The MMOG Philosophy
MMOGs are by no means the very first instance of multiplayer gaming. However, like all multiplayer gaming, there exists a framework by which a player differentiates his or her self from the rest. In a traditional game like Unreal Tournament or Starcraft, the method for ranking players exists almost entirely in terms of skill. Thus, the player with faster reflexes, better coordination and a better sense of tactics will generally outperform and defeat a player with comparably lesser skills.
Unfortunately, multiplayer games such as Unreal Tournament and Starcraft have become so dominated with extremely skilled players, that people of generally weak or average reflexes and coordination have absolutely no hope of enjoying any success whatsoever on public servers.
Instead of distinguishing players based on human skill, MMOGs use a much different method. The only thing that separates the weakest MMOG player from the strongest is the amount of time he or she invests in the game. Combat in an MMOG is typically resolved with hardly any intervention from the player, aside from clicking a few buttons every half-minute or so. Lightning reflexes and sharp coordination are not important, thus making these games very accessible to a general audience. This, in conjunction with MMOGs strong social component, also explain why a greater percentage of females enjoy this genre over traditional skill-based games.
What Makes the Games Work
Personal vanity is the most important driving force to an MMOG player. Every player would like his or her character to be more powerful than the next. The goal of the game developer is even more clear. They would like the player to spend as much time playing their game as possible because their revenues are based on monthly subscriptions. In practice, these two goals brilliantly complement each other. Game developers perfectly understand how to exploit player vanity to maximize the amount of time players "invest" in their game.
In terms of simple game mechanics, typically two things differentiate a weak player, or "newbie", from a powerful player. These two components are levels and equipment/items.
Levels are gained simply by killing monsters. In most MMOGs this involves simply killing the same monsters over and over again, which eventually yields levels. This process is very obvious, predictable and repetitive, and for that reason receiving levels is a typically underwhelming experience. Players refer to this as "grinding" or "the levelling treadmill" and it is generally viewed as nothing more than a necessary evil to advance their status in the game. Still, levelling is a very effective timesink for developers to keep players active in their game.
Instead, the prospect of gaining items and equipment is the true crack to keep players hooked on the game. In a graphical MMOG, what equipment a player owns is readily obvious to other players because individual equipment pieces are displayed on the character. Players who are familiar with the game know which equipment is weak "gimpy" and which equipment is rare and powerful "uber phats." Consequently, players who have weak equipment are generally mocked and derided, while powerfully-equipped players are respected and sometimes, quite literally worshipped by their peers.
Equipment is the most effective way the developers have of satiating players' vanity thus rewarding those who invest the most time playing the game. Obviously, if the most powerful equipment were readily and easily available, then every player would be identically equipped and appear exactly the same. Players would not be rewarded with any sense of elitism or accomplishment, and they would grow bored and move on to something else.
Therefore, the most powerful equipment generally takes huge amounts of time for players to earn. Monsters may only produce an item very occasionally when they are killed (rare drops.) Or the monsters may be so powerful that it takes large teams of dozens of players to kill them (known as "raids") In this case, players will have to attend many raids so that they can take turns receiving the loot. Usually, these two developer techniques are used together to ensure that very top-end items involve a substantial commitment of time by the player. Since rare equipment rewards are usually quite unexpected, acquiring a rare item produces a wonderful feeling of accomplishment for the player and envy from his or her friends. Unfortunately however, this feeling of accomplishment is fleeting since there is always the next piece of equipment to be had.
The Psychological Effect
Most MMOGs charge somewhere around $15 per month. In terms of dollars spent per hour of entertainment provided, one would be hard-pressed to think of anything that even comes close. Unfortunately, the real danger of these games arises from the fact that they demand insane amounts of time to achieve any sort of reasonable success. The casual person who only plays several hours per week can never hope to develop a respected character on an MMOG.
Conversely, the hardcore player who invests every minute of time they possibly can into the game will achieve huge success and see quite obvious results in the development of their character. After time, the powerful player will notice that their peers no longer treat them with indifference and apathy but now with great respect and admiration. In an MMOG, you are your level and you are your equipment. And since the servers are always running, one can ill-afford to take a break from the game, lest they be surpassed by their online rivals.
Additionally, since MMOGs are largely team-oriented, the player feels compelled to avoid taking any breaks that would inconvenience his teammates. This is especially true during a large-scale raid which can last for several hours. Depending on the situation, a player might find himself lucky to sneak away from the keyboard long enough to use the restroom. It is important that a player must endeavor never to gain an unreliable reputation. The cleric who lets his team die because he had to run and answer the telephone might not get a team the next time.
Unlike traditional games, time spent playing in MMOGs is typically measured in days, not hours. When a person spends so much time playing such a game (sixteen hours per day is not uncommon), a very peculiar psychotropic effect takes place that is difficult to describe unless directly experienced. In basic terms, the player begins to empathize with their online character to such an extent that their real-world self-worth and consciousness is almost completely overlaid with their character's reputation in the online game world.
For a typical hardcore MMOG player, real-life friends and relationships are eschewed in favor of online ones. Priorities shift from getting a promotion at work to camping revered magical boots. MMOGs have caused marriages to fail, jobs to be lost, children to be neglected. Many students have dropped out of college because of this powerful addiction. Any real world responsibility that impedes a hardcore MMOG player's quest for levels and equipment is treated with little patience, if it is even given any attention at all.
Because time is precious and finite, it is quite impossible to succeed in real-life and also succeed in the game. Some players will inevitably notice that their new hobby is causing them to neglect the rest of their life, and they choose to give the game up. These are the lucky ones. The true addicts will become so engrossed with the game world that the negative real-world consequences only occur in their periphery. Any people who care about this person and try to intervene in this player's addiction will be ignored in favor of their online friends who also share the same addiction and so are obviously supportive. These people become worthless husks of human flesh, another unfortunate burden for society to bear.
MMOG Charts - A site that attempts to track the number of players on various MMOGs over time.
Everquest Widows - A Yahoo support group for significant others of addicted MMOG players. (membership required)
Mom talks about MMOG addicted son
World of Warcraft - One of the most popular MMOGs at the moment.
Some people prefer taking the fast track to MMOG success
Incident in China where man commits murder over loss of valuable MMOG sword
You stole my cloudsong! - Amusing audio recording of a player screaming over teamspeak, apparently over the loss of some item (NSFW!)
The famous Leeroy Jenkins video - A player griefing his own guild during a raid. Some people believe this was entirely staged. (World of Warcraft)