This past week has been spent in a single-player haze, entrenched in the annals of Ferelden and Kirkwall, Seacrest County, Croatia, London, and Baja, and perhaps most dedicatedly in Super Meat Land (TM). It’s been a pretty incredible trip — and I’m not exaggerating — made possible in no small part by the 3D Vision, which is also the sole reason for this diversion from RIFT (3D Review column coming soon at Vagary). It’s also been pretty enlightening. What I’d like to talk about today is Super Meat Boy and how MMOs could standard to learn a thing or two from the 2-man team that is Team Meat.
For those of you that haven’t played it (and Yogi has a great write-up here), SMB is a platformer harkening back to the NES days of brutal difficulty, requiring precision in timing and speed, and one that relishes in blood-spattered gore of your perpetual defeat. For a while. See, the thing about Super Meat Boy is it EXPECTS you to fail and tells you as much. When you die, you instantly respawn and are ready to go again. There is no delay, no punishment. In every conceivable way, SMB tells you, “try, try again.” That is its motto — or should be. And when you finally do succeed, reacting out of muscle memory and a highly developed skill that will carry you through successively more difficult levels, you’re rewarded with a replay of every single attempt playing through at once; twenty, thirty, a hundred Meat Boy’s all running across the screen, jumping, leaping, and dying gloriously until a single one remains with Bandage Girl (the princess).
The other characteristic which takes the otherwise unbearably difficult game into the realms of addictively good fun is the precision of controls. Meat Boy moves with an accuracy of motion that has little to do with physics and everything to do with that indescrible rightness that so qualifies the best platformers of the past twenty years. Meat Boy moves just as he should move: with a lightness that allows you to fly through a super-jump then change your mind in mid-flight and land right at the edge of a precipitous cliff.
You’re probably wondering what this has to do with MMOs. It’s pretty simple. MMOs have long used two factors to create challenge: Organization and time. The hardest part of any raid is getting enough people together and then convincing them to be herded around like a bunch of cats. It’s not about quick reactions so much as it is about reacting in general. Consider for a moment what would happen if players were to die the instant they touched fire. No forgiveness, no strategy, just reaction. It wouldn’t work in today’s MMO, nor should it.
Then there’s time. For some reason, developers decided that they would gate content based upon multi-hour commitments. That’s not challenge. I’m sorry, it’s not. There is no challenge in staying logged in for two hours, it’s just a yes or no question. At it’s core, it is the illusion of challenge. Yet tied with organization, we can begin to see why raiding became an elite activity and why Wrath so willingly burst open the doors on that playstyle (and why it’s so puzzling for Blizzard to have gone the other direction in Cataclysm).
What I’m getting at is this: MMO end-game is being designed in a box. There isn’t room for any real challenge because the dance mechanics of trench raid-fare have given the whole industry tunnel-vision. Raids are challenging for a small selection of people: raid leaders and world-firsters. Everyone else listens on vent or finds a strategy online while they overcome their own personal challenge not imposed by the game. Overcoming tunnel-vision and recognizing ability animations isn’t what makes an encounter difficult; rather, it’s the periphery, the inter-dependent “musts,” that create the illusions of grandeur.
So what can MMOs learn from Super Meat Boy? Simply this: People want real challenge but they don’t want to be punished for trying. Where SMB succeeds is positive reinforcement. The more times you fail, the more humorous the ending scene. You die, you’re rewarded with another attempt. In MMORPGs, death means a corpse run and probably a few minutes waiting on a debuff. The impetus in MMOs is not “learn” but rather “don’t die.” It creates stress. Some players may thrive on that but many others may simply see another locked gate in front of the rest of the game.
We can design end-game to be better than it is today. It doesn’t need to be organization dependent or strategyless. If Cataclysm has shown us anything, it’s that people WANT challenge, they just don’t want to devote two hours to the trying. My theory is this: we ramp up difficulty, as in “real” difficulty (sequences of events, strategic attacks, class interdepence, specific actions at specific times NOT cued by boss invulnerability, environmental interactions) and lower the barriers to entry. We remove the punishments for death and acknowledge that, yes, you’re going to die a lot. Take what we’re doing today and revolutionize it.
The death of 25-man raiding in WoW only shows us that raiding isn’t fun on its own merit. The payoff to herding those 24 other cats isn’t big enough. You’d think the game would justify itself and you’d raid because it’s fun. But that’s the thing, organization and time are more chores than challenges — and that’s exactly what needs to change.