I was asked recently to estimate how long it would take for someone to learn to "run around" (*) in Dark Ages of Camelot (DAOC). The asterisk indicates simplifying assumptions. Out pops "2 hours". Turns out someone in this conversation tried this - with no previous MMO or CRPG experience. Their number was 10 hours.
In today's May 19 Wired article How to Get Gamers to Play Online we see the MMO angst stirred again: why don't more people play? The article introduces those two chestnuts: they require too much time; their themes are too niche ("the geek ghetto").
Raph Koster has a set of slides on The Theory of Fun that talks about patterns and gaming. In a nutshell: gamers try to maximize the predictability of gaming so they can optimize their ROI (return on investment). But once gamers figure it out, it gets boring. And so game designers, according to The Theory of Fun, try to scramble things up and the make the players work anew, to make it fun again. And we end up in the classic Red Queen race.
Reminds me of that old joke about someone who goes into a bar where everyone takes turns alternating between calling out numbers and laughing. "What's going on?" "We've been here so long we memorized all the jokes - its easier just to number them and call the numbers out..."
If the bar were full of MMO gamers, then someone with a game designer T-shirt would be there piping in with random numbers for which no joke had been previously associated (or perhaps trully forgotten from the collective). Then everyone would have to learn the new joke. That would be the fun bit. But the numbered jokes would be important, I conject, since they live in the community. There is no reset button. It would be tough on new comers since the old timers will still be calling out numbers.
If communal joke telling can be distilled down to one dimension, how many dimensions characterize an MMO universe and culture? And how do we go foward and invite the masses to our bar without making 'em memorize all the old jokes?
Or is the Peter Principle the more apt metaphor for MMO design? Are MMOs as we know them - with their legacy from MUDs and paper roleplaying - reaching the end of their adaptive competence?