Claiming a space in new games

I abhor pristine hotel rooms.

Whenever I arrive in one, I have a compulsion to dump my case in the middle of the bed, put toothpaste in the bathroom (even if some is already there), hang clothes up (even when I wouldn’t bother at home), throw the pillows around and generally place my home-brought stuff on their nice hotel tables. It is a compulsion. Once I’ve put a few things out, I can go out and grab a coffee and do other things. But it doesn’t really feel like MY hotel room until stuff is removed from my travelling bags and put … somewhere.

I call this a kind of ‘claiming’ behaviour. There are (random) things I have to do before a new space feels as though it is mine. I’m sure part of the desire for housing in MMOs is just to have a space where you can strew some stuff around to make it feel more like your own place.

And of course for games which allow UI customisation/ addons there is a nearly limitless variety of ways to make the playing space feel like your own. It’s something I sometimes miss in single player games – although a well designed UI is probably better than anything I could do anyway.

Similarly on new social networks. I joined google+ recently and I obediently filled out some profile details and added a picture, just because it makes my profile page feel more ‘homely’ and less sparse and pristine. If you’d like to be added to my g+ gamer circles, just leave a message on this post with your favoured email address (if you’d like to be added to my social work/ sociology circle can you also say cos I try not to spam disinterested people with that.)

So it’s interesting to me that there’s really very little you can do to claim a new character other than picking a name. Sure, in games which allow cosmetic gear you can work on customising it later on. You may later be able to use different titles also. Some games allow the player to generate a profile page if they want (or generate one for you a la WoW’s armoury).

Do you like to customise your own space in games/ social networks?

The Power of Memory in an MMO

graveyard in brillThere’s no place like home

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been helping to clear out my father’s flat. I have spent quiet hours sitting on trains*.  I have walked many miles to and from the train station; retracing the same path that I travelled every time I went to visit him. The same path that very soon I will never need to walk again. I find myself taking more notice of the details of the journey. The uneven pavements, pigeons crowded outside the supermarket, the roar of traffic, the cafe that replaced the other cafe that replaced the other cafe, the huddled bus stops, the noises, the sights, the smells, the feel. And already, the familiar route brings back vivid and familiar memories.

I have seen designers discuss how to bring more emotion into computer games. We see games inducing excitement, elation, disappointment and wonder if they will ever inspire the whole range of feelings that we get from good literature, films, or music. And yet, I haven’t seen many of them talk about nostalgia – the one bittersweet emotion that games reliably do conjure up. It isn’t just the nostalgia of looking at games that we played ten or twenty years ago and wondering at how much technology has changed, that’s true of anything in life. It is the nostalgia of being able to go back and play the early levels again, capture again the feeling of being so new,  and see how much you have changed (or not) and how many of your initial assumptions were right or wrong.

In a typical MMO, your character goes through some kind of starting area and then spends some time around a major city or village. For the rest of that character’s ‘life’ that starting area will carry with it a sense of home. It will carry with it the memories of the very beginning of the in-game experience. This is a very deliberate design decision, and subsequent quests and events send you back there to evoke precisely that reaction. Games that lack this layout (like WAR) feel as though something is missing to me – I never made that connection with the game world.

If I take Mrs Spinks back to Brill (the undead starting area in WoW), I feel some watered down sense of how I feel travelling to my father’s flat. I know the area, I know the NPCs, and simply walking around there brings back vivid memories of my early WoW days. I felt the same in LOTRO when walking about Michel Delving as a hobbit – however far from the Shire you roam, whenever you go back, you are going home.

Of course, the main difference in an MMO is that the NPCs and home area never change. Shops don’t close. Houses don’t get pulled down. NPCs don’t retire or win the lottery or die in tragic boating accidents. So your home is always preserved, exactly the way that you remember it.

I noticed that quite a few bloggers marked the recent Cataclysm announcement by returning to WoW, however briefly. I believe that this is all about recapturing the memories while those starting zones are still poised in their eternal time vacuum. In the same way that walking the route to my father’s house now cements the memories of all the times I have done that in the past, playing through the old zones brings memories to life for players too. If retracing our steps in the real world helps to relive memories, then it should be no surprise that virtually retracing our steps in a virtual world has the same effect.

I will not miss the old zones. I enjoyed them, but you can never really go back. Even if you rerun the quests, it isn’t the same without the other people around. Looking at them now, I keep thinking how badly they need the update and how much they will benefit from being taken out of their time bubble, at least for a little while.

And after all, we’ll always have our memories. We’ll always have Brill.

* sitting on trains … with my DS :P

Wherever I lay my hat …

I love my hearthstone. Every MMO I have played has its own version. Wherever I am in the world, whatever I am doing, I am always just one click away from teleporting my character back to its home.

(Note: in MUSH terms, the command for doing the same thing was @home. So we’ve had this notion of your character’s home location for years.)

Home may be temporary, a location near to wherever I am questing at the moment. It may be a city, somewhere with lots of shops and facilities. It may be a travel hub, somewhere from where I can get easily to the rest of the game world. It may even be my character’s house (or guildhall), a building which I ‘own’.

So I will always pick a bindspot for convenience, but I still get a feeling of being home again when I port back there and appear in the same spot as usual.

There are other places that feel like ‘home’ too. Sometimes a low level town, maybe even the first town your character ever encounters in its game life, can feel homely. When you go back there now, you get a sense of nostalgia similar to revisiting a childhood home in real life. You know the streets. Walking through them brings back memories. Old quests, old glories.

Some games find excuses to keep sending you back to these lowbie towns. Maybe in-game festivals or higher level dungeon quests are given out there. However much people complain about the travel, the odd sense of nostalgia is quite fun.

Others like WAR keep you moving on, never staying in any lowbie zone long enough to form an attachment to it.

Is there a location that feels like home to you? And if you do have an in game house, does it feel like home or is it just a place to store your stuff when you aren’t adventuring? (Admission: I liked the LOTRO housing but I never had much reason to hang around in mine, it was just an extra bank vault with some decoration attached.)