I've just come across this free game online, and it's made me wonder why the hell I'm paying £8.99 a month for World of Warcraft. It's a spoof MMORPG called Progress Quest, and it's absolutely free to download.
You generate a character by choosing from a list of silly races and classes -- my character, Bogthor, is a Gyrognome Robot Monk -- and roll some characteristics. Bogthor has good strength and charisma. And then... you do absolutely nothing. Progress Quest has eliminated all the repetitive grinding and walking around that MMO players are always moaning about, and it just gives you a character sheet, with some Internet Explorer 5-style progress bars to show you how you're getting along.
It's kind of an RPG version of Football Manager -- in that you have to imagine what's going on -- but without any decisions on your part.
Your quests have names that will tickle any WoW player -- 'Deliver this carrot' and 'Fetch me a pint' cut pretty much to the heart of it -- and you battle a wide variety of mythical beasts such as cockatrices, will-o-the-wisps and boy scouts. But of course it's all automatic, so you can literally level up in your sleep.
But what I first took to be a well-written piece of satire on silly fantasy tropes and dull game design became something much more frightening: it was enjoyable. I'm hooked. I was really pissed off when I couldn't get rid of my measly 'handpeen' weapon. I'm very proud of my level 7 'Gyp' spell. What on earth is going on?
I think this may be the secret of MMORPGs: you'll sit through absolutely anything to level up or get a better sword. However dull, repetitive or mindless the task in front of you, your emotional attachment to the character you have created and customised means you desperately want them to be better. Even if you have no input into the process whatsoever. It's a shocking thought, and it's really changed the way I look at WoW.
So what does that £8.99 a month buy me? Pretty graphics. The ability to choose which random pieces of equipment my character wears. And interaction with other people. That's not as good a deal as I thought it was. Oh dear.