Over a decade ago, a team at Blizzard took up accessibility as its mantra and made a game called World of Warcraft. A man named Mark Kern led them through countless UI iterations in search of the easiest and most intuitive interface; he directed them to build huge numbers of quests, ensuring the player never had to worry about where to go next.
Now though, Kern works at Red 5 Studios on a game called Firefall. And he worries he helped Blizzard make a terrible mistake.
“It worked,” he says. “Players came in droves, millions of them. But at what cost? Sometimes I look at WoW and think ‘what have we done?’ I think I know. I think we killed a genre.”
Kern pinpoints one particular problem with what he describes as the “creeping casualness that permeates all MMOs” - a gradually flattening difficulty curve. He believes that a sense of achievement is the first casualty of easier questing, and soon enough reaching max level becomes the only real challenge in the game - hence the contemporary MMO player’s obsession with the ‘endgame’.
“Nobody stops to admire a beautiful zone or listen to story or lore, because there is no time to do so,” he explains in a lengthy blog post. “You are fed from a fire-hose of quests that you feel compelled to blaze through, whose content is so easy and quick to accomplish, that you are never in one place long enough to appreciate the incredible world around you. We feel bored by these quests, simply watching numbers on our quest trackers count down to completion before we are fed the next line of quests.”
As a consequence, says Kern, we lose the “whole journey in between”.
The knock-on effect of all this is that developers have no motivation to design intricate or unique quests, knowing that players will simply burn through them with their eyes locked on the horizon.
“This makes the situation even worse, as not only do we not have a sense of accomplishment, but we enjoy these quests chains less and less as they become simpler and more cookie-cutter,” Kern despairs. “The moment to moment gameplay suffers.”
Eventually, Kern writes, developers end up driving away the very players they’d hoped to attract. But this is no slippery slope argument - it’s already happened.
“No wonder we have such a huge crowd of jaded and bored MMO players,” says Kern. “Every MMO that follows the WoW formula is a trivial exercise, dominated by rote and convention, trading off the joy of the journey for a series of meaningless tasks. And when we race to the end, we expect some kind of miracle end-game that will keep us playing.
“It never does.”
With Firefall, of course, Kern hopes to provide an antidote to this - instilling a little challenge and depth into a field long-starved of both. If you’re a former MMO fan, let us know: do you think he’s managed to put a finger on what’s wrong with the genre?