MMOs, and the thrill of live entertainment

It's hard to share the experience of a rock concert via blurry photo ...

Theatre trips or music gigs for me are like busses. You wait for months without going to any at all, and then suddenly three come along at once.

In the last week, I’ve been to a huge stadium gig at Wembley Arena, a small intimate gig at a cool little music venue above a bar in Kilburn, and a Shakespeare play at The Globe in London. Now the point of this is not to say, “Oo, I’m so cultured, me!” It’s just that they all were brilliant, and it made me think about the special thrill of watching live entertainment with a crowd of other people. And how this is also one of the things I really enjoy about playing MMOs.

Being on stage vs being in the audience

Playing a RPG is like being on stage. Admittedly it’s like being on stage in an improvisational experimental drama with heavy side servings of slapstick, out of genre observations, pop culture, and pulp fiction. But in a pen and paper role-playing game, the player is the performer. They are also the audience.

Going to a play (or gig, or comedy show, et al) is more about being part of the audience. And the magic of theatre is that this is a much more exciting and involving experience than it sounds. Even just sitting quietly as one of the 50k crowd in a filled stadium is more exciting than listening to a band on the radio. It’s an event. There’s an energy about being with other people who share your enthusiasm and are there to share the same experience. Actors and musicians will often talk about the energy that they get from a live audience. Live bands often sound quite different from their album tracks.

Playing a single player game is more like watching TV or reading a book. You can interact with the game, but not with the performers or any of the rest of the audience. At least, not unless you reach out to them in some other way. For example, Dragon Age is a single player game, but I’ve had plenty of discussions about that with other players either on blogs, bboards, twitter, or in real life since I have friends who play it. It’s not the same as actually being all there at the same time, but it’s still a deeper way to enjoy a hobby and share it with others.

Other people and the MMO experience

MMOs offer a mixture of these types of experiences.

A raid or instance where you actually play alongside other people, cooperatively is much closer to the role-playing experience than the single player one. You’re still playing against the fixed backdrop of the coded game, but the other players provide much of the entertainment.

A pure PvP game or battleground would be even closer to being on stage. You’re actively providing the gameplay for other people, as well as reacting to anything that they do.

Even soloing isn’t the same as playing a single player game, because you always know that other people are around. You hear them on chat channels. You may see them in the game world. So this is probably closer to theatre than reading a book. Still more fun in many ways than watching the play on TV at home, but you don’t interact hugely with the rest of the audience.

Very large scale events in game can be similar. Everyone turns up (and brings their lag with them) and it’s mostly to see and experience the in game event together rather than to interact. Even just being in the audience can be exciting and life-affirming, like at the theatre.

I’m not sure entirely where I am going with this, except to say that social media can increasingly turn a solo game or event into a shared experience. And shared experiences in games can be far more exciting than playing offline and alone, even when you aren’t actively interacting with other people.

I suspect that for me, this is why offline games have limited appeal these days. Except on portable consoles, which puts them in a similar position to music for me. I think Syp was also thinking along the same lines when he discussed why MMOs had turned him off single player games.

Do you get the audience effect from MMOs? Or from sharing  your gaming experiences via the internet?

RT @all Apparently social networking is big with the kids these days

Tipa@West Karana and Pete@Dragonchasers have both written about the new Dragon Age: Origins character creator that was released yesterday. Dragon Age: Origins, for those who don’t follow upcoming games, is due to be released in November by Bioware and is a single player RPG, along a similar style to the Baldur’s Gate series. It’s going to be a large game and Bioware have been churning out loads and loads of trailers for it —  for example, each different character origin has its own video.

I love these kinds of games, even though I have a really poor track record for actually completing them. This one is going to involve lots of downloadable content (the first DLC module that you can pay for is going to be available on the same day that the game is released, which is possibly being just a little over-eager), and … err … vast amounts of blood spraying all over the place if the website is anything to go by.

What’s more interesting is that Bioware are launching a new social website based around Dragon Age. You can upload character portraits from the character creator already to your account and share them with friends, and will be able to upload achievements, information about where it is in the story, and talent/skill choices. Naturally you can also message other people through the site, use it to host dragon age blogs, and organise project teams to create new dragon age modules and addons with the toolset that’s coming with the game.

It’s a different take from Blizzard’s battle.net which seems to be more about being able to message people while they are in game and organise good matches for SC2 battles.

I do wonder how many social networking sites most players really want to keep up with — one for every different manufacturer is already starting to feel like a hassle. But I applaud Bioware for letting me create a pretty female dwarf (whilst cursing them for putting together a city elf background that actually tempts me to play an elf) and if anyone wants to friend me there, my username is Spinksville.

Blizzard’s new vision for a social network

This has been a strong week for MMO news. As well as the Champions Online pricing model, the CoH response, and lots of video of Aion in action, Blizzard slipped in their second quarter conference call.

And one of the highlights was their plans for battle.net. Battle.net began life as Blizzard’s online gaming service, and was released at the same time as the original Diablo. It never involved member fees and was also easy to access from Blizzard’s games. Blizzard has even claimed in the past that it was the largest online gaming network, bar none.

“When you look at Battle.net and you look at the subscriber base we have with World of Warcraft, even Xbox Live is not even close to us… I think we absolutely are winning. And you can count on us bringing MMORGs as well as more games that would be playable over Battle.net.”

- Paul Sams (2006)

So with this background, it’s maybe surprising that Blizzard has taken so long to have another look at battle.net. They’re talking about adding social networking features, cross-game communication, unified account management, and more. It’s important enough that Starcraft II is being delayed so that battle.net can be ready in time. And no one delays a surefire hit unless they think they’ll make more money in the long run by waiting.

I’ll definitely be expecting to hear more about this at Blizzcon, in fact it may end up being the biggest change coming down the line influencing how all games are played online in future. And if you think that sounds bold, bear in mind that although Blizzard have a well-earned reputation for collecting ideas from other games and polishing them up, in the online gaming field they have always been one step ahead of the pack. (And I also wonder how much it’ll cost us …)

On another note, although cross-game communication sounds neat, I wish they’d steal an idea from EQ2 and give us cross-server communication first!!

What would you want to see on an  overhauled battle.net?