2000 hours to hit the original level cap in EQ1 is not the reason EQ1 was ‘hard’ (not a great way to really look at this, but more on that later). A harsh death penalty wasn’t it either. Nor was camping a mob for 16 hours, or the forced grouping, or red-con zone runs. It was all of that and more, all mixed together.
Another analogy (it’s analogy week here): is your best friend the person you hang out with regularly, or that random guy you occasionally talk to for five minutes? Better yet, can you spend 5 minutes with your kids and still be a great parent? No? So being a parent/friend is really just ‘a grind’, where time = result, right? No? But you just argued exactly that for an MMO. That it’s not about the amount of time you put in, but the level of effort. Why is it that you believe you can get ‘meaningful’ MMO content in 30 minutes, but you don’t believe you can be a great parent/friend in just 30?
Spending “quality time” has time in it for a reason. While time is not the ONLY factor, it still counts.
The MMO genre was built around living in a virtual world. It’s not a ‘casual’ genre by design, because by design the parts that really make a game an MMO require time to be put in. You don’t get great communities, solid guilds, or heated rivalries when you jump in for 30 minutes and log out, no matter how ‘quality’ those 30 were. A well designed game like EVE will allow those 30 minute players to co-exist with those who drive the content, but while the game would continue to function without the 30 minute players, it would not without those who push things forward.
As the genre has expanded (or fractured, really), solid options for the 30 minute player exist. A game like Global Agenda is a pretty horrible MMO in the traditional sense, but it provides great content in small, random, pick-up-and-move-on bites. It works despite failing horrible in areas like server community, but then again it’s also F2P and won’t scratch that traditional MMO itch. For the 5 minute player we have Facebook, etc.
History has very clearly shown that when games get traditional MMO design right, they profit. UO/EQ/AC/DAoC/EVE/WoW (pre-Cata) and others have all made boatloads of money for their designers, specifically because they keep you entertained for months on end. It’s also no surprise that more ‘casual’ WoW clones, ones that minimize the core MMO basics in the name of ‘accessibility’, burn out so fast. Not only do these games fail to capture the core MMO audience, but the more casual players they intended to attract move on quickly because, well, that’s what casuals do. By definition they don’t get super-invested, and so when the next shiny comes along, they chase it. That’s fine if you are selling a one-and-done $50 box, but it’s not going to work out when you hope to collect $15 a month, or even when you try to sell ponies or potions in your item shop.
Back to EQ1 being ‘hard’: getting to the level cap was not a true test of twitch skills or some massive mental hurdle. There was no ‘hard stop’ like in, say, a fighting game, where if you can’t beat the guy you are fighting, you simply can’t progress. The really nice thing about an MMO is that if your personal skill level is lower, you can still progress by putting in more time. What made UO/EQ/AC and such ‘work’ was that ‘putting in more time’ did not just mean grinding more mobs, and certainly not spending more cash in the item shop; it meant reaching out to other players for help, or finding a solid guild. It meant working with others, which in turn creates those solid player communities that keep you logging in day after day.
Mechanics such as a harsh death penalty or a long XP curve encourage (or in EQ1 and grouping, force) playing with others. The better the design, the more natural this encouragement feels, and the more time you spend with those people, the close the bond, and the deeper the ‘MMO hooks’ become.
This is exactly why being able, or in the case of something like WoW-Cata, being encouraged to level solo is so anti-MMO. It’s why solo-instances are a sad, short-sighted design joke. It’s why random, cross-server PUG groups erode communities. The mechanics now work AGAINST what it means to be a true MMO, and by doing so reduce the very thing that made the whole model originally work.
The point is not to exclude 30 minute players. It’s actually a solid design challenge to allow them to co-exist in the same world (it’s no surprise that it works in EVE, when you consider EVE has just one server), but if the goal is to design a ‘real’ MMO, it must be designed to natural encourage the things that make an MMO what it is. Because when you get that design right, and everything comes together, you get a level of gaming that is above anything else, and anyone who has experienced it knows it.