Being the big damn hero!

Mal: Well, look at this! Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?
Zoe: Big damn heroes, sir!
Mal: Ain’t we just?

There’s a great article at The Escapist about  tricks that designers use to make you feel heroic when you’re actually just piloting a bunch of pixels around. This isn’t just about immersion, drama, and well written stories. It’s about how a player can be made to feel as though they’ve just done something difficult and skilful under pressure, when it really didn’t matter what they did. It’s about how to make a cut scene feel interactive.

Is that what we want from games?

Imagine instead a game which monitors a player’s skill and sets up appropriate challenges. So the end boss is hard, but exactly how hard depends on the player’s skill up to that point. Two different players should find that the challenge was equally difficult for both of them. Or maybe the game has infinite levels of increasing difficulty and people just keep playing forever until they get to their limit point. Those games would both let players of different skill levels play them and have fun and feel a sense of achievement when they beat a challenge for the first time. And this is where MMO designers are experimenting with hard mode instances/ encounters.

The interactive cut-scene approach is cheating. It’s like giving daft achievements, the player gets a quick fix of ‘yay, I’m a hero!’ but without having learned anything new about playing the game.

Except that it isn’t really cheating at all. It’s using time honored dramatic techniques, honed by centuries of playwrights, artists, composers, and authors, to manipulate the player’s emotions. I don’t feel cheated when I go to see a great film, opera, or gig. Even though I’ve read a screenwriting book or two and know about the craft and the formulae that go on behind the scenes, I don’t feel manipulated when I watch a great film. I enjoy the hell out of them.

And the same goes for games that give me a good dramatic story. I was sad when Aeris died. I wanted to punch the air when I watched Wrathgate and hear Putress yell, “This is the hour of the forsaken!”.  Now those may have both happened in cut scenes, but I felt involved because I’d been an agent in events leading up to the cut. Designers need to use dramatic techniques to get players to care about the NPC and the world around them because otherwise we simply won’t.

I think Diablo 2 is a really fun game and liked the mad killing parts and constantly getting cool loot, but it was the storytelling and atmospherics that made it stand out as a setting as well as the gameplay. That’s the graphics, the music, the animations … everything that makes a computer game into a computer game.

There is a line between a good atmospheric world and a railroaded plot. But sometimes the railroaded, well crafted, manipulative plot is the memorable experience that the player wants.

Do we want to feel like big damned heroes?

I was thinking about this while playing CoH this morning. A superhero game should give a player lots of opportunities to feel like a hero. But sometimes feeling like a hero means ‘Only you can save the world’ and that’s not going to happen in an MMO. Because there are lots of other players, and they all want to be heroes and save the world too.

Then I was thinking about last night’s Naxx raid. Which was good fun,  and very social — not the tidiest raid we’ve ever run but I know I personally was playing well, and we killed lots of stuff.

I come to the obvious conclusion which is that I don’t really feel like a hero in WoW, except maybe the first time I do a particularly heroic quest. Or maybe when a fight goes bad and I pull something out of the bag and save a wipe. Or when the raid arrives at The Nexus and I get asked to tank the big dragon (tanking a big dragon will always make you feel a bit heroic).

And that perfectly illustrates  different ways in which players can feel heroic in games. Quests are cool and all, but in an MMO, they can’t replace player interaction for sheer levels of emotional investment.

I never feel as though only I can save the world in an MMO. But I may feel as though only I can save my friends.

12 thoughts on “Being the big damn hero!

  1. Actually I find these “save the world” or even “save the village” quests much more annoying than the “kill 10 wolves” type ones.

    It’s an MMO. In a single player game, I am somehow special as capable of things that the other (non-player) characters are not. In an MMO, I’m just another guy.

    The “I’m out of pelts, please take me 10 wolf hides” quests are not glorious, but at least not obvious lies. The NPC can need lot of hides, so why not ask everyone around to bring him 10.

    On the other hand when the NPC want me to save the world, greet me as a hero when returning, just to send 10 others to save the world again from the very same evil monster, right front of my eyes make me feel stupid.

    The solution could be a changing world MMO. If I save the world/village/missing grandson, than it is saved and no one else can take that quest. Some kind of dynamic quest generator would help.

    If a company can’t do that, stick to the “10 wolf pelts please”. I rather be an errand boy, than a guy who is called “hero” in the eye and laughed at the back.

    I can’t help thinking that the NPCs say:
    – I handled 250 world saving heroes today
    – I was rescued from the evil trolls 158 times today, I barely had time to respawn, the next guy was already camping the site
    – You complaining?! I’m the evil troll. I was ganked 1342 times today by bored players waiting for your respawn!
    – Yeah, weekend suck bigtime, at reset time they all go raid on their mains and leave us alone.
    – They may leave *you* alone world mobs, but for us, raid monsters the overtime just starts. Looted 158 times last week.

    The problem is not being manipulated. The whole MMO world is a simulation, therefore a fake. However, while a good movie is a good manipulation, WoW is like the movie where the medieval hero has wristwatch and the soundman’s leg is visible in the romantic scene making it absurd.

    • Haha, I love your last metaphor. And you’re right, the only way we can enjoy any kind of story from these games is to wilfully ignore all evidence that everyone else is running the same stories.

      Raiding is even worse, with killing the same bosses every week.

      Warhammer had quite an interesting take on the kill quests. They have kill collectors in each zone who will pay you a bounty for each monster (of whichever type they are collecting) you kill. There’s no quest to pick up. You just go talk to them when you are in town and they pay you for what you killed since you last talked to them.

      But they have regular quests too.

  2. I think that defeating some of the major raid bosses, that are lore-heavy, was pretty epic. Then again, I’ve read most all of the WoW books & played though Warcraft 3 – so I think I had more knowledge/respect for guys like Archimonde, Illidan, Kael, ect.

    It was like – zomg its Archimonde, the dude that was crushing people’s minds in the war of the ancients. And now he’s using his mental powers to make *me* want to bash my head on the wall.

    • Really interesting point, that some of the fights have more meaning if you know more about the background so that you can give them meaning.

      I think I was way more excited about killing Nefarian in vanilla WoW than I was about any TBC boss too, because of having seen him in UBRS and knowing that he was Onyxia’s brother. I think the WoW writers could do a way better job of giving us more of the raid lore sprinkled among other content.

      Fighting Arthas will be way epic (I hope) for the same reason. Even if I’d be sad in a way to beat him.

  3. There are some pretty epic quests in WoW. The Battle of Darrowshire quest chain is still probably the most awesome quest in any MMO I’ve done, Wrathgate included.

    Though I would say that the place Blizzard has the most lacking in terms of storytelling has got to be the raid instances. We’ll have to see if all this build up with Arthas is going to carry well into Icecrown Citidel.

    • I never did find people to do Darrowshire with, but it was a super storyline. I liked the Tirion Fordring one a lot too.

      And I really really hope Icecrown won’t be disappointing. I love that we can get excited about it though. Which I really am not about Ulduar (yeah titans yawn).

  4. Awesome topic – it cuts right to the heart of why someone wants to play a heroic fantasy MMO, and the dsign problem that arise from trying to write one.

    One thing that really detracts from a heroic quest chain or encounter is raiding. Back when I palyed WoW, I really didn’t feel all that mighty when 10 or 25 of us dragged a boss down like a swarm of army ants overrunning a praying mantis. Smaller groups give an individual a moment to stand out and show what they can do.

    City of Heroes was awesome about this at launch. You could solo missions, as they would scale to the relative strength of the individual or group. Task Forces never involved huge numbers of players. Of course, all of this was instanced as well, so you really were in your own pocket reality with no assistance from passers-by. I definitely miss playing my blaster, sometimes.

    • I think CoH has some fantastic ways to let people play together! I love how the instances scale to the number of people, and the sidekick/exemplar mechanic. I always found the game itself a bit dull but am having fun with my new character which is a blaster.

      I know what you mean about small groups also, I think it’s partly why the 10 man raids were so popular (as well as being easier to assemble). As the group gets bigger, you get relegated to your assigned role and yelled at if you step out of line (gets more regimented I think). In a smaller group, just like working in a small company, you have to think on your feet more and you can see what everyone else is doing.

  5. I’m gonna have to say soloing on my warrior right now has me feeling pretty fucking heroic.

    Quests are meh, but they’re just the bread. You are the ham, and your moves are the mayonnaise. And now I want a sandwich.

    But seriously, grabbing three quests to go into New Hearthglen (south of Venomspite), and going in there and just DESTROYING everything without even checking to see if I really *need* to or not, then surviving some mainy pull with 12 HP left over screams super hero to me.

    I missed my warrior. It’s good to be back, and hot damn (!) have they made some changes to prot.

  6. Pingback: AFK - April 12 « Bio Break

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