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Thoughts on MMO developers saying that they want to relieve the pressure to play

MMOs have long ceased to be a life sentence - unless you want them to be.

It’s no big secret that in our present media-soaked landscape everybody has a backlist that stretches to the moon and nobody has anywhere near enough free hours in the day to ever get on top of it all. It makes sense then that MMO developers are shifting their messaging away from telling potential players that their game will be your one and only forever home, to telling them that it’s fine to go and check out other games.

Final Fantasy XIV‘s producer/director, Naoki Yoshida, has been vocal about this in the past, while Guild Wars 2’s design mantra has always been about “respecting your time”. This week Greg Street joined the chorus by explaining in a multi-tweet thread that the upcoming Riot MMO is being designed with the philosophy that “We don’t want to be the only game you will ever play”.

For me, the key tweet in the thread is this one:

Sounds great for pretty much everyone right?

But then again isn’t this pretty much true of any MMO?

Certainly, I think you could say that about how modern MMO content is being developed (and by modern here I’m talking about pretty much anything post-World of Warcraft). Given the amount of worldbuilding which Riot has been doing in the Runeterra-verse, I think it’s pretty safe to say that the upcoming MMO will be heavily story-focused. That’s the case with all the other major (western) MMOs that Riot’s game is going to be vying for your time and money with, and I can’t think of an instance where those games don’t fit with what Street is saying.

The story content in these games is almost always completely solo-able, and if there are mandatory dungeons as part of the main storyline, group finder tools take out a lot of the stress and tedium of having to rally together a group to chew through it and continue with the story. Rarely will you find yourself truly challenged in such a dungeon – their purpose being to remind players of the multiplayer aspect of the game they’re playing rather than to provide a genuine test of group coordination.

So if you’re the kind of person that simply wants to be on top of the latest storyline developments in a given MMO, there’s no particular difficulty or pressure there, provided you have 200 or so hours to spare.

What Street, Yoshida, and the players who espouse the sentiment that they don’t want MMOs to feel “artificially increased” are really talking about though is endgame content. The endless grind to have the best gear, the highest rank, and the phattest lewt. Back in ye olde days when the genre was new, this was a novelty, and the idea that being able to play in a shared virtual world with endless ways to progress your character sounded like the zenith of escapist entertainment.

These days the term “MMO” is something of a dirty word in games PR, and it’s mainly because of the negative views that players have of the ubiquitous endgame content that all of these games in the genre seemingly share (that and the association with egregious monetization practices and, more recently, blockchain nonsense). Places like Reddit are awash with anecdotes from people who wasted thousands of hours of their lives over years on that one game before the developers went and ruined/closed it. Oh, they had fun at the time they will admit, but in hindsight, they realise it wasn’t worth the time they lost.

Fair enough, but there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. MMOs can still be fun, and you can still have fun playing MMOs without getting sucked into the pressures of the endgame.

I’m going to preface this next point by saying that addiction is real, and if you know that you’re the kind of person who will inevitably get addicted to a game that does everything it can to keep you playing to the point where it can become destructive to your out-of-game life then you should just stay away from these sorts of games altogether and if necessary seek advice from a specialist.

Assuming that isn’t the case however it is really up to you, the player, to decide what you want to do as you continue (or not) playing the game beyond the completion of the main storyline. If you decide to go all-in and find yourself joining a guild which requires a certain level of commitment, then remember that you have the agency to step back if you decide the game isn’t a high priority for you anymore. If you consider those people friends but they berate you for wanting to take some time out then maybe consider that they’re well, not friends.

Otherwise, you can just focus on one of the game’s systems, or even one small part of one of those systems. If you like crafting then maybe you can focus on just crafting potions to give to lower-level players in your guild – still incredibly useful, but without requiring the time needed to seek out rarer materials for high-end potions. Perhaps, rather than grinding for weeks to get that decoration for your grand museum of rarities, you can use easier-to-obtain objects to decorate a cosy spot for you and your friends to hang out. If you’re the sort of person that relishes having acclaim among your fellow players then let me tell you, either of those things will make you a considerably more interesting, memorable person than just being another person who has ground out every achievement, rank, and hard-mode dungeon in the game.

Those sorts of systems however are always going to be there – and rightly so. Some people do still want that challenge, those ultra-long-term goals, that content that requires a big group of inhumanely well-coordinated people. So long as that content isn’t blocking some other essential story or system from players then it’s hard to argue against its existence outside of it maybe being a drain on the developer’s time when they could be focusing on other content.

And yes, rightly or wrongly, things like log-in rewards are probably here to stay. But ask yourself, do you truly need that hot-rod flames weapon skin? Is anybody going to think any less of you if you don’t have the achievement to say you logged in every day for a year?

Like most MMO players, I’ve done my stint as an 8-hour-a-day guild workhorse keeping on top of every endgame system going, and it’s safe to say I have no desire to go back. I still enjoy MMOs, but I just come at them with a different mindset. I get my kicks playing through quests, hitting the level cap, and getting a good aesthetic going for my character. I like to establish my little corner of the world with a house if possible and then I’m happy to just poke my head in now and again to check out new updates, or to soak in the game’s social hotspots and general ambience.

By all accounts that’s still a big, often multi-year (decade?) commitment, and yes, I could be doing something more “productive” like clearing through other books, films, games etc in my backlog, but ultimately this stuff is all just ways of using your free time, and there are always going to be new things added to the backlog so how “productive” is such a thing anyway?

There’s no harm in the point that Street and Yoshida are trying to make. It’s absolutely a positive thing for devs to be reminding their players that you’re not obligated to give them your time, or by extension, your money. The individual has absolute agency to play for as long as they want, and however they want, within the virtual worlds that they’ve designed. The thing worth realising is that we’ve kind of had that all along no matter the game we play.

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