Seeing Through The System

July 6, 2008

One thing I love about kids is that they’re easy to impress: a $1 treat from an ice cream shop, a little slight-of-hand, a wonky ghost story, a special trip to somewhere they’ve never been before. The corollary of that is that adults are much, much harder to impress, and that’s because of one thing: they have learned to see through the system.

It’s honestly one of the suckier things about growing up, in my opinion. As our imagination slowly withers away and the cost of the “toys” that will please us increases, I have to wonder: what killed the magic? I’m reminded of that scene in Knocked Up, where the dad, watching his kid play with soap bubbles, says, “I wish I had something in my life that made me that happy.” Soap bubbles to a kid are wondrous, near-magical creations — bubbles to an adult are mildly amusing, but quickly dismissed as something we’ve seen dozens of times before and have little interest in any longer. We’ve seen through the system: we know how the bubbles are made, what entertainment value they hold, and what functions they perform. We break everything down with our intellect, until nothing remains.

I think it’s very much like that in video games, especially MMORPGs. There’s always a lot of concern among veteran MMO players that the next big title they pick up won’t feel as new or special as that first game that captivated their hearts. And frankly, that’s probably what’s going to happen. It might be good, it might be great, but something will be missing. Something intangible that seems lost forever. They’ve seen through the system to the base elements of the game, the mix/maxing of stats, the nitty gritty theorycrafting, the best path to power level, the enormous wealth of information they’ve absorbed and memorized until there’s nothing new under that game’s sun. For them to go from that game and into another one, expecting a repeat performance, is almost laughable. They’ve gone too far, and they’ll have a lot less time to enjoy the new, wide-open, magical feeling of a game before they fall back into the stat-crunching tactics of the previous one.

What you’d really have to do is to engage in some sort of memory-erasing venture, eliminating the knowledge of any MMO beforehand so you can experience this one all tabula rasa.

I hate to bring his name up again, but Richard Bartle’s interview with Massively is a great example of this. Designers, more than anyone else, see through the system because they design the system. They’re too close to it, too used to breaking a game down into its core components, dissecting it until it’s just a heap of data and functions quivering on a table. It’s that much harder for them to have “fun”, because fun in this case is not seeing the system for the details, but seeing it as an imagined world full of adventure. I kinda feel bad for devs, because while they’re creating these awesome games for us to enjoy, they’re stripping away a lot of the fun experience for themselves in doing so.

If seeing through the system is really key to high burnout among vet MMO players, and they can’t erase the memories of the past, how can they go into games like WAR and fall in love with the magic all over again? Is it even possible?

I think it is. I really do. But I think it’ll be a path less traveled by most.

The first step is to lower your expectations for WAR. I mean, really lower them. Kill them. Extinguish them. Don’t go into release with the attitude of a child at Christmas who has a mental list of all the toys they need to get to “make them happy” — be that kid who’s just excited that there’s a pile of gifts to open and enjoy! I’m not saying we shouldn’t have standards for WAR, but some of the expectations people levy on this title are bordering on ridiculous. Let me be the first one to tell you: there will never, ever, ever be a game ever made that will satisfy all of your expectations for a “perfect” game with all those anticipated toys. As a gamer, you are ridiculously blessed to live in a time where technology and vision has resulted in some of the most exciting, open-ended, adventurous games in all of human history. Why are you going to ruin that by stamping your foot and pouting that you’ll never play it if a /dance emote won’t be put in?

The second step is to reclaim your imagination. Trust me — you still have one. MMORPGs actually help to foster imagination, which is one of the more beneficial results to come from playing one. So spend some time getting in touch with that thing in your head that dreams in the waking hours. Read some fantasy or scifi or adventure books. Write a short story, even if it’s the worst thing in the world — it’ll be for you, from you. If hooking up with a role-playing guild for the first time sounds like a path to re-sparking your imagination, go for it. Whatever it takes, learn to make more with your mind of whatever you encounter in life. It’s okay, even if you’re an adult.

The final step is to stop. Stop rushing ahead. Stop getting in the mindset that MMOs are like a footrace with some definitive finish line that you must reach before all others. There’s no race, there’s no finish line — there’s just a bunch of fools speeding past content in order to ruin the game faster for themselves than any others. Give yourself permission to ignore levels and just have FUN. Slow down, enjoy the journey, try new things, finish everything in an area before you move on, explore, be social, help others, and ignore the pressure that you, the game and others put on you to level up quickly to reach “the real game”. One of the things I’m going to love about WAR is that “the real game” starts at level 1 — there’s so many things to do from the beginning, it’d just break my heart to skip it all because I felt compelled to hit other content that might just let me down in the end.

If your self-worth in a game is tied to your levels, your ranking, your gear, then I truly pity you. Mr. T pities you too. Some of the happiest folk in any MMO I’ve played tend to not be the uber-geared high levelers, but the ones who have been slowly meandering through the game, doing whatever strikes their fancy, and — wonder of wonders — avoiding burnout because of it.

The system is there, and when you see through it, you’re finished. You might linger on for a while, but really, it’s just a matter of time. The trick is to be Peter Pan — you never want to grow up, you just want to go on adventures and be happy with where you’re at forever.



  1. Great read. I’ll be posting this on my clans website.

  2. i agree on the whole systems thing. once you’ve done everything it really tends to burn you out. although i didnt do endgame raiding in wow I did feel bored simply because it was ALL about raiding and nonsensical pvps like bgs and arnea.

  3. Awesome post! I completely agree. I went into AoC with HUGE expectation that it was the be all and end all for MMOs. I expected huge battles between guilds while they siege each other’s cities, epic landscapes, and a vast world. AoC was not that. It’s a sub-par game. I’m not doing the same with WAR. While I’m excited for it, I’m excited for realistic things that the game can deliver and I’m content with that.

  4. WoW has set the standard by putting the majority of the games content for once you’ve gotten to 70, already having gotten 10 or so days /played in the meantime towards the goal of the “actual fun stuff”.

  5. Very good article.

    Funny thing is, for me, I started reading the fantasy books on the lore of WoW, and that’s what helped take me away form the game.

    I couldn’t feel the same immersion from the game as I did the books.
    It was great to put myself in the world but the feel of urgency that the world was threatened wasn’t in the game the same way it was in the book. WoW the game seemed peaceful, to peaceful.

  6. Great post!
    I’m trying to get in touch with Warhammer’s lore and stuff, so i’m playing Dawn of War and enjoying it a lot while i set myself in the warhammer universe, even though it’s in the far ahead future. Hey, maybe i did manage to travel in time! :O

  7. One method I”m using for WAR when it releases to counteract the “burnout” is to avoid reading every single little detail about the world before I get to it. I want to EXPLORE WAR: find a lair, discover a new potion, try a PQ without reading the story online first, not search through loot databases before deciding whether or not I want to go in a dungeon.

  8. Thanks for that. I’m a new fan of this blog, and that just sealed the deal for me.

    I needed to hear something like that having just recently burned out hard on WoW. I’ve actually already started some of what you said, but you put what I’ve been yearning for into words.

    Thanks again.

  9. Great read 🙂

  10. “The system is there, and when you see through it, you’re finished. You might linger on for a while, but really, it’s just a matter of time. The trick is to be Peter Pan — you never want to grow up, you just want to go on adventures and be happy with where you’re at forever.”


  11. I think that what you’ve described here is definitely A fun way to play. (And it’s pretty close to how I do play!) But it isn’t the only one.

    I wonder if we let MMORPG developers off the hook too lightly. If I buy a first person shooter, I don’t need to pretend that I’ve never played one before in order to enjoy it. If I buy a platform game, I don’t need to pretend I’ve never played one before. If I buy a sim-type game, I don’t need to pretend it is all new to me. I expect the game to be fun straight out of the box.

    And … it’s very hard to go slowly and not fuss about levelling if one of your main reasons for playing is to play with friends who level faster.

  12. “Read some fantasy or scifi or adventure books.”

    This is the single best thing you could do. WoW was so great at the beginning, because I played the Warcraft games and read the books. So, when I stepped into Ruins of Lordaeron (not the arena), saw Dalaran, talked to Thrall, etc I knew what those areas meant. I knew the history and I could now feel a part of it.

    I am doing the same thing for WAR. I have not played TT, but I am reading the Tales of the Old World and then Gotrek and Felix Omnibus I. I hoping that I will have the same feeling when I finally start playing.

    It will also help me to keep from being obsessed during my wait. 😛

  13. Way to turn those frowns upside down, Syp! 😛

    You’ve pretty much described what I’ve been going through with gaming lately. Regardless of the fact that real life has become a much bigger priority as I’ve grown older, it really is hard to be impressed by games these days.

    Even if I do find one I enjoy, it goes against my very nature to “not be hardcore” when I get a new game, which is usually disappointing to me because I have nowhere near the kind of schedule that permits me to actually be hardcore.

    I just need to slow down, take a deep breath, come to terms with where I’m at in my life, and enjoy new games on a different level. I really neglected social play in WoW, so I think it’s high time I give it a try in WAR. I think it will be a lot more fulfilling, given that you can’t be the social play down into the minutiae of ones and zeroes.

  14. …can’t _break_ the social play down…

    Darn typos!

  15. Another great read Syp. I had begun to wonder if I have become too old, too cynical, just too analytical to have as much fun as I used to with MMO’s. Its all about perspective, and when I worked on changing mine I began to have some fun in them again.

  16. Hello, and sorry for my poor english,

    Very interesting comment, but I’m not sure I can agree in regard of Warhammer.
    I’m an old RPG player we really loved Warhammer FRPG. What I’m interested for is the imaginary part.

    For me, Warhammer is not only War, it is a world at war. Definitively not the same for me.

    Most MMORPG have a world, but most players seem’s to dislike the world and are only interested in the killing mechanisms.

    To live in a world, I need to be able to interact with this world, and not only by killing some aliens.
    Once more, most players seem’s to be only interested in the killing mechanisms.

    And if most players seem’s to be only interested in the killing mechanisms, the game will be what most players are waiting for.

    I does not see where imaginery has place in all this.

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