to do both.

Now the problem is that the first is harder to make than the second, because a journey based game need more content (some that can be redone ofc be it through dynamic dungeons or story telling to give a reason to do so) and content takes time to be created. I think this new breed is the future but it sure provides design challenges.
When you see most blockbusters nowadays (or at least praised games) the strong story telling is what made them stand out (but also their technical side ofc). Somehow I think that people are ready to be more immersed than they used to be (that is why I find it funny that MMO's are often going the other way around).
evilek said…
I think both journey and goal. Actually have you ever played Guild Wars ? You hit max level very quickly but it's only beggining of journey tbh. And that's what I really like there. Every other campaign bringed some new experiences.

Also whole story was great. Other thing is that you could actually play single if you didn't have a mood to team up and use henchman.

I actually prefer more journey style but not journey of leveling but I'd like to see in AoC some great content for 80's which allows you to enjoy your ride. And less invisibile walls to allow people explore - I remember jumping into vulcano in wild land and was really disappointed as there was no fire and lava inside just omni light :) Though I never made to get there again.

I'd like to see more instances done in so great way like Xibaluku. It have really nice atmosphere and you actually have to think sometimes when fighting bosses or moving through instance which is great.
Per Terje Aune said…
Age Of Conan was my first MMO, and I dove into it ready to immerse myself in a world I had read about in the Conan stories and comics all my life. I had a fantastic time playing my barbarian through the various locations in the world, and never once cared about a reward beyond seeing new locations and encounters. So for me it was all about the journey. I was totally immersed in the world and the challenges I brought my barbarian through. And I loved it!

I'm a solo player by heart. And even though I raid with my guild, the feeling of immersion was lost when I neared the end of the game. The game went from being an atmospheric experience to becoming just a game. And it is a little sad that the end game content, the destination and the rewards, are all about a purple greed for new equipment that can only be acquired in time consuming groups. It turned out to be an anticlimactic end to what had been a fantastic journey to that point.

I know it's difficult to satisfy all playstyles, but if there is one thing I'd ask for in a game like Age Of Conan, it is that the story takes center stage and that people can choose how to make their journey through it. With as rich and entertaining a world as Hyboria available to you, I feel it's something of a waste to make the ultimate destination a hunt for equipment through repeating raid dungeons that steal too much of my time.

I'm looking very much forward to the expansion, and here's to hoping my barbarian's journey through Hyboria will continue where it left off. I did have a blast, so keep up the good work :-)
Xavier said…
I am torn, I do not like raiding all that much, at least not repeating it, but I LOVE the effort taken to first figure out the end game. When I play a new MMO now I find the questing and levelling to be mundane, boring and just a barrier to me getting to enjoy the actually really fun parts of the game.

So I love the end game, and hate the journey, but want the game to be about more than the end game too!

am I a hypocrit?
Kjell Antvort said…
I think you are spot on in saying that; "The risk is that as design moves towards pleasing the majority, we lose site of what makes these worlds immersive in the first place." However, SA_Avenger makes a legitimate point in saying; "I think the mistake here is to ask "players". Players is a broad term. So the answers will of course be everything. Even for MMO players."

Through extensive research one can "learn things" about the majority. As you have observed, what players say tend to differ from how they behave in interaction with the game, so even a research approach must be given careful design-consideration. Large scale, cross-game and mixed methods comes to mind. The options in having the "who is the majority?" question answered naturally also differ if you are at the early planning stages of a brand new MMO, or aiming to improve an MMO with a more or less established player-base. If the latter is the case, that very player-base will have been formed by marketing and design-choices already made. Also, the player-base will likely be influenced by trending opinions (through forums and other social media) in the player community.

As for me; The journey, without doubt. Much like in RL, the destination tends to diminish the journey more often than the other way around. The MMO of my dreams would have no end-game, doing away with (to me) undesirable elements (and player-types). Instead there would be a multithreaded continuous story-line so tightly packed with personal choice and balanced rewards that "an end" would be the ultimate let-down. The question is, would there be many enough players like me to pay your salary?
Adamo said…
nice topic,

let me help:

BOTH, of course.

How can this question seriously be asked or diskussed?

A good and entertaining journey simply is as precious as it's destination in a matured mmo - who wants to doubt this?

From the games point of view, this of course is no fundamental financial question (like: do you want beans or peanuts, sir?), but pretty much more a for->to -thing.

Some games have nice journeys, some nice "destinations".

The "better" mmo, that also is fee required of course should fulfill both aspects at the same certain high quality level - no question.

Not because player expects and "want to have this", but pretty much more because the "better mmo" is able to attend in both aspects and - as a result of this - is able to respond a higher range of mmo gamers this way;

probalby (especially in this case) also for longer times too....

Here again, very often, simple answers are the just best.

all the best.