People are unquestionably creatures of habit, but I think the thing about MMORPGs that mystifies me the most is how we’re willing to put aside our desire for something new in most of our favorite games and content ourselves with the same content over and over, for months on end. Whether it’s repeating the same raid every week to get the loot or running the same cluster of PvP instances over and over, it’s hard to dispute that MMOs are repetitive. True, new updates come along every few months, but it’s a given that no creator can create work — games, movies, TV shows, books, etc. — faster than people can consume it. And think about how those other genres work: Do you watch the same episode of a TV show every week, or re-read the same book every week, or even beat the same final boss in your favorite offline video game every week? Of course not, yet this is part and parcel of the MMO experience.
(Part of the issue is that devoted fans spend a disproportionate amount of time playing MMOs, as compared to enjoying other forms of entertainment. I mean, I love Firefly, but I couldn’t see myself watching it for four-plus hours a day every day for months or years, even if there was a continually restocking supply of new episodes.)
Repeating identical content, even when spiced up a bit with the uncertainties of PvP or dynamic PvE content (i.e., rifts), is a major cause of burnout for many gamers. I’m convinced that if manufacturers could find more ways to randomize their endgame experience, or at least certain aspects of it, it would lead to a longer-lasting and less energy-consuming game experience. I don’t mean simple change-ups, like a different mob or boss in dungeons or in the world; that would just lead to people raging over getting “the tough boss” this time. No, I think that the environment itself should be randomized — and the tools to do so might already be out there.
Consider your favorite PvP battleground or zone, or, for your FPS fans, a map you’re familiar with. You know that one spot where the ranged guys can snipe, where melee can hide around the corner, where hunters can set traps… regardless of your or your opponents’ group makeup, you’re doing roughly the same thing every fight: going to point A or B, fighting, dying, running back. The most exhilarating experiences, I think, are when something goes wrong (or very right) and you have to switch up your tactics and improvise and fighting in an area you’re not used to fighting in.
Now, here’s a crazy notion: What if your maps were random? What if you didn’t know going in (well, after your first few rounds) where all the good places to fight were? What if you didn’t know if there would be a bad guy over that next hill or around that corner or in that window? What if battle could break out anywhere, anytime, with both sides equally surprised to find each other in their vicinity?
You know, kind of like real small-scale skirmishes. When Seal Team Six went to capture bin Laden, their leader didn’t go, “Don’t worry, everyone, I’ve done this one plenty of times, I know exactly where he is.” (Though I think they might have gotten more points if they’d gotten him out alive.) I get pumped up when I watch some show on the History Channel about a small-scale military engagement and wish I could experience that same thrill of the unknown more often in my PvP battles.
Think of how cool that would be if every map you entered contained some kind of random terrain — a hill here, a patch of trees there, some bushes for sneaking about over here, a building to hide in/behind over there. Think of how much more interesting that would be than going to the same map every time, over and over. Sure, you’d get fragged occasionally because you didn’t know the layout, and there would probably be some imbalances, but you’d just have to suffer through it for one round before heading into the next.
Think it can’t be done? Then you’ve never played the Total War series of RTS games. I’ve logged over 300 hours on Empire: Total War and played hundreds of battles. While the fort battles can be a little repetitive, battles in the open field offer a mostly random map every time, with some elements repeated but their placement, not to mention the orientation of the opposing armies, providing a random element that allow for a number of different strategic options. Granted, the AI is poop and so most battles do tend to follow a fairly mundane pattern, but I’ve cruised around the map at a low, close-up angle (and occasionally gone into first-person view) and think they would make awesome maps for other types of games. I haven’t seen much of Shogun 2: Total War, but from what battles I have watched on YouTube, the terrain is even more varied, owing to Japan’s varied terrain. I can’t imagine that the map-generating software used in these games couldn’t be adapted to an MMO or FPS.
A disadvantage of this kind of map generation might be the difficulty in including significant objectives short of “deathmatch”-style PvP encounters. Maybe a few spots near the center of the battlefield could be designated as control points, but you wouldn’t likely see anything like the trebuchets being promised in PvP for games like Guild Wars 2. Capture-the-flag might be an option, too. For PvE, perhaps a group could be plopped down in a zone and the “kill objectives” — three to five “boss” monsters — could be wandering around the terrain at random, with other mobs out there for you to fight or avoid. It’s pretty weak, admittedly, but I think the concept works better for PvP overall. And it sure beats another round with the same old battlegrounds you’ve been playing in for years.