There's a lot to be said for automation. Thanks to automated processes, our society hums along more nicely than it ever has. But should we include our playtime on the list of things we want to automate? Is it possible to enjoy something like an MMO if we really don't control it at all? If we assemble our army men and wind them up, is watching them go as much fun as controlling what they do?

Ah, such deep questions stemming from such a simple game. Crystal Saga is a browser-based, free-to-play, Flash-based MMORPG (there's a mouthful) that allows players to do a lot of things, including fully automate the grinding process. I can hear the potential comments already, so click past the cut and let me explain it more.



I need to clarify what I mean when I say "fully automated." It's not as though you can tell your little on-screen character that you want it to go here, attack this, and rescue that. It's not quite that in-depth. Basically the developers have added in a system that allows you to place your character into "AFK mode." How much time he can remain in AFK mode depends on a special item that you can get from quests or from the cash shop (I was AFK for hours and hours and never spent a dime), and what happens during that AFK time depends on what specifically you told your avatar to do during that time.

You're essentially telling your character which mobs to attack, when to heal or use a healing potion, and whether to loot or not. As I say in the livestream, you "set it and forget it" like the Ronco Rotisserie. You can also click a link in your quest to auto-walk back to town or to a specific NPC, and you can auto-walk to any number of quest objectives. In fact, you can play this game and level up without ever really using more than a few buttons.

Gaming purists needn't worry; this system is not new or uncommon. In fact, if you have ever played EVE Online, Alganon or a few other titles, you have automated your play. Yep, if anything, the offline skill training that EVE popularized is much less labor-intensive than Crystal Saga's AFK mode. While I AFKed in Crystal Saga, I had to at least watch for enemies in case I was overwhelmed. Clicking "learn" in a game like Alganon takes no work at all. Hours or days later, you log in your character to find him or her smarter than before! The wonders of science!

More good news: You don't need to worry whether other players, readers, or super-cool column writers care about how you play. Crystal Saga is for younger players, true, but accessibility is not only for them. I found the automated system to be really fun. In an AFK way, of course. I liked coming back to backpacks filled with goodies, and I still had to go back to town and sell the items and organize my skills. In fact, I've realized that AFK modes in games like Crystal Saga only shine light on how incredibly boring and trivial leveling-up has become in many MMOs. The archaic system of advancement hasn't changed in years and years, so why not do away with the process, or make it something that we simply don't have to sit there and watch?

Again, I know what you are thinking. "But that's what makes MMOs fun!" I get that many of you might feel that playing the game is the fun part. I agree that playing is fun. But grinding is not. Of course, this raises another question: Why didn't Crystal Saga just design a better way of leveling? Or better yet, why doesn'tCrystal Saga do away with leveling altogether and invent a brand-new way to play MMOs? Good question, Beau. I think the answer is that these devs do not care to redesign the entire process but instead want to speed it up and get you to the good stuff. In a world filled with "AAA," indie, and free-to-play games that are all filled to the brim with massive amounts of grind, I appreciate these AFK systems that are showing up more often. Give me a cash shop filled with every single item in the game and we have a deal.

I've been playing Oblivion a lot lately. We have all probably played it a lot. If not, we jammed on Morrowind before that. Remember "fast travel?" You know, the ability to click on an area in the map and instantly transport there, instead of traveling the long, literal way on horseback? We have all used it at some point. I use it when I am faced with an incredibly long (but not difficult) ride. If it is dangerous and within a 15-minute window, I will be on the trail. Games like Crystal Saga allow for the same choices, and I appreciate that. Long ago I lost the feeling that even the mere presence of such systems tainted my gameplay. They exist, and I don't care.

The rest of the game is fun and colorful, including the pet system. I like the fact that the game runs on anything and that there are always players around. Other than those few facts, there's not much more you need to know about your first several hours in the game (which is how long I generally spend in a game before writing this column). It sort of pains me to say so, but the existence of an "AFK mode" is about the only thing I came across that makes Crystal Saga much fun. It sounds weird, but I got the same feeling when I found pocketfuls of goodies that I used to get when I logged into EVE and saw that my skill training was completed. It's worth checking out, even just to surprise yourself.

Next week I will be looking at Starjack Online, a free-to-play empire-builder that has sucked me in. For some reason, the game does not allow me to stream or video it, so look for a screenshot-heavy article next time. Now, go log in!