I can still remember my first moments in Atlas Park, standing among the shadows cast down by a statue of the city’s namesake hero. Situated on the front steps of the City Hall building, I watched in awe as heroes and heroines of all sizes and color ran through the streets of Paragon City, thwarting efforts of evil one super power at a time. Above me, paragons swirled in the air, flying and super jumping to out of reach places. In another corner of the city, a controller was suppressing the minds of his enemies while a neighboring fire blaster summoned ashes from the sky. It was all so overwhelming, in the best way possible; as there was so much opportunity to be had in this game world. I was in awe.
You see, these feelings weren’t actually exclusive to City of Heroes; in fact, I can remember my first moments in almost every massively multiplayer game that I’ve played. It’s because, by nature, MMORPG’s facilitate wonder; and that’s the very thing that makes them so special. They activate our imaginations, capitalize on our desires, and materialize the make believe.
Perceived Progression is the active display - shown through other players - of what’s achievable in a game; and it’s unavoidable in an MMO due to the social nature of the genre. It’s the very reason I used to waste hours and hours of my week walking through the halls of Ironforge in World of Warcraft. The city was the busiest social space in the game, as players from across Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms would gather to make raid preparations, train in new professions, or sell their rare treasure at the Auction House. Weathered adventurers walked the halls of the city, showing off their new armor or sword for all to see. As a beginner, this informed my imagination and added to the game’s sense of grandeur. Naturally, I would follow them around, ask questions, inspect their rare gear, and perhaps even beg for gold on occasion. Yes, I was that kid.
The point is, in single player games, the playable avatar is the highest display of power; as they have every tool they could possibly need to tackle any given scenario. They’re the hero of the story, after all. In social play, however, there’s always going to be someone better than you. Someone who can show you the ropes and act as an avatar to project your personal fantasy onto. What made that opening moment in City of Heroes so wonderful for me was the fact I knew one day that could be me. If I invested enough blood, sweat, and time, I could be the hero flying over the denizens of Atlas Park and discovering those once out of reach places.
Incentivized Exploration is certainly not unique to MMORPG’s, but nonetheless masterfully utilized by them; and works hand in hand with perceived progression to cultivate awe and amazement. It provides participants the motivation to fully observe every inch of the game world; as they’re are constantly rewarded for doing so. Climbing an oddly placed waterfall and following the riverbank upstream could lead to a secret treasure chest; just as returning to a previously discovered location at a specific time of day could trigger a special enemy encounter.
You see, when the act of adventure results in achievement, experience, and treasure, we as players are inclined to unearth the secrets of a playspace; and when we successfully do so, we then share our stories with others. Are you starting to understand, now? The genre is just one big beautiful, amazing, gross, heartfelt, and cynical loop that never ends. This is the curse of the MMORPG, and Wonderment is simply the drug that keeps us playing - and paying.