Losing is back
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 October 2012, 4:19 am
Something interesting is happening in the gaming culture: The concept of losing a game against the computer is back, and many people enjoy it. Not just in indie games like FTL, but also in remakes of old school games like XCOM. Ionomonkey is trying XCOM on "classic" (aka hard) difficulty with the ironman option (no reloads), and he is on game 19, having lost 18 games already.

Modern MMORPGs tend to not have a loss condition. There are even PvP rules in many games where "losing" is defined as getting less points than the "winning" team, but both sides being better off after the fight than before. I have sometimes amused myself in games like World of Warcraft with getting a character to somewhere level-inappropriate by dying my way through a zone. That dates back to the WoW beta, where I once walked a level 10 undead into the dwarven starter zone, to the utter surprise of many people there. During WotLK I had a low-level character fishing in Northrend. In Star Wars Galaxies I used to suicide as a form of cheap teleport back to town.

Unfortunately you can't just remove "losing" from games, you can only change the definition of what people consider to be losing. When you can only progress in a MMORPG, never lose xp or levels, losing tends to be redefined as "not advancing fast enough any more". With a variable definition of what fast enough is. People stop playing games not because they lost, but because progress has slowed down or come to a stand-still. I'm not level 90 yet in Mists of Pandaria, but I already hear people complaining about how they can't just progress through dungeons any more, but are "forced" to do daily reputation quests. Blizzard already nerfed the reputation system because of those complaints. But in fact you can't lose a daily quest, you can only get bored of them before having done enough to reach a certain reputation and reward.

With the next World of Warcraft expansion 2 years away, that poses an impossible problem to developers. They simply cannot offer fast progress over 2 years, because they couldn't possible create enough new content which would become accessible with each step of progress. Whether it is daily quests or raiding, the endgame by definition is one of repeating the same content many times, which sooner or later feels like "grinding" and ultimately like "losing".

But if losing is back in single-player games, maybe it can be brought back into MMORPGs as well. In the original Everquest you could lose levels and equipment. In a game that has that, slow progress looks comparatively attractive. I don't think that is something that can be introduced into a game like WoW (what happens if you lose a level and can't wear your gear any more?), but it might be a good concept for a future MMORPG. Leveling up could become meaningful again if it wasn't something that happened automatically with no way of regressing. Communities would strengthen, because external danger drives people together. Grouping with random strangers wouldn't be the default mode any more, because it would be safer to play with people you know. Concepts like a "leveling guild" would stop being void of meaning.

I don't think there is room in a MMORPG for a "game over - you lost" screen. But a harsher leveling experience, with the possibility to lose xp, levels, and equipment is something I can very well imagine. If XCOM can still work today, why not such concepts from previous generations of MMORPGs?
Tobold's Blog

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