Finally, online role-playing games that won't destroy your life.

The art of play.
March 7 2005 10:47 AM

An Elf's Progress

Finally, online role-playing games that won't destroy your life.

Box cover

When the online game World of Warcraft launched in November, I was almost too afraid to play. It's not that I was scared of the dark, Tolkeinesque forests and the big, hairy spiders. No, I was afraid I'd stop shaving, stop sleeping, and stop going to work. Even the most steadfast of my gamer friends agreed. "I can't afford to lose my life again," one said. He was joking, mostly.

Every new video game claims that it's "immersive"; many let you play against other people online. But "massively multiplayer online role-playing games" are the ultimate time-suck. Games like EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxiesare designed specifically toreward people with limitless amounts of free time: teenagers, adults with no jobs or kids, and people who don't eat. When even hard-core gamers are afraid your product will destroy their lives, it's probably time for an intervention. Thankfully, two game developers have started to see the light. World of Warcraft and City of Heroes, which both launched in the last year, are the first two online games that a busy adult can play without signing his own divorce papers.

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Why are online games so addictive? It's mostly the narcotic appeal of "leveling." When you create a new character—in World of Warcraft, I made myself a Paladin—it starts life as a weakling. Completing specific quests and destroying wolves, evil marauders,and mechanical golems jumps you to the next level, where you suddenly have more endurance, more strength, and stronger spells. The sense of accomplishment is incredible but fleeting. To make these games challenging, designers make the mathematics of leveling logarithmic: The higher you go, the longer it takes to reach the next level. Leveling is thus precisely like a drug whose effect weakens the more you use it. Early on, you're flush with achievement as you quickly zip from Level 1 to Level 5. But then everything slows down, and you're grinding away for hours to get your next fix. World of Warcrafthas 60 levels. It took me about three hours to reach Level 5. It took me another 13 keyboard-surfing hours to reach Level 11. The players I know who have reached the 30s and 40s have spent the equivalent of weeks or months on the game.

The most serious online gamers usually play as part of a team, which allows you to tackle enemies and quests that would be too difficult for you individually. (Many EverQuest junkies say that it's virtually impossible to advance without a group.) But once you've got a posse, the social dynamic just makes the game more addictive and time-consuming. The time you spend hanging around and chatting—about your weaponry, your in-game "profession," your favorite albums—adds even more hours to your playtime. And if you don't play often enough your online companions will become so powerful that your puny character will be squelched by the ferocious enemies they're fighting. If you want to catch up, you become a slave to the machine, engaging in hours of forced-march leveling that's practically Soviet in intensity.

How did World of Warcraftand City of Heroes overcome these problems? With design decisions that make it easier on newbies who don't know the games well and don't arrive with pre-organized groups of friends. In World of Warcraft, there are lots of challenging quests that don't require a team to complete—that is, 20 enemies don't jump out trying to kill you all at once. When you do die, which is often, you won't lose the experience you've accomplished and no one can loot your corpse—a creepy form of theft that causes grief in many online games.

The humanitarian developers behind World of Warcraft have also discovered a way to bribe gamers into turning off their computers and going outside. If you log off for a few days, your character will be more "rested" when you resume playing, a mode that temporarily speeds up your leveling. In my experience, a half-hour of battle when well-rested advanced my character as much as an hour of unrested fighting. This is probably the first video game ever created that rewards you for not playing—what a genius idea! It's like antidiscrimination regulation—the game designers have legislated a measure of equality between the casual players and the serious ones.

Many gamers, though, don't avoid multiplayer online games because the quests are too difficult. They avoid them because the quests are too nerdy; it's hard to brag on your Nerve ad that you spend 20 hours a week playacting as a Night Elf. Enter City of Heroes. The game's central conceit—superheroes—is, admittedly, still a bit geeky, but it's nowhere near the hail-fellow-well-met medievalist vibe of World of Warcraftand EverQuest. Your character is a superhero who patrols the Metropolis-like Paragon City. You don't need to perform regular repairs on your body-armor, buy potions, or learn a "trade" so you can manufacture goods. You just sign up and start kicking butt. Best of all, if you want to play alongside someone far more powerful than you, they can make you their "sidekick." They get a new friend and you get a power boost so long as you're fighting by their side—a brilliant bit of social engineering that also fits organically into the superhero cosmos.

City of Heroescomes as close as any multiplayer online game ever created to being a straight-ahead action game: It's actually possible to log on for quick, 15-minute snatches and still have fun. Maybe that's why when I ran into other players in Paragon City, they didn't seem like lifers with prearranged gangs. Granted, hard-core role-players—the ones who actually get turned on by inventory management—may get bored quickly. But for those who love video games but have a fear of commitment, the time has finally come: For once, your online life won't kill your real one.

Clive Thompson is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired. He is the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.