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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.