No, Sir, Your Virtual World Is Nothing But A Virtual Soundstage

No, Sir, Your Virtual World Is Nothing But A Virtual Soundstage

That's Hello Kitty Online by the way

Games are doing my head in. Specifically MMOs.

When MMOs started to really hit it big, to crawl out of the shackles of “cult status” and start to rake in the big bucks, I was one of those kids that every market loves. I was young, middle class and with parents affluent enough to loan me the dosh to buy into anything that the marketing gurus persuaded me that I wanted. For MMOs, that was Anarchy Online, followed by Star Wars Galaxies and Planetside, then World of Warcraft. I’m now sick of these games, and I want to tell you why.

It’s nothing to do with the individual mechanics of each and every MMO, even the ones that are poor and translate into each successful game. No, my problem lies in the design philosophies of the games. The main tenet of their design is not playability but profit and, while this is true of most every game now, they do very little to hide this. The level grind, the uninspired quests, the ludicrously hard boss fights, it all comes together to make you shell out more money for less gratification. In fact, given that most endgames require large groups of players, your input becomes invisible amongst the unbridled throng of spells and people shouting about DPS.

You will often spy developers lauding their achievements in creating a living, breathing world. I don’t mean to be harsh, but these people are liars. They’ve not created a world, they’ve created a set, similar to those used for films except substantially larger. They may have stuffed it full of actors and props, but it’s no more alive than a strip of celluloid. There’s no life in an online world, it’s all heavily scripted and rigidly defined so that what variation the players experience is extremely limited.

If you were to map the average “life” of a Warcraft character you would most likely find that they are worryingly similar. Every player does the same quests at the same levels, kills the same creatures, collects the same useless ingredients. If they’re lucky, their race choice will allow them a slightly different set of quests from another player, but not always. A living world would let players build their own stories, have their own unique tales to tell.

This isn’t a problem in single player games because, by their very nature, they have pre-made stories ready for your consumption, designed to be told through a narrative structure that progresses along with you. Multiplayer games don’t have this safety net being, as they are, intent on creating an entire world around you, rather than situating you inside one that has already been built. Come into our world, the MMO will cry, be who you want to be or who you wish you were, unlock your potential in a risk-free environment.

It doesn’t annoy me so much that they don’t provide these worlds, as I am aware how monumentally difficult that might be, but that they lie about having already done so. There’s no emotional connection to an MMO world because, despite claims made by most developers, your character isn’t really part of it. The world itself is frozen in time, never progressing except for sudden and frustrating jumps forward when expansion packs are launched, and your avatar moved through the world so unnoticed that he may as well have never existed.

The MMO ideal appeals to the part of the mind that likes to make stories, your inner writer. You may be terrible at writing in the real world, but everyone’s life has a story behind it and the realisation of that is what makes MMOs so enticing: you can make a new life online, built from the various events and occurrences, and it will be like your real one but so much cooler. What actually happens, of course, is that you are slotted neatly into one of perhaps 20 different life stories replicated thousands of times. There is no individuality, no sense of self, everything has already been hard coded by the developers, and the only time you really get a choice is when they want you to have one.

You would think that people would know the world is not made up merely of sword fighting and auctions, that for it to be truly alive there must be more within it than mere violence and commerce. There’s science, art, love, solitude, togetherness, independence, and so much more. If you could guess the course of someone’s life from a single glance, knew how they got to that point without having to ask, what would be the point? You can’t stare at a girl in your Film class and go “I know everything about her, from her early life, where she lived, how well she did at school, right up until what brought her to this very place”, that’s not how life works.

Life is about secrets and unknowns and stories above all else.

I know that this is hard to put into a game, to replicate everything about life that makes it feel alive, and I’m not saying that developers should already be there. They should most definitely be trying to get there of course, but all I ask is that, until they manage it, they stop treating us like mindless sheep and lying to us about it. No, your MMO world isn’t a “living and breathing” universe yet, and until it is you will get nothing but bile from me if you declare it as such.

I want a narrative, a journey, almost unique to everyone else, that I am able to convey to people via conversation or trophies or word of my exploits in the press. I want the MMO to be the world I can’t have in reality, the one where you can be famous and have fun, yet without having to follow the same path as everyone else. I want freedom and individuality in a virtual world full of other people seeking the same thing, where half the fun comes from sitting around a virtual fire and asking other people how they came to be at this point themselves, hearing a new story each time.

I want the chance to be the person online that I can’t be in the real world.

23 thoughts on “No, Sir, Your Virtual World Is Nothing But A Virtual Soundstage

  1. All so very, very true.

    I’ve grown frustrated with pretty much any MMO you could care to name for these reasons, to be honest. Really, you can basically get the same experience playing a crummy singleplayer RPG, whacking Steam overlay on it, and (if possible) naming your peons after friends and/or family. You’re essentially playing something with a crummy plot, dull mechanics, and having a chat window open to relieve yourself of the tedium involved with “playing” it. All my best memories of MMOs were more or less done through the chat window. It had very little to do with the playing experience.

    There’s slight exceptions. Planetside thoroughly rocked for a good time, but it never had the meat of a fully dynamic game world as EVE does. Importantly (though perhaps its ultimate weakness) it was only as fun as other people made it – again as EVE does. In other words, it actually recognizes that MMOs are only worth being MMOs if they take advantage of enormous server space and larger game worlds. But it’s dated. Somewhat repetitive. Doomed to fade into the ether. Sad times.

    EVE? EVE’s great. It’s the holy grail. I can’t for the life of me get into it. I simply cannot be bothered to grind away at it long enough to get enough money to do anything worth while. It’s probably my failing, but frankly, I don’t care. Sure, phat lute should come to those who play more perhaps, but really, the value of playing more should be that you’ve spent more time actually taking advantage of the social functions an MMO has to offer, and have strong social structures as a result. But anyone should be able to jump in at any time and not have to scythe bits of asteroid off for 6 months before they can begin to partake.

  2. I was actually thinking of EVE as well- it is the one exception. The problem with EVE is that the game world is TOO real, TOO dynamic. It has many of the features of a real economy, but that also means it has all of the boring ones as well: like Greg said, most notably, the grind. There is even an exchange rate between EVE money and real money.

    0.12 USD PER 1M ISK at the time of writing.

    This ‘realism’ is the game’s biggest attraction for me, but it is also the biggest turn off.

  3. Interesting viewpoint. Seriously though, you should have a look at the MMO planetcalypso.com. They’ve made such a bollox of it during the years (originally came out as Project Entropia in ’03) that now you’ve got this gigantic world without a single quest, rampant capitalism with an in-game currency pegged to the USD, and the most nutty developers that keep changing the goal posts every couple of weeks. If you actually have the patience and perseverance to make it to the virtual planet (don’t underestimate their utter lack in providing a streamlined customer experience), you will actually find some of the hardiest virtual citizens around with pretty unique stories:)

  4. Wow, that sounds a bit crazy! Wouldn’t fancy paying a monthly fee (I assume you do?) for something which sounds to be such a mess that is changing all the time as that. And no quests? What the hell?

  5. steve, you’ve managed to coherently fit into words what i’ve been ranting, grumbling and grunting at for ages.

    thank you SO much.

    *goes back to digesting it all.

  6. I think what’s fundamentally important is that these sentiments are really quite widely felt. Most people I talk to – even some MMO players – will know exactly what’s being said here.

    The problem is, no effort is being made to really change the state of affairs. With WoW proving a shining money beacon, the model of success is firmly rooted. All of the major publishers, thus, will likely be unwilling to do anything a little more innovative. So it’s up to developers with a little more creative freedom to get to it really, I suppose. It’s just harder because the money’s not there in the same way, which is especially important for MMOs who require additional costs with servers and other matters of infrastructure.

  7. Good point about WoW there Greg, a large part of the problem I think is that devs see the success of WoW and try to copy and paste it into their own universe. People on the large part I suspect don’t want to be playing two WoWs, and those put off by it aren’t going to be interested in a copy/paste clone.

  8. Agreed, an honourable mention for Planetside doing something different. It doesn’t deserve to be lumped in there.

    Take note of the fact that the most successful MMO ‘moments’ to date – speaking in terms of innovation and exciting new experiences rather than financial success- have been player driven.

    Anarchy Online’s community events, Star Wars Galaxies player cities and deep roleplay (Speaking from experiences on Starsider, where every day was a series of unique events provided by other players), Planetside’s clan alliances forming coalitions of tens of different organisations comprising thousands of players coordinating on a leadership level in heirarchic sequences of ventrilo/teamspeak channels to carry out war on a global scale.

    Neocron seemed to pass you by, but there was a game that just left people to do business – I spent most of my time doing construction work and trading information, sharing news and rumours on streetcorners. In a smallscale german MMOFPS/RPG most remniscent of Deus Ex and System Shock 2. Strange and wonderful experience.

    I played WoW for 11 hours, reaching an equivalent level as a Rogue when it was still new. I never felt the faintest urge to play it again..

    Darkfall recently showed promise before disappointing with a painfully shortsighted fundamental design and the most bloodthirsty and immature community I’ve seen (other than Duck and Cover)..

    Mortal Online once again ‘shows promise’ for sandbox, open, playerdriven MMOs..

    Dust 514 takes a different route, providing the simpler minded with an mmo tie-in shooter that connects to the universe of EVE in such a way that events in either game will immediately influence players in the other.

    And APB makes the wise choice of sacrificing massive player counts in favour of good physics and entertaining combat – only 100 players will join one another simultaneously in instanced districts of a city, but those 100 will have a richer experience for it.

    Neocron was a game where 300 players on average frequented each server, and that provided me with the richest and most entertaining experience and the best community I’ve ever had in an MMO.

    Massive is not necessarily the best way to go – consider the soulless nature of the ‘big city’ versus the ‘little village’.

    On the other hand, consider being burned alive for being an outsider o.O

    1. The problem with MMOs isn’t the lack of imagintion from devs, but with the genre itself, which I think is inherently flawed and can never be improved. For an MMO world to work, you need grinding to separate players according to their relevant skill/experience etc. If you didn’t have grinding, there would be very few ways in which to distinguish the strength of players, and this would result in a world where all the players are pretty much the same in this respect.

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  10. I’ve felt for ages that the necessary next step forward for RPGs (MMO and normal cRPG) is some kind of AI director/dungeonmaster.

    Even in single player RPGs I often find the options too limiting. I can hit them. Shoot them. Or magic them. Maybe i can also pickpocket them or charm them. But i can’t do anything creative or original. I can’t balance a bucket of water over the door and drop it on the flaming skull creature’s head. I can’t bribe flaming skull guy (with cash or chips) to turn on his master and help me out. Etc…

    The best P&P rpgs were when players ignored all the dice and just came up with cool/crazy/original solutions… and the gamesmaster pretended to roll some dice, but actually just let them pull it off.

    MMOs (or cRPGs) where the game is essentially making up interesting scenarios, and reacting to your actions IN A WAY TO MAKE THE GAME MORE FUN would be amazing.. and i think that lots of mini AI gamesmasters might be the way to do it.

    I had hoped the L4D AI director would do that… but he seems to be just a difficulty slider.

  11. Steve,
    How can you complain on one hand that the worlds are nothing like the real world and immediately complain that “your avatar moved through the world so unnoticed that he may as well have never existed”?
    That’s EXACTLY like the real world. most of us go through our lives without titanic events, most other people never learning our name and very little of our experiences are worth “telling your grandkids”.

  12. Firstly – great article, well written and very compelling. While I agree with your general point that back of box statements about an MMO being a ‘living breathing world’ is nothing but marketing hype for the most part and that these games are designed for profit, I have to disagree overall.

    For a start I think you might be pointing the stick of blame in the wrong direction. For the most part the only people that complain and bemoan the current state of affairs with the genre is ‘veteran’ MMO players, or those who didn’t like the genre to begin with but feel they should because everyone else does and so jump from MMO to MMO looking for satisfaction and never finding it. Everyone else digs on the World of Warcraft and their subscriber numbers bear this out. Most wont bother to try a new MMO and if they do they’ll quietly leave it to return as the new is not like WoW enough. They just don’t post about it on their blogs and in the forums.

    The problems inherent in the genre are well known and understood by most designers and producers in the field. The thing is there is little they can do about it when they are beholden to stakeholders who don’t understand and threaten removal of financing if they don’t make it like how “They” want. So what do they do? They try to make smaller incremental changes, they try to make it like, but different enough to capture ex WoW players but also keep the disgruntled veterans happy. These usually end up garnering a small devoted following based around players who love this versions: theme, licensed property or gameplay aspect – enough to keep the lights on but not enough to unseat the behemoth.

    I say the real problem is that these games just aren’t fun in the mid to long term, they generally fill another need altogether in those that continue playing them. Living breathing worlds are all fine and good, but they don’t make me want to play a game. I think this stems from the fact that these games are Massive – or at least try to be. If you want to make a game massive you have to try and please everyone. That way just leads to a world of bland and also ran.

    I think our savior lies in the direction of the independent developers. The ones with lower costs and fewer idiots holding the money bag. These are the guys who are willing to try new things and experiment. They are content with lower population levels and aim to fill a niche rather than trying to gather the whole market. The thing is that most of what happens in an indy game wont see the light of day in any of the big boys MMO’s because these things tend to polarise populations (full open world PvP, skill based character development over level based, no combat). Anything that a significant proportion of the population wont like, wont get implemented – too much risk.

    Anyone who expects deviation from the norm, innovation or experimentation from a big title needs to have their head checked. These guys have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo – why does all McDonalds taste the same the world over? Why do all mass produced pop idols sound the same? Why do most best sellers read like every other best seller you’ve read? You need to be bland to appeal to the broadest market – stop expecting otherwise. Me? I like my food spicy!

    So I say, rage quit your big MMO now, then hunt down an indy MMO that looks promising. Ignore the forum posts about bugs and crashes. Ignore the posts about how Eve does it better – for god sake people not everyone wants to fly a spaceship in a deadly game of spreadsheet micromanagement – sorry sorry, I know there are good Eve players out there I just seem to encounter the frothing at the mouth ones.

    Ignore the claims that indy titles shouldn’t charge the same amount as the big boys (if you think about it they should probably charge more). Just pick one that sounds like fun – and play it. If you keep subscribing to WoW or LOTRO or any of the other AAA clones then nothing will change. Complaining on blogs wont do a damned thing – the only thing that will impact the real decision makers (those who provide the capital) is to hit them where it hurts – the wallet. Give your money to the game that looks like it’s trying to do what you want – don’t wait for it to ‘get better’ or ‘fix all its bug’, by then it may be too late. Then jump on the forums and give honest and unbiased feedback to the devs of that game. Let them know what works for you, what’s fun and what isn’t. Who knows you may end up getting the game you want, or at least moving in the right direction.

  13. This is going to sound snarky, but maybe you should try and live this adventure. This is a beautiful dream, and it is a somewhat perpetuated lie in MMOs. I don’t have the experience to make that call, but I think I agree with you.

    But you’re looking for something amazing, a world full of secrets that is adaptive to you… Sometimes if you hit life hard enough, (figuratively, of course) it’ll notice. And it will change in response.

    I think the only way this could occur is if you took an MMO, and eliminated all the NPCs. No more illusions of interaction, only the opportunity of real interaction with real people. And second, you would need the opponents, at least the complicated, interactive ones, to be human.

    Maybe you could have people play both sides, be the traditional PC or be the machine, and reward them for both. Player run instances, with real motivations for both sides to succeed, so no-one can throw the dice…

    In short, to do this as a game, you would need people, real people, everywhere. Maybe you could get the players to be those people. Let them be the environment, and the player.

    Or maybe I’m spouting nonsense. But still, to make a constantly changing world, you need constantly response. And that’s very difficult to do alone.

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