Wednesday, 1 August 2012

On "The Old MMO Problem"

Over on bit-Gamer, Joe Martin writes about "The Old MMO Problem":

Now, there are a lot of reasons why The Old Republic specifically has struggled since release and there'll doubtlessly be a lot of other critics pointing out the holes in EA's online strategy, the issues with Bioware's design and so on. Personally though, I don't think the issues we should be concerned with are exclusive to The Old Republic. I look at the other big MMOs which have faced the same transition - Age of Conan, Lord of the Rings, Star Trek Online - and wonder if there isn't a wider problem with MMO design.

There's actually a lot in the article that I take issue with: for a start the equating of going free to play with failure, and the equating of the failure of subscriptions to a problem with traditional MMO design. I would also question the statement that SW:TOR would be "unable to run on subscriptions after less than a year" - I think it would, but it will make more money as a free to play title - but perhaps Joe has more information than I do there. Finally, I don't fully agree that traditional MMO design makes for games that "are not entertainment; they are traps." I'm actually quite a fan of traditionally designed MMOs done well, largely for reasons I've detailed here, although I do agree that the traditional MMO structure can often be prone to cynical, uninteresting design and the manipulation of players.

But these are debates I'd like to have with Joe over a friendly pint rather than on the impersonal internet. The point is that I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment that the WoW model of MMO design - good or bad - is a vastly overused and played out game structure and that the "Massively Multiplayer" genre is safe and samey to an extent that would make Call of Duty blush. What's frustrating about this, as Joe points out, is that these games seem to tap so little of the potential for social interaction that a persistent multiplayer environment offers. As we reach the point where traditional MMOs are, if not in decline, at least reaching some kind of maximum sustainable population of both players and titles, it's perhaps time to think about why this is and what else can be done with the concept. While I'm always deeply cautious about theoretical, nebulous "games should be this" and "games must do that" arguments, I'm talking about something with a decent number of more or less successful and more or less relevant precedents that could not only provide a new lease of life for the MMO experiment, but also lead to some of the most profound and amazing gaming experiences available.

It all harks back to a debate from the heady days of sixth form, when a couple of friends and I build our first PCs. Our conversations were alive with the excitement that digital entertainment might soon be able to provide for us, as our new colossi of digital processing combined with - at last - the availability of broadband in the rural idyll we called home. There were two games that we couldn't wait to play (and it's incredible to realise that all these years later they're still the two reference points for this debate): World of Warcraft and Eve Online. I say debate, in fact I think all of us agreed, but perhaps had different priorities: WoW was the brilliant, polished, accessible beacon of online gaming hedonism; the friendly, welcoming MMO in which you could while away hours, days and months without a care for the outside world. Or exams. But Eve was something more, Eve was something that mattered: a world that could be shaped and changed, where actions had consequences and risks, and where safety was never guaranteed. Less friendly, more challenging, but with more potential.

The dichotomy persisted through Uni and was often articulated (often drunkenly), while the world copied WoW and Eve inspired fewer, less successful imitators. The point was always that actions in Eve meant something and had persistent consequence, while in WoW and its kind what the player did only had the most shallow, short term, short range impacts. Now this certainly doesn't mean that WoW wasn't and isn't a lot of fun, and I certainly don't begrudge its existence or success, but it's always been clear to me that WoW is only fun, and while fun is fine, we're occasionally allowed to ask for more.

Better people than I have written about many of the implications and possibilities of a sandbox MMO design (or perhaps more generally of multiplayer games with both some freedom of expression/interaction and the ability to make persistent changes to the game world, if you consider that definition broader than "sandbox"). What Joe's piece made me remember and consider is the effect this has on social interaction. He states "It still baffles me that there are so few games which are classified as 'Massively multiplayer' which offer genuinely social experiences." I concur.

Traditional MMOs do offer social interaction. Raids and dungeons require teamwork and guilds allow persistent groups to organise and make friends. Being in the same world as people allows interaction with strangers: conversation, help with quests, a friendly buff. And of course PvP means temporary adversarial interaction and competition.

But meaningful relationships require risk, disappointment, hard work, trust and tolerance. They required shared achievements and the possibility of betrayal an enmity. Clearly, they require an environment where actions are persistent and meaningful or where mistrust and dislike are viable and could be justified.

I'm not pretending everyone gets on all the time in WoW - far from it - and certainly the friendships that begin in the game can blossom into something as meaningful as a "real" relationship: knowing someone who went to Bulgaria to meet someone they knew from WoW certainly proves that. However, I don't think the way people can interact in game - "in character" is too narrow a definition so "in game" or "while immersed" will have to do - can ever be particularly interesting: the politics, teamwork and conflicts of groups of people can only be profound when there is the meaningfulness of action and persistence of consequence discussed above.

What MMOs can offer is the ability to experience complex social interaction entirely within a game. To "play-fight", "play-build" and "play-cooperate" with others. In WoW, someone might insult or grief me, or I might complete a dungeon with a stranger, and that's fine, and they'll be forgotten in days. Yes, I can make friends (and that's brilliant!), but with the game as a chat client rather than any real kind of genuine facilitator or enhancer, and I'll never ever make a proper enemy. In Eve, I can build a 0.0 haven with a group of pilots with whom I bond and coordinate. I can hate - and enjoy hating - the antagonistic leaders of rival corps and alliances (damn you Evil Thug). And I still remember the name of the first player to destroy my ship in PvP and OH MY UTTER HOLY SHIT THERE'S THE KILLMAIL STILL ON BATTLECLINIC.

Ok, so that's a little like finding that a video of me losing my virginity is sitting on YouTube: kind of an emotional moment.

*Salutes lofty29* I remember we ended up fighting the good fight together for a bit in - V - and then you became a bit notorious for a smart little scam, if memory serves. Anyway good kill, you certainly got my adrenaline going like never before (but a fair few times after).

See what I mean?

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