I re-installed TrackMania this past holiday weekend. I needed something a little fresher and more action oriented than what my current MMO, Rift, was providing, and to be honest, I am more than a little excited about TrackMania 2: Canyon. My buddy found a decent United server (all game modes instead of just the freeware Nations with only Stadium races). It was great fun, especially one butterfly-shaped ultra-high speed Island race. About the time my mind was shutting down the map changed, and my fun went full stop.
One of the joys of playing on a TrackMania server is seeing so many cool maps that the admins want to share with the users. After all, TrackMania’s soul is grounded on player-generated content. Not every map is a winner, but it’s cool to see such creativity. The best maps cover so many bases such as learning the track, danger, speed, excitement, and competition. The worst maps (like LoL maps, in my opinion) feel randomly thrown together in some barest form of a slip-shod racetrack where winning is a dice roll.
This particular race was in the Rally environment, which is definitely not one of my favorites (though I don’t hate it like Coast). It had all the appearances of a really good map. It was fast and competitive. The turns were tricky. The scenery was beautiful. All told it hit really high marks, until all the beauty went full stop as I slammed in to a dead end.
The shtick of the map seemed to be in learning where the actual racetrack veered unmarked to the next tracked area and the deceiving paved road I was on led into a tunnel underground ending with a brick wall. This was repeated multiple times. I started to catch on, but in a race I am also trying to go fast. I don’t want to stop and watch for signs of yet another brick wall heading my way. The pros that had already been through the track’s rough conditioning diverged from the road in seemingly random fashion to follow the actual, invisible course.
I knew from an instant, once I understood this shtick, that the punishment from learning the track would vastly outweigh any fun I would have. It wasn’t like other tracks which punished me for taking a turn too fast, which is my fault given that I should have seen it coming. This track was actually trying to trick me, and the outcome from being duped was basically death, in a video game sense.
I thought of how in an MMO sense, I was basically “wiping.” So many challenges forced a complete regroup when a mistake had been made. Skill cooldowns had to be dealt with. Strategies had to be reformed. The worst ones just showed a dead party with very little information as to what mistake has been made. Many raid challenges can be learned post-mortem, but I feel the best ones give good indicators of the challenges coming ahead.
My favorite group events in MMOs do not force a group to go full stop. They allow for recovery and a bit of learning on the go. The best ones gave me a sense of why I was being punished. When I slam in to a wall in TrackMania, I am always given the option of pressing on with an inferior score or restarting to try and take the turn with better control. It seems rare that I’m given that option in MMOs anymore. It’s become so much a “do or die” situation.
It feels in so many MMOs that I can no longer innovate on the fly. There is no time or chance for my group to internalize the situation and respond before we wipe. It no longer feels organic in many cases. Group content in conventional MMOs largely feels like hoop jumping to me. I’d rather it feel like I trail-blazed the path instead of doing exactly what the developer wanted. Even more so when the developer feels that it’s necessary to create tricky dead ends with full gameplay stop.