Rambling About Motivation and What Makes a Good Story

Anybody can use public transport, darling!

-Edina Monsoon, Absolutely Fabulous

Warning: this post does not actually lead anywhere and may not actually make sense.

Freedom seems to be a theme since the launch of Guild Wars 2.

Freedom from ever having to find a group.

Freedom from ever having to find a mailbox.

Freedom from ever having to stand still while casting a spell.

Freedom from much of the baggage of past MMOs, like subscriptions and the holy trinity and levels that get more difficult as you progress.

Not that this freedom drive is anything new.

World of Warcraft, which now represents the status quo from which we are being freed, was once the harbinger of freedom.

It offered freedom from corpse runs and experience loss, freedom from having to find a group to advance your character at all past level 10 or so, freedom from fighting over who gets to run dungeon or raid content on a busy Saturday night, and freedom from simply grinding mobs for most of your leveling experience.

Not to mention freedom from relatively onerous system requirements.

And of course, EverQuest itself offered up its own vision of freedom in its day, freeing us from the text of its DikuMUD ancestors.  Rather than descriptions and colorful text we had a 3D world full of monster and sound and music.  West Karana wasn’t just a room with exits (-E -W), or a set of boxes on a crude map.

No exit on this map

Welcome to the Faerie Forest

West Karana was a huge expanse where you could range at will, with hills and valleys and buildings and monsters wandering hither and yon.

Pondering the choices

How far we have come in the last 21 years. (DikuMUD launch in 1991 to GW2 launch in 2012.)

Even DikuMUD offered some freedoms.  Unlike similar code bases, it came with content ready to run out of the box.  And, of course, it did not cost any money to play unlike games on GEnie of CompuServe, the popular online services of the time.

And yet here we are in 2012 and I am mildly disappointed in Rift which appears to have gotten noticeably easier with patch 1.11, I am uninterested in World of Warcraft in the post-Cataclysm era, and I feel absolutely no desire to play Guild Wars 2.  I must hate freedom.

My peak MMORPG enjoyment over the last month seems to be mostly from a 2006 version of WoW on a private (or, if you prefer, pirate) server, which serves up content from back when WoW was easy only relative to EQ.

Tesh and Rowan wrote about the motivation of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.  Tesh said he favored intrinsic rewards and pointed to how he likes Minecraft because it just lets him go do stuff.  Which, oddly enough, is the exact reason I do not like Minecraft.  Aside from survival mode, the game bores me.  And survival mode became a chore once I figured out how to survive.

I am clearly extrinsically motivated when it comes to games.  I like to have a goal in a game, to work towards that goal, and to eventually accomplish that goal… or fail gloriously.

I kid myself that I am an explorer, that I like to see what is over the next hill.  I certainly always go and look.  But I am clearly further into the achiever quadrant.  I go look over that hill because I want to know I have seen that bit of the map.

And I like achievements.  I love achievementsWoW introduced achievements just before the launch of Wrath of the Lich King, and I have managed to capture in a screen shot almost every achievement I have earned since then.  But even before that, I was already creating my own achievements.  You will see in every pre-achievement instance group post on the blog, a screen shot of the group standing by the corpse of the final boss in an instance.  So it was perhaps fitting that my last act in WoW was to get an achievement.

So achievements are a big draw.  But are they a motivator?

I certainly won’t go out and run after achievements that I do not think are fun.  I am pretty self-regulating when it comes to fun.  I will do things that I say aloud are not fun, and I simply cannot bring myself to log on and do things that I tell myself are fun when they are not.  It is like I cannot be trusted to say what is fun and what is not at a conscious level.  But my behavior doesn’t lie.  If I won’t log on to do it, it isn’t fun at some level within me.  But if I do log on to do something, it must fun, even if it is at some deeper level my conscious mind cannot really grasp.

You can trot out the cognitive dissonance argument like Jester, but I don’t think things are that simple all the time.  I am notoriously lazy, so it is generally easy to spot the things I am kidding myself about by observing my own behavior.  I talked up Star Trek Online, for example, but couldn’t bring myself to log into the game long before I could admit I wasn’t having fun.

Likewise in LOTRO, I seem to consistently run out of steam in the game somewhere between the Forsaken Inn and Rivendell.  Yet at a conscious level I want to play the game.

I think I see where the fun stops…

About a year ago I wrote up a bit of history around our regular group and LOTRO.  It pretty much comes to an end around level 30 time and again.  I have actually made it to Moria with one character, but stopped playing at level 52.  Draw your own conclusions.

Then there is what makes for a good story.  That is, quite frankly, one of my requirements for an MMORPG, though it is hard to quantify what makes that happen.  And the good stories are often the ones that involve not having anything that can be remotely defended as fun.

For example, I went on several structure shoots in EVE Online last month.  Structure shoots are, objectively, not fun.  I stopped writing about them in general unless they represent significant milestones in a war.  Unless, of course, something fun happens, like we decide to moon the bad guys in their home system, get caught with our pants down, and have to run for our home as fast as we can.  That, too, is objectively not fun.  But it is funny and makes the story worth telling to my mind.

Likewise, overcoming the petty trials that used to face us in WoW… basically being able to relive the past… seems more interesting to write about than, say, 99% of my battles in World of Tanks.  I think I have mentioned two battles in posts total.  And it is certainly more interesting (to me) than my solo quests or instant adventures in Rift.

As this blog will attest, I have a lot of stories that focus on the past and times when things were more difficult.  There is a series posts about TorilMUD, the direct predecessor to EQ.  I will go on ad nauseum about EverQuest of old and the Fippy Darkpaw server and trying to relive the past, while telling tales from the old days.

Basically, it seems to me that when we face constraints, when we face difficulties, when things go wrong, when we face failure and hardship, those are the times that also generate the memories and the stories, those are the bonding experiences that become the touch points, the guide posts that create the continuity of the story of a given game.

An oyster that is not irritated does not produce a pearl.

As we sat in our fleet the other night, with TiDi at 10% so everything was slowed to a crawl and the UI started bugging up as the client balked at being told to slow down at one end and speed up at the other, in what was objectively a low ebb for fun, where we were just waiting on the game, that was where the stories start to come up about how bad things have been in the past.  The jokes start to get told.  The witty observations become sustenance rather than a distraction on coms.

Watch this video I made of a fleet stuck in TiDi trying to get to a battle.  That, in my experience of such situations, is pretty standard.  It becomes a shared experience.  A bonding experience rather than something that pushes us away from the game.  I haven’t heard anybody rage quitting over TiDi, though I haven’t been out searching for such people either.

Which makes me wonder what all this new found freedom really buys us.

Of course, I’m not ready to go back to MUDs.  And perhaps not everybody is as interested in their gaming experience generating stories and memories.

Some people just want to have fun.

How about you?  Where does your motivation lie?

23 thoughts on “Rambling About Motivation and What Makes a Good Story

  1. Tesh

    A big part of why I play games in the first place is to do something I can’t do in real life. I think this is why I value freedom and choice so highly in games; it’s all about exploring those options that are exclusive to games.

    …of course, on a different tangent, I love puzzle games. I get to solve puzzles in my every day workflow, but a lot of the time, I’m just going through a known production pipeline. It’s nice to exercise the brain, and puzzles that *have* solutions are one good way to do so. If I could be said to appreciate “achievements” it would be in that vein; solving problems.

    The intersection of those two lies again in choice, though; I choose what puzzles to solve in the gaming world, and I do so because I want to work through them. That work and the act of finding the solution are what I’m looking for when it comes to concrete goals in gaming. That’s *sort* of extrinsic, inasmuch as the solution is known and the puzzle was crafted by someone else.

    …but sometimes I just want to look around or try something and see what happens. Those are the Minecraft moments. There’s value in both, to be sure.


  2. spinks

    I’ve heard players describe EVE in terms of freedom also. So I’m not really sure if freedom per se is the difference between all these games.


  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Spinks – Certainly “sandbox” implies freedom in a certain direction. But the freedoms I listed at the top are really efforts to remove things players see as constraints. The cynics, like SynCaine, would probably call it another turn towards “easy mode.”

    Anybody playing EVE and looking at travel or fleets or that sort of thing would probably not think they were getting the same sort of freedom. “Easy mode” is not something people associate with EVE. Contrasting this with GW2 “freedom” people might ask why they need to join a corp, that is in an alliance that is in null sec that is in a war just to be able to experience a battle with over a thousand ships.

    There is probably a whole post in dimensions of freedom in MMOs.

    @Tesh – If this post had a Facebook relationship status, it would be “it’s complicated.” That initial quote probably gives some idea where I started heading with this post. I don’t think I ever got there. And I changed the title about a dozen times along the way as I seemed to be getting to some sort of point, then just threw my hands up and said “It is what it is.”

    Ideally, this would have been a conversation or discussion group and not me just writing myself off into a corner.

    And now I see there is a big patch out for Civ V, so I might just go play that all weekend instead, eschewing all I just said about MMOs and good stories.


  4. pkudude99

    Civ5 is my current fallback game for if I can’t (or don’t feel like) log(ging) in to TSW right now. Of course, Austria is so overpowered it’s not funny so I have a hard time not playing that civ when I do log in. . . . .


  5. Gripper

    I really liked this article! To be honest, I am at the same point that you are at in terms of “am I having fun”. I had thought the new expansion from WOW would be fun. I am stuck at 87 and frankly sick of questing etc. Then reading about people “working” at factions doing dailies. I hate dailies – frankly despising them in a game. But thats me. So I stopped playing WOW and started back on EQ2. I am having “fun” there, but its not the same, I will log in and mess with inventory under the guise of getting ready for the next expansion but then become bored with that, and I dont really feel like taking an alt out and “grinding” with the new double xp weekend since I hate quests at the moment. I actually was thinking of playing Rift since you write about it, I had played it but ran out of “fun”. I am not sure if its the games, the genre’s etc but maybe I need a break from all the MMO’s and start playing some single player games again.
    I was a big Eve player with the Tribal Band boys but to be honest, Eve is a great game but SOOOO hard to fit in your life if you have a family and activities that need to happen.

    Oh well – thanks for the post, it hit a chord with me, and I really feel that it did not ramble but resonated with me right there!!

    If you do figure out the magic formula please share!!

    Also I did play Civ 3 last night :-), I have Civ 5 but think I am cranky as I get older and didnt want to relearn that winning formula!


  6. stnylan

    Sometimes one really loves an author – one reads all their books – but after at time their style and interests change. Perhaps not a lot at first, but after a few more books suddenly one realises the new books are not as fun as the old, and one stops reading. So it is perhaps with MMOs – the stories they offer change to something that no longer seems as interesting. Change is, after all, a given.


  7. Toxicroach

    Fun and rewarding are two separate things. When I am doing a long cycling event, I am not having fun (I am in fact totally miserable), but I do it because once I’m off the bike I’m glad I did it.

    It’s a bit weird.


  8. bhagpuss

    I think I’m largely in the same boat as you. There’s no doubt that when I play EQ or Vanguard I can lose myself in what I’m doing more easily and more deeply than I can in most MMOs released more recently. Even with all the quality of life improvements older MMOs have received over the years, they generally still ask more of me in the ways that seem to matter.

    I hope we will see something of a rowing back from the current trend towards everyone being able to do everything any time anywhere. I really wouldn’t want to go all the way back to how things used to be but there has to be some happy medium that allows things to matter a bit more than maybe they do in some MMOs now.


  9. UFTimmy

    I think this post resonates with a lot of MMO players. There is something to be said for overcoming adversity with a group of people. And MMO players, in general, are always looking to achieve that same nostalgia as their first big MMO. Heck, Keen has a whole blog dedicated to it. Mindlessly solo leveling through content that is easy just is not enjoyable to me. Yet, at the same time, I never got very far into any of the earlier MMOs (UO, EQ, DAOC) because I was a shy kid who never grouped.

    Your points about Minecraft hit especially close to me. I am not a true achiever, but rather I am a solver. I play games to solve them. I want to know how the systems work, and the best way to play the game. I generally spend more time reading about games than I do playing them. I understand I am not in the majority, but it’s what I enjoy.

    Once I solved how to survive in Minecraft, it wasn’t really fun anymore. But I think that’s one of the strong points of MMOs, and WoW in particular, for me. Introducing other players and occasional new raids keeps things fresh. Still, I find myself in the familiar territory of only logging in to raid.


  10. Milady

    Freedom – well, WoW has been developing towards a “freer” system in which the solo player has access to all the content, but it resulted in a community breakdown. Freedom has value to a certain extent. Developers are also given the task to ensure that the game is played in a positive, fun, and respectful way, and to do so they must enforce/promote whichever mechanics lead that way. I do not think that we accomplished much with GW2 mechanic of server grouping, free-for-all looting, incentivised pro-social activities. A tiny bit we gained: people may be encouraged to play socially because the game is not pushing them the other way (as in the dreaded hardcore PvP sandboxes). On the other hand, where did the community go? Without an attachment, which is no more than an artificial constraint placed by the developer, guilds serve little purpose. In vanilla WoW, you had to join a guild in order to do any PvE; the developers gave you a reason to be social, and a reason not to be anti-social as well, since your reputation in the server depended on it. Those were all anti-freedom tools, since you were allowed to do less, but they actually served the purpose to promote meaningful community interaction. Advocating for freedom is something I am in favour, but within some limits. We shouldn’t free our games from their foundations, the post that stakes the tree. Anarchy is not complete chaos and lawlessness, but a self-regulating, non-authoritarian government. There ought to be some rules within freedom.


  11. Tesh

    @UFTimmy The interesting thing about Minecraft is that “surviving” might be the biggest obvious goal, but there are a *ton* of goals that you can set for yourself. That seems to be the key; are we self-driven as players or do we ask for direction?


  12. Syl (@Syl_RM)

    It seems to me the freedom aspect is relative; we always perceive as new freedoms what we currently don’t have in a game. every MMO comes with a new set of restrictions, so one game’s limitations become the next one’s freedoms and vice versa. I guess some design aspects of MMOs have in fact gone ‘back and forth’ like that, which would also mean there can never be an ultimate freedom. only a freedom that applies more or less to a certain player and playstyle.

    I agree with you though on what makes for our most memorable MMO moments. hardship or rather overcoming obstacles is what sticks with us…only, the trouble is what we consider ‘good’ obstacles and how we attribute value to them for ourselves. thats where most disagreements come up. :) I dont think freedoms have much to do with it either; its not about how groups are assembled or whether casters can run or not, but how we define challenge in games and how devs realize them within the given system.

    Interesting post.


  13. Coppertopper

    holy shit great post! Enjoyed reading it. It seems like you are generally trying to define ‘what is fun for me’. This is such a personal topic, which is why I read several blogs. Syncaines famously mocks fun while espousing his own version. Yet whether its the look and feel of wow/rift/eq2/eq1/darkfall, there is no single definition for everyone.


  14. Bristal

    Games are supposed to be freedom from reality. Now we need new games to free us from the chains of the old games?

    That’s pretty heavy.

    And suggests that perhaps what we really need is a more potent dose of reality.


  15. Davis

    2006 WoW was only easy… compared to just about every other MMO on the market. WoW was never hardcore. AC, DAoC, FF11, SWG, all far more difficult than WoW ever was.


  16. spinks

    “Anybody playing EVE and looking at travel or fleets or that sort of thing would probably not think they were getting the same sort of freedom. ”

    I think a new player could easily be overwhelmed by the freedom (I could mine! Or do missions! Or trade!) and get bored long before they ever got deep into the game enough to sign up to a corps that gave them fairly strict fleet orders on a regular basis. You maybe don’t see that because it’s so different from the way you play. And some of these other games will be similar. WoW looks different if you are in a progression guild, for example.


  17. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Davis – Totally missing the point there. EQ was the stand-in for what came before because I didn’t want to get into a giant clusterfuck of a discussion about relative difficulty. WoW made things easier, but 2006 WoW is harder than a lot of MMORGPs that came out after WoW, including the current revisions of WoW itself.

    @Spinks – Which is sort of a different discussion altogether, should there be clear and defined roles in a sandbox game. And it depends on how they come into the game. Somebody who just found the game and knows nothing about it, the choices can be paralyzing. But if you join friends already there, you are probably going to do what they are doing.


  18. spinks

    My point is that even in a game that you personally might find boring because of too much freedom, there might be ways to play you either don’t know about or don’t have much interest in that people find interesting because they involve more constraints and/or stronger goals. And it was ever so. ie. if you want to try WoW with more constraints, join a progression raid guild or a hardcore PvP setup.

    It’s not just sandbox games is my point.


  19. p@tsh@t

    We’ve both said it before and acknowledge the inherent contradictions, but its worth reconsidering here as an example–

    EQ was a sandbox ostensibly with lots of freedom. Except that roles were rigidly defined, characters had limited abilities and progression required collaboration, etc. A nice paradox.

    For me, a big part of the engagement comes from confronting an open ended situation with a set of artificial constraints… that pretty much describes EQ to me.

    Perhaps those are two extremes, but history has shown that I quickly become disengaged from gameworlds that offer decreasing freedom (rails) and characters that offer increasing freedom of action (mage-tank). When the world is only one linear path and every level I get a new “I Win” button, I lose interest.

    The long walk across old Norrath as a low level character is still one of my favorite MMO memories. Likewise the terrifying run across the Wetlands or the deep penetrations in “enemy territory” required to obtain your Warlock pets and mount.

    Minimal but significant goals, limited means to attain them and multiple paths to pursue them.

    Compare that with instant travel, flying mounts, frequent graveyards, no death penalties, etc. Granted, its not black or white. Its a continuum, but for me at least, it largely explains why I have almost no interest in SPRPGs.

    Vanilla WoW had many of these aspects particularly if you were trying to level a protection warrior or a holy priest before easy respecs or multispeccing. Hunters that could double trap and jump kite were worth their salt.

    Freedom to me is only part of the inquiry. Freedom “from” or freedom “to” is more important to me. I don’t want freedom from making interesting choices, nor do I particularly want freedom to trivialize all content…


  20. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Spinks – Not sure why you felt that point needed to be made, or that it was in dispute in any way, but sure. I was pointing out constraints in a sandbox game in the quote you copied. There are constraints in any game and some people will find them meaningful and some people will not.


  21. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    Toxicroach wrote: “Fun and rewarding are two separate things.”

    I think that’s an insightful way to put this. This is why I felt the “games ONLY need to be fun” crowd from a few years ago rubbed me the wrong way. Of course, I can see people quibbling about how to define “rewarding”, as games tend not to focus on giving you lasting rewards. Perhaps it’s better to say, “Having fun and feeling accomplishment are two separate things.”

    I most definitely want to feel more accomplishment in my games.


  22. Pingback: GW2: When Fun Becomes Obligation « Why I Game

  23. SynCaine

    In a way, TiDi is waiting for the boat in EQ1. The results are similar in terms of the social aspect they ‘enable’.

    I think one somewhat related issue, and you touch on this yourself, is people don’t know or lie to themselves about fun or what they want. It’s like when you are a kid and you get a new console game, and instantly put in the godmode code to beat it that day. You tell yourself godmode is fun, and getting to see the whole game in one day sounds great, but the next day you realize you are bored again with nothing to play. Some people know that putting in the code instead of dying 100 times on level 5 is ultimately going to rob them of their fun. Others don’t.

    The problem in the MMO genre is it just takes a few people who believe in godmode=fun to get it introduced into the game, and then EVERYONE has to suffer the effect. The godmode ‘kids’ move on the next day and don’t think about it, but those who were perfectly happy working on level 5 are now left out to dry.


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