Designed to Grow

As an offshoot to the discussion over at Psychochild’s blog concerning Dread and Hope in Lord of the Rings Online, I wanted to expand on something I touched on in my comments there.

Originally, dread and hope in LotRO was a flavor.  It danced around the edges of your play.  You would run into a little dread and have to find a way to combat it, either through adding hope or just by more cautious play, going slow instead of rushing in due to your reduced stats making your character less effective.  However, as the game has expanded and they’ve raised level caps and added new content, they fell into the same trap that has caught every other game.  Dread and hope aren’t just flavor anymore, they are now a core mechanic.  There is content you cannot participate in without enough hope, so people are forced to wear the radiant gear that provides it, limiting choices.  In the future, I expect as people complain about not having choices, more hope gear will become available so that it opens up more choices to the players, which in turn will trivialize hope and it will become like the other stats on items: mostly ignored as long as you keep enough of it around.

The failing here, at least in my opinion, is that they designed something that was pretty awesome as a flavor to the game, that added a narrative and story element to the game that also was based in the mechanics of play, but didn’t, in their core initial design, plan for expansion.  Because they didn’t leave room for the core to grow, they’ve had to co-opt the flavor and make it core in order to give players somewhere to advance that wasn’t just more of the same.  Personally, I liked dread and hope the way they were, and feel they’ve lost something with it becoming “just another stat” that characters min/max.

Of course, I’m also a proponent of games with less “advancement” (usually found in the form of grinding levels and stats, mathematical increases) and more “story” (more places to go, more things to do).  For me, gear in games is just the tool that allows me to pass the artificial barriers the designers placed in game to wall off content.  I’d prefer they didn’t wall off the content and just let me experience it as I came to it.  But then, MMOs make their money off time invested under the subscription model, and if they allowed me to play the whole game at the speed I wanted, they’d get less of my time, but more of my support, which, ironically gets them more of my money as I’m more likely to remain subscribed to a game with lots to see and great story over one that is just a gear grind-fest.

Anyway, back to my original point… most games seem to run into this as they mudflate, as each expansion raises the level cap and they go looking for new ways for people to need to grind out more gear.  They co-opt every element of design and turn them all into points on a scale and suck all the fun and flavor out of them.  I dread games that grow like this, and hope games in the future can avoid it.

One comment

  1. Aaron says:

    That’s one of the reasons I’ve been harping on about dynamics for so long. If MMOs put more focus into replayability and variety than into linear progression, then it would be possible to expand content for all players without diminishing or restricting content for anybody.

    Basically, you make it a bit more like an amusement park — adding a new attraction doesn’t diminish the thrill you get from another one; it just expands your options. In reality, your life can change drastically, you can progress quite a bit, and yet you can still enjoy old places and activities.

    There’s no reason that can’t be the case in MMOs. It’s possible to make progression a core element of gameplay and still make players want to return to old areas and activities. But to accomplish that, interaction with the gameworld must be more dynamic and continually surprising.

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