[Pirates] Happy Caribbean Christmas!

Last night we went to see Tron Legacy (short review: pacey, exciting, great graphics, and light cycles have never looked this good – but disappointing in that it failed totally to build on the rather cool themes of the original story) and one of the trailers was for Pirates of the Caribbean 4. (A film about which I’m pretty excited because a) Geoffrey Rush upstaging Johnny Depp in every joint scene and b) it’s based on a goddamn Tim Powers book!)

And being in the piratical mindset, it seemed time to take a longer look at Pirates of the Burning Sea, which recently switched to a Free to Play/ Cash Shop basis. Arrrrr!

potbs_jennybay

Bloggers have claimed that you need to play an MMO intensively for several months to really get a good feel for it, and while there’s something in that, I also think that within 30 mins or so I should be able to get a sense of what a game is about. Pirates does a stunning job in that respect.

I’m never really sure what the ideal newbie experience should be like. Should it be a carefully scripted in media res storylike experience which draws you into your new character and the game world? Should it focus more on introducing you to the UI? Or is it enough if you just want to keep playing after the newbie quests are done?

potbs_alice

With the Pirates opening sequence, you first get to create your character. And this is one of the high points of the game, for me, because they tend to look absolutely stunning.

You can choose between British, French, Spanish, or Pirate as your faction of choice and then have a vast array of clothing options alongside the usual skin colour/ hairstyle/ facial hair (for guys) etc. I do love the clothing of this era and PotBS loves it just as much as I do.

After that, there’s a practice naval skirmish, controls of which will be familiar to anyone who played Sid Meier’s Pirates or Star Trek Online and a practice fencing bout which follows the more typical MMO model. Then a chance to explore the starting town, which is interrupted with another scripted sequence where you get  to use your newfound duelling and naval skills in anger.

And while exploring the town and talking to NPCs, I find that there’s a deep sandbox aspect to this MMO. Players can become Governers of towns, they can take part in a player based crafting and merchant economy (which, like EVE, requires you to travel between ports to access the best prices) and there seems to be a lively faction based PvP game as well. Also, if you are arty, you can design your own flags/ sails and upload them to your ship (they charge for this, which strikes me as reasonable).

potbs_church

Whatever the locals do for Christmas, it clearly doesn’t involve going to the church, which was fairly empty. Instead, as I wandered into town, I ran into the local Christmas event in the shape of a drunk Irishman who inveigled my new captain into taking him round town to sing to some of the local people about burying a wren – apparently connected with his home traditions.

Pirates loves its lore with a deep and abiding passion that seeps into every part of the game. On the Christmas quest, I got to learn about how the Spanish, the French, and the English celebrated Christmas in the Caribbean in this era and it felt very solidly researched. There’s an attention to detail in this game which totally won me over.

potbs_britishxmas

I was also totally bowled over by the sound track. As I wandered around town, the sounds reflected the area I was in. If I walked next to the chickens, I could hear them clucking. If I went to the fiddle player and dancers in a corner, I could hear the violin and the laughing. If I wandered closer to some gossiping women, I could HEAR what they were saying.

Not only that, but all the music is put together with period sensibilities in mind. The instruments sound authentic, so do the songs. It’s just a brilliant demonstration of how much sound can add to a game, without needing everything to be fully voiced, Bioware-style.

So although my game time at the moment is mostly taken by Cataclysm, this is definitely a game I intend to play for awhile longer. (So if anyone knows any friendly guilds on EU-timezones who can put up with newbies, feel free to note them in comments.) I can’t comment on play balance or how well all the various elements work, but there’s something very cool and different going on here, with a theme unlike anything else you’ll find in the genre.

The players on the general channels also seemed friendly and helpful, something which you often find on smaller games where players are more conscious that every new player who gets hooked is someone else for them to play with in future.

 

So if you are finding that WoW is a bit linear at the moment, and have any interest in pirates or historical sandbox type games, give this one a look.

MMOs are changing — but maybe some players need to go back to their roots

wrongway johnnyjet@flickr.com

Wolfshead, one of the most inspiring blog writers I know, has been kicking arse and taking names recently with a rant about the entire MMO industry and the way it is heading. (If you enjoy this article of his do read some more, they’re all good.) His complaint is that MMOs are not reaching their potential as exciting immersive interactive experiences.

I will totally buy that today’s MMOs are less immersive in many ways that their predecessors. What we do in them may feel less meaningful. But do they really lack excitement or interactive experiences? For example, raiding in WoW today offers much more exciting gameplay than it used to do. WAR got PvP very right in many ways. And you’re also much less likely to log into your game of choice and be sitting around for hours waiting for something to happen (unless you are mining in EVE <—cheap shot).

We also get many more chances to interact with the game world than in games of the past. Bear in mind that mineable nodes were considered one of WoW’s innovations.

I have issues with WoW, and with other current gen MMOs, but lack of excitement isn’t one of them. As games, they’re improving with every patch.

We don’t know where we’re going, but we know where we’ve been

But that isn’t to say that Wolfshead has it completely wrong. Just you have to be an old dino to really understand that perspective.

Imagine that your first experience with multiplayer online gaming was a text-based MUD or MUSH. It was also your first experience with real time online chat. Probably also your first experience of online roleplaying, or being able to assume a different online identity and hang out in a world full of other real players.

Those were heady days. It’s hard to convey that now, in the cold light of 2010. But it was so damned exciting to log into a gameworld and come across another actual player. In those old games, which were part sandbox and part proto-EQ, everything was part of the escapist virtual world. We cared about immersion, except when we didn’t. MUSH players like myself disdained MUDs. We didn’t see the point in killing some dumb mob that would just respawn in 5 minutes anyway, especially not when you could be roleplaying a living part of a living city with other players. Yes we had that debate 10 years ago and the MUDders won. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if MUSH and not MUD had been the base starting point for EQ. I think we’d have had our virtual worlds, and achievers would have been complaining that all MMOs were oriented towards social gaming and interactive fanfic and why can’t we have a game that actually let them kill stuff. Oh, and the female: male ratio of players would probably have been reversed.

Then came graphical MMOs and MUDs and for a period of time, games didn’t really know where they were going. There were elements of virtual worlds and also elements of games. Old time gamers could look at the trends and believe that more and more virtual world elements and social elements were being brought into the arena. MMOs were evolving – and just as Wolfshead said, a lot of gamers thought they were going to eventually become a virtual nirvana.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment. Games were evolving in different directions and, led by WoW, there was an increasingly strong movement towards solo play and more gameplay at the cost of virtual worldness.

WoW is actually not the worst offender here. GW with its instant teleports from zone to zone never truly felt like a virtual world (which is one of the main complaints directed at it, along with the dreadful social experience in cities). Other more recent offerings have trimmed down on the virtual world side of the genre to try to bring in the mainstream – most of those attempts failed longterm. And the sandbox games such as Darkfall, EVE, and many text games which still hold out are doomed to their niches. Not to even mention Second Life which fails so utterly at simulating a cohesive world that people almost have to say ‘virtual world’ in inverted commas. (Maybe virtual worlds would be more apt?)

So I have a lot of sympathy with Wolfshead’s view. He has been in the genre for a long time, and for much of that time he genuinely felt that games were evolving towards his personal perfect MMO. And it is now increasingly clear that isn’t true and possibly never was. Much of it was wishful thinking. Now, the era of the AAA MMO is drawing to a close, and the few big games in the pipeline are not even  really attempting to offer a true virtual world experience for escapists.

I just don’t agree with him.

You don’t just ‘stop evolving’

It’s clear that the current MMO gaming model simply isn’t working. WoW will do fine (for some measure of fine) but other recent entries into the field simply haven’t maintained any long term interest amongst players. Only this weekend I reported that Aion – released last Autumn – is merging servers already.  Champions Online lost players even more quickly, from other reports. SWTOR has been reported as needing a million subscribers just to break even. These things cost crazy money to make and the model still isn’t proved to hook players longterm.

Don’t blame Blizzard for that. They made the most compelling MMO that has ever been seen to date. When I first tried out the WoW beta back in 2005, I was blown away because it felt like a quantum leap more fun of a virtual world than what I was playing at the time (and I loved DaoC but I was done with it after 3 years).  Blizzard trashed some old play concepts that really needed to be smacked on the back of the head with a shovel. Like them or not, they have stayed mostly true to their internal vision and pitch perfect sense for gaming fun, and 11 million players have rewarded them for it. WoW isn’t successful because players are dim or all love McDonalds. It’s been successful because it provides the best and most polished mix of gameplay in a virtual world on the market. Now the game is starting to show its age, but don’t blame Blizzard for giving pleasure to millions of gamers, many of whom might not have considered themselves gamers at all before they joined up. It isn’t Blizzard’s fault that newer players don’t share the same dream as the older ones.

And yet … games that adhere more closely to a virtual world model do seem to retain their player base for longer than non WoW MMOs. Darkfall and EVE may be niches (a large niche for EVE) but the majority of the player base doesn’t get bored after a month.

There are other trends in the market also. F2P, lowering the barriers for players to get involved in games, is coming right back to the MUD days. Of course, our text games were (mostly) free all the time and run by volunteers, but that made it very easy for visiting players to come and test the waters and slowly get more involved.

Ultimately, virtual world games may always be a niche but I believe that more sandbox and VW elements will be brought back into multi player games. F2P is an obvious application for this – many players will happily pay to feel that they own a stake in a segment of the game world, as Second Life has proved (and I suspect this is the enduring F2P model). And whilst Facebook and Real ID alike are striving to break down the cult of anonymity on the web, many players who enjoyed their innocent escapist fantasies of being weekend wizards, spaceship pilots, hobbits, BWG (blokes with guns) or  gnomes will always flock to the games that let them define their own character name and looks.

Face it, if I wanted to look like myself online, it wouldn’t be much of an escapist fantasy. Not compared to playing a badass undead plate clad warrior wench, or a burglar sneaking around Mirkwood spiders in LOTRO. “Let’s pretend” is one of the most ancient, magical (yes, this is the basis of sympathetic magic) and honorable of all games, and it’s time that gamers stopped acting as if twitchy shooters were the be all and end all of game design. So games based on acting out a role will NEVER die. Games based on virtual worlds will NEVER die. And in fact I believe that they’ll make a comeback.

And what about Farmville? Wolfshead hates it with the passion of a zillion supernovas and I’m not fond of the game myself. But let us remember one thing. It is a massively popular massive online social game in which NO ONE KILLS ANYTHING. Perhaps our dev lords and masters could take that on board while they’re digging around in the virtual world pantry for that magic ingredient that will make their new WoW knockoff magically sticky to players. Unlike the last several versions.

So I have hope. But also, I quite enjoy playing the games the way they are now. I have a lot of sympathy for Wolfshead – games these days are not realising the dream I dreamed either. But I also remember the things that used to annoy me about the text and MMO games I have loved in the past for their immersiveness and social whirl.

Maybe it is age, but I know increasingly that my personal perfect game does not exist, and probably never will. The internet, however, has become everything I ever wanted and more.  And somewhere in there are those virtual world games (yes, even text games have evolved) which may even make an old lag like Wolfshead happy for awhile.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

— A E Housman

Thought of the Day: Leadership, boredom and MMOs

The mark of an effective leader in a MMO is how well they can achieve goals which require players to repeat boring tasks such as:

  • raiding farm content
  • sitting on the reserve bench
  • guarding a warp gate for 4 hours

You have to persuade people that the boring task is meaningful and important. You also have a limited toolbox available from which to reward or punish players.

Sandbox Games don’t have grind, they just have boredom

I was musing the role of a good MMO leader when reading over Tobold’s posts about his time in EVE Online.

EVE is described as a sandbox game, which means that players get thrown into the virtual world and mostly left to their own devices. A lot of content is provided by other people by some form of PvP or competition. Players in a sandbox game are encouraged to stake a claim to various parts of the game world and defend it from others. My first MMO (DaoC) had sandbox elements. Before that, our MUSHes had strong sandbox elements too – they didn’t involve PvP exactly but people definitely did compete over resources.

It is absolutely a feature of these games that you will spend a lot of time sitting around and doing nothing (or doing something very dull) while waiting for something to happen.

So in Tobold’s example, he warps into a 0.0 system and gets blown out of the skies. But what about those poor bastards whose ‘job’ in game is to sit around in the middle of their boring sector, waiting for someone to zone in? And they have to try to keep a 24 hour watch rota if they are properly hardcore because people play in all sorts of timezones.

I have been that person on the Albion Milegate. We used to spend hours sitting around and chatting. Maybe a few people would occasionally go on a wide patrol because they were bored. In a good evening we’d get maybe one or two groups trying to come through who we’d beat down with superior numbers. That would be it, for the entire evening.

But if you are an MMO leader who wants to hold some territory, you need to convince people that they should be sitting around for hours waiting for something to happen. If you don’t, then someone could sneak through. It’s the problem of the absentee landlord. The only way you can prove that you hold domain is to be there to fight off any intruders. And since players complain like crazy if intrusions are only permitted at pre-arranged times (they tried this with bases in CoH) then the defender needs to keep a 24 hour guard. Depending on how hardcore they are.

Now sandbox games can be extremely lively and exciting too. The thrill of having a guild that holds its own keep or territory is huge. It’s just that the exciting parts are unpredictable (or in fact sod’s law says that they always happen just after you went to bed, or in someone else’s timezone.)

So sandbox games require people to be bored because they can’t offer scheduled entertainment. You have to be around, “just in case.”

Progression raiding needs people to sit out and do nothing

By comparison, let’s look at PvE. In hardcore progression raiding, a raid group will make a schedule. And then they will recruit a few more people than they need to make sure that there are substitutes in case anyone has to miss a session.

That means some people will be signing up every week to not raid. We’ve been discussing on our raid forums this week how best to reward people for being substitutes. And unfortunately there’s no real reward that can possibly make it up to anyone for missing a first kill, or missing a load of badges/ experience in the raid when a new raid has just opened. The satisfaction of knowing that by doing nothing, you helped your raid, is not really very comforting when you’re fretting over being left behind.

And duly, raid guilds often have trouble with substitutes leaving for greener pastures if they don’t feel that the raiding rotation is fair.

PUGs never have this problem because they don’t run scheduled raids. They just grab whoever is online, wants to go, has the right gear/spec, and has enough time. So PUGs guarantee raid fun (to some extent) and no one ever has to sit out.

So PvE/raid games require people to be bored because they must offer scheduled entertainment but need a fixed number of raiders of fixed roles. You have to be around, “just in case someone else has to drop.”

Either way, being a hardcore leader in both types of MMO requires that you persuade people that it is worth them logging in for hours of boredom in order to help the group. Is it surprising that many designers are pondering whether PUGs, open groups, or dynamic events are the way forwards?

Games that are fun even when you’re not good at them

The Brainy Gamer was taken by surprise by The Sims 3. He hadn’t expected to enjoy it, but was entranced by the way the game lets you define your own goals and tell stories (stories with limited scope are still stories). I haven’t played Sims 3 extensively — I tried it at my sister’s place and thought it was cool but not cool enough for me to pay full price — but one of the things that struck me about the game is that even if you failed totally to meet any goals that you had for your characters, it could still be highly entertaining.

In the link above, TBG describes a rather sad little story that winds up with social services (in the game) stepping in to look after his character’s baby. That’s an absolutely gut wrenching experience for everyone involved if it was a real life incident. That a game can so strongly (and unexpectedly) evoke some of the same feelings is surprisingly cool. The fact that it happened because the player got distracted and didn’t click ‘feed  baby’ often enough takes a back seat, because ‘neglect’ is one of the reasons why social services iRL might also have to step in.

Although I haven’t really investigated The Sims, I’ve enjoyed playing simulation games a lot whether or not I really beat the game. I spent many happy hours on various versions of Civilisation (Civ IV still available for £5/$5 at Direct2drive for the next two weeks, btw) without ever getting much above 25% — I think I’m insufficiently aggressive in game to score high, but I get to Alpha Centauri anyway. So even though I may be rubbish as a player, my civilisation survives and goes to the stars!

One of the appeals of a simulation game is being able to pick your own win conditions and see the game’s score as an optional extra. Another is being able to see your civilisation/ character grow, even if that means it eventually is conquered and dies out. And yet another is the sense that your civilisation/ character takes on a personality of its own, shaped by decisions made by the player but not completely controlled by them.

When we talk about the ease or difficulty of an MMO, it’s easy to put the simulation side of the game on the backburner. But the sim (or sandbox) side of the game is one of the big appeals. The whole point of an MMO is that you progress your character and/or faction somehow and see what happens to it. This is really what people are getting at when they ask for more simulation in MMOs, not that they particularly want rag doll physics or realistic blood spatters. They are asking for a world where actions that are under the player’s control lead to consequences that may or may not be expected.

The most successful sandbox games are the ones where people are explicitly able to pick their own goals and objectives. This has always been one of the great appeals of EVE, that you can choose whether you want to build a business empire, be a pirate, join a huge corps and fight for territory, or whatever else you want. The other side to the game is that actions have consequences.

But PvP is often not as fun or as interesting for the loser as it is for the winner. If I had to play Civilisation competitively against a really good opponent, I’d be wiped out before I had a chance to get to the fun parts. My strategy has nothing to do with competition because I just like seeing how quickly I can get the good technology and what I can do with it (once an engineer, always an engineer).

Having multiple players in a game who are not personal friends becomes competitive, even if they all are on the same team. People constantly compare themselves with each other, even if they aren’t actually PvPing. That’s not a bad thing, people like to compete in different ways.

But even though I’m not interested in no holds barred PvP style simulations, I’d still like to see more options for players to create their own goals in a living world. Where even doing something suboptimal could lead to interesting and fun gameplay. I’d like to see devs stop being afraid of emergent gameplay, and less railroading and being nudged towards the raid boss of the week just because it’s there. I’d like more games where even if you don’t reach your goal, you can be rewarded by finding out what happened.

Are there any games that you like even though you aren’t good at them?

Twitter Man, thank goodness you came!

Syp got all snarky yesterday about plans in Champions Online to introduce in-game tweeting (I know this works from being spammed a bit in twitter by beta testers already :) ).

I have no idea at all why I’d want to twitter from a MMO. I usually play in windowed mode anyway so if I wanted to twitter I’d just do it. And even if I did I don’t understand why I’d want to broadcast only and not receive. But that isn’t the point. Maybe someone else will find something cool to do with that functionality.

So often devs try to guide players by holding their hands every single step of the way in an MMO. Thou shalt level by killing 10 boars. Thou shalt do PvP on Tuesday mornings and Friday afternoons. Thou shalt raid, whether thou likest it or not. Thou shalt have thy weekly rant at Blizzard for not putting a defence trinket on the badge vendor. And so on.

The games where this is less common are called sandbox games. And a sandbox is a place where kids get to play however they want, within the limits of the box.

More freedom isn’t a bad thing for players. Devs putting cool stuff into the games just because they’re cool isn’t a bad thing either. I like the notion that sometimes we can get off the tour bus and just play with our toys. Throwing the players some cool stuff to play with, just because, isn’t a bad thing.

And it made me look again at Champions Online. If they’re willing to add random cool functionality just because they can, and trust players to find something to do with it, what else might they be willing to do? That type of thinking appeals to me.

(Note: If you want to follow me on twitter, I’m on as @copperbird )

Why do villains get the best plots?

Have you ever noticed how in storytelling/ RPG types of games, it’s always the villains who have the coolest plots?

They must have spent years recruiting minions, devising and populating huge dungeons or castles, building up networks of spies, and plotting over their careful spreadsheets. We talk about evil genius for a reason. Even though the plan probably has a fatal flaw, it takes a certain amount of dedicated effort and creativity to put it into practice.

Not only that, but any great villain has an actual goal. Not just ‘defeat the good guys’ or ‘get more xp’ but a real honest-to-goodness goal. Something that they genuinely want to accomplish in the world. It’s probably connected with money and/or power and the reason that they’re a villain is because they’ve picked an unconventional route with which to get it. Revenge is another great motive. Being mad (while overused in WoW) is not actually a motive in itself, although it may mean the villain picks goals for illogical reason. And any memorable villain probably has a dose of megalomania too.

As heroes, we’re usually reactive. We follow clues. We find out more and more about the Big Bad and what they are planning. And when we finally decide to thwart them, it usually involves the sophisticated ‘CHAAAARGE’ tactic. Even when our tactic is a little more interesting, it’s because we’re following some other NPC’s suggestion.

More to the point, our character’s goals aren’t always the same as the player’s goals. The player may want to socialise, to progress their character in specific ways, to get more xp, to get more gold, and so on. As soon as we talk about our characters’ goals in game, we’re roleplaying (ie. “what would my character want?”) and that’s simply not why most players play.

Not that it matters because even if your character does have goals, it’s quite possible that the game won’t allow you to pursue them anyway. Let’s think about that.

The only way you can fulfil In Character goals in an MMO is if you (ie. the player) pick it very carefully. If my new Death Knight wants nothing more to do with the Scourge and seeks only to retire quietly to a cabin in the woods I can do it, but only if I stop actually playing the game. If my character has a grudge against some particular NPC and wants to plot against them politically, it’s not going to happen unless it’s programmed into the game, in which case everyone else will do it too.

Even in a more sandbox type of game like EVE, there are some valid in character goals which simply aren’t possible in the game because they’d involve NPCs or NPC factions. If you wanted to take over one of the NPC factions for example, you simply can’t do it.

So if you enjoy setting and achieving goals in these kinds of games, you simply have to narrow your scope. I think this is why roleplaying in MMOs is so limiting. And sometimes very frustrating.

The best MMOs are set in fascinating worlds, and yet we’re so limited in how we can interact with the setting.

When other players are involved, the gloves come off

As soon as you are plotting with or against actual players, things get much more interesting. On the downside: they’re players so will be frustrating, anti-immersive, unpredictable, and unreliable. On the upside: the game won’t be getting in your way any more.

If you want to plot politically against your guild leader (don’t ask me why!) then you can go ahead and start that whispering campaign. If you want to beat the bank, you’re competing against other real players in the economy and there won’t be a helpful NPC there to tell you their cunning plan that somehow involves disguising yourself as a cardboard tree.

What if you don’t have goals? And this, to me, is where a lot of games fall down. Characters should have goals in games. Players should also. And maybe, just maybe, players could be given a bit more assistance in setting goals appropriate to their preferred playing style.

Imagine a game where when you create your character you get to pick some details about their background and history and what sorts of goals or play you are interested in as a player. You might be asked whether you’re more interested in playing good or evil. You might be asked if you prefer to be part of a faction or a solo operative. You might be asked whether you’re interested in romantic types of plot or not. Whether you’re interested in being involved in politics. Whether you’re interested in being a merchant.

And although these views could change in game, you could start with a set of game defined goals to help direct your play.

It sounds odd, but it’s how we go about running freeform LARPs. In a game like that (which may run from a few hours to a whole weekend) all the characters are pre-written. They have detailed backstories and many of them have reasons (written into the background) to need to interact with each other.

Players are given questionnaires to fill in to help the organisers assign them to a character. When you get your character sheet, it will have some background information and also a section marked ‘Character Goals’. And a well written game will give you a mixture of easy and more difficult goals. You aren’t marked on them. It’s accepted that it’s actually impossible for everyone to fulfil all their goals because some are written to be mutually exclusive.

Computer games: they have limits

A game run by and with real people will always be more flexible in terms of what you can do. In a pen and paper RPG, you can do anything that you convince the GM to let you try. No computer game will ever reach that level of simulation.

But some kinds of games do offer more flexibility. In a RTS you have a lot of freedom as to what tactics you choose to use. Maybe you’ll never be a supervillain but you have minions, you can build structures, you can try to funnel your enemy tactically. It’s why we call them strategy games — the game is all about working out your strategy.

In a storytelling RPG, you have very little flexibility. You follow the story. Some games may offer more options but you’re never going to control your side’s strategy or be able to implement some really off-beat plan. If you sign up for the story, it’s assumed you’ll be along for the ride.

Part of the appeal of sandbox games like EVE is that there are real players involved in each faction. So the gameplay is a lot more flexible than a storytelling game, but the actual story may not be as good. If you’re a minor peon in a big corporation, you may never find out what actually happened in that corporate takeover. Your whole game world may have changed and you will never find out why. No other player is required to tell you. There won’t be a helpful NPC explaining exactly why the defias got kicked out of Stormwind. You just have to go.

So there’s always going to be some give and take. If you want every player to have total freedom to set their own goals, your personal story and experience may be less interesting in the game. It certainly isn’t guaranteed to be good. If you want the game to guarantee you an exciting story then you’ll have to go with the goals they set.

But MMOs are the eat-all-you-can buffet of the gaming world. Part of the appeal is that there are lots of different things you can do, lots of different types of gaming available in the world.

I wonder if somewhere in the mix there’s room for the freeform LARP style of character assignment. To give players some forward momentum and help them set goals that suit their style of play.

Do you play like Alice, Dorothy, or Wendy?

alice-lewis-carroll (If you answered ‘tinkerbelle’ then take a well-deserved time out at Dorn’s fabulous blog.)

If you have ever taken the test that classifies players as socialisers, killers, achievers and/or explorers in MMOs (I’m ESKA, by the way) then you’ll be familiar with Dr Richard Bartle’s work.

We know that one of the big appeals of MUDs and MMOs is that they support a lot of different types of play. So there’s no reason why an achiever and a socialiser can’t happily play in the same game, even though they may not want to play together.  And this paper is really the seminal work in starting to classify those different types.

But the problem with this model from my point of view is that it dates from about 5 years BWE (Before the WoW Era). The virtual worlds he was observing were MUDs, or very closely based on MUDs. Trends in game design have changed. And there are some new emergent types of play that simply weren’t big in the MUD days (or  in the types of MUDs he was considering).

MUDs, for example, were never well known for their deep and immersive storytelling narratives. MMOs may have a long way to go, but with the rise of quest based levelling, storytelling is here to stay. Also although you could group in MUDs, I don’t remember team-based play being quite the cornerstone that it is in many MMOs today. Raiding in WoW has more in common with team based games like Team Fortress or Settlers than it does with a Diku MUD. (No one would ever had joined a MUD and asked immediately which endgame guilds were recruiting or what classes they most needed.)

So the fact that Bartle’s categories don’t include the narrative-seeking player or the team player just shows how there are new emergent playstyles coming alongside.

So I was intrigued to read in the Virtual Cultures blog about his keynote speech to the Indie Multiplayer Games Conference (via Massively) about ways in which players approach modern games. And here he’s tackling one of the big issues which is the divergence of sandbox games (like EVE or Darkfall) and ‘theme park’ games (like WoW and LOTRO).

I’d been thinking about this anyway, since Averaen commented on my post this week on virtual hangouts that s/he thought it was a mistake to treat WoW and similar MMOs as if they were virtual worlds. I don’t really agree; if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck then maybe … just maybe… it could be some odd breed of duck. And WoW is certainly a massive persistent virtual world, it’s contiguous (you can fly from one end to the other without zoning), it has consistent-ish storylines, it has cities and villages, it has hangouts and places where players can buy food and drink, it has auction houses and a working economy. How can it NOT be a virtual world?

Anyway, getting back to Dr Bartle. In his keynote he picked up on three different types of play experiences in virtual worlds, using a metaphor of heroines from children’s stories.

  • Alice: the explorer, who wants to see things that are “curiouser and curiouser”
  • Dorothy: who wants to get to the end of the yellow brick road (ie. follow the railroad)
  • Wendy: the content creator, who wants to tell stories for her brothers and the other lost boys

He’s using the play types to describe different types of world, rather than just different players (eg. Alice represents sandbox games, Dorothy represents theme-park, quest heavy games, etc). He also notes that MMOs have been on a divergent path, with social and game oriented MMOs tending to separate. But that this is a bad trend because game-oriented MMOs become repetitive and meaningless, and social MMOs become impenetrable and unfocussed. I can’t speak much for the latter but we know that the former is definitely true. What does it even mean for a game to not have an end?

Bartle argues that a good MMO/ virtual world should offer opportunities for all of these playstyles. And NOW we’re talking about playing styles I can more easily identify with. Because I enjoy all of these things in games. And in an era where games seem to be becoming more and more focussed, it’s a call to arms that I hope someone will hear.

Because dammit, that’s the game /I/ want to play.