Do you remember the first character you played in your first ever MMO?
You probably didn’t bother to go look up optimal builds on bulletin boards, you didn’t care or even understand what the endgame was and you certainly had no plans for what you’d want to do with your character later on. Maybe you picked your character because you liked the look, or it fitted some favourite genre concept, maybe it was based on an old pen and paper character, or a favourite character from a book, film, or comic.
In any case, you logged in and the whole experience was a voyage of discovery. You were learning how to play, exploring the game world, figuring out how to interact with other players and NPCs, and probably making lots of mistakes and doing lots of things that you’d later judge to be embarrassingly bad. But it was fun. It must have been fun because you stuck it out long enough to either learn better or to start another alt. On the next alt, you used all the things you had learned about the game from your first character. You were able to save time, make sure to pick up important quests and items, and probably had a much smoother ride through the game.
And it’s funny that in some games, you can go back and ‘correct’ any mistakes more easily than others. In a level based game, you can go back and repeat old levels if you want to make sure to pick up all the loot, grab all the achievements, or finish up anything you forgot last time. Although modern MMOs make it easy to change many things about your character if you later decide that you chose badly, the experience of nonoptimal levelling will stay with you. It won’t affect your character later in the game; you can replace gear, repeat any rep grinds that you missed, and so on. But you will know that you could ‘do it better’ if you ever wanted to start again.
That lends a lot of replayability to a game. It’s the notion that if you start again, your experience will be sufficiently different to be interesting (or at least, more interesting than mooching round the endgame and doing daily quests ad infinitum). It might be different because you pick a different class, level in different zones, pick different difficulties, or because the game has some randomness built into the levelling game.
I was thinking about this with Dragon Age. I finally gave in to my story fixation and set the difficulty to Easy permanently for my first play through, and I love the extra flexibility that this gives my game. I can pick companions because I like them and not just because they have classes or abilities that I need to beat the difficulty. I don’t have to stress over character builds or loot, I’ll just make do with whatever I get that looks interesting. And I can still get through the game, experience the story, and learn enough about the mechanics that I can play through again on a different character with a harder mode later.
Or in other words, I gave myself permission to just have fun and it let me focus on the parts of the game which I most enjoy. Next time, I’ll already know the basic storylines so I’ll be able to focus on other sides to the gameplay. I enjoy the combat, I just don’t want to spend too muc time on it right now.
But you can never have that initial experience of just having fun in the game again. Next time through, you cannot help being more knowledgeable. Lines of dialogue that made you laugh out loud in surprise the first time through will only raise a smile. The badass boss that beat you three times before you changed your strategy and smacked it down? You’ll get it first time of course, because you figured out that strategy yourself.
The relaxing thing with a single player game is that you can take your time. But in MMOs, we often rush through the fun parts as fast as possible. It makes me wonder whether all MMOs should make you play through solo first for awhile, to give you space to learn and explore, and only then let you loose on other players after everyone else has had their fun.