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Barriers to MMO Entry: Game Mechanics and Personal Preferences

September 26, 2009
Taken from my personal screenshot library, Sept. 21, 2003

Taken from my personal screenshot library, Sept. 21, 2003

Note: Adapted from my original post on MMeOw.net.

Now that we’ve moved on from account management issues as a barrier to entry in MMOs, it’s time we talk about another important barrier to entry: the game mechanics surrounding the MMO you’re playing or trying out.

As a term, “game mechanics” has certain connotations, so let’s define the term for use in this article. In this particular article, “game mechanics” shall refer to both internal (in-game) and external (relating to the game) aspects of MMO that a player can perceive and possibly use but not directly influence or change.

One common factor among MMO enthusiasts is that each has his own set of needs and expectations when it comes to playing a game. Because they are needs and expectations, satisfaction from the player can be derived when those needs and expectations are met through either research of the game in question or actual play. These needs and expectations also change through time, sometimes necessitating either an internal change from the player or an external change in the type of game played.

What am I talking about? Let’s take a look at the game mechanics of a couple of MMOs I’ve been through and how they relate to player needs and expectations for further insight.

I first started playing MMOs in 2003 when Ragnarok Online had a Philippine version created for it and released as an open beta. Now, as I was a college student then and money wasn’t exactly rolling in, a free open beta of an MMO was a godsend. Also of great import was the fact that, at the time, I did not have a dedicated gaming computer, so there were limitations regarding what I could actually play, hence no high-graphics games for me.

The gameplay was more or less a skill-mashing festival, and forced a lot of grinding upon the individual player if he wanted to get anything cool, but at the time, it didn’t matter so much. I had free time, and I also had patience, so acquiring 120 pieces of a specific type of lumber that could only be acquired by killing undead trees in a zone filled with other people wasn’t a biggie, even if it was annoying.

When it finally became ready to release the game a few odd months later and prepaid cards were distributed to stores for play, I was less than enthusiastic about purchasing the time cards because my needs and expectations remained the same. At first, I accepted an internal change, which was to suck it up and use my allowance to play. When it became evident, however, that the grindfest was becoming more of a problem than an annoyance, I stopped entirely.

In this case, the needs and expectations were for essentially free play, regardless of the quality of the gameplay involved. When an aspect of the game changed and something had to give, I chose to adapt by leaving it.

In 2006, I gave World of Warcraft a spin, and spent seven months straight playing the game for approximately five to eight hours a day. I was fresh out of college and looking for a full-time job, and I had some disposable income through a part time job tutoring.  Because I had disposable income and a gaming computer as a graduation gift, my expectations changed somewhat. I didn’t want the grindfest of Ragnarok Online Philippines but something new, and something with a good story that would keep me preoccupied when the jobs weren’t forthcoming.

Again, it was a fresh new world, and I’d grown to be part of a guild, one that also helped define what I wanted from the game: a sense of community.  For a newcomer to WoW, the game was everything I was looking for. When I hit level 60 though, the game started to have shades of Ragnarok in it, with the weekly runs to Zul’ Gurub for loot and progression.

I left the game in August of 2006, not only because I was getting tired of the grind, but also because I had found a solid full-time job. As a person, I had changed, and because the game could not change with my needs and expectations, I also chose to leave. (Note: I did come back for the expansions, but always left after hitting the level cap.)

Now that we’ve discussed WoW, we can move on to a very short phase in my MMO life: two weeks of Age of Conan. I was swept in by the fervor of a friend at work, and for all intents and purposes really liked the game and could play it in bite-sized chunks. The thing was, Age of Conan at launch had one of the most awesome starting areas and my favorite type of combat mechanic… but it then tapered off in terms of quality after Tortage.

This time, the game fit my needs and expectations perfectly, but did so only to a point, and when that point was reached, it couldn’t sustain my interest.

And so we come to Lord of the Rings Online, and my current set of needs and expectations. In its current incarnation, LotRO definitely holds my interest not because I’ve read the books (I tried but failed), but because there’s literally an epic story for your characters to follow outside of the source literature. The Warden class I researched on plays almost like AoC’s combat mechanic, plus it’s entertaining regardless of how much or how little time you spend on it. Also, Turbine’s customer service and developer blogs show that they’re pursuing their customer’s interests to the best of their abilities and actively listening to their base . More importantly, I’m part of a mature kinship that understands I can only play when the situation allows me to.

The barrier to entry here may not be as evident, since I’ve played some of these games for longer than a passing glance, but the basic premise is there: the game mechanics of an MMO must appeal to an individual’s set of needs and expectations, otherwise, that individual may choose to adapt to the situation by leaving the game entirely.

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