Monday, 17 June 2013

What's So Wild About WildStar?

Syl is unconvinced by WildStar's Explorer Path. Me too. I'm not surprised by it, though.

"Explorer" in current MMO terms mostly means "Achiever with a Map". In fact, as far as most MMOs from the last half-decade or more are concerned, Dr. Bartle could have saved himself a lot of time and trouble. He might as well have defined just the one profile, The Achiever, and left it at that. In MMO development terms every other human behavior is merely a sub-set of Achieving.

He had a great name, too. Redacted.
Which really makes quite a lot of sense, commercially. Development time is finite, Achievements are easy to produce and The Achiever is arguably the only one of the profiles that needs MMO content crafted specifically for it. Well, okay, Killers, but if you take the killing out of the MMO you end up with Tales of the Desert and no AAA developer wants to go there.

If Killing is catered for by the default gameplay, Socializing is hardwired into the players themselves. Even if you literally remove the chat interface entirely, something that again no mainstream developer is going to do, Socializers will find each other and hang out. I offer you The Endless Forest. In a mainstream MMO socializing is non-stop. That's why you have to keep switching the open chat channels off. The participants may not be well-socialized but that's hardly the point.

I'm the tall one at the back trying not to look conspicuous.
And Explorers? They're the people climbing up buildings, diving beneath the waves, rummaging around in ruins. All on their own, minding no-one else's business. At most they might take a few screenshots. Explorers define themselves. They don't need anyone else's validation. They do require something to explore, but as with the killing, if we're talking about MMOs that have the least pretension to be any kind of Virtual World, explorability is a given.

If people like her have them, how elite can they be?
That leaves Achievers. It's possible to self-start an achievement, of course. Set your own goals, meet them, sit back satisfied. Achievers used to do that. Some still do. But as the wiki has it, "One of the appeals of online gaming to the Achiever is that he or she has the opportunity to show off their skill and hold elite status to others". An achievement that's only known to the achiever is scarcely an achievement at all.

In the olden days that elite status was marked out by the level number alongside your name or the Short Sword of Ykesha in your pixel hand. Nowadays everyone's Max Level in days, even hours, prancing around the bank draped in particle effects from horns to tail-tip. How is anyone supposed to know how special you are?


Is that good? I have no idea.
By checking your Achievements, of course! Every MMO has to have them, neatly tabulated and codified. They have names and ranks for handy comparison. Now you know where you stand. And in GW2 they even add up to a single number than can be called upon to verify your credentials in a wide range of circumstances. It's like a Gear Score only you can wave it at people who don't even do dungeons!

Hey Dr. Bartle! You forgot The Slacker !
Like Syl I'm nowhere near map completion on my most achieved character in GW2. Moreover, I have thousands of hours played on ten characters, seven of them at max level, and most of them have map completion somewhere down in the 20-30% range. Have I not been exploring?

Of course I have! I've been in all kinds of fascinating, strange, wonderful, peculiar places. GW2 is stuffed to bursting point with them but only a fraction are marked on the map. Such Map Completion as I've acquired has largely been achieved (there's that word again) by happenstance, serendipity and good old-fashioned nosiness. Sometimes there just happens to be one of those markers on the map in the place I spotted that looked intriguing. I can't help that. It's Map Completion by mistake.

The Game Developer's Mantra
So I'm all about the exploring but no matter how they big it up, the more Carbine reveal about Exploring in WildStar, the less interested I become. Unlike Syl I'm far from being "so over the Warcraft cartoon aesthetic", probably because I only played WoW for a short while and anyway, cartoons, what's not to like? That's not a problem. All the endless codifying of how we're supposed to behave, that's the problem. WildStar is shaping up to become the most dirigist MMO of all time, or that's how it appears from the way Carbine are promoting it.

Does it matter? In the end we play the way we want to play, don't we? I think so. The trouble with games developers is they're almost always gamers too. They play the way they want to play as well but they also get to set the parameters for the rest of us. Anyone want to take a guess how much of an Achiever you need to be to make it in Game Development?

7 comments:

  1. I work in video game development, but largely as an artist. I dabble in design at work... but I do a lot at home and a lot of "back seat driving". I've decided that there are way too many control freaks in game design; people who would be better suited to be Hollywood flunkies making avant garde movies. Some of it is understandable, in that game design does have to provide rules for players and systems to operate within... but far too many designers have the impulse to "play the player" rather than let players play. It's as though they don't trust the players.

    When I design, I design specifically with a mind to making a toolset for players to go and do wacky things with. I *want* them to go do things I didn't anticipate. I have to try to make sure that griefing isn't easy, but once the game is in the players' hands, I think that it needs to put them in control.

    ...to be fair, that is a harder sell in the MMO world, where player autonomy inevitably turns to the dark side, but still, the trend of tightly scripted and controlled "games" runs contrary to why I play games in the first place.

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    1. I think of artists, coders and designers as three completely disparate groups. I've never worked as a programmer but I did train to be one way back in the mid-80s and I socialized with a bunch of them. I also knew (still do) a whole load of artists and the contrast couldn't be greater.

      Players, on the other hand, gleefully exploit every possible loophole they can get their mousefingers on and chew through all content twent times faster than expected. The thing that always amazes me is how the Devs seem so surprised about it even though they must have seen it happen countless times when they were playing other games.

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  2. You know...the bizarre thing is nobody actually cares for those numbers anymore. people have 2000, 5000, 7000 achievement pts in gw2 - who checks that sort of thing? who cares? in a way even achievers are cheated if that's all there is to their playstyle. i wonder when enough players realize that there's no satisfying element anymore in that numbers game.

    but you're right of course - achiever in and out of itself isn't an archetype like the other three which are all built around concrete playstyles. achieving is something that can apply anywhere as soon as we make a game out of it and decide what's important or how it's done 'correctly'. you can force that dynamic on any of the other three archetypes and that's what they're doing. why? because it's easier to pull of short term.

    that's the one thing keeping me hopeful for the sandbox promises of EQN or current 'kickstarter mmos'. sandbox means an awful lot of things to different people but to me at least there's the potential to end this culture of over-achieving. you can't win a sandbox - you can't be the best - you can't tell others what's the optimal way of playing - you can't force competition on anyone. sandboxes are about self-created content, goals and challenges and they create room for everybody. IF they do it correctly...I'd love to see it.

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    1. I think we had this discussion before, but is a game with no clear cut narrative/goals really viable in today's goal-oriented society?

      Relating it to literature, but is there literature that details a fictional world and its workings WITHOUT a narrative that preceded it? If it does, I highly doubt it's very popular. And I think that'll be the biggest obstacle to any true sandbox game: its economic viability. Building games "correct" takes money.

      I'd love to see a game like it as well (The kind of person who reads up on Klingon culture without having watched any Star Trek episodes...) but I fear we are a very small minority.

      -Ursan

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    2. Weirdest thing I saw today

      I have no idea what's going on but I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

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    3. Grr - I can put the links in Comments but I still can't figure out how to change the color! Just highlight it!

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  3. Forgot to add:
    I actually think there's a way one could implement something like an 'explorer class' with special, interesting skills (rather than preconceived events in the world) in an MMO; I've been thinking about how I was gonna do that...and I might just knock myself out in a followup post :)

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