The mill of God grinds slow but grinds exceedingly small…

This time last year I was deeply in love with a type of game that was new to me – the MMORPG. Sure I’d played in Second Life for over four years by that point so I had experienced the MMO part, and I had grown up playing paper & pencil role playing games such as MERP & Traveller so I had some knowledge of the RPG part, but to find myself playing a computer game that combined both was a revelation!

LOTRO, for that was the game, quickly proved to be a wonderful time-sink as I had a new world to explore that was free of the irritations that had built up for me in Linden Lab’s creation (lag, crazy management decisions, fugly landscapes, dumb but powerful players) and which offered me a play experience tailored to reaching an impressive goal. Unfortunately, within a few short months I began to realise that the green grass on the other side of hill might just be concealing a lot of thorny brambles.

Now, not having grown up playing MMOs I came to LOTRO as complete & unspoilt virgin. Yes I understood about existing in a 3D virtual persistent world, but I knew nothing about MMO combat or questing or levelling & skill progression. Like a man possessed with the desire to acquire new, exciting knowledge I threw myself into learning everything I could about just how MMOs work and this proved to be such a mammoth task that in my study of the details I simply overlooked the obvious, hulking elephant sat squarely in the room.

MMOs steal your time.

I don’t mean you become addicted and want to play every waking moment. No, every game or hobby does that at some point and it’s a normal reaction when doing something you enjoy to want to do lots more of it. At one time I would have given in and played as much as possible but now I’m married with kids that simply isn’t an option and I have to ration my on-line time and live vicariously through other people’s blogs, videos and podcasts. But this isn’t what I’m getting at when I say MMOs steal your time.

No, what I mean is that in the main the MMO business model makes money either through charging players regular subscriptions or leading them to make repeated purchases from an online micro-transaction store. The games themselves have evolved to feed the business model and a toxic relationship has grown up between them and you, the player. The games either deliberately space out content so you stay in game longer needlessly wasting hours of your time just so you pay another subscription fee, or they cynically build in mechanisms whereby you have to pay hard cash to overcome some inconvenience in the game.

Now I only have LOTRO to fall back on when I want to give examples but from what I hear many other games pull similar stunts to both greater & lesser degrees. To help me explain, let me give you some examples from 10 month playing Turbine’s LOTRO.

When Ranhold hit the right level, I wanted to start the process of getting his three legendary skills from his class trainer. All classes have the same route, you hit 35 (I think) and you can buy three books from your trainer that are ancient texts on your class. Unfortunately, because of their great age, several pages from each are missing and you are tasked with finding them. Once you do you can unlock one of three skills (one per book and presumably learnt from reading the great wisdom contained in each mouldy tome). Now, putting aside many logic issues (such as why rare books are for sale from trainers all over Middle Earth to all the practitioners of your class, and just how come these pages have fallen into the hands of any old bi-pedal creature in certain areas and of a certain level) the thing that really ripped my knitting about this task was how obvious it became that this was a just a mechanic to slow me down. It took me weeks of playing every evening and slaughtering hundreds upon hundreds of bad guys to find these pages and this was simply to keep me in the game long enough to charge me more subscriptions fees. Each book *could* have been gathered in a series of instanced quests that would have felt more logical and been far more fun than mindlessly hanging about waiting for the same orcs you had just killed for the twentieth time to respawn in exactly the same spots so you could kill them all again for the twenty first time and hope against hope the Gods of Random Number Generation would smile on you this time! But you see, the trouble with a quest line is it can be done in an evening and that isn’t good for poor old Turbine who want the poor sods playing their games to spew up more & more moolah. They can’t reach through the screen and pick your pocket so instead they manipulate their game so they can steal your time and charge you for it.

This wasn’t the only example, oh no. Reputation grinds always acted as a break on the story by stopping me in my tracks just so I could collect a bazillion twigs for no good or logical reason. Or what about kicking the crap out of several hundred (bad) dwarves in one mine just so I could get a goat from some (this time good) dwarves in another mine that would allow me to get around yet another mine full of dwarves (of which orientation I was past caring). And let’s not forget the three tasks assigned to you at around level 50? The ones that see you travelling all over the sodding place just to collect rare-ish drops from slugs and orcs and turtles and wargs and Uncle Bloody Tom Cobley for all I know? Why? For what reason?

To waste your time. To make you pay more.

And then there are the cash shop sinks. Every expansion Turbine seem to add a new grindy mechanic that includes an item you can get in game if you spend hundreds of hours killing hundreds of orcs just so you can then upgrade your Legendary Item in a system so designed to strip the fun out of feeling heroic you can only imagine it was designed by people who use Microsoft Excel to read War & Peace. Brian over at CMP said in one of his recent podcasts that he had resigned himself to the fact that every time Turbine put out a new expansion or update there is a very strong chance they will also add a new mechanic that will drive people to the store. This, to me at least, is simply not acceptable and not something I can accept.

But, I hear some of you say, I’m a Jonny Come Lately to these games so who am I to say that grinding is pointless or that adding cash item mechanics are bad form? True enough. I don’t speak for all MMO gamers, just me and I’ve spoken to lots of folks who love, or at least don’t mind, gathering reputation items and measure their success in gathering rancid pages from rotting orc corpses as quickly as possible. It’s just that it is not for me. I don’t like a company rationing my enjoyment of a game I’ve paid for. No, what I want is to buy a game and then play it how the hell I want to. I don’t want to have to spend hours and hours repeating menial, boring tasks. I may still choose to do that, but *I* want that choice and that is something I don’t think Turbine every truly offered me.

I also don’t like to feel as though I’m a wallet with legs to be opened and emptied when they feel like it. I want to feel like a valued customer and again I don’t think that Turbine have ever really demonstrated that I’m anything but a sucker to them.

Now please don’t feel I’m hitting just on Turbine here. Obviously I am but only because they are the only ones I have any experience with and I’m sure many game companies and their games are the same. I don’t play LOTRO any more and I’m damn sure I won’t play any game if I read even one review that mentions how grindy it is. Like refusing to continue reading bad book, life is too short to piss away playing games that just aren’t fun.

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6 comments

  1. I so agree with you. I started off the same way. SL -> LOTRO -> SWTOR. I did love LOTRO, but when it got too grindy, like 6th months in, it actually got too painful. So I jumped over to Guild Wars and loved it. Pay once play forever, whenever! 🙂 So now am hoping that GW2 will prove to be the game of games! So far they’re doing a pretty good job of it! 🙂
    Keep up the posts, I enjoy reading them! 🙂

    (if you’re interested mine is http://qamarkwinta.blogspot.com/ ) 🙂

    1. Brilliant! I didn’t know a) you had a blog, abd b) we had such similar backgrounds! I’m going to read your blog tonight 🙂 How long were you in SL? Did you ever see The Show Must Go On?

  2. (TL;DR version at the end)
    The general sentiments you expressed here are, in fact, the major reason why the MMO genre isn’t more popular.
    There are many folks who have never even dipped a toe in to see what it’s like due to their abhorrence of the financial models employed by the publishers/developers of such games. Combined with the truly flawed systems and mechanics the developers are motivated to put into these games in support of those financial models, and well… it begins to look rather amazing that anyone played these games at all.

    I was so enamored with my first experiences in this genre (EQ and UO) that I was willing to accept almost any stipulations so I could participate. Nothing could disuade me from diving in head first; kill stealing, brutally punishing corpse runs, corpse campers, out right theft by other players, hours and hours spent “waiting” for a whole variety of reasons (anyone who experienced the boats in early EQ knows what I’m talking about.) None of it detracted from my initial feelings of awe and excitement over being in a persistent online world with other players from all over the Earth.

    My own path through the MMO-landscape was a long and twisting one… beginning with EQ and UO (for roughly 5 years) then proceeding on to Vanguard, EQ2, and WoW (with multiple years spent in each of those) and finally touching briefly on some other more recent titles like LotRO and RIFT (only very briefly in each of those to only to my own evolving attitudes – they were not substantially different from their predecessors in the amount of abuse they heaped on their players.)

    Over the course of 10+ years of MMO play, through numerous titles, and equally numerous guilds and associations, as well as friendships with other players, my attitudes towards the genre in general evolved and changed. After rubbing up against the abrassive systems and mechanics in these games over this extended period of time I became more and more sensitive to them, and far less tolerant…

    I finally reached a point (approximately 3 years ago now) where enough was enough. Until a MMO game could provide the persistent online world without all of the abusive nonsense, and preferably without the narrow restrictions of a “trinity-based” class system as well, then I would no longer antagonize myself with them. My tolerance level for BS from MMO developers remains, to this day, at zero… and that, is perhaps the greatest endorsement I could ever give to Guild Wars 2, because I am not only buying an MMO again, and planning to play it exhaustively, but I am truly in love with one again, and I did not think that was ever going to happen.

    *chuckle* During this last BWE, I was explaining to a much younger and less experienced player what a “corpse run” entailed. They had become upset at experiencing a “defeated state” in the Ascalonian Catacombs dungeon a few times as a result of taking on the more challenging content of the explorable mode. I was trying to give them the benefit of my past experience and a greater perspective by describing the brutally punishing, truly abusive consequences of dying in original EverQuest… the loss of EXP, and coin, and equipment… and having to run “naked” back to the scene of the crime and all the dangers associated with that, not to mention often needing to defeat whatever had killed you in the first place, and this time WITHOUT any of your best equipment… followed by the time spent in “exp debt” as you slowly worked back to just breaking even on experience – hopefully before you logged out for the evening. LOL.

    The shock and horror expressed in the reaction of this player gave me the benefit of his perspective as I was trying to share my own. We were all insane back then. So overwhelmed with the new experience of MMO gaming that we accepted patently ludicrous game systems and mechanics.

    Do not mistake me, I enjoyed my time in those games greatly… ignorance is bliss, and I simply didn’t know any better, but I could never go back to such hideously abusive games and be able to enjoy them for even a moment.

    TL;DR: I completely agree with you, and believe the sentiments you expressed are the reason more folks don’t play games in the MMO genre. You are a better man than I for having recognized these practices in a far shorter time than it took for me to develop that understanding. I consider myself extremely lucky to have finally found (after a long hiatus away from the genre) another MMO that does not employ those financial models or abusive systems and mechanics; GW2, and I am looking forward to playing it for a considerable period of time.

    1. Sometime I feel I missed a lot not being around in the early days of MMOs, but then I hear horror stories about the loot stealing and endless grinding and I know I would never have stuck at it. I came to Second Life two years after it went public and in my early days there I often found myself wishing I had started when it opened but I think the technical difficulties they faced in the beginning would have driven me insane. No, I’m better off joining the party late and running like a mad fool to catch up.

      Now when it comes to GW2, for the first time ever I don’t think I’ll regret being there at the start. Arenanet have done so much (and continue to do so!) to ensure the game runs well and is just fun at all times that I don’t think I’ll ever look back and think of these early days as a trial.

      If more MMOs don’t start adopting the simple idea that “grind is dull, fun is all” I will be amazed! I know it willbe all but nigh on impossible for an old game like LOTRO to change, but all new games need to look closely at Arenanet’s ideas before they even put pen to paper. A good combat system (TERA), a great setting (LOTRO), public events (RIFT) & a strong personal story (SWTOR) are not enough if not bound together and presented together in a world where the grind is either removed or made more fun.

      1. We’re in complete agreement again, but what will really dictate whether or not the industry as a whole modifies its approach to development will be the financial success (or lack there of) for GW2.

        It’s actually difficult for me to see a scenario where positive “word of mouth” does NOT fuel an escalating player population resulting in GW2 out-performing other contemporary MMO titles by a wide margin. I’m quite biased. Although I will express negative opinions about some part of the game or another from time to time, on the whole, my experience in the BWEs for GW2 has been incredibly positive. Perhaps the most significant thing that GW2 accomplishes is the encouragement of social interaction, and the ease with which players can play together in a complimentary fashion. It just seems obvious that this sort of gameplay will “catch on” and appeal to an extremely large number of folks.

        If GW2 turns into the runaway success that I believe it will, then other development studios will of course attempt to emulate it, and that can only be a good thing for players imo.

        1. Aye, money speaks and only if GW2 does well will other companies emulate it. On a side note, I just don’t understand how they could have bankrolled the development of GW2 for so many years and it still not seem that their backers are demanding a release to recoup costs. They must have sunk millions into it!!

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