Saturday, January 26, 2013

One More Time, With Feeling

Keen has an interesting post up about repetitive tasks in MMOs, wondering why they are fun in one game but not in another. He has some good suggestions why this might be the case for him but me, I struggle to think of any MMO in which repetitive actions aren't fun.

MMOs are built on repetition. As pastimes designed to be open-ended and unfinishable, they have to be. SynCaine, with his enviable flair for the Naming of Things, has taken to describing certain MMOs as "Play-to-Finish" but I remain to be convinced that any such thing exists. "Play-until-Bored", sure, but that's a different issue and one that says more about the player than the game.

Am I playing an MMO or reading Raymond Carver?
Adding finite, narrative-driven structure to MMOs was last year's Big Idea and it certainly helped to create an impression that games like SW:TOR, The Secret World and even Guild Wars 2 have a  beginning, a middle and an end. They don't, though. The stories devs  shoehorn into them do, but beyond those arbitrary, linear paths the same kind of worlds open up within those games as in every other MMO. (Well, I shouldn't make presumptions about SW:TOR. Still haven't played it, still not likely to, but I guess it's true even there in the Home of the Fourth Pillar).

That's not to say that MMOs shouldn't have stories, nor that narrative is a total dead-end. After all, it's just another form of developer-created content. As SoE's John Smedley has become so fond of telling us recently, user-generated content is the future. It just isn't economical to produce new, discrete, unique dev-crafted content at high-enough speed and in sufficient volume to stay ahead of even the average player's ability to consume it.

Remind me, what was in this corner last month?
About the only producer attempting the trick in the last few years has been Trion with Rift and while they've received praise for the efforts they've made they certainly haven't made such a success of things that anyone's rushing to emulate their business model. Anyway, Rift's fast-flowing content stream itself is built on repetition. The frequent events bear a marked similarity one to another. There's a very distinctive pattern, format and flavor to them that hints of the cookie-cutter. The sprinkles and spices they add to each new batch do a good job of disguising the familiar crunch but after a while even different-colored sprinkles begin to look like just what they are - more sprinkles.

Goodbye flophouse, hello penthouse!
"Everybody is content for everyone else" is Smedley's new line, and that's fine as far as it goes. I've been playing a lot of World vs World in GW2 these last few weeks and there surely wouldn't be much content there without all the other players lining up to kill me and /dance on my corpse. Other players aren't reliable though. Sometimes too many turn up, other times not enough.

For truly reliable user-generated content you can't beat resource nodes and what you make with them. As I write this I have DCUO patching in the background. It's a huge download because I last logged in the best part of a year ago. What's brought me to update it today is the upcoming "Home Turf" DLC that adds super-hero housing to the game. Forget fisticuffs - let's decorate!  Oh heck, why not do both?  Let's build houses and then fight in them. Just mind that lamp!

Watch it feathers, you're next.
Repetition and user generated content aren't the same thing but they sit closely beside each other. In a complete system you might source all your raw materials through time-consuming gathering, take ages learning the skills to craft them into components and longer still designing and building. In the end there'd be a fresh resource in the world, created by you, usable by others. Then you start again and so the wheel turns.

What the two concepts have in common, and what makes them both key to the long-term health of a true MMO, is self-determination. There's a qualitative difference between chopping at an imaginary tree for an hour because you want to make something from the logs and spending an hour getting logs to give to an NPC because he needs them for some project of his own.

Another 500 guards should do it...
It's much more palatable to spend a few hours slaughtering orcs so that the guards at the gate of a city nearby will only sneer as you sidle past, rather than charge out with halberds raised, than it is to run errands day after day after day after day (and only once every day, mind you) to collect enough tokens from the very NPC sending you out to work just so you can turn around and spend your wages in his company store. One is private enterprise, the other is wage-slavery.

Rabbits? They're just rats with good PR.
I learned to how to "play" MMOs from Everquest. It might not have been the full-on sandbox experience Smed is promising (threatening?) to bring us with EQNext but the fundamentals were all in place even then. "Here's a stained shirt and a blunt sword - go find your fortune". As I step out into each brave new virtual world it's just another step on that same journey. Exploring, discovering, building, creating, what matters is that I'm the one making the choices and (within the terms of the EULA at least) I'm the one setting the rules.

So, if I want to spend six hours logging or six days decorating, I will. And if I kill ten rats it's because I want ten rats dead and that's no-one's business but me and the rats.


  1. Well, you've hit upon the sandbox then. A sandbox game with intrinsic, not extrinsic rewards allows you to play because you want to (and not just to get the next shiny armor).

    And you've hit upon a couple of solutions to the impossible story factory:
    1) Go sandbox, imply the story from what is happening. This is like EVE Online, where you control your "Story" that is happening, but the stories that emerge look more like news stories than deep narrative.
    2) User-generated stories. Unreliable (as you mention), a few gems hidden among a heap of banal stories (even if the mechanics in place to create your own stories are brilliant)
    3) Computer-generated stories. So far, boring and exceedingly repetitive.

    I actually have a lot of hope for Procedrually generated stories, or what I call the Artifical Intelligence Dungeon Master. Still working out the kinks, but I'm betting you it's possible to push the bar for computer-made story quality far beyond the low standard they have now (especially under the watchful eye of a team of creative human narrators).

    But hey, the wave of the future is user-generated sandbox, as Smedley says. Perhaps the wave after that wave will be AI-generated sandbox.

    1. All leisure activities sit somewhere on a curve from observation to participation. Computer games in general are already very far along the curve towards participation, requiring much more active involvement than many other leisure options. Even the most trivial video game requires a much greater level of active, physical involvement than watching TV or listening to music, although not necessarily a greater intellectual or emotional involvement.

      Even pure themepark MMOs must be near the top of the scale for active involvement. Whether there's really anything you could call a true mass market for the next step up from that, the full-on sandbox, remains to be seen. My feeling is that full-on sandbox gameplay, Wurm Online style, attracts very much the same personality type that builds model railway layouts. Then again, The Sims...


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