Do people still dream of a virtual world?

RPS asked readers yesterday to describe their dream game. It’s not an unusual question, especially on a slow news day (if anyone is interested, I think Dune or Iain Banks’ Culture would be my dream MMO setting), but what surprised me was the number of commenters who asked for some kind of a virtual world.

You might be excused for not realising that the dream of a virtual world was one of the design goals behind the original MUD, and original MMOs — it’s no accident that EQ’s slogan was “you’re in our world now.”

Richard Bartle mentions this in a recent interview with Massively, where he discusses how the original MUD got ‘gamified’. More chat-focussed text games like MUSH/MOO also got gamified but in different ways (characters had stats attached to them, for example) which left them more RP oriented.

MMOs have come a long way from that, gamification having taken over the virtual world way before it stepped into the real world. And the players who cared most about virtual worlds sidestepped into fanfic and other online communities which were more about storytelling and less about xp and achievements.

So it’s strange to me that the RPS commenters (a broad spectrum of PC gamers) are still thinking about it … in their dreams.

Being alone in a MMO

336295941_00e23f305fAlejandra Mavroski@Flickr

So the rumours are increasing that patch 3.3.5 is due to drop imminently in WoW, and with it the RealID integration that could potentially make privacy  a thing of the past. One of my reservations about the new scheme is that if you swap RealIDs with a friend, they can see who all of your alts are.

But sometimes, I just want to log on and not be bothered by anyone. Just to pretend I am alone to explore peacefully in a big virtual world, with no social obligations at all.

I used to game with a Finnish friend who would periodically gquit and spend a week or two guildless. Then he’d rejoin. He said it was ‘his log cabin’ time and he’d go hang out in some unpopular zone where he’d never see another player. Now that’s a little extreme, but I wonder how many people enjoy the anonymity of being able to make a new low level alt, tell no one who you are, and just melt into the virtual world.

I used to notice this a lot when my boyfriend (now husband) first moved in with me. We were living in a small one-bedroom flat and whilst there was room for us both, there wasn’t much ‘solo room’ for anyone. And sometimes, being logged into the computer and playing a single player game almost felt as though it genuinely did add some virtual space to the house. For a lot of players, living in cities or far away from open land, being able to explore a virtual world is more virtual space than they might actually see in a year.

As well as an alt or two to just chill out, my bank alts are usually guildless. There’s no special reason for it, but I quite enjoy being able to drop online to quickly check auctions without being drawn into conversations or pestered to play my ((insert group specced character of choice)). I suspect that a lot of healers in particular lean on anonymous alts for some quality solo time in game.

The other bonus of an anonymous alt is that you can easily avoid players you don’t like. I’m sure we all are far too mature to harbour grudges against guildies or other players BUT if one was so inclined, one could log in an alt and check the /who list to make sure the object of derision was not online. Maybe it’s kiddie and immature but we’ve all done it!

So understand my concern about RealID. Even with close personal friends and family, we may sometimes want anonymous alts. This is entirely the type of behaviour that Facebook and, it now appears, Blizzard would like to wipe out. They find it deceptive. They find it unfriendly. But I know my anonymous alts are neither of those things. They’re just an attempt to find some extra me-time online when I can’t do it in any other way. If they didn’t exist, I’d probably go for a long walk or hide in my bedroom with a book.

Do you have anonymous alts? Would you be happy to share that information with your friends list?

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

All day, and all of the night

One of the characteristics of MMOs is that they’re available 24/7. But I wonder how big a selling point this really is.

In MUD days, it was important because it meant that the game was accessible to people from different time zones. It was also a pain in the neck because if the game crashed and there were no staff from that time zone awake, you’d have to wait several hours to get a reboot. On the other hand, they were generally free…

I’ve read a few posts recently from people describing how they sometimes use the MMO as a kind of refuge. Anyone who is awake through the dead hours of the night, the 3-4am period where everything looks darkest and most depressing, when there’s no point trying to get back to sleep because morning looms just near enough to make it seem pointless, when you are sick or tired or just have too much on your mind to rest easy – that’s when the game can feel like a sort of waking dream. You can switch off, but stay on. Other players will be around, dream phantoms one and all, but no one expects you to interact at 3am. They all have their own nightmares to escape, their own time to kill, their own long wait until dawn.

Instances do run at these times. If you ever mess up your usual timeclock due to inadvertent partying, illness, or whatever, you may find them. People know that the others are tired, they tend to be calmer and less demanding, or maybe just too tired to really press for the fast runs.

It’s the MMO equivalent of when you stay up all night and take a walk around the streets just before dawn. The light has an eerie quality, you feel that the world belongs to you and you alone.

I don’t know if it makes commercial sense to keep the games open 24/7, surely there are times of very low usage. But I’ve been occasionally glad of it.

Do you like that MMOs are available 24/7, and have you ever logged in during the middle of the night?

The convergence of single player and multiplayer games

There’s a rumour going around that the next wave of Call of Duty games will include  options to buy into online subscription extras. So you’ll buy the game, and also be able to sub up for whatever services they decide to provide online. Maybe they’ll throw in some additional DLC on top.

Dragon Age is a single player game, with a 2 year DLC plan (38% through now, and how about them deep roads, by the way? Now that’s how to do horror.) They also have a social site where you can compare quests and achievements with friends, and a bulletin board too. Plus a tie in with their flash game to earn more loot for the standalone game.

And does anyone not think that Starcraft 2 and Diablo 3 will also have subscription options?

Increasingly we’ve seen MMOs also poking around with models which involve box sales plus monthly subscriptions for extra content/patches/server maintenance, and options to buy extras via a cash shop as well.

There’s a convergence coming, and as MMO players, it’s all about how the gaming side took over the virtual world. And about whether we really want to be playing with massive amounts of people anyway. How much difference is there really between logging on for the weekly COD session with friends or the weekly fixed group in a MMO?

These days we understand a subscription as meaning a stream of ongoing content, and complain if the content doesn’t come fast enough. All those things that old MMO dinos lament about the good old days nowlook laughable because so many of the old MMOs were simply bad games. Poor gameplay, poor balance, timesinks, complexity … none of these things made for great gameplay. But the gameplay wasn’t the compelling factor that people miss. Those days of MMOs as virtual worlds are almost gone now, and I wonder if  that is the big reason that new MMOs struggle to get players to sub for more than a month or two.

It isn’t just their merits as games, it’s that perhaps the majority of gamers are looking for doses of solid gameplay, rather than a new virtual home.

The headset is my ears, the monitor is my eyes

I have seen it with my own eyes ….

It’s amazing how easy it is when we’re deep in a game for our brains to convince us that we are seeing the virtual world directly through our own eyes, and hearing it with our own ears. I’ve had times when I wasn’t aware of the headphones or the monitor. Immersion will do that to a person, and the human brain is smart but can be trained to substitute one metaphor for another – after all, I don’t much notice my glasses when I’m wearing those either.

But all it takes to break the illusion is one little hardware problem. The monitor blows? You’re (virtually) blind. Broken sound card? You’re (virtually) deaf. It’s tricky to talk about this without being disrespectful to people who have sensory disabilities in real life, but being without a peripheral can feel absolutely crippling in game.

I’ve had an ongoing problem for a few months with my microphone, in that it’s way too quiet. This week, we sorted it out (turns out it was something stupid that I’d done which was easily fixed, once we’d found it), and it’s astounding to me how much difference that made in my gameplay.

I could speak on voice chat before, but it was very hard for people to hear me. They would keep asking me to speak up, or complain that they couldn’t hear, and there wasn’t anything that I could do about it. It was frustrating because it broke the metaphor, in real life I can speak up by just raising my voice. But that didn’t work with a malfunctioning mike. It was so frustrating in fact that I mostly stopped even trying to talk, and along with that came a feeling of distance, of unintentional exclusion, and of being less involved in both the game and the community.

Of course I could still type wittily (and quickly), but as anyone knows who has played with voice chat, a lot of people don’t bother looking at the text on the screen. But my disability was relatively easily fixed. I have my voice back. This week I noticed that  every time I am to say something in game, I  hesitate more than I used to do. I still think ‘Oh, no one will hear’, even though they can now.

I’m happy to have my virtual voice back, and it will be nice to feel back in the loop and get used to it again. But that was a very powerful emotional experience, and I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it.

A day in the life of cross-server PUGs

twilight_zone-rod-serling <<twilight zone music>>

Imagine that you have had a flash forward in time, to an alternate future. In this future, Blizzard’s planned LFG changes have gone live. How will your game change?

You level up through a series of levelling zones, queuing for level appropriate instances as you go. You’ll likely not find one immediately you start to look but hopefully it won’t take too long, and when your instance comes up you will immediately get ported there with your 4 new friends who could be from any server in your battlegroup. You may never find out where the instance entrance actually is in the gameworld, if it even has one. You don’t need to talk to the other people in your group if you don’t want to – you won’t ever meet them again.

When you reach max level you can sit in the expansion-appropriate city for the rest of your endgame. Every day you can log in, queue up for the random dungeon daily quest and the random daily battleground and mess around with the auction house while you wait for the group to fill. Again, you’ll be ported directly to the instance or battleground when the group is ready. You can even queue for the random weekly raid instance if you have a bit more time and feel like a change of pace – in patch 3.3 the random raid group will only work for people on your server but surely if it is successful then it will also be expanded to the battlegroup.

If anyone in your random group turns out to be a jerk or a useless twat then the other four can vote to kick them out.

Maybe in each patch Blizzard will add in a new area with some daily quests if you feel like a breath of virtual fresh air. And if you’d rather do things old style and group with people on your server, there will be a LFG global channel (in cities) where you can compare achievements and put together those 10-man class PUGs.

My current thoughts in summary: A lot of people will benefit from this (people who don’t like feeling forced to be part of a community will be cheering). The game will be improved for many. And it could be so fundamentally game changing to the community that I don’t know where it will lead. We’ll have to wait and try it out and see. So my thoughts right now are phrased as questions.

Is this virtual heaven?

For some people, this will be a dream come true. While the LFG can never be greater than the sum of its parts (ie. you’ll still have the same people in the pool), it could benefit anyone who:

  • Likes PUGs and would like a bigger group of people to PUG with.
  • Don’t want to be part of a community but still want to do group activities
  • Don’t like travelling outside your city of choice, either because you think it’s a waste of time or just don’t like it
  • Wants to run lower level instances but finds that there aren’t enough people on their server — but there might be enough people on the battlegroup

So really, most people could benefit, depending on how good the group matching tool is.

The new system will now work to match at least one experienced player for the assigned dungeon with less experienced players in the group.

This quote in particular makes me nervous (call me harsh but boosting other people’s undergeared alts through heroics isn’t my idea of a fun time, friends excepted), but at the end of the day you’ll still be able to arrange groups old-style using the LFG channel if you want to know in advance who you will be with.

Those of us on servers who have really good PUG communities right now will lose out, though. I’d comfortably say that 9/10 of my PUGs are really pleasant experiences at the moment. Argent Dawn is a great place to run a PUG. That can basically only get worse if we introduce more battlegroups into the mix. But I suppose that’s what happens when you even people out – a lot of other players will benefit from having well behaved AD players in their groups now.

Or is it the end of the virtual world and the server community?

Server communities have the same issue as social players in general. They work because some people love them and work very hard to pull them together, and lots of other people don’t care but will participate if the work is done for them and the rewards are there. Together, the people who do care and the people who aren’t bothered but will go along with it make up the server community.

So what happens if all the people who aren’t bothered are given an easier way to get to the group content that they want? (Remember, they don’t hate the server community, they just don’t care either way.) But server communities have been valuable for people. By running server-based PUGs, new players can mix with existing ones. It has been one of the standard ways that people find guilds (or guilds find people).

Do most players even care that their game takes place in a virtual world or would they really rather sit in Dalaran and bitch on the trade channel until their next instance or battleground or raid comes up?

The sad thing about the players who say that they don’t care is that they won’t find out whether or not they really do until it is too late. Maybe the most hardcore gamist won’t miss seeing sunrises over the Grizzly Hills, or watching protodrakes swoop down and carry off woolly rhinos in the Storm Peaks (they totally do this, btw). Maybe they don’t enjoy the feeling of soaring between mountain peaks or experiencing the virtual world around them. Maybe they don’t have an attachment to the little starting village where their character first learned how to bind and use a mailbox.

But the experience would be less for a lot of other people without those things.

And what does it mean to be in a guild?

For a lot of people, a guild is their passport to group activities in game. As well as an in-game community, the guild provides a pool of people with whom to run instances. The guild may also have organised activities such as PvP or raiding.

But what if you could do all those things without a guild? What does the guild mean to people then?

And again, back to the social conundrum. The people who enjoy being in a guild will still guild up. But the people who didn’t care and were only tolerating the guild in order to get to the content may find it easier not to bother.

If the random raid PUG really takes off on a server, a lot of raid guilds will find it increasingly difficult to recruit. Why would you sign up to a guild with a fixed raid schedule when you could just log on when you had some free time and find a raid then? Maybe if you are really committed to the hard modes it would still be necessary (until Blizzard include a hard mode looking for raid interface with extra checks).

Ultimately, this really is a good thing. People shouldn’t feel forced to join guilds and work at their schedules just to get to the group content. They should join guilds because they want the community and feel of being in a guild. The game will be much more pleasant for everyone if the people who prefer not to be part of a community have the option to opt out.

Some things never change

One thing is for sure though: no matter how many servers are thrown into the mix, there will still never be enough tanks or healers to go around. But at least the random dungeon won’t have to be the Oculus.

I’m planning to keep a diary of my PUGs after this feature goes live, to see how it goes. I’ll run at least one random dungeon a day. So if nothing else, you’ll be able to see how I cope with the unwashed PvP-server masses … and vice versa.