What I Want (from “New” MMOs)

Blaugust 7th


To put it bluntly, I want something new.

And not just 1 new thing. I want 90% of what I experience to be new. New doesn’t mean giving me a new coat of paint. It means using something other than paint altogether.

When I reflect on my MMO history I’ve noticed that every time I lose interest in them is when I realize that their features are too much like what I loved about WoW. The thing is, I don’t want to play WoW. It’s difficult to appreciate game features that you feel have been done already, and done in a way that you already love. Moving to a new game means seeking new experiences. And you can’t have a new experience by doing the same thing.

There’s a valid point to be made that in MMOs, players are the dynamic factor that keeps things fresh. That’s true, but let’s ask ourselves: How do people behave in your super market? Is it different from how they behave in the supermarket in the next town over? How about at diners: do people not behave the same way from restaurant to restaurant? And driving: it’s slightly different in Canada than in the USA, but mostly it’s the same experience isn’t it? While people can make the same old things have a different feel, it won’t make the experience of doing those things feel new. It’s like eating red gumballs versus green gumballs. It’s still a gumball, just with new color and slightly tangier.

When I say I want a new MMO, I mean it in the most basic sense of the word. New. Something I haven’t seen or something I haven’t tried. Some may say “that’s impossible! Nothing is completely new!” and I’d say I’m not asking the impossible. I’m asking for the basics not the extremes, and the word “impossible” is an extreme. Let’s take for example a wind turbine, those gigantic fans towering over the Earth which are used to generate wind energy. There’s a similar looking device in my bedroom. It spins just the same, has the same basic visual design, but these two items perform completely different functions and operate on different energy. It’s true that the design principles are the same, but the execution is radically different. The wind farms are something genuinely new. They’ve taken an old concept and created something new in this sense. I want something new from MMOs.

As the years pass I’m starting to believe that this “something new” won’t come. The industry at large is better at copying than it is at creating. Such is the nature of a capitalist economy. But that doesn’t mean that something new is impossible. I plan to still play MMOs when I’m 70 so there’s still time for me to experience something new. I just wish upcoming MMOs were actually bringing something fresh for players instead of mixing the gumballs in with the chocolate drops, or adding Canadian roads to American intersections, or forcing the fan in my room to run on wind energy. If you think these examples sound bizarre, this is how I experience so-called “new” MMOs, which tend to be frankensteins composed of varying pieces of older games. I don’t think these games are awful for trying. I just don’t find them interesting enough to buy them or lay down roots in them.

Widstar is a game I think was rather fun, but not enough to spend $60 on and recently there was discussion about players like me, who think the game is good, but who can’t be bothered to play it. Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World were MMOs I heavily anticipated and I wound up playing neither, though I at least bought the latter. Warlords of Draenor is, oddly, more appealing to me than Elder Scrolls or Wildstar, even though they’re probably better. My foundational MMOs are Star Wars Galaxies and World of Warcraft, though. So experiences that feel too similar to those make me rather default to those games for my MMO cravings than to these “new” ones. I suspect that’s somewhat the same for all of us on some level. So when will we get an MMO which really brings something new? We won’t even see it coming, tbh. Oh, I’m sure there’s still plenty of joy in the current batch of MMOs. I don’t discount their value, fun factor, or cool features. Those are all true and I respect what they do.

I just want something new.

Scree Tags: #blaugust #mmorpg #gamedesign

The Digital Frontier: Player Rights

14 years ago the highly regarded designer Raph Koster penned an essay titled Declaration of the Rights of Avatars. In it, he laid out the rights that players should have in virtual worlds. MMORPGs. I’m not sure of the impact it’s had on the development of MMORPGs, but players seem to have a sense of their right to exist within virtual worlds anyway. On the digital frontier, it’s interesting that Koster had the foresight to understand the implications of avatars on our physical well-being.

I’ve summarized the declaration:

  1. Avatars are created free and equal in rights.
  2. Avatars should be treated as people, not pixels.
  3. Authority of the virtual space must proceed from the community; server admins shouldn’t see themselves as gods or tyrants.
  4. Liberty is the freedom to do things which don’t injure someone else and should be defined in a code of conduct.
  5. The code of conduct should prohibit actions AND utterances harmful to the community.
  6. The code of conduct is the will of the community.
  7. Avatars cannot be unfairly punished and no one, not even administrators, are exempt from punishment.
  8. Punishments can’t be excessive.
  9. Avatars are innocent until proven guilty.
  10. Avatars have freedom of speech as long as the speech doesn’t violate the rights of others or the code of conduct.
  11. Avatars are responsible for their conduct and must be accountable for it.
  12. For the administration of the virtual space, some avatars must have special powers.
  13. Subscription fees are legit as long as they grant all avatars equal rights and no special privileges can be bought.
  14. Avatars have the right to know what administrators do to maintain the virtual space.
  15. A virtual community without a code of conduct is lawless.
  16. Avatars have a right to their digital data; it is their property.
  17. Avatars have a right to gather in great numbers, limited only by technical capacity.
  18. Avatars have a right to privacy and shouldn’t be deprived of it.
  19. This bill of rights shouldn’t be used to abuse avatars.

billofrightsThis frontier is critical. It’s here that the fate of societies for the next 100 years is being decided. We’ll either choose to make them exactly like current societies, or we’ll wake up and see this as the opportunity to do better.  Will the things which hold us back in the real world be recreated? Or will we see an opportunity to be free of them, not by ignoring, forgetting or pretending they don’t exist, but by remembering that they do? These questions are the reason talking about structural social issues are a huge deal in the gaming world.

MMOs tend to have codes of conduct published, but you can tell they’re written by the legal team and guided less by ethics than by the need to protect one’s pocket book.  But many games really do try to ban bad behavior because it ruins the experience for everyone. Blizzard has a rather broad, but shallow code which covers just about everything. Rift has taken the approach of grading violations by severity, which I find interesting. Wildstar has their own code as well. All three are pretty similar, probably a cut and paste of each other, but with modifications. That’s how similar in wording and spirit they are.

Decker is already a reality. We are able to jack-in to computers, complete real transactions and log back out into meat space. Isn't this reason enough for a bill of rights for our avatars?

Decker is already a reality. We are able to jack-in to computers, complete real transactions and log back out into meat space. Isn’t this reason enough for a bill of rights for our avatars?

None of them really speak in terms of player rights in the virtual space. Which is interesting for companies who want to sell their players on their virtual worlds. What rights do players have in the virtual space? All any company has to say about that is in the EULA and ToS, which often runs counter to what Koster envisioned (for example, companies deny that players own their digital selves). Don’t you find it interesting MMO developers have nothing to say about player rights within the game?

What distinguishes something like a bill of rights from rote laws is that they tell people what they are permitted to do. They’re like a statement of liberty, almost celebrating rights. The above codes are strictly designed to tell players what NOT to do, and they leave no room for talking about what players can and ought to do in game, and importantly what developers can’t do to players. Imagine if you visited a restaurant and the menu, instead of telling you what’s available to order, told you instead what you could not order. It would be an awkward place to eat, wouldn’t it? Maybe this explains the awkward interactions of players within MMOs, who these days require a tangible reason to interact (raids, dungeons, battlegrounds, etc). It’s as thought players can sense they’re not entirely welcome, like they’re guests in a strange world. How do guests act?

While Koster’s Declaration may have seemed absurd at the time, it was also kind of inevitable when we think about it. Gamers talk everyday about how we treat one another in our games. One of the most important rights according to Koster is the second one:

The aim of virtual communities is the common good of its citizenry, from which arise the rights of avatars. Foremost among these rights is the right to be treated as people and not as disembodied, meaningless, soulless puppets. Inherent in this right are therefore the natural and inalienable rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

We’re people behind the avatars. We should be treated as such by developers and fellow gamers alike. To see the next generation of gamers make the jump even further away from seeing their virtual selves as real shows that on the frontier, we’re not succeeding at advancing human rights. In fact, in the virtual space those rights are receding as players and developers see their behavior in games as insignificant and unreal.

bgs

The PvP debate rages on in MMOs between open world and battlegrounds. Yet battlegrounds are one of the best ways to honor player rights.

Will griefing and harassment still be seen as necessary evils in open worlds? Will the Tribunal of League of Legends evolve into a more complex and more successful tool for policing communities? Will representation finally be seen as important? That all depends on developers taking social issues within their games seriously. Few developers see their trade as a serious thing it seems. They sincerely believe “it’s just a game” and “game” means something completely unreal, inconsequential, non-life changing, pure shits and giggles. Yet they post a code of conduct for MMOs as if acknowledging the damage player behavior can do. So which is it?

MMO developers are slightly better than other genres in this case, but they also still tend to reduce players to mere pixels in their virtual worlds. Pointing out the lack of diversity in a game or discrimination are seen as making a big deal out of something that’s fake. Even MMO developers, in the end, adopt the stance that in-game experiences are ultimately not real. They therefore think trollish behavior a nuisance at worse, instead of seeing it as a very serious problem for their players. Emotions and experiences are never virtual.

And what about the rights of developers? Can’t they make whatever they want? I think a better question is should developers make whatever they want without regard for it’s impacts on players. And to me the answer is clearly no. They can’t do whatever they want any more than the rest of us can. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for plenty of creativity and freedom. I think that’s why many developers tend to err on the side of “its just a game” kind of thinking, because that line of reasoning is it’s own justification for doing whatever they want. It can always be written off as unreal and insignificant.

Still, I think the Declaration is only recently becoming more important. With VR well underway, we’re approaching the moment where our avatars will require digital rights in order to protect ourselves. If the digital frontier is to become anything relevant, it can’t be a place without consequence. On the contrary, it has to be a place of pure consequence.

Scree Tags: #playerrights #digitalfrontier #MMORPG

There and Back: Sword Art Online, The MMO Thought Experiement

Ah, a series I never got around to finishing. It’d be over a year late, but better late than never eh? It’d be worth at least two more follow ups. Late in the Sword Art Online series the content becomes …strange. But still a great anime series worth watching.

There are no edits below. Today, the pure article is yours. It can be found here at T.R. Red Skies as well.


Kotaku recently reposted links to some of their favorite articles this year. One of them reminded me of the anime series they turned me onto this year, Sword Art Online. It’s basically a thought experiment about MMOs or virtual worlds. As ever, without these kinds of reminders I rarely get the ideas to write about them so thanks for all the inspiration out there 🙂

This is an anime about real living in an MMO world. For the sake of not spoiling it for anyone, I strongly recommend you not look below the “Start” header below if you haven’t seen at least the first 3 episodes (they are about 20 min long apiece). It’s worth watching for an hour in order to understand the story. Plus, it’s actually a really fun story and I think MMO gamers can appreciate it a lot.

Good anime excels at constructing really philosophical thought experiments about questions which we always ask ourselves, but never seriously answer or explore. The questions posed in the series aren’t unique; what’s unique is it attempts to explore the issues of virtual worlds. The show isn’t perfect. The object isn’t to construct a perfect, flawless story but to explore issues through simple thought experiments. It’s entertaining and the scenarios are very intriguing! I’ve watched it dozens of times and it never fails to engage me. It’s just fun so check it out!

EDIT: I recently watched the second half of the series and I wanted to add warnings for sensitive viewers. Episodes 17, 18, and 24 could be triggering. This is especially true for episode 24 which has what I’d consider a rape scene. Episode 17 has strong sexual harassment and 18 walks even closer to the line of assault; in both cases threats of rape are present. Viewer beware.

Start (spoilers ahead)

First Episode: Watch @ Crunchroll

For the sake of understanding the article, I highly recommend you take 20 minutes and enjoy the first episode linked above. I promise to return your brain cells if any happen to die in the course of watching it. Virtual brain cells of course. It’s much more likely you’ll get a very fun experience out of it.

Logging in to AincradI have found over the years that anime is difficult to dissect episode by episode unless each one is truly a unique story. In the case of SAO, it’s an entire story told over a couple dozen episodes. The first episode really sets us up with exciting questions which have concrete connections to our feelings about MMOs. It puts a lot of the core questions on the table here which are explored one by one in each episode. That’s why it’s best to watch at least the first 3 episodes, or if you enjoy anime then the first 10 episodes at a minimum. I think those encompass the core and more interesting questions for gamers.

It’s 2022 (or so) and Sword Art Online is the newest online virtual MMORPG where gamers can buy a fancy set of headgear and actually play the game in first person — the only controller is your mind.  The story takes place in the virtual world of Aincrad in which there is no magic. Only sword combat. The MMO has a lot of features that any eastern gamers would immediately recognize. While it’s got common general features with popular western titles like  leveling, towns, and gear there are elements which are distinctly eastern such as the way experience works, re-spawns, and other stuff which becomes more apparent throughout the series.

The Logout BugThe first dilemma for the players comes when they discover the log out button is missing from the menu! At first, most people write it off as a bug and even when they’re force teleported to the beginner city some believe it’s part of an opening ceremony. But soon the truth reveals itself: this is a feature of SAO and no one can log out. The only way to leave Aincrad is to beat the game. All 100 levels. Oh and if you die? It’s real; your body in the real world will die. Your task becomes twofold: to survive and to beat the game so you can live to tell the tale.

I used to be a pretty hardcore MMO gamer (hardcore in the sense that I played them non-stop for years). I’m sure the idea of being trapped in a virtual world is scary for most of us. It’s not that this question is so unique; so many of us have asked this question for years at various moments in our lives, especially in our gaming careers. We’re like the Matrix generation in that regard, so the game isn’t being brilliant in posing the question. Instead, it raises other related questions about gamer expectations and the delivery of the experience.

If a video game such as SAO was crafted in the real world, how accepting of bugs and flaws would we be in our games? Think about it: a bug that can potentially trap your mind in a virtual world. I think we’d possibly far less forgiving than we currently are. In fact we tend to expect there to be bugs, even critical failures such as not being able to log in or teleport to a town or get stuck. I question whether bugs ought to be acceptable at all, but then I know that games ought to be allowed flaws. Maybe we can just focus on not having critical bugs instead of the over-ambitious No Bugs stance. That would require well thought out game design, thorough such that the major areas of concern are practically bug proof. This is doable. It’s the reason we can count on airplanes to remain airborne and that feces doesn’t make it into our drinking water. The critical areas of solving those problems have been well designed such that even if the system possesses some minor bug or flaw, the stability of it isn’t compromised or lethal to users. How do game designers feel about delivering that kind of reliable experience, where gamers would trust that they could log in to their virtual worlds without fear?

From a different perspective …how many of us wouldn’t mind living permanently in a virtual world? Imagine you could log out at will, but that you could also literally live your life as a virtual creature. There are ways to sustain the body and handle waste which could make it possible. How many of us would choose that option?

This is also not a fresh question, yet I just haven’t given that much thought about how I would choose if this were literally the case. Yeah, we’ve all heard the question, but how many of us have attempted to seriously answer it? Technologically, we’re just a few years away from being capable of delivering an SAO-type virtual world. Would you trust game designers with a track record of buggy games enough to try their VR MMO?

I think I wouldn’t choose to live in the virtual world permanently, but I do consider it a valid option. It could be very pleasant and it could allow me to realize so much of my potential in an ageless, unrestricted world which thrives on my creativity. That’s very appealing. Of course, there might be limits technologically and by design of the game, but surely far less limiting than the real world. It’s interesting to think of all the possibilities and to know that they’re within reach in a virtual world! Yet that can’t be an unlimited good thing for humans. The real world is …well, real.

Kirito's IdentityThen there’s the question of identity. This is possibly one of the most discussed topics in the MMO community. In SAO, after players learn they can’t log out the game master then strips away their fictional identities. Everyone appears in-game exactly as they appear in the real world. Some players discover that their friends look extremely different while others have similar virtual and real appearances (such as Klein and Kirito). What does identity do to us as players?

In Aincrad given the current circumstances, it seems necessary to maintain your true identity instead of concealing it through an avatar. The players are stuck in the game; is it more beneficial for their well-being to live there as themselves? Or more dangerous? Maybe it doesn’t matter.  What the story does tell us though is that the game is filled with all kinds of people; old people, teenagers, men/women, and even small children.  It shows a reasonably diverse audience which doesn’t conform to traditional stereotypes. (It’s worth noting the game is dominated mostly by Japanese players so it’s got limited ethnic diversity.) It also makes the statement that our identities are important, both virtual and real. There are consequences, good and bad, for our avatars or lack thereof.

In SAO there are small, vulnerable children playing the game. Sometimes alone without an adult. Wasn’t it better to have their identity concealed? It might have protected them from less than good people or un-rehabilitated criminals. Was there a benefit at all to revealing true identities?

Identity Crisis

“You’re a guy?”
“…and you’re not 17?”

When I log in to virtual worlds I tend to favor short characters, like dwarves. Failing that I like to be green. But the avatars I’ve made which look most similar to me also embody a lot of my perceived personality. For example, the only human character I played in WoW was a priest who was faithful to no religion. Instead, I liked to think of him as a person who lived by the circumstances whether that lead him to the shadows or to the light. My rangers were a dwarf and an orc. My warlock was a gnome.  How did my true identity manifest itself though these characters?

In SAO, players have to deal with this question and others. On the one hand Kirito prefers to hide his identity which seems to affect his preference to solo the game. Klein on the other hand is a very open person; the disappearance of his identity allows him to own it fearlessly. This is shown by the way he begs Kirito to teach him how to play, his willingness to share his friends list and also, once their true appearances appear, to confess he finds Kirito attractive. Only at that moment does Kirito volunteer something about himself. Otherwise, by remaining solo he gets to continue to conceal his identity. This has consequences later in the series for both of them.

As they discover they are compatible comrades, they vow to maintain their friendship in order to survive the game. However, Klein joined the game with his real world friends. When Kirito begins planning the ways they can conquer the world together, Klein’s first response is that he has friends in the courtyard that he just can’t leave behind. It’s at this moment that they part and go their separate ways. I really liked this introduction to how we deal with our virtual friends and our real friends within virtual worlds.

Klein's DilemmaLoyalty has always been a tricky thing to gauge in a game, but lately it’s become rather elusive. Whereas earlier virtual friends represented people you cared about because you shared the same fantasies and interests, the evolution of social gaming has meant you’re supposed to bring your friends to the game instead of the game bringing friends to you. This subtle, but powerful dynamic questions our loyalties because it challenges our distinction between real world/real friends with virtual world/virtual friends. The line blurs at virtual world/real friends or virtual friends/real world, which  then divides our loyalties between real life and virtual life. I think we feel less obligated to virtual commitments, but there doesn’t appear to be a significant reason for that since virtual friends are still real people, and real experiences occur in virtual worlds.

For Kirito, survival is the most important thing and they should act quickly and independently in order to get ahead of the crowd; to put space between themselves and the anonymous masses. For Klein, he’s not willing to survive by leaving his friends behind. He decides to stay in the beginner city in order to find his friends. So how do gamers today view their virtual worlds and friends? Why do they seem easy to dismiss? What, if anything, do these interactions say about us?

Game MasterThere are also the questions of how game masters treat their players or deal with problems the player has and how we think about relationships in games. The GM in SAO is pretty brutal; he’s kidnapped his players and is holding a microwave gun to their heads. On its face, this characterization of GMs seems a bit too exaggerated to take seriously. Yet the principle in question raises an important issue. We are at the mercy of game designers when it comes to our game experience. It is their world that they are sharing with us and for the most part we have very little say in it. Sure we can critique the game, but in the end it’s theirs to design. What are the dangers, if any, of GMs having such control over the player experience?

Does GM abuse occur in our MMOs? It most certainly does. This is the issue raised by a principle we take for granted: that GMs have ultimate control over our experience, even if they allow us to participate in our own unique way. They define all the rules, make all the content, and control all the rewards. Yet, these things aren’t themselves dangerous. It’s more a matter of how GMs use their power to deliver an exciting gaming experience to us. In Aincrad, this is manifested in the worst way. But there will be plenty to say about this later in the series. For now, let’s just keep that question swirling around in our minds for a bit.

SAO also asks about our more intimate lives: who is home with you while you’re immersed in virtual worlds? If something were to happen to you, who would know to check on you? Are children equipped to deal with virtual reality? So much to explore, so many questions, but it’s the first episode. To learn how the series answers these questions, you’ll have to stay tuned.

 

The Rare and Awesome PvP

EDIT: Major edit 🙂 This was scheduled to publish for some time, but recently the NBI had the Talkback Challenge. One of the topics happened to include PvP and I should have edited this to reflect that. So I’m doing it now.

Arcadius has a strong piece titled “Blame the Game Not the Players” in which he explains why he believes MMOs don’t get the PvP and PvE mix right. There’s a nice little discussion going on there, so please join us at his blog if you want to chime in!

Joseph Skyrim responds to Arcadius’s article and also provides a list of links to others who have been writing about it.

Open world PvP (OWP) remains a topic that interests MMO gamers of all stripes. We can’t seem to grasp the precise meaning or purpose of open world PvP except by describing the joy or dread we experience while doing it. Players either hate it, love it, or learn to like it. As game design goes, OWP is interesting to discuss when it comes to gameplay value. Is it truly offering something both as an experience and as meaningful content? Why should games have it? Players seem, by and large, to NOT prefer open world PvP if we look at their activity in-game. I can respect that it is a niche activity, but opposing views tend to posit that it’s the ultimate, pure and true PvP experience. That anything less than open-world is carebear, soft, or somehow not the “real” thing. If this is true, then why do so few players participate (what more proof do we need than the number of PvP servers vs PvE and the size of OWP communities)? 

There are 2 issues which I think affect how the OWP debate stands up:

  • Fairness and consent
  • Community (anti-social behavior, anonymity, poor community policing (priming for good/bad behavior))

Fairness and Consent

The definition of fairness can go as far as in the japanese game Go where it is considered fairer to handicap a more skilled player by granting the unskilled player a stone advantage, because it makes the challenge more interesting for both parties. This Meta-definition of fairness is as far as I know largely absent from videogames. Usually the better Player not only has the better gear and perks, knows all the tricks and exploits but he/she seems even entitled to shame „Noobs“ by calling them out after he annihilated them.

The Troll/Cheater that is breaking the Fairness and having fun despite the fact that there is no skill involved in aimbotting is playing a differnt game than the „honest“ player. He is only interested in getting a reaction out of the cheated player, like playing knock-and-run only to see how annoyed the people can get. – Andreas Ahlborn at Gamasutra

I think this is an important piece of the riddle of fairness in games. Fairness isn’t always achievable. Maybe. But it doesn’t have to be. What matters is that the game is designed to favor fair gameplay.

Open world PvP (OWP) basically gives players the freedom to roam a virtual space and pick a fight with anyone they wish, whether the player they pick a fight with wants to or not, or is capable of putting up a fair fight or not. Many shout from the mountain tops that this is exactly what’s so awesome about OWP. It’s a feature that provides an opportunity to indulge what appears to be a power fantasy. However, as Andreas says, these two kinds of players are playing two different games in this case.

Then, is the real issue in the OWP debate an issue of consent? I think it’s part of it. But then there’s the tough question of what constitutes consent. If I join a PvP server in a game, is that consent to all that follows? When I enter a store do I consent to buying every item on the shelf just because I’m there? Do I consent to buying anything at all by walking through the doors? Of course not. Both extremes are ridiculous. I haven’t seen any arguments that really explore the consent angle because I think many gamers intuitively understand that consent is fundamental to fair gameplay. We like being invited to games, not forced to participate in them. Mutual engagement is the keystone of fairness.

The problem is when “fair” becomes a matter of making sure everyone has the same access to unfair advantages. The logic goes that if everyone can play unfairly, then this makes it a fair game. It’s a good attempt to address the issue of designing fair games.

Well, what about ambushes and other exciting war strategies that one might engage in, such as in games like Team Fortress 2 or Call of Duty? To that I say: Context is everything. These games are purely about combat, where players participate exclusively in violent conflict against other players, no matter what. There is no expectation that a player would not be fighting other players once they join a game. For an MMO, this is very very different. The answer seems to at least depend on the genre.

Any given session I login to a Rift or Eve or World of Warcraft type MMO, I may do any number of things which don’t include conflict with another player. There’s no expectation that I will engage in combat just because I logged into the game. So the question of consent is actually valid in an MMO whereas it’s just about absent from a combat simulator like Dust 514.

Eve Online

Eve approaches OWP by trying as best it can to set up the virtual space as a place where combat is at the heart of the game, similar to what we’d expect from FPS games. The problem, though, is that combat isn’t the heart of the game at all and Eve is nothing like a combat simulator — something which is aptly demonstrated by Dust 514. Combat definitely plays a very significant role in gameplay, but for any given session a player may not even see a spaceship, nevermind engage in combat. The economy is at the heart of the Eve experience. Open world battles, even small ones, are exceedingly rare …and it’s this fact which makes the claims to the awesomeness of OWP feel exaggerated.

There are some 500,000 subscribers to the game. Let’s just forget for a moment that many of those are just players with multiple accounts (exceedingly common in Eve), RMT accounts and bots, and let’s pretend that these 500k are unique subscribers. Let’s even suppose that only 10% of them are the kind of PvP gamers who want that non-consensual, power-tripping, unfair open world PvP experience. Looking through the various killboards, we can see that on any given day some 50 ships are destroyed as a result of OWP, while Eve averages some ~22,000 active pilots simultaneously. 50 per day in a game where 22k pilots are online all at once; in a game that supposedly has the incredibly exciting OWP at the heart of gameplay. That’s not a lot of gaming going on and makes the argument for OWP unimpressive. But where does most player activity lie in Eve?

It all starts with the economy and is a smattering of random activities radiating from there, OWP a favorite among them.

Now I don’t want to get into a circular discussion about chicken or the egg. This is irrelevant, since they are dependent systems in Eve. It is, afterall, a war economy. Everything that can be produced in Eve is produced for the purposes of war. So players spend more time preparing for war in Eve than they do actually battling it out. It’s why the battles in the game are so memorable: there are so few. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing; a game in which the world is always at risk of imploding or exploding or being invaded is a monotonous, predictable, boring world where adventure isn’t possible (adventure is precisely the chance that you could do something unexpected). Nothing is exciting when it’s always exciting. Warcraft suffers badly from the constant crisis mode which inspires all of it’s gameplay. So Eve has found a counter balance in this regard. Just because OWP activity is low doesn’t detract from the fact that battles in Eve feel meaningful and epic. It’s just that they’re too rare to support claims that OWP is essential to and better than moderated PvP gameplay.

Moderated PvP, on the other hand, seems to be wildly popular in the MMOs that have it. More PvP happens in battlegrounds and arenas than in the open world in WoW and similar games. When this feature is available in MMOs, players seem to flock to it more than they do OWP.

Alone, OWP provides a very tiny fragment of the player experience, even in a game like Eve where cut throat, power fantasy combat is important to setting the environment for gameplay. Arguments which suggest that open world PvP is essential must then explain how this essential activity is the least likely thing to occur during any given session. The Eve economy could certainly sustain far more combat than happens (hoarding of resources is a bigger issue than resource shortages caused by too many battles). So what’s the reason? Open world PvP just isn’t all that exciting and as content, it’s very thin — this I judge from player activity in that feature.

Community

This has to be the bedrock reason open world PvP in MMOs isn’t very successful. As MMOs strive to build communities which can stand the test of time, open world PvP is everything counter to that because it breaks down the very glue required for community: trust.

A key issue that developers seem to face is how to secure a solid foundation to build their communities upon. Usually, they’ll develop tools that help players manage their communities: guild tools, grouping tools, friend lists, and reporting features are some of the most popular. Probably nothing is as important as the way the game primes players to interact with one another. OWP is one hell of a primer.

It’s really interesting how MMOs seem to be unique in this. Battle Arenas like League of Legends are known for their toxicity, but it’s not an OWP game. It’s highly moderated. Still, it’s a strong example of what game communities can become when unhealthy competition is injected into the mix. I’ll go so far as to say there may not be such a thing as healthy competition, but that’s an article for another day. Even players who enjoy OWP explain their enjoyment based on their ideas of fairness (ex. if you’re on their server it’s fair to kill you). Fairness is important.

Is OWP the devil? No, of course not. It’s one feature among many, but it’s interesting to think about why we like it. As for the argument that it’s “real” PvP or better than moderated PvP environments, the popularity of the feature is low and even in MMOs which want this feature to be the heart of the game have very meager participation rates. Maybe developers can think of improved ways to give players their favorite fantasies without having to live with features many consider to be imbalanced or which produce unfair gameplay. It’s coming, but it may be a very long ways off. Until then, I’ll stay subscribed to Eve.

Or maybe developers can just live with it. Players will always find ways to avoid it if they really hate it, which might include not playing their game.

There and Back: Industrialization of MMOs

Not quite as old as the others I’ve re-published, but it’s topic makes it a good time to raise the discussion once again. This is the original version, no edits.


MMOs have a depressingly familiar flavor to them these days no matter which one you play. It’s the kind of impression that leaves some of us feeling like it’s all the same grind, similar to some things in the real world — things we were hoping to escape from. Part of this impression we’re experiencing is the industrialization of MMO content.

Robot Assembly Line Image

This is basically the process for generating content in MMOs. Except it’s still done by people.

The over-production of quests, items, and dungeons are some of the results of this industrialization. The feeling that you’re consuming the same gameplay simply regurgitated by competing companies is ever-present. Their mass production reminds players that there’s nothing special about virtual worlds. The worlds represent a symbol of something and is nothing in and of themselves.

The earliest MMOs relied almost strictly on players as content. Quests were scarce, instances non-existent and resources for game development were usually poured into creating a richer world experience. One day, this model split into two primary models: theme park MMOs and open world MMOs (e.g. sandbox). For example, theme-park MMOs made their debut in 2004, with World of Warcraft. That game was a true cross between old school content delivery and the emerging ideology of theme park design. At the time, it was an amazing improvement on the traditional formula; the game became much more accessible to those who had never played an MMO while veterans got an exceptionally polished, improved game. These days WoW is like the McDonald’s of MMOs …and no one thinks McDonald’s is particularly good, exciting or awesome. It’s just familiar, consistent comfort food that makes us feel safe about eating there (the irony of this shouldn’t be lost on anyone). McDonald’s serves industrialized food.

Theme park MMOs function exactly like theme parks elsewhere, like Disneyland. It’s a vast, mass market, fantasy rendering of an idealized world. Nothing is real, yet it feels exactly how you want it to feel and it idealizes reality in a way that alters our expectations of the real world. Talking mice, fairies, castles, and magic wands …all of these are features in the theme park alongside the side shows and thrill rides. They are there to entertain. As a collection they are designed to allow visitors to wander around all day in any manner they like: in groups, by themselves, and it even invites them to blend in and become invisible (costuming). Most importantly, theme parks aren’t designed for meeting new people or even for enjoying the attractions with them. That is incidental. Friends and family are only welcome insofar as they also pay an entry fee and the park would like their money. Interaction is not encouraged and not discouraged, but is an ever available option since you are constantly surrounded by people. Does this sound like any MMO you have ever played or heard of? It should.

Maps Image

Their similarity is both expected and surprising. It’s one way that we can understand that the design of each place is extremely similar.

A game like Ultima Online can’t really be termed a sandbox as we know them today. It was more like a virtual space, a 3D chat room even, where players could role-play and share in the same fantasy. It acted as an environment for player imagination to thrive. Sandbox in modern terms conjures up images of games like Minecraft or EVE Online, where game developers literally give players the tools to create their own content within the virtual realm. In this way, players themselves are the content and also the content generators. This is a fairly recent development in MMOs though this concept made it’s first appearance in A Tale in the Desert (to be fair, all of these games dropped practically within a year of one another so “first” is a matter of publishing date, not idea conception).

Industrialization

When we industrialize something, we streamline it’s production in order to mass produce a product rapidly and more efficiently for consumption. Quality matters less than quantity and the former usually slides ever closer to mediocrity with every “improvement” of the production line. However, the quality becomes decreasingly important the more people are using the product. It’s ubiquity makes it a natural occurrence in society and it becomes standard fare to the extent that everyone is expected to know about it and have experience with the product. Like McDonald’s.

In MMOs, mass production of quests, dungeons, and gear peaks annually. The ubiquity of these three features within the genre speaks to this. Their use has less to do with gameplay enhancement than with manufacturing them pack the game with “features” and boast about them in the hopes that it’s “enough” content to keep players constantly paying. The consequence is that these features lose all of their initial meaning and sink into near irrelevance; the features don’t represent anything; gameplay achievements signify nothing but themselves.

World of Warcraft is a game which suffers irreparably from over-industrialization, but it’s hardly alone. Guild Wars, Star Wars, The Secret World all suffer the same. Development is clearly dictated by how many more people the company can get into the game. This is seen by players in efforts to “dumb down” or otherwise remove any uniqueness among players. Probably what’s more important is that game development technology, the best available, is almost tailored to crafting the games that are already successful, thus it’s not hard for new games to look and play exactly like their predecessors.

From a development philosophy standpoint, it’s the corruption of the meaning of equality: developers believe that time-spent is the single most important variable when determining what’s fair gameplay. To that end, removing gameplay elements which allow players to accrue power or achievement over time is mandatory to keep the game “fair.” They even the playing field by making all feats attainable no matter how little effort is put into it.  They patronize the player-base, appealing to their vanity instead of their ambition. The game becomes mediocre in the same way that McDonald’s is.

Unfortunately, we still live in an industrialized world and the governing values are those of industrialization. Games aren’t so unique of an industry that they would remain untouched by it. Yet the shifts in technology are changing the way we think about games everyday …hopefully these shifts will occur soon in the MMO genre. It desperately needs to arrive into the 21st century.

Multi-classing and Player Choice

Multi-classing has been a favorite debate of MMO players since time immemorial, but in the past month or so Tesh resurrected this intriguing discussion again. It’s had many of us thinking about what makes for a more immersive, more interesting virtual world and whether features like multi-classing are a good idea at all.

Skyrim Skill Tree

Multi-classing is fairly common in Elder Scrolls games and while this is a single-player game, this feature will crossover into The Elder Scrolls Online. Will this be a good or a bad thing?

Syl’s response has had my wheels turning for a while now, and while I was eager to chime in and agree with so much of what was said about character restriction, freedom, choice and impacts on the players around you, something about this topic has been nagging me. I think it’s the idea that giving the player more choice is harmless and/or only impacts the players who choose to use it. This isn’t true of course and that could only be true in a single-player game, but we’re talking about MMOGs. One idea that was introduced in the comments of both blogs was that if players do or don’t want to use these features, it should be fine with ALL players because me getting a new hairstyle or turning my mage into a warrior doesn’t really affect the experience of my friends who might believe in restricted classes. This dismissal of the social aspects for the sake of the individual aspects seems common. If multi-class options didn’t matter, all MMOs would try to have it. They do matter and they do have impacts on how the game world feels, which is to say it impacts the interactions between players. But this point of debate is just one facet of it that makes the conversation interesting.

Rowan raised the very interesting point that multi-classing, from a technical standpoint, allows MMO devs to address imbalances without passing consequences off to their players (for example, if there aren’t enough healers, multi-classing allows players to just adapt without devs needing to alter the population artificially). That alone seems like great justification for such systems.

Syl seemed to conclude that it doesn’t matter for a game like World of Warcraft whether multi-classing is offered because the game is so different from what it used to be that class restrictions don’t actually make sense any more. Today, with all the changes to our characters that are possible for a few extra dollars, multi-classing makes more sense than it ever has for the game. She’s got a good point.

eveskills

Train whatever class (skill sets/profession) you like in EVE Online. Multi-classing is your prerogative, but you’re not likely to do so.

Where do I stand? I guess overall I don’t much care if classes are restricted or not, though I know I’ve enjoyed this restriction in the past …AND I know that multi-classing isn’t all that appealing to me. In fact, I personally prefer specialization. IN FACT …I think most players do because in every game I’ve played where players have no class restrictions, everyone decides to specialize anyway. In my experience, players enjoy having choices, but they don’t enjoy having to make too many decisions during gameplay. At some point there seems to be a line between meaningful choice and having so much choice that we can’t just play the game. Specialization satisfies this desire to just make a choice and get on with virtual life.

Klepsacovic’s insights into the way we use our avatars in games would also support this idea of specialization if his theory is true. Kleps posits that one of the reasons he chooses to play any specific class instead of another is to enjoy one aspect of his personality, to engage the fantasy of a particular identity or as he puts it “to switch characters is to switch one’s mask”.

According to Raph Koster in his book Theory of Fun for Game Design, less choice means a simpler game whereas more choice adds complexity; designers, he thinks, should aim somewhere between the two. Too much either way will make the game less fun and/or appealing to players. World of Warcraft‘s class system has gone from ultra-specialization to now, where players’ decisions in the game are so inconsequential that it doesn’t matter if multi-classing is added. Blizzard has worked hard to remove consequences from player choice in order to allow players to do what they want without penalty. Surely meaningful choices (choices with consequences) are more enjoyable than this sort, no?

Games like EVE Online, on the other hand, encourage class specialization. Because of the way players acquire skill (in real-time,taking months to “master” skill sets), multi-classing is discouraged by the game. Theoretically, players can master every single specialty (which functions like classes) in EVE. But practically speaking, it would take at least a year. Most players enjoy picking a trade and perhaps some complimentary skills, but the general direction of character development is toward specialization. So EVE gives the player all the choice, but counter-balances it with all the consequences (and they can be painful). There are costs to the choices made. It’s on the opposite extreme of WoW. It’s also a good example of how, given the option to multi-class, players tend to specialize anyway.

So multi-classing really comes down to choosing whether to add more choice for players in order to enhance the gameplay experience. Does having all of this choice improve the gameplay experience?

Quote Jamie MadiganLast year, Jamie Madigan of Psychology of Video Games wrote an article about the impacts of more player choice on the gameplay experience. In a study conducted by psychologists, it was observed that players mostly liked having their options open when it came to things like character stats, class and such in the event that they regretted their initial choice later. However, a different study showed that having more choice resulted in people being less happy with their experience, even though they liked having more choices. If an improved experience is the goal, then less choice is more.

I think WoW is a prominent example of what happens when you give players too much choice with mixed results. Over the years, the game has added so much STUFF that Azeroth is quite a confusing place to start your career as an adventurer. Transmogrification, gemming, race change, server changes, the sheer variety of ways in which you can raid …these all seemed like super cool things at the time of their implementation, individually. Collectively, they make the experience muddy and confusing for a new player. It’s harder than ever for a new player to get to know Azeroth. Coincidentally, I find the recent research done by Cynwise’s Warcraft Manual — which shows remarkably low interest in the latest class addition (the Monk) — even more interesting in light of this discussion of class and choice. Of course, we can’t know from Cynwise’s findings alone whether the new class just sucked or whether players had enough choice already. It’s probably a combination of a few things, but even so I think it’s safe to say that adding more classes to WoW no longer increases interest in the class selection process, nor enhances the fun factor. If Jamie’s research is correct, players actually have more fun by dedicating themselves to a singular class than they do alt’ing around.

It’s nice to have choice, but more isn’t always better and the research generally tends to bear this out. I think many of us gravitate toward the opposite conclusion when it comes to game features, thinking that it can never be bad to have more choices. And that sounds great, but this seems unlikely. In other games, more choice might allow developers to address the varying tastes of their unique customers, but it also adds complexity, harms interdependency (the gel that keeps communities thriving), and isn’t proven to actually enhance the experience. I think more choice is ultimately worse because of this.

When people have no choice, life is almost unbearable. As the number of available choices increases …the autonomy, control and liberation this variety brings are powerful and positive. But as the number of choices keeps growing, the negative aspects of having a multitude appear. As the number of choices grows further …we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize. – Barry Schwartz from The Paradox of Choice (4)

Hmmm …indeed! I’ve felt the tyranny of choice much more than I’ve expected lately as a gamer. In the past 3 years, digital gaming has exploded and my options for gaming now leave me feeling unsatisfied even when I’m satisfied. The feeling that I should try all the new games is compounded by the fact that I don’t have the time that I used to. At the same time, I remember that I never used to want so many games even though there’s always been many choices. In fact, I remember being very content with buying just one game a year …and that was just 5 years ago! Having all of these choices has somewhat unsettled my game buying habits and having more options has not increased my happiness with games. It’s not that I don’t know what I want or don’t like what I have. It’s that having all this choice doesn’t increase my satisfaction at all. In fact, when I feel compelled to shop at all, I spend most of my time in indecision. Consequently, I wait even longer before buying games, not because I don’t want to play, but because its harder to make a satisfying choice.

Does multi-classing give players too much choice? From a technical standpoint, multi-classing sounds like a great idea. From a social standpoint, I think this has large consequences. Overall, players will probably be more happy living with the class they chose on day one and multi-classing possibly adds very little value in terms of gameplay enjoyment. It does, however, alleviate some technical issues and influence the social dynamics of the game. In the end, I think these are the two more important questions developers ought to consider when implementing this feature into their MMOG.

Scree Tags: #mmorpg #multiclass #playerchoice