The Grass Is Greener

7 Oct

[Also on Destructoid]

I’m not sure what you would call it, but it probably falls under the category of a design philosophy:  The grass is greener philosophy.  This isn’t some kind of official name, in fact it has no standardized name that I know of, but this one will do for now.  It’s a philosophy that sells MMOs and makes some other games more engaging – so what is it?

As the name suggests, it’s the power of envy – but it’s also something more; it’s the power of envy come full circle.  Let’s use World of Warcraft as an example.  You’re playing, say, a dwarf hunter, and you’ve gotten him to the level cap.  You’ve started to get him good gear and you’ve joined a guild.  But you’ve also been fighting against and alongside other players for, at the moment, about seventy levels.  All that time you’ve been wondering: what would it be like to be a healer?  And if I was a healer, would I be a paladin, a priest, a shaman, or a druid?  So one day you start a troll priest.  You start to level him, and then you think to yourself “What am I doing?”

Well, you’re falling for the loop that’s been designed into the game.  You’re curious – maybe you always see priests getting invited to groups, or beating other players.  What you don’t realize is that, while they may be different to play, you’re going to be in the old folk’s home before you bring that character up to a level of quality that will equal that of your existing hunter.  A moment ago it seemed like the right thing to do, but you quickly realize that it’s not plausible.  What will take you longer to realize is that it will never be plausible, unless you give up your main character.  Many WoW players have several alternate characters on the go, with aspirations of greatness for all of them.  It’s like supporting children — you can only handle so many before they begin to wear you out.

And while it’s a key part of the MMO treadmill design (well, Blizzard’s anyway) that doesn’t mean it isn’t present in other games; it’s just not as prominent because of the huge difference in time invested.  IN any shooter you’re going to have gun envy – you’ve been getting sniped for an hour, so it must be better to live life as a sniper.  It’s probably not, but you feel like you’ve got choices; you’re not doing so well and you can make an informed decision about how to fix that.

Calling this a design philosophy might be a misnomer.  Developers aren’t keen on spreading their design practices around for fear of losing their edge, but for all we know it could have been created by accident.  That is, it’s something that happens naturally when we’re given options and see our neighbors doing well – we feel that aping them is a safe way of improving our situation.  Accident or not, Blizzard has sure leveraged our envy.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a level 52 orc warlock to level.

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