It’s a disturbing trend that began long ago and has been ever so slightly increasing with time.

With UO, you had the mind-numbing punishment of having to click endlessly for trade skills. With AC, the punishment comes with having to buff every few minutes and having to shop every hour. EQ is by far the most punishment-heavy, of which the most note-worthy is the death penalty. It even goes back to games like Gemstone III where your “mind” would get full and you’d “absorb” no more exp until you sat down and did absolutely nothing while it cleared.

Designers have adopted the notion that a game needs to be tedious in order to provide a challenge. I’m sorry, but I just don’t subscribe to this theory. I should not be struck down with carpal tunnel because I want to enjoy your game. I should not be forced to read a book because you decided in order to “control the population” I have to do absolutely nothing but sit down and stare at some spell book in order to regain my mana and health points. If I wanted to read a book (and I often do), I would read a book. Somewhere along the line of game development, the core reasoning for making and playing a game got lost; to have fun.

Within the next two years we’re going to have a slew of new MMORPG’s hitting the market, and with that comes my fear that they’re going to follow behind the industry leader: EverQuest. Gameplay has not made EverQuest king, lack of competition has. As romantic as it may sound, the numbers do not speak for themselves. If other games are going to look at the success of EverQuest and follow suit with equally tedious and agonizing game mechanics, I fear for our future as Online Multiplayer gamers.

It’s a fine line between making a game too simple or too challenging, I understand. We also know that player retention is the real goal now, but there’s no reason these things need to be exclusive of one another. You do not need to make your game tedious to the point where you’re making your player work in order for them to stick around.

The solution to the dilemma is not simple. I’ve no delusions that this is a problem that can easily be solved. If you make your game too easy, players will become bored and leave. If you do not challenge them or impose some penalties, you will always be adding new high level content playing a game up catch-up. If there’s no risk, the reward is far less sweet. It is definitely no easy task, and no one game will be able to come in, sweep through, and magically create the game we’ve always been looking for. But the question is: Can each new game improve one aspect of this, until there’s enough information that someone will come in at the right time, combine these years of research and make a game that allows you freedom, lets you have fun, and still provides a challenge? I’m hoping the answer is yes.

I think a good start would be to place “mini-games” within each game in order to relieve some of the stress of downtime. If you’re going to make the player sit down for 30 minutes in order to regain his hit points or mana, then allow him to spend some of his earned coins in a virtual slot machine. If five people have downtime at once, allow them to spend that time playing a hand of poker.

Make trade skills fun. Endless clicking does not a trade skill make. Traveling into the belly of a level 100 demon in order to find a single component does not a trade skill make. Don’t be afraid to allow a little bit of freedom for your players to create “fun” things with trade skills. Secondary pets that do nothing but “critique” the combat of you and your group come to mind. Potions that temporarily change your avatars gender. Little things that cause your players to smile once in awhile.

Make “offline” time appealing. Your player does not need to be logged in 17 hours a day in order for him to enjoy your game to the fullest. Now no one is saying “make not playing as good as playing,” no, but give even the most hard core of powergamers the opportunity, and you’ll see him, if nothing else, exploring different character classes. Make characters go “off camera” and earn some experience and coin for every hour it’s not logged in. Nothing drastic, perhaps 1/20th of the average on the account.

I think the importance of the (Multiplayer) numbers of games like Quake 3 and Counter-Strike are being overlooked because of the difference in genre, and that’s a mistake. FPS or not, those games are fun because if your opponent kills you, you come right back with your weapon of choice and are able to jump right back into the heat of battle. Granted, the games themselves are simplistic and completely different, but if we’re going with the notion of “numbers don’t lie,” well, I guess that speaks for itself.

There’s no definitive answer here, and it would take much more than a single article to dissect this beast, but it’s a start.