The Curse of Winning

How awesome would that be!?

And it invariably reminds me of something that was on my mind often during the later stages of LotRO already. It seems apparent, that most MMOs are bound to suffer from the Curse of Winning. Allow me to elaborate.

When an MMO sets up the playing field, it will usually use the most simple and effective storytelling tools to get you involved: you’ll be made an underdog, and there will be some overwhelming threat to create a sense of urgency. This set-up may be sort-of original (WoW, Warhammer Online) or licensed from different media (AoC, LotRO). In the beginning, it works out quite well – you’re a low level character and everything around is new, big and threatening.

Then you level up, get into gear, get a clue, learn your skills, get your talents. And keep beating the crap out of everything in your path (hey, that’s the whole idea). And then you reach the famous “endgame” and go raid (depending on your preferred play style, you might, of course, not). There you are met with considerable challenge. Yet, challenge, in compliance with unwritten rules of the genre, has to be surmountable. And so you win. And then you win again. And with every dragon you kill, with every demon you vanquish (and with every time it becomes easier and more of a second nature), it becomes harder and harder to feel that sense of danger the background story is still suggesting for you to have.

What to do? Well, as the linked article is suggesting, it’s probably time for the creative heads behind our favourite games to start thinking about how to make us lose from time to time. To make those wins count more again.

Taking it even further than the linked article, I’d like to point out, that a deterministic scripted loss isn’t that much different from a regular win anyway. In the suggested scenario, the “loss” is triggered when the boss reaches 1% health. Well, that doesn’t change much. Actually, it makes things even easier – you’d usually have to bring it down to 0%, after all! I understand it’s mostly meant to just shake up the story, but let’s take it to the gameplay as well.

My rough suggestion: let’s base it off the Balrog’s “last 12k” phase. In other words, a climatic finish to a fight, with significantly increased difficulty factor, that requires everyone, tanks, healers and DPS alike, to make a full-out push to drive it home. As an aside, and stating the obvious, that’s why the Balrog fight never got boring, ever – no matter how far in you got, you always knew the biggest challenge will be during the last 10 seconds. However. Let’s say, that once you get to and into that phase, the encounter will “finish”, no matter what. If you kill the ‘Rog and the Elf chick stays alive – great, you get your loot, you get your locks. If the Elf chick dies (or you wipe, which will invariably get the Elf chick killed as well), then she’s dead, the Balrog roars in triumph and flies (runs?) away, freed and ready to torture the world – however, you still get your locks and your loot (maybe from a slightly weaker loot table – but not even necessarily). That way you can actually complete an encounter with a loss – still getting your winnings out of it, yet a lack of satisfaction attached. And best of all, the outcome depends on your performance, not a script. When you come back next week, you’ll want revenge, and you’ll always know, that this guy can actually kick your behind, as opposed to the usual “we play the game until I win” pattern.

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