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In Space, The Grind Is Without Friction

No Blog entry today. Hah! Lamest April Fool's joke ever. Actually, I'll be busy tomorrow, so I'm going to have to speak truthfully today.

I finally broke down and gave EVE Online a serious try. I really haven't played it with serious intent since back in beta. It was then, early 2003, when I discovered mining was an activity of pushing a button and waiting until my cargo hold was full. EVE Online's core activity was so simple as to not be a game.

However, playing it now, in 2008, I find I'm enjoying EVE Online somewhat.Though it's hard to say if it was deliberate or not, it's actually this kind of push button streamlining that makes it enjoyable. Let me see if I can explain that.

When I was recently playing Mabinogi, a good sample of the traditional sandbox, tedium set in quickly. I decided the tedium was in the simplicity of the activity: there was no real challenge to me (the random chance of failure being completely out of my control) and thus no real game. Their fundamental philosophy: "If you must keep a player occupied for x amount of time, give them a ton of easy, repetitive tasks to perform."

The ideal solution, I've always felt, is to add game. Make harvesting a reasonably complex minigame. A minigame of sufficient depth to be enjoyable to the player for the time you expect them to play. In a MMORPG, this can be a long time indeed. My solution: "If you must keep a player occupied for x amount of time, give them something interesting to do which they will enjoy doing."

Yes, this is a tall order, designing games that good is hard, and various market time constraints hardly make it easy to meet this goal. Nevermind the subjective nature of what different people will consider fun, this is about a much more reasonable goal, providing a thoroughly enjoyable game for those who would play it. It would seem to be the only choice in a perfect world where producing worthwhile art is the goal. Only through this solution does the "grind" never really manifest, because the player is still having fun.

A nice thing about having simple activities behind every task that do not occupy the player is that you can potentially be involved in several activities at once. The Interface is well built in this regard.

EVE Online is exceptional because it has demonstrated that there's another way out of the trouble with the grind: "If you must keep a player for x amount of time, then don't really occupy them at all." In EVE Online, the grind is still there, but the individual activities do not require much in the way of participation. For example:
  • Mining is still a matter of traveling to an asteroid belt, targeting an asteroid, and turning on your mining laser(s). Then, you wait until your cargo is full. Compare this with Mabinogi (the traditional MMORPG model) where filling your inventory with a trade resource would take hundreds of clicks.
  • Making items out of mined ore is a simple two-step process: refine the minerals into ore, then put them in the "oven" (a starbase-housed manufacturing plant) with a blueprint. Then go do something else while it "bakes."
  • Traveling still takes time, but you just set the destination and turn on the autopilot. It will jump from system to system automatically. In the meanwhile, feel free to do something else, as many activities are available without actually being there.
  • Character advancement is simply a matter of choosing which skills will be advanced and then waiting. You can go do something else (like earn some Isk (money)) or even log off entirely, the result is the same: The skill gets trained in x amount of real time.
In short, the grind is without friction. The player is not forced to perform repetitive action. Instead, they set things in motion and waits for the results results.

Your role in EVE Online is to supervise, your measure of success is a combination of the quality of the things you set in motion and how many of those things you can supervise at once. It's little wonder that many established MMORPG players, sick of the EverQuest-esque grind, have found themselves attracted to EVE Online: They're done with being the grunt who chops wood tediously, it's time to be the guy in charge for a change.

I'm seriously considering subscribing right now, however, I can't help but wonder if perhaps the EVE Online solution is a cop out. Shouldn't we be playing games to challenge ourselves, and not just supervise a simulation of a challenge? What skills am I building here - what kind of exercise is my brain getting? Isn't that the point of productive gaming: To grow, even as we're having fun?

Many questions and, for now, unsatisfactory answers. For now, all I know is that I've got 15 day trial. If, by the end of that 15-day trial, I find myself not caring about earning money for that next big ship upgrade, then it's probably an indicator that I don't feel challenged enough. In that event, I'll probably not subscribe. However, perhaps there's a bit of management skills I can hone here and, that being the case, the fun should last. Maybe, if I play long enough, I'll actually find a part of the game that demands more interaction from the player and if, so, I'll discover the best of both worlds here.

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