Why gold farmers will save MMOs
The MMO genre is going through a rather interesting period right now, the oversaturated marketplace looking poised for a spectacular crash. With so many developers rushing to create the next World of Warcraft, the MMO genre has become flooded with a deluge of underwhelming Free2Play titles, with plenty of older games making the transition to the free model as well. Even the mighty World of Warcraft seems to be losing thousands of players daily, while the predicted MMO messiah Star Wars: The Old Republic has fallen short of many player's expectations.
In short, nobody is really dominating the MMO space, and with plenty of new competitors like Firefall and Guild Wars 2 still on the way, the market it only going to become more cluttered. With most of these studios hoping for success by simply copying the already failing WoW formula, many are sure to start dropping like flies.
The problem is that none of these developers seem to tackling the fundamental question which has plagued MMOs since the genre's inception. Namely, what is the incentive to play? What is the goal?
For the longest time, giving players access to a fun time has been the only design tenet of the MMO, but it's clear that this simply isn't enough. WoW rose to mega popularity simply because it was one of the first games to offer the now-standard MMO novelties, and players were quickly hooked on the psychological addiction of completing quests and sets of armor. Humans are very goal oriented creatures, so simply giving us a checklist to complete is usually enough to reward some pleasuring endophins, even when we're simply destroying imaginary goblins to fufill some quest requirement.
That's the thing, MMOs are basically a drug, and like any drug people start to build up a tolerance, making it that much harder to snag the next high. So, when a new MMO is offering the same tired questing routine as the last one we played, the fun level starts to drop off, and taking down the big dungeon boss can become yawn-worthy.
The big problem is that MMOs offer no tangible end goal. Traditional media has an ending, which makes it very easy for the consumer to focus on that goal. The moments of boredom you experience when reading a book or watching a movie, are offset by the fact that you know there's an endpoint, a very clear and obvious place where you can feel satisfaction and reflect quietly on what you've experienced. However, MMOs are structured to go on forever. This means players begin the game without any end goal in sight, which for many, is enough to discourage play from the get-go. Imagine I hand you a book and tell you there isn't an ending, you just keep reading until you get tired of the story. Kind of weird when you think about it, and one of the major reasons traditional gamers refuse to pick up an MMO.
The point is that MMOs need to realize that simply expanding upon the already existing elements is barely enough to craft a major hit. Bioware is learning that now, as though they won a Guinness award for most voice-acting in anything, they failed to realize that plot presentation is probably the least important aspect of a game's success. What we need to give players are not simply advances of the core elements, but an entire redesign of the reward structure. We need to give players something to strive towards, and it needs to be more concrete than "a really powerful character." Playing and enjoying the game can no longer be its own reward. It just isn't enough.
This why Diablo III's real cash marketplace is such a brilliant idea. Like it or not, capitalism has trained the human brain to recognize cash as the most desirable of all tangible rewards (tangible, because no video game is going to reward you with beautiful women). The success of the free-to-play model has already established that illusionary items can have a very real value, and letting players sell those items to each order is an obvious way to introduce that incentive to play. Once players hated the idea of gold farmers cluttering up servers, but by giving every player access to the market, Blizzard has reinforced the idea that the items in their dungeons an actual cash value. Not only does this make discovery of high-level items an even bigger thrill, but continued play is now completely justified. Many gamers feel ashamed to "waste time" playing video games. Sure, playing for two hours and finding a $5 pair of boots doesn't add up to minimum wage, but a little perk like that can definitely keep someone playing. Meanwhile, walking around in a $200 set of armor will make players feel like true masters of the realm, as opposed to jackasses who spent hundreds of hours grinding for imaginary loot.
Beyond these cash marketplaces however, there still needs to be additional ways for players to be rewarded for their game time. After all, the marketplace model collapses if players have no reason to purchase these high-level items: powerful items should increase one's earning potential in very obvious ways. I'm thinking about Magic the Gathering here, where plenty of casual players are content to pick up cards and play with friends, but really addicted parties will invest hundreds into their decks so they can compete at high levels: battling in tournaments for various rewards. Introuducing actual cash tournament play into an MMO is so obvious it hurts, especially with professional gaming becoming a very real thing. There's no reason we can't be creating legitimate MMO "pro players," and though there will be few of them, they present another obvious goal to the rest of the rabble, starry-eyed kids who keep playing, hoping to make it to their level.
The point is that we're not playing Pac-Man anymore. Time to implement real currency and turn these games into a legitimate enterprise.
Embrace the gold farmer.
- Vito Gesualdi is Head Editor of GameZone West. Follow him on Twitter @VitoGesualdi