I’m not saying that current MMOs are devoid of rewards and interaction outside the realm of character development. I used to do those things in Everquest.
For fun once, when Kunark and the Iksar were all the rage, I decided to take a level 1 Halfling Rogue and adventure off to Cabilis, the Iksar home city. For those of you who never played Everquest (good for you), the Iksar hate all the other races, and their home city is fairly remote from everyone else. So, I took little Tulbo the Rogue on a great adventure outside Rivervale to meet the lizard men. After some lengthy boat rides, and a heck of a lot of running and sneaking through dangerous territory, I made it to the outskirts of Cabilis. I found someone to bind me on the zone line inside Cabilis, and began learning the ins and outs of the city: how to avoid the guard patrols, using sneak to improve my faction with the merchants, buying food and water, and turning in quest loot for gear and weapons.
The thrill was that everything I interacted with was one failed hide away from killing my little halfing ass. I savored the challenge of sneaking past guards; I relished the sight of gawking Iksar as I ran around outside the city. No matter what else I did in Everquest, Tulbo, the death-defying halfling, was my greatest source of fun and excitment.
So what I’m saying is, yeah sure, you can enjoy an MMO in unconventional ways. You can choose not to “grind”, but how else am I to really see the world? In City of Heroes, for example, you can’t even enter certain zones without being a certain level! You can goof off and do silly things, but you’re never really going to experience the full game unless you take time to develop your character. A lot of time. Too much time, I think. And this process of developing your character to experience the gameworld is old-fashioned, painfully time consuming, and needs to go.
Don’t like the grind? Don’t grind! Seems like gamers are fighting a losing battle against their own human brain. After fixating yourself over what you think is the only reward in the game (character development), you find the ugliest ways to achieve it.
And I’m not looking for the “ugliest” ways to achieve progress. In games like Everquest, City of Heroes, etc…, “grinding” is pretty much all you can do. It’s the core, the essence, of the game. You kill things, you gain experience, you level. Rinse and Repeat. What other options do I have? I don’t gain experience from helping new players learn the game. I don’t gain experience exploring the game world. I don’t gain experience from doing random acts of kindness. I don’t gain experience from creating new items. Those are all cool things everyone should do from time to time, but it can’t be all that you do. Otherwise, you’d never progress, and you wouldn’t see or experience any new content. The worlds that these characters exist in are stagnant and static. You have to level your character, or else you’ll never see anything new.
Even if you do spice up your MMO play time with alternative ways of enjoyment, you can’t escape the fact that the crux of the game is to bash things and gain experience. Over and over. I’m saying that MMOs could be so much more, if developers were willing to take the road less traveled.