Placeholders for real things – shortcuts to nowhere

Dear player: it’s time to remove the keys you enjoy so much, because let’s face it, they serve no purpose anymore besides a symbolic one.  Games are not about symbolism, memories and emotions, this is SRS business. And it saves space on your bars.

We’ve removed the shiny gear and baubles you used to acquire by battling adversaries. It’s not practical. Instead, your rewards are tokens for everything. The tokens all look the same and they aren’t even real tokens, but numbers on a list – we know that’s not very exciting. But it makes loot distribution more even. Less waiting for you.

We removed the requirements for that instance, by the way. No more attunement to proceed. Plus, you can solo the chain if you’ve no patience for a group.

Please note that because of all this, we don’t have enough content since yesterday. However, we really don’t like to see you waste space or time on anything, so we’ll help you save on these things. We don’t know what you’ll do with all the excess, but we are sure you’ll think of something. We want you to be happy right now, not tomorrow.

Cutting out the real thing

So many things have become a currency in MMOs, a substitute; a token, an achievement, a note in the database. Why carry keys when the system can just record an achievement. Why have actual treasure to loot when you can take flexible tokens to shops later. Why carry spell ingredients in your bags, why travel somewhere to enter the instance gate, why visit an NPC in the barracks to join a battlegroud. Why indeed?

MMO players play in virtual worlds. And yet, apparently they need to save time. Apparently they need to save space. For what nobody knows exactly. Weren’t many of those things that get called “timesinks” what actually made for our world, our experiences?

The glory of short-cuts

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” [Robert Frost]

Sliding doors; an intriguing concept. Playing the mind game of “what if” – what if you had taken that other road, where would you be now and who? We’ll never know and most of the time, there won’t be second chances. But I believe that while short-cuts can be handy, they rarely make for the better story. In fact, let’s try an experiment. Or two.

Which one of the two pictures does appeal to you more? Which one sparks your imagination? Where would you rather take a hike?

Your way to treasure: Through that dark wood, down the steep hill. Wait for a boat at the river. Head for the city, convince the guard to let you in. Get some flint and tinder in the shops. Camp close to the distant mountain range. Only a little further from there.

Your way to treasure:
Just follow the road, you can’t miss it.

Same day, different stories

#Day 1a) in an imagined person’s diary –

“I got up this morning and made some pancakes. When I spilled the milk, I discovered my watch lying under the table. I would have looked for that forever… I got the letter you wrote in the morning mail. The pages smelled of you. On the way to work, I bought a newspaper at the kiosk. There was a little boy who kept smiling at me through his huge tooth gap. When I left, he waved at me winking slily. How odd. Because I was musing over that boy, I missed the bus and so I walked to work. On the way I ran into my friend Val. We had a laugh over this new show we’re both watching and he invited me to dinner in the evening. When I arrived at work, the meeting hadn’t started yet. We were still waiting on the secretary which is why I had some time to get another coffee.”

#Day 1b) same imagined person’s diary –

“I got up this morning and ate a pop-tart. Checking my iPhone, I saw your Email, thanks for that. On the way to work, I listened to the news on shout-cast. I noticed there was a traffic jam on the bus lane, good thing I have my car to get to work. When I arrived, the meeting was about to start. The secretary had not arrived yet, but we decided to get going anyway and just include her over voice conference. That’s when I realized my watch was gone.”

On life; real and virtual

Short-cuts are faster, more efficient. Maybe they get us straight to where we want or at least, to where we think we want to be. But they also rob us of opportunities; of the opportunity for life to step in and trigger a chain of events or add something unexpected. Many good things in life, surprises and chance encounters happen while we’re not on plan, not on time. They happen while we’re waiting. They happen on the side of a winding road. They happen because we got distracted and our eyes weren’t fixed on one point in the distance. Maybe “timesinks” are where life really happens.

If we remove all the “unnecessary detours” in games that people consider a nuisance, what exactly are we “saving and optimizing ” that time for? When you arrive faster at treasure and glory, where do you go from there? And just how much have you missed on that shorter journey?


  1. As the previous commentators said, you’re dead on here. However, I think the motivation behind the Interstate to Loot mindset is pretty clear. Since this whole enterprise is financially based off of our old friend Skinner – that us hitting a button over and over to get a reward pleases our minds and makes us want to do it more – the more detours and time sinks they remove, the more we can hit that button. Of course, the more we hit the button the more we want to hit it… you get the point.

    Blizzard, and all MMOs, are essentially casino owners. The game is a long line of one-armed bandits, where we pull the handle and hope we get three paladin bracers lined up in the center.

    Imagine if you had to do a long series of “pointless” tasks before being able to pull the slot machine’s lever? How many players would that cost the casino? Not too many, perhaps, but some.

    The house always wins, and as long as we’re voting with out feet (in this case by not leaving), they’re going to keep adding more and more bells and whistles and fewer and fewer other “distractions.”

    Virtual world no more, I’d say, just a very large and fantasy-themed casino.

    Great post!

  2. @Nils & Stumps
    Thanks and thanks!

    Yeah of course, the lab rat in the cage pressing the red button for food…it’s just not very flattering to think how this is really the underlying mechanism that the audience is being played for in MMOs. loot has always been a high motivator of course, but it was wrapped in a world, in story, in exploration, in community. now it’s just that – no decorum, no celebration. the bluntness of it is an insult to finer senses. I care little for rewards if they mean nothing – it’s not like I’m really in a cage starving.

    And that’s a very good analogy with the casino by the way, very fitting. I was also thinking about amusement parks when I wrote this. there’s just an ever-increasing rift between those players now that want to ‘game’ MMOs and those that would actually like to “dwell” in their world.

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. The spilled milk was an accidental shortcut. While “lucky”, it did in fact point the person directly at the problem. The second person had to figure it out on their own, and will have to find it.

    I’m in an arguing mood today, but I did like your post.

  4. This is such an awesome post. When something is optimized to give you exactly what you expect, you don’t get anything more. You miss out on the substance, the feeling of meaning and specialness something has because it could have been something else.

  5. @Kleps
    Hehe, you are right of course. the point of this particular scenario though, is that only by making his own breakfast instead of choosing the fast version, he/she was rewarded with the opportunity to find the watch.
    in the second version that will probably take longer. unless the person in that reality has a ‘superwatch’ with a sensor you know, one that you can locate by clapping your hands twice or something! 😛

    Indeed. it’s like stripping down many aspects that make the experience, reducing it on its outcome. as if you tore the theater down, removed the stage and the actors and instead just gave people the script to read. it’s just not the same that way.

  6. Interesting post. While I agree with the overall sentiment, I didn’t feel a particular preference for either of the story examples. I think it’s because they describe a real life scenario, and in real life I find shortcuts a lot more justifiable. Taking the long road isn’t always enriching, it can have serious negative repercussions as well. You miss the bus, you have to walk and get rained on. You’re late to work, so your boss reprimands you. Etc.

    However, the nice thing about taking the long road in a fantasy world is that you can enjoy it if it’s enriching, but if things go wrong you can still shrug and go “oh well, it’s just a game”. So the problem to me is not that shortcuts are inherently a flawed concept, but that optimising a game to the point where everything is super quick and straightforward is too reminiscent of the urgency we often feel in real life, where things have to be done a certain way or else.

  7. Ok, I’m in a kind of mood today, so there’s just a couple things I’d like to say, so be patient.

    First of all, I really do see things the way you do in this matter. Short-cuts can truly take away from the experience of many things. In the games I play there have been many short-cuts that don’t have a place and I’m left with inventing an experience on my own and in my own mind. Which in and of itself is ok, I’m crazy anyway.

    There is a time and place for short-cuts, which many people call creating efficiencies. Now I’m not a game designer and I don’t really think about it too often, but I can guess a few reasons for an increase in these “efficiencies”. In part it plays to the human tendency of competitiveness. When there is a reward that enough people want, those people will either create or demand a more efficient path.

    “Do I wander through the forest to find the lake with the stone in which resides the sword? Or perhaps I rent a bulldozer or even petition a nearby eagle to carry me over the forest? Either way I need that sword before anyone else. Why? So I can, I don’t know, feel better about myself or perhaps gloat on the steps of my local pub. Bottom line is, there’s someone else who wants it first and I won’t let them.”

    It’s just a theory, of course, but people get used to “efficiencies” and then demand more innovation to produce yet even more of them. A cell phone wasn’t enough, we need a cell phone that can record names and numbers. Then we need one that takes photos. Then we need one that connects to the internet. It’s difficult to ask people to go back to the days where having a car phone (with cord) was a luxury, or using rotary phones once they’ve experienced something more efficient.

    So although I agree with your sentiments, I just felt like venting a few reasons (certainly not the only ones) why we see more and more of these “short-cuts”, in life and in games. Have a great weekend!

  8. Fantastic post. For those of us who enjoy the “MMO as world” at least as much as the “MMO as game”, those little nooks and crannies are content. By streamlining them, you are removing things to do.

  9. @Shintar
    Your points are very valid; in fact I did intentionally skip that aspect of short-cuts to illustrate my point here. 😉 it’s certainly true that depending on the scenario, short-cuts can be valid and more beneficial than the long road. it always depends on when and where (like you said there’s also a big difference between real and virtual world) and for gaming purposes I’d say it depends a lot on balance and meaning (also what Psychochild wrote). since games are designed to entertain in the first place, the notion of using many short-cuts in games is a weird one to me personally, especially for MMOs.

    Hehe I agree with your points. I think it’s very much summed up by Brian’s later comment – “The trick is that a shortcut is fun if the player finds it.” SOME shortcuts are fun or meaningful. however, for MMO games many are not and are just shortening content that was created to entertain you. I don’t know what’s beneficial about making this particular genre more and more reward/loot-centric.

    Thanks! =)
    I think I’d feel better about it, if the longer roads were at least optional and remained in the game for all those players who enjoy that playstyle. but by removing features we’re ultimately left with no chance to play the way we’d like to play the game.

    The notion of short-cuts being meaningful or fun in that context is very valid; that’s how I could agree they have a place in games and create ‘alternative roads’. That’s not how I perceive a lot of the short-cutting that’s going on at the moment though, and in essence it’s not just that more shortcuts are added but the alternatives are being removed at the same time. that’s what bugs me the most.

  10. Funny thing about the road less traveled… you usually have to choose to take it with full knowledge that there’s an easier, more commonly used way. Too many players are content to go with the flow and ignore that there really are other options.

    …of course, sometimes there are no other options, true… and those times get old fast.

  11. “Maybe “timesinks” are where life really happens.”

    Oh yes indeed. Real life is just full of genuine timesinks. Raising a family, working daily to pay a mortgage, slowly gaining weight, becoming duller and duller by the day, losing what few looks we have as we creep slowly towards oblivion. Yep, these are the “fun” things in life and we naturally want comparable timesinks in our leisure activities.

    Honestly this post, although immense fun, is somewhat biased and screams “I have my rose tinted glasses on”. I enjoyed old school MMOs at a time when that’s how they were made and I also had the time to invest in them. However for all the fun I had, there was also a lot of guild drama and social politics. For every nice person I met and befriended there was twice as many idiots. MMOs were hard work back then, like a high maintenance partner. Do I really want that again?

    Social gaming in the traditional sense died because the developers saw the financial benefits of casual play and because we the players were also happy to see it go. yes, that’s right, we were complicit. This old chestnut about the halcyon days of MMOs is very much like the the riddle of “local shops”. Oh isn’t it a shame we all go to the big supermarkets and don’t use local shops. It’s a common bogus complaint from the chattering classes. The reason you don’t go is because you get less choice and pay more. What this sham act demonstrates is a love of nostalgia rather than anything else.

    Things change. There’s plenty I don’t like about modern life but my opinions are pretty much redundant. So please stop going on about the so called good old days because all it really demonstrates is how we all eventually turn in to our parents 🙂

    1. If our opinions are redundant and pointless because uhh times change suck-it-up yo, then why are you blogging? 😀 Why do any of us discuss MMOs with fervour? This is an enthusiast blog so hell yes, my opinions are biased Roger. I am not remotely interested in coming across as an objective blogger, plenty of ‘attempts at objectivity’ out there if that’s what you prefer.

      I don’t get the defeatist attitude of your comment and I don’t get that reallife analogy on timesinks either….I don’t think we have the same stakes in this particular topic. /shrug

      For what its worth, I wasn’t blindly celebrating the good old bad days here – am not into the bad days nostalgia even if I’m not immune to it. I have written about that at length over the years. There’s definitely some nostalgia here though granted – but I was also going for several design-centric questions that are still important to me today, from an explorer’s PoV. Mainly the problem of content optimization vs. the struggle to keep up / the backlash in terms of content decay on the players side vs. devs speeding up expansions etc. I can reference several more posts here.

      Another fundamental question is how/when/if MMO still have time for whimsy, nooks and crannies and decorum (also stuff that falls on the side of simulation). It’s not just about boring grind timesinks; a lot of stuff that’s more open world-centric gets called a timesink when it allows for more diversified playstyles. Ours don’t need to be mutually exclusive even if we don’t like the same stuff. There’s some “room”.
      There’s yet another topic ringing through here on degrading value / treasure, the whole journey vs. reward component and related balancing issues.

      This post was an amalgam of all of these concerns (which have all been addressed in much greater detail in separate posts), many of which I still have now and regard as important. 🙂 I care about this stuff. And I will keep asking for greatness from the MMOs I play.

  12. Touché. An excellent response.

    I claim cognitive dissonance as a justification of all my actions.

    I’m just not as optimistic as you and I don’t see my attitude as defeatists. Defeatism is essentially giving up on a fight you could potentially win. I don’t see this to be the case in this instance.

    I think the reason I see many subjects differently to my peers, is because I’m simply not as invested in them or feel as passionate about them as others.

    Oh and I blog because I’m an ego maniac and I want to be loved 🙂

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