Seeing Through The SystemJuly 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.