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?