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.

17 thoughts on “Do people still dream of a virtual world?

  1. That’s a very interesting question and I am not sure about my answer to it. What inspired me to play MMOs was a love for SciFi/Fantasy/History in movies and novels. These are always stories, while MMOs allow you to make your own story in a way. But MMOs get more and more “storified”, just think about SWTOR and GW2 has besides the “event” system also a “personal story” that might not be more than a few choices which are probably already narrowed down by your class, gender, race choice.

    Gordon from WeFlySpitfires recently asked why the dungeon/raid “endgame”, the levelling world and PvP should not be separated. Rift is trying to make the worlds more attractive through the world/zone wide Rift invasions.

    Not a MMO, but scratching my initial reason to play MMOs is Dragon Age. I feel in this game the game became more a vehicle for the story. Which made me wonder if I should not rather read a novel instead of playing? It’s an interesting mix for sure.

    With more and more MMOs going F2P, I think I will focus on reading and watching fantasy/scifi/history stuff and every once in a while return to playing in a “virtual world”, probably with a heavy focus on IP (hello LOTRO and STO. SWTOR is unfortunately set in that oh so wrong pre-Empire period). The contemporary endgame of gear acquisition and puzzle raiding/dungeons is something I will skip entirely, which unfortunately means I will somewhat lose contact to the community which more than ever focused on organizing teams for said endgame.

  2. You’ve given me a very important insight with this brief post Spinks, the missing piece in my current puzzle(-ment), thanks! I’ve played classic games and MMOs for too long, so long that I didn’t realize how characteristics of the first could one day affect the other in such ways as to spoil things for myself. MMOs aren’t “games” or at least they used not to be.
    Anyway, I will post in more detail on this tomorrow. 🙂

  3. I think the flaw with MMOs as a medium for imaginative virtual worlds is that they’re full of other people. And not just any people – gamers, many of whom have come from a FPS background and see other people as targets.

    That makes it hard in practice for these games to work out the way we see them in our heads.

    In your Dune, do a bunch of Harkonnen thugs camp you at the graveyard and teabag you? And if they do (perhaps not out of character for Harkonnens) how do you feel about the noble Atreides behaving the same way?

    • In my Dune, it’s more of a roleplaying game than an action/ shooter. I’d also be part of a faction so doing anything to me would have consequences, plus they’d need a reason. (and if I have given them an actual reason, then I probably deserve it.)

      I think the reason it’s such a rich RP setting is the huge number of factions, plus the economic background, plus the potential for all those noble houses going at it.

      It’s a far better setting for an MMO than Mass Effect for example, because while the ME universe is very cool, can anyone really imagine playing anything except Shepherd or some similar hero? We just see so little of how normal people live.

      • How would you handle the mechanics of “they’d need a reason”?

        I remember in WoW on PvE servers Rogues would stealth up to questers using AOE and get themselves hit so the system would flag the quester and allow them to gank.

        I think it’s very hard to solve in practice. (Barring hand moderation).

      • @Stabs – I’ve never been a fan of the “pvp flag” system for that exact reason – it’s always going to be gamed by people trying to either find a way to force others into pvp against their will or to grief others while under pvp immunity. The best solution was the DAOC one – each faction has its own PvE area, that the other players cannot enter, and the frontiers which everyone knows are a pvp free fire zone and you enter at your own risk. The downside for the developer, of course, is that you have to build separate PvE content for each faction – which is probably why the model hasn’t caught on.

        For Spinks’ Dune setting I would make the wilds of Arrakis, away from civilisation, into PvP territory. Go out there and you know that you are at risk from enemy players, sandworms and the NPC Fremen if you haven’t built up enough faction with them. Everywhere else is under the steely gaze of Imperial Sardaukar who keep the Padishah Emperor’s peace, meaning that the only PvP allowed is duelling or formally-declared kanly between Great Houses (guilds). Screwing other players over politically is of course always allowed (need some sort of way of affecting other people’s NPC faction standing via an “intrigue system”).

        Right, now I need somebody to go and make this game so I can play it…

      • In WoW, your AE spells won’t hit players flagged for PvP if you’re not PvP flagged yourself.

        What you can do is flag yourself and stand on top of a non-hostile quest giver and hope that someone clicks on you instead of the NPC and thus attacks you.

      • I’m quite sure AOE never flagged you for PvP.

        And a quick google search found some mentioning from 2005 that it doesn’t flag you. If it ever did, it’s fixed for a long time. 🙂

  4. I still *play* WoW for the world. I just go pop into Flight Form and explore. There’s a world there that was used at one point. Yes, the game design has sadly gone to the dark “gamification” side, but at least the world is still there.

    I do wish there were a stronger focus on virtual worlds in the genre overall. I’ve written about that ever since I started blogging a few years ago. I’m not optimistic about it happening, though.

    • Sadly the “world” part of WoW has always been there to serve the game; it’s just a convenient backdrop and prop and nothing more really.

      Even as a pure game, WoW fails for a majority of the experience. A pet chimpanzee could easily level to 85. There is no skill involved whatsoever. The real game happens during the raiding phase of WoW, that’s where the hardcore Fires of Heaven forum goers dwell to show off their epeens.

      WoW is all about being rewarded for just showing up. It is neither game nor world. It’s more of an experience and takes a bit more involvement than watching television.

  5. Your extended blogroll has spent a lot of time over the last year or two on the decline of virtual worlds, railing against “theme parks”, praising the sandbox, praising Bartle and MUDs, and so forth and so on.

    But hardly ever has anyone mentioned places like Second Life, Entropia, or IMVU, where all that stuff lives on. I wonder why that is.

    Now, I don’t have terribly much to say about those and other present-day virtual worlds, either. But I’m not one of the ones who think there’s anything wrong with WoW.

    • You’re right, and this is one of the reasons I was asking the question because I think people talk about wanting virtual worlds but I wonder whether they’d want to play them. Having said that, the reason I never got into Second Life was because it was just too much of a pain in the neck – I got as far as logging in and it was immediately confusing. My old MUSHes were a lot easier than that.

      So maybe there just haven’t been any virtual worlds that were accessible enough yet …

  6. One of the reasons I loved SWG was because it really was a virtual world when it started. There were no quests really other than the themeparks for the factions and a couple of places and those were really isolated around giving you rep to get into places to meet the characters from the movies. PvP could be anywhere, anytime if you spoke to your faction recruiter and turned it on, but the rest of the planets were open. Player cities were great and the RP community the best I’ve ever been a part of, OK SOE screwed up the game as we all know but I have so many fond memories of “living” Star Wars and would really love to have that again.

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