Year 2032: The dark age of gaming is history

, 4 min read

Just in case you didn't know: It's the year 2032. Can you imagine, by now there are 20 year old MMO players that have never heard of grind, the gear treadmill, dungeon timers, monthly fees or the holy trinity. So I was wondering how do we tell them about the dark age of gaming? Do we want to? They would probably laugh at us for having played such terrible designed games! Actually, how do we define the dark age of gaming?

I don't know. It wasn't just one single terrible MMO. Things like grinding were present in almost every MMO. And for a reason: More money to devs by increasing the time a player has to spend in order to be rewarded. People paid money for the service and then they wanted to get something out of their money. And so they played. Hours and hours of the same mundane tasks. Kill ten rats, gather 5 iron. Kill hundred rats, craft 50 gold ingots, kill this boss, acquire that gear, kill the next boss, ...

And the worst thing? They were not alone. MMOs being MMOs at that time, they had competitors! Every monster presented a competition as to who got rewarded for the quest. Every nook and cranny was designed in a way that players don't do what they actually like to do: Playing together with friends. They paid hoping to play together with their friends, to make new friends even. But how do you even make new friends in such a hostile environment? How do you make friends when you have to compete over every single entity in the game?

Let's make a cut here and talk about immersion quest texts. Do you remember the last time you read an actual quest text and what it was about? No? Me neither! But do you remember the last time you completed that insanely difficult encounter, holding up against that elder dragon? I don't know about you but, well, I certainly remember!

In case you never played an old-school MMO before, I'll quickly summarize quest texts. You go to an NPC and left-click him to start a conversation. A wall of text pops up. It probably contains a lot of interesting lore about the area you are in, but you don't care. All you really need to know is at the bottom of the window: What you need to kill or gather; where it can be found and the amount you have to kill or gather. That's all you need to know to complete the quest. The quest text? Well, except for immersive types, no one read them back in the days.

The next thing about NPCs and quest texts is that they didn't reflect reality. A quest text might have said: "Go kill 10 boars for me, they constantly break into my house and destroy the interior." - Here's where immersion breaks. They are not actually breaking into the house. You are presented with a plain field with grazing boars on it. There was a huge mismatch between story and reality.

By now you can probably imagine how boring most MMOs were at that time. You approach an NPC and proceed by killing 10 rats that were waiting for you to kill them. Enemies were not even running away from you but faced you head on! That's how stupid MMOs were back then.

There lies another problem in the way quests are designed. Some of those NPC are damn greedy! If you were to ask an NPC how many ores he received from players at the end of the day, his answer would be a very huge amount. Every player did the same thing as the player before them. Nothing changed for the next player. If the NPC grateful accepts medicine you crafted to help his daughter, he would just stay there instead of running away and helping his daughter.

The game doesn't react on my actions - It doesn't care that I'm there. It doesn't care about anyone else either. NPCs, monsters and the environment can in some way compared to theme park attractions. That's where the term theme park MMO came from. Everything was set up so that an unlimited amount of players can experience a very limited story.

As you can see, quite a lot has changed for MMO games. They went from being a theme park to an engaging experience. We see carrots and sticks being used less frequently. Intrinsic motivation finally wins over extrinsic motivation. More tools for the players means more intrinsic motivation. Give players a sandbox and they will play for as long as they are having fun.

These days you are free. So have fun and explore the (MMO) sandbox!


Philipp Hansch

Full Stack Developer

Philipp is a full stack developer currently heavily involved with Rust. Most notably he's a member of the Clippy team where he helps with bugfixing and documentation. You can follow him on Mastodon and find him on GitHub as well as Patreon.