Everything One thing I Know about Writing I Learned from MMOs

Once upon a time, I was a pretty hard core MMO raider.

Now, I’ve been playing MMOs since long before they were called that (or had graphics) and I’ve enjoyed almost all the time I’ve spent on such pastimes, but I’m not talking about the play of MMOs in general — just about a very specific activity: raiding.

For the uninitiated, ‘raiding’ is a term for an activity in a multiuser game like World of Warcraft. In this activity, you and a largish group of other like-minded people assemble at a set time online and in somewhat organized fashion attempt to defeat some boss in the game who is designed to be too tough for a single person or even several people to beat. These fights are usually quite challenging, with multiple phases and ‘tricks’ that you need to figure out and learn how to deal with before you can finally put all the pieces together, do all the dance steps in the right order, avoid the specter of Plain Ol’ Bad Luck, and beat the guy.

All MMOs with which I am familiar have this mechanic, though some (CoH) have it to a much smaller degree, which others (LotRO, WoW, many others) use the idea of ‘added complexity’ to bring interest to boss fights that would otherwise be “the big guy gets the guy’s attention, and we all beat on him with relative impunity.”

Because of those little tricks and features, it’s a situation where you go into each new fight pretty much assuming that you won’t win the first time. You’re not really even trying to win — you’re gathering information. What kinds of attacks is he using? Fire? Okay. Do his special attacks have any visual or audio clues that provide warning? Do we have to stay moving or fight in a particular location, or both, depending on what’s going on? How hard is he hitting? How hard are WE hitting? Is he resisting our attacks too much? Can we fix that?

And, ultimately: “How can we avoid the thing that just killed us, the next time?”

Victory does not come easily, and it rarely comes quickly — when I played World of Warcraft, I participated in a raid a couple nights a week, for two to three hours each night, and it would often take us several weeks of attempts to learn how to reliably down a new boss. During those weeks, there were no rewards — nothing but the ongoing drain of repair bills, consumables consumed, and the ever present specter of Time Spent Without Victory.

In terms of gaming, I don’t think there is anything else like this try-fail-try-fail-try-again experience in other games. Certainly not tabletop rpgs.

Sounds pretty depressing, but I’ll tell you a secret: The Win Made it Worth It. There was nothing at all like finally putting it all together and making it work.

And I still enjoy it. I certainly don’t raid like I used to (or play WoW, come to that), but probably my second favorite thing to do in Lord of the Rings Online is to get in a group with Kate and a few other good players, chat about our day, and figure out how to beat a new fight.

Sometimes, we don’t figure it out.

There’s this new fight we tried this weekend that looked like it would be pretty easy to beat. I mean, tricky, yes, but even during the first attempt we pretty much had it figured out: when he says THIS, you run away; when he says THAT, we all bunch up; don’t stand on the open grates with the fire underneath; stay behind him.

And then, suddenly, we were dead.

“What happened? Oh. Fire. Fire bad. Stay out of the fire. Okay. Good tip. Let’s try again.”

Almost beat him… and boom. Fire. Weird.

And again, and again, and again, and again.

Finally, we called it for the night, said we’d ponder it, and come back to it later — maybe ask around on the forums to see What The Hell?

So we ask around, and everyone says we’re idiots. No one knows what we’re talking about. No one’s having that problem.

Well, dammit, what do we do now?


We go back and try it again.

Like I said, there is no real corollary (that occurs to me) between this experience and any other kind of gaming.

That’s not to say it doesn’t remind me of something; it reminds of several things, one of which is writing.[1]

In November, I blasted through writing Adrift. I didn’t finish it, because it’s considerably longer than 50k — probably twice that — but I knew that would happen, and I was prepared to continue on in December.

Which, to be clear, I have done. But man has it been painful.

How painful?

I’ve been working on the same scene — not editing it, mind you, just writing it — pretty much for the whole of December. Nothing is working right. Everything is coming along hard; every sentence is like pulling out my own front teeth with a pair of pliers.

Just when I think I’ve got it, boom. Fire. Dead. The looming specter of Time Spent Without Victory. Right now, I’m not even trying to win; I’m just trying to gather as much information as I can, so I can improve my performance in the next attempt.

Then, I stare at my screen, and I think “well what do I do now?”

And sometimes, there’s no poetic answer. There’s no author’s quote that shines a light ahead. There’s no technique or skill or talent to get you out of it.

There’s just the answer I learned from Boss Fights in MMOs.

“Go back in. Try again.”

Maybe, eventually, succeed.
Maybe, eventually, succeed.

1 – The other thing it reminds me of is submitting your work and trying to get published, but that’s a whole different post.

3 Replies to “Everything One thing I Know about Writing I Learned from MMOs”

  1. You have just brilliantly described what I’ve been doing with my current novel. Not just one scene, but the novel itself. Write it, revise it, realize something is off. Revise it. Realize something is still off. Tear it down to the bare bones, rearrange the bare bones, start again. Thank you for this post – I no longer feel so alone. And, I will now go into the revisions with the mindset of trying to avoid what killed me last time. Best of luck to both of us.

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