Where does the virtual world end and the real world begin?

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Massively posted an interesting story last week about people in EVE Online’s volunteer program misusing privileged information. In this case it was connected with getting information (such as IP addresses) about the other volunteers, but it does point to one of the big issues with any kind of volunteer service in MMOs.

Games have often used volunteers as extra unpaid GMs, or to help coordinate other players, to mentor newbies or write newbie guides, or help support the community in other ways. These volunteers are drawn from the player base. So in a game like EVE, what’s to stop a player from using their volunteer powers to help their own character or faction in game?

In some ways it’s smart metagaming to grab as much power and knowledge as possible for yourself in any way possible, including by schmoozing people via out of game channels, buying gold, volunteering to GM for personal in game gains, etc. If volunteers were elected, you could imagine a player organising a huge election campaign with the hidden intent of supporting their own faction after the election. Just like real life, really. And just like in real life, unchecked metagaming leads to corruption in the game world.

But metagaming also leads to a huge increase in immersion. It may not be a good influence on either the game or the player base but it really does benefit players who get into their characters, even outside the game. EVE flaunts the fact that players have the freedom to join enemy corps with the intent to betray them. Is that metagaming? Well, if you lie to your corps mates on a regular basis then you’re probably playing a different game than they are. A con game, in fact. (From watching Hustle, I now know that this is known as playing the inside man in a long con – who said TV never teaches you anything useful? ). Is EVE supposed to be a game about con artists? Well, it is now.

Allowing, or even encouraging, some metagaming is a dangerous road to walk. Some people will always take it too far. If the worst that happens is one player stealing another guild’s bank or getting a list of volunteer IPs, then you have dodged the bullet. Wait till people start committing RL crimes due to unrestrained metagaming, or harrassment, or being driven to distress or even suicide. We’re at the thin end of the wedge, and I am concerned about how having increased social networking and increased continuous access to MMOs is going to affect metagaming in future.

We need solid anti-corruption rules, proper complaint channels, and watchdogs both in game and out to keep players in line. For their own sakes.

The Problem with Volunteers

It is always tempting to volunteers to use their additional powers to help themselves, even if they do it unintentionally. I remember back in DaoC, there was a volunteer network who assisted GMs. If you just happened to have one of those volunteers in your guild, you never had to wait long for a GM to come assist when you hit a raid bug. The volunteers (and we all knew their characters even though it was supposed to be secret) had the equivalent to a GM hotline.

When I was running a MUSH, all the staff were volunteers and many were drawn from the player base. One of their roles was to arbitrate disputes between players – it was hard for some people to be fair when their friends were involved, or even their own characters. We needed to think up rules to stop that and allow other players to ask for a different judge, without compromising the in game identity of our judges because they wanted to play also.

We took the blunt instrument approach. Initially, no players were also allowed to be judges, we had to recruit our staff from other MUSHes. It actually worked well, but if you don’t let staff play at all then they lose a lot of insight into what’s actually going on in game. Instead they just hear it from the whiniest players. So we relented and let them have player characters, but limited their power. So the most powerful and influential characters never would be staff alts. It helped and people were mostly happy.

You can still never entirely prevent people from wanting to help their friends or other people from abusing their knowledge of who the staff alts are in game. And that was more of an issue in a MUSH because the player base wasn’t that huge. In an MMO, you could just restrict a GM from dealing with anything coming from the server on which they played instead.

I’m not entirely sure what sort of policies current MMOs have about how their staff deal with in game issues. I assume they encourage their staff to play for the same reason that we eventually relented on that issue – it’s the best possible way to understand what’s going on in game, plus encourages staff to make the stuff they want to play themselves. But woe betide the game such as EVE that thrives on metagaming when one of the staff wants to play that game also; they have to consciously restrict themselves from doing what a regular player could do or else be open to (totally justified) claims of corruption from the player base.

The sad thing is that volunteers can add so much to a game. They’re already fans. And there is a section of the player base that genuinely enjoys entertaining other players. They’re the people who would be GMs in tabletop games; not quite designers but not quite players either. In MMOs they probably now take the roles of guild leaders or raid leaders, and in that capacity are doing a thankless task without which the games would be far far less fun for everyone else.

And many of those volunteers would be utterly selfless in using extra volunteer powers for good. It’s just safer for everyone if they don’t get the chance.

Re-reviewing Warhammer

It’s been suggested before that in order to review a MMO, you have to keep reviewing it again and again after time has passed. Because it is the nature of these games to change.

Alec Meer writes an insightful one year review of Warhammer Online at Eurogamer, which touches on both the brilliance and the pitfalls of Mythic’s flawed baby. And make no mistake, there’s a touch of genius in making PvP into a fun casual experience that you can easily drop into or out of.

The times I spent playing in Tiers 1 and 2 when the game was new out include some of the best online gaming I’ve had anywhere for sheer fun and exuberance. But that was partly fun because the place was bustling with people, and even then, most of the action was in prime time only.

WAR successfully transformed PvP from a presumptive, often frustrating experience aimed only at relatively hardcore gamers into an open-to-all-comers fairgound. It deserves respect for that, and with a big crowd it would function perfectly as a game you drop into for a month or so here and there, one in which you can find an honestly satisfying fight at any time of day. Without a big crowd, though, that fairground’s ferris wheels are left to wobble in the wind, and the bumper cars stand rusting. Then you realise that there isn’t even anywhere to go sit and have a drink and a chat whenever the rides aren’t working. So you just go punch someone you don’t like the look of, because there’s nothing else to do.

This is the key to what went wrong. It isn’t the class balance. It’s that the game couldn’t sustain the huge critical mass of players needed to make it really sing. Some MMOs can work well with fewer people — maybe they have more solo and small group content, maybe they don’t encourage mass PvP to such a great extent, maybe they train players to be more organised about arranging to run content together, maybe they have very tightly knit and self-sustaining communities. But the glory of Warhammer is that you don’t need to do any of those things. You can solo in PvE if you want, and there are small group Public Quests too, but the lure to the casual player is that you really don’t need to organise your life around it. You can just log in and go join in what the others are doing. You don’t even need to talk to them if you don’t want. But the others have to be there first.

And why did so many of the initial players leave? They weren’t all WoW tourists.

(Sure I went back to WoW, but I had a 6 month subscription that I decided not to renew, and it’s a casual friendly game. No reason to drop it just because I was playing something else too.)

Maybe some of them were hoping for an immersive online world. Although Warhammer makes a few half hearted attempts to be that place (the crafting is especially half hearted), it’s not the core of the game. So many of those early players enjoyed the game, but realised it wasn’t going to be a new home.

More than anything, WAR is a competition, even a sport – and I can’t help but feel that, had it been clearer about that instead of pretending to be a believable, functioning online world, its servers mightn’t be as distressingly empty as they are today.

It isn’t just that WAR wasn’t WoW, it wasn’t WoW in a very specific way. It’s much more gamey and much less worldy. And as the man says, perhaps if they’d been a little clearer about that, it would have helped in the long run.

Meaningful Choices, Persistent Worlds

Players often ask for the ability to make more meaningful choices in MMOs. People mean different things by ‘meaningful choice’, it could be:

  • Options available to the player in the future depend on choices they made in the past
  • The game world itself changes based on choices the player has made
  • If you make the ‘wrong’ choice, there are bad consequences for the character
  • Having different options available to  solve a problem. How you choose to solve it is as important as whether you succeed.

It boils down to the player being able to feel like a more important part of the game world. The player’s character’s story is unique and based on choices that the player has made. The game world ‘knows’ the character’s history and will respond differently if they made different choices.

These may or may not be reasonable wishes. I know in single player games, I often save before a big decision point because of having been trained in years of adventure games where a single wrong step could result in my character dying and me having to restart the game. So really, no decisions are particularly meaningful. The worst that happens is I go back to a saved game and choose again.

I’m quite intrigued as to how I will cope as a player in a game like SWTOR which is heavily story/choice based but where saving isn’t an option. It will be interesting to find out.

On the other hand, we make a lot of meaningful decisions  in MMOs. They just aren’t all long term decisions (although some, like picking a class, are pretty much permanent in current gen games).

If I’m tanking an instance, I’m making meaningful decisions all the time. I’m deciding which order to kill mobs in, who to put the Vigilance buff on, what gear to wear, which abilities to use. Any of those could affect whether or not we succeed in the next pull or not.

If I’m in a well designed battleground or scenario (i.e. not a total zergfest) then I may be deciding which tactical location to go defend or attack based on what everyone else is doing. Should I attack the enemy or retreat to where there are more allies, or a better defensive position? They’re all meaningful decisions.

But neither instances nor battlegrounds offer the chance for permanent meaningful decision making. The best you can do is complete a quest there to hand in later. And I think the fact that they’re such temporary short-term decisions points is why we have more fun with them.

Does permanence make decision making less fun?

The trouble with permanent decision making is that it can be very high risk. If you make a bad choice, you have to live with it forever. You can certainly make permanent decisions in real life (having a kid, for example), but a lot of our real life choices can be changed later. You can change your career, partner, looks, religion, country where you live, gender, and so on.

Making high risk decisions can be fun. But it’s not fun in a game to be on the wrong side of a decision like that and have to restart when you already sunk several months into a game. This is one of the (many) reasons people hate having their characters nerfed – it may negate the reasons they picked that class, which is a meaningful choice in game. In other words, it’s not fun to make a meaningful decision and find out later that it really hindered your progress in game.

It’s also not fun to find that a decision you made ages ago locked you out of content. I actually think most players would be OK with this as long as it also gave them access to cool content that other people couldn’t have, and sometimes you really can’t (and shouldn’t) have everything. But it’s the permanence of the choice that causes the friction.

You can lower the risk by doing research. Spend time reading bulletin boards, blogs, and whatever other information is available. And that is all time that you don’t spend actually making the decision yourself and possibly learning from it. I’m sure some people think it’s brilliant fun to go spend a few hours reading up on talent specs before deciding how to spend points on their character. I’m not one of them. And most games now offer options to respec, making that less of a permanent choice too.

I enjoy having the game respect decisions I have made in the past as much as anyone. It’s fun when an NPC ‘remembers’ what I said or did for them previously or when the game ‘spots’ that I try to avoid killing unnecessarily and reflects that with how NPCs respond and what kind of quests I am offered. It also CAN be fun to play a game where you are stuck with bad choices that you made in the past (at the start of DaoC, you couldn’t respec, for example) – players have to learn to make the best of what they’ve got. But as soon as some people are willing to reroll to avoid this, there’s presssure on everyone else to do the same thing.

But really this is just trying to make an MMO pretend that it’s a human GM. I’ve played with human GMs, I’ve run games as a human (well, I hope!) GM. I know how I adapt my games to what my players do and say. No offence to game devs but the computer game is really still quite a poor simulation of that. Sure, that means that there is scope for them to get better but my gut feeling is that until these games have more actual human GMing involved, there are limits that we’ll have to accept.

Solid short term tactical games is what computers do very well indeed. Instances, battlegrounds, short term goals rife with short term meaningful decision making for players. These are their strengths.

At the moment, MMOs are still in a funk of identity crisis. They’re virtual worlds, and also games. Often they stick the ‘game’ parts behind instanced portals so that we can enjoy them more as games with all the short term tactical meaningful choices that implies. But it becomes increasingly clear that you can’t have your cake and eat it. The more gameish a MMO becomes, the less of a virtual world feel it will have.

It may be that the price of meaningful choices is one that we’re not willing or able to pay.

Do you like games/worlds which have an ecology?

I was levelling an alt recently, which meant a trip through several zones that I haven’t seen for awhile. This is partly because they’re lower level zones that my lower level alt needed for quests, but also because I was levelling herbalism from scratch.

Most games with gathering skills have some variety of herbalism and some variety of mining. But somehow I always struggle to imagine my character pulling out a pick, strip mining the local landscape, and then refining some copper. Besides which, mining is hard labour and not exactly the thing for a caster (or any adventurer). Picking herbs, skinning kills, or fishing is simply much more immersive. (Note: I have no idea how many players even think about this but it always bugged me!)

I’ve always enjoyed herbalism the most of the WoW gathering skills and it’s because the flowers have a basic sort of ecology which you will have to learn if you want to find them easily. Some plants are only found in specific zones. All of them have favoured habitats. So some grow under trees, others by the side of rivers, some in open grassland, others on rocky hills, and in one case, underwater. Even though the base UI itself will show all herbs up as dots on the minimap, a bit of ‘herb lore’ will make it quicker to gather the ones you want.

So even riding around empty low level zones looking for herbs is fun for me. It’s peaceful and I’m able to brush up my world lore by knowing where things grow without needing to look it up. In other words, it helps to bring the game world alive for me. The ecology feels immersive – it’s like I’m there.

I do think people notice when the mobs and plants are well themed to a zone. The jungle of Stranglethorn wouldn’t be the same without the lush trees or the tigers and panthers. It’s all part of what gives a zone an atmosphere of its own.

I would love it if more virtual worlds had proper ecologies that weren’t based purely on what level pigs you can find in each zone. You could imagine becoming a virtual plant expert or virtual bird watcher. To be honest, I would much rather study virtual creatures in their natural habitat than kill them. Especially if they have interesting behaviour to watch. Even though addons and websites would kill any knowledge advantage, it’s still fun to spot rare creatures for yourself.

The problem is, of course, that players screw up all ecologies by mass slaughter. But I can still dream of that birdwatching MMO that probably no one except me would ever play …

2 games that could be WoW-beaters

It’s  fashionable to say that Warcraft has grown so large now that there will never be any single WoW beater. It’s less of a game and more of a force of nature, a historical blip which will go down in records as a milestone in humanity’s takeup of the internet, social networking, and online virtual worlds.

If you play World of Warcraft, you are part of a historical phenomenon. You’ll be able to look back and tell your grandchildren (or you could just twitter them now if you have any), “Yes, I played that game. We all did.”

Anyone who thinks it’s just another game isn’t paying attention. As to why it got so large — a perfect storm of quality game, smart marketing, lack of competition (at the time it launched), opening the market to more casual players, and a crazy social networking effect. It’s anyone’s guess. Probably a lot of these factors.

Then again, a few years ago who would have guessed that Facebook would so totally overwhelm MySpace, or that twitter would become such a big thing? That’s a rhetorical question, and the answer is … anyone who tried the new formats would realise almost immediately. I don’t know about you but as soon as I saw Facebook I knew it was a better social platform than MySpace. Scrabble sealed the deal. (Admittedly I haven’t logged into Facebook for months, I got bored of being invited into stupid groups by people who weren’t my friends.)

Similarly, ten years ago it didn’t take very long to realise how quickly mobile phones would take off as soon as the prices came down — you only had to try one for a day to see the difference it made. Going further back, how quickly do you think Sony Walkman‘s took off? Very fast. You only had to use it for an hour or two to see how cool it was to be able to take your music around with you.

If a virtual world comes along that suits a lot of people better than WoW, they will switch. This will happen faster if the barrier to switching is low. It will happen faster if it targets a large section of the WoW audience that isn’t currently 100% happy with the game they have. In order for it to become a WoW-beater, it will need to not only steal Warcraft players but also open whole new markets. And one thing is for sure, it won’t be a game that is ‘mostly like Warcraft but with a few tweaks’ or ‘like WoW but with superheroes/ spaceships/ vampires instead of fantasy.’

It may not even be a game at all.

Free Realms

I’m not in the beta test of FR, although I’ve mentioned it previously. The reason I think Free Realms will challenge WoW is because a lot of WoW players aren’t that interested in the ‘gamier’ side of it as an MMO. They love the shiny production values and attractive stylised graphics, but the endgame world of people calling you a moron  if you don’t put out enough dps in some instance, or smack talk in battleground chat don’t appeal to them (tbh they don’t appeal to a lot of people).

Maybe what they really want is a friendly virtual world where they can dress up their characters, collect minipets, play minigames with their friends, and chat.  Where no one will whine at them about their specs, or expect them to dedicate 2+ nights per week to raiding if they’re ever going to see the cool storylines or get the best loot.

FR looks to have great production values, be very accessible, be focus grouped to death about what casual MMO players want, be a friendly environment where people can easily play with their families/ less hardcore players. And of course, it’s free — or at least you can do most of the stuff you’d want for free, with options to pay for extras.

You just have to look at the comments to this Massively post which asked what people were looking forwards to about Free Realms to see how many gamers would like a relaxing environment to play with less game-crazed family members.

There’s an opening there for a lot of players to move to a game they’d find suited their preferences more than WoW.  I might wish that more virtual worlds might be generated that were a bit less childish, because cartoon animals and generic cuteness don’t do much for me (and I’m really not that desperate to socialise with 12 year olds unless they are actually family), but to a lot of people and a lot of kids, that has a high appeal.  I’ll certainly be trying it out, if only to hang out with friends who aren’t hardcore MMO players but might be tempted into this one.

Sony’s main competition with FR is probably more the social worlds aimed at kids than it is WoW but that just means that there’s a huge market out there for them to tap into. Can they attract players from Habbo Hotel to their new offering?  They’ll certainly try.

I know I’m looking forwards to playing (and writing about) it when it does go live.

Diablo III

D3 could appeal to a different segment of current WoW players. It will almost certainly have a grimmer, gritter, more gothic atmosphere than Warcraft (admittedly not difficult). It has a vast built-in fanbase, based on players who loved the previous game. It’s made by Blizzard so will be prominently advertised all over the official sites.

And it will take the core group gameplay of WoW and distill it into its purest essence. A lot of WoW players aren’t really interested in socialising, or trying to earn gold, or immersing themselves into a virtual world.

All Blizzard have to do is let the online version of D3 have access to some kind of auction house, a way to mail gear to your alts, and more fully featured chat than Diablo II and that alone will fulful a lot of the player interaction options that many current WoW players want.

They want to group up easily and find some action when they feel like it. They want to be able to buy and sell on an auction house. And they may want some light chat inbetween. But a lot of people don’t care about exploring, don’t want the hassle of being tied to a guild, and don’t want deep interactions. It will be like all the fun casual gaming parts of WoW without any of the hassle. And if they are more in a mood to play solo, then it has a cracking solo mode too. Of course you can play the whole game solo, that’s what it is.

It may even be that the downloadable content model will let Blizzard offer the equivalent of raid content for Diablo III.

(Note: this assumes that it’s a good game, of course.)

Why D3 and not any of the other current games with online multiplayer options? Because it’s not a shooter. Because it has that massive built in fanbase. Because the concept of talent trees came from Diablo in the first place. Because of the loot. Because it’s dark fantasy.

And I would love to be a fly on the wall in Blizzard HQ as they try to figure out whether or not to give D3 the things it needs to succeed (ie. auction house, mail, etc) or whether doing so might threaten their cashcow.

Both Free Realms and Diablo III offer a (potentially) better version of some aspect of a virtual world or game where WoW falls down. That has to appeal to people. Heck, it appeals to me, and I love the whole idea of virtual worlds. I think they both stand to challenge WoW to decide exactly what it does have to offer to casual players.

I was thinking myself that it would be a bad thing if Ulduar turned out to be too hard. Because if you’re bored with Naxx and slamming your head against a wall in Ulduar, what else is there to do in endgame? It’s a consequence of pushing more of the population into raiding instead of providing more casual endgame activities that Blizzard itself is now in a Raid-or-Die loop with Warcraft. If players can’t raid, perhaps the game itself will die … slowly …

But there will never be a WoW-beater. And the reason is that many WoW players dont’ see themselves as gamers and certainly not MMO gamers. They are WoW players. It has become a hobby in itself. When they get bored, they won’t necessarily switch to another computer game at all.

What do you think? If you had the chance to switch to a game that just offered the core parts of WoW that you loved and none of the bits you dislike, would you go?