If gold selling and buying are a symptom, and the grind required to get money and/or items in game is the disease, then what would happen if we removed — or severely restricted — or changed, somehow — what is considered a “good” reward in MMOs?
Again, WoW casts a huge shadow over MMOland in this respect, but it didn’t create the shadow. Kill monster, get xp, look through its pockets for loot (even if it’s a pocketless rust monster) is several decades old and started out on paper. You could probably argue that go forth, rescue the damsel, get your proper reward (hur, hur) is pretty much the same thing. It is, and it isn’t.
Right now, in a game like WoW, you have two basic choices. You can go out and get your own phat lewtz which, if I understand it rightly, means some kind of insanely repetitive long-ass grindfest, regardless of whether you’re grinding faction or grinding an instance or grinding 18,000 foozles to get the Super Sword of Foozle Smashing — whatever its shape, it’s a grind. (Grind: any action you have to repeat so many times that that activity becomes unpleasant and tedious, and goes past the point of even remotely being “fun.”) Or, in some cases, you can buy said phat lewts off the Auction House. And aside from that, there are the various rewards you can get in-game, like mounts, that cost a quintillion gold AND an insanely ridiculous faction grindfest, so that’s twice the grind bang for your in-game buck.
That sucking sound you hear is soul and fun leaving the game. I don’t really care when or why it became all about Monty and his Haul (and if you don’t know that term, you’re too young to be reading my blog. Begone, and return only when you have played at least 5 years of bad, but ridiculously fun, beginner D&D campaigns!); fact is, it’s all about the grind. For money, for rep, for Slackassery-Tokens so you can get your Slackassery special items — whatever; it doesn’t matter what the label on the tin says, inside it’s all grind-produced spam.
I’m going to ignore the point that the grind design method and the subscription payment method go together like crack and pipe — they mostly do, but I’m concerned more with what constitutes “reward” in games than with what constitutes “gaming fun,” though I’m sure the two are probably pretty closely related and may end up dovetailing in the end. What I’m trying to ponder right now, though, is the idea that items and coins — or some recogniseable facsimile — are the only things people will recognise as rewards in MMOs (or for that matter just about any game out there right now).
Sure, money is a reward-type we all understand, and it probably makes the MMO worlds go round just as it does this one. But is it the only thing that will work, or is it the only thing we use because it’s the only thing we know? (There are pretty good barter economies out in the real world, and capitalism isn’t the only working model out there. Granted, most “working” models are much smaller-scale, but they’re there.)
This is where my own basic assumptions are holding me back, because for all that I’d like to see an alternative to money/items as rewards, everything I come up with seems to end up being a thinly-veiled variation. Hey, pay me in chickens! (Chickens becomes the new currency, so chickens = gold. No innovation there, just more feathers, and Banks would be called Coops.)
Don’t pay me in titles or other intangibles — I thought about that, and I know some people find it great, but for a fluff-lover I’m oddly cold about things like titles. They’re about as useful as those fake moles women would paste on a few centuries ago — pretty (maybe) but also pretty useless. Titles don’t give me much of a feel-good buzz; if all I ever got was titles, I’d get rather bored rather quickly. And this is my problem — stuff tends to give me a feelgood buzz, so I’m just as bad as any other Purples-chaser and the only difference is that I’m chasing deco- and fluff-items as opposed to gear. Okay, how about… Brownie Points? But isn’t that just a thinly-veiled version of reputation? Or reputation and/or currency, whether you can clink it in your hot little hands or not?
I have a suspicion that we apes need currency, however it’s represented, because we like to interact and trade and get stuff for giving stuff. Whether the currency is gold, chickens or some kind of non-coin brownie-points system — it’s still currency even if it clucks. And phat lewt is still phat lewt whether it’s the Ultimate Pants of Killing Doom or the Coolest Pirate Hat that Does Nothing EVAR. Maybe I’m just showing my middle-aged lassitude and wanting to change up my life of empty materialism. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with endless materialism in games, since we have a drive to acquire, provided the path to acquisition is relatively entertaining (which it isn’t, but grind-design is another issue).
Still, I’m feeling oddly unfulfilled by my MMOney and phat lewts. Maybe I should jet off to the MMO equivalent of the Seychelles and “find myself” for a few weeks till my acquisitive drive returns.