Sunday, December 7, 2014

Can't We All Just Be Friends?

We all like a virtual dust-up. If we didn't we wouldn't be playing MMORPGs. They're all about the fighting, aren't they? Just about everything we ever do there involves combat at some point or other.
The majority of quests end in violence. Often begin with it, too, with plenty more liberally scattered along the way. Dungeoneering is home invasion on the grand scale. Raiding is violent revolution.

Then there's PvP: battlegrounds, realm vs realm, warfronts, world vs world, ganking, piracy, duelling, sovereignty - none of them amount to much more than a thin excuse for a ruck. You can gussie it up with a lot of talk about loyalty, pride and skill but really it's a bunch of kids trying to kick lumps out of each other in the park of a Saturday night because one lot looked at the other lot funny.

Crafting isn't much better.  Apparently innocuous activities like brewing and potion-making frequently involve the use of body parts ripped out of creatures (or people) who hadn't finished with them yet. Even picking up a few logs to make a chest of drawers generally involves killing half a dozen wolves and a goblin who had the temerity to think he was safe in his own part of the woods.

To quote The Slits - "There must be more to life"

I've never really had a problem with it. Well, how could I? It would be a bit like complaining tennis would be a fine game if it wasn't for all that knocking a ball across a net. Still, you can have too much of a good thing and despite what you might have heard not everything becomes a nail just because you're holding a hammer.

Of late I've taken to moaning about all the obligatory fighting that gets between me and GW2's Living Story narrative, where it does sometimes feel like trying to read a novel while the author challenges you to an arm-wrestling competition in the middle of every chapter. Hard to believe, I know, but sometimes yet another a fight really isn't synonymous with added value in an MMORPG and that doesn't only hold true for purely narrative content.

It was as I was exploring the excellent new "jumping puzzle" area added to the Silverwastes map in the last update that I realized that for once I wasn't being asked to fight anything. Nor even to avoid fighting anything. There just wasn't anything much there to be fought. It felt strangely liberating.

Clambering over those rocks, just exploring for the heck of it, made me recall a few other memorable explorations. There was that time in DAOC, when a bunch of us pushed all the way into Muspelheim not long after launch, before Mythic had found time to put any monsters in there. There were the hours I spent clambering around the rooftops in Felwithe; the days it took to find the way up to the Ironforge Airfield; all the many times I wandered across some unfinished dungeon or lair in Vanguard.

MMOs - they're all about the conversations you have, aren't they?

Thinking about it, some of my clearest, most lasting memories of nearly every MMO I've played consist of lengthy explorations in parts of the world where nothing actually lived, or indeed happened.  It isn't only exploring that goes better when things aren't trying to eat you either. I spent most of today sorting all the bags on eleven characters, cycling it all through two guild banks, getting it stacked and organized. That's one of my favorite ways to spend a Sunday. It's an experience that wouldn't be enhanced if I had to beat the banker around the head for thirty seconds every time I wanted to open another vault.

Then there's the gathering arts: foraging, mining, logging and all the rest. When I set out with my sickle in one hand and my basket in the other I instinctively search for the areas with the fewest creatures likely to chew on me. In EQ2, where gathering is a way of life, I used to know all the spots where you could just get on with filling your bags and forget about fighting for an hour or two.

Once you start to think about it there are plenty of activities in MMOs apart from exploring, gathering, crafting and listening to stories, that aren't obviously improved by close combat . All those shinies we love to collect, for example. The fun from those comes in searching for them, finding them and completing the collections, doesn't it? And what about achievements? Are the tick-boxes and titles you got for building snowmen or eating pies any less satisfying than the ones you got for killing a thousand foozles?

It's not the giving, its the receiving.

Then there's building and decorating, two in-game pastimes that have generally steered clear of combat in the past. The trend appears to be going the other way of late with plug-in home dungeons and do-it-yourself PvP arenas but at root homemaking remains primarily a non-combat option. As for the supposed bedrock of any game's longevity, socializing, it's often claimed that people continue to log in long after they've lost all interest in progressing their characters just so they can stand around in the safe zones chatting to their friends.

All of which makes me wonder if there would be any future for an MMORPG where combat was, at most, a minor background activity. What would be the commercial prospects for such a game? Would it attract any kind of audience? Would anyone pay to play something like that?

The history for non-combat MMOs isn't encouraging but there have been a few. A while back I wrote about The Endless Forest, arguably more of an art project than an MMO. Then there's Myst Online.  Both of those are still up and running but as community enterprises rather than commercial propositions.

Glitch, which I loathed, hoped to make money, launched, reverted to beta, then closed. The venerable "A Tale In The Desert" has done far better than that and does, I believe, run commercially to a degree although it's described in its indicia as "primarily self-funded". It can hardly be called mainstram though. The only self-identifying, openly commercial non-combat MMO I can recall was Seed. It wasn't a shining example; it closed down after just 149 days, making it possibly the shortest-lived MMO ever.

More to look at, less to kill? I dunno - when I go on holiday I always take a machete.

What all those examples have in common is that not one of them looks or plays much like a traditional MMO. Neither does the newest contender for the non-combat crown, Wander. I hope that one bucks the trend and does well. I'm all for diversity and variety. What I'd like to see one day, though, is something much closer to WoW, EQ2, LotRO, GW2 or any of the other several hundred roughly diku-mud-derived MMOs, only this time with much less focus on killing mobs or fighting other players.

Not a sandbox, where a non-combat role is one option among many so long as you do all the creative heavy lifting for yourself; there are a few of those and more due to come on-stream very soon. No, I'd like to see a themepark-style game with a plethora of professionally produced content provided and almost none of it combat.

Would it be feasible to provide sufficient new explorable areas, collections, achievements, tameable pets, crafting recipes, quests, events, storylines and all the rest to make it feel there was always enough to do without taking up 50% or more of the players' time by getting them to whittle health bars? Wouldn't that be prohibitively expensive?

Told you it would end in tears.

When you look at the incredible time and effort that goes into "balancing" combat classes for both PvE and PvP, a job that never, ever ends, and into the design and scripting of raids that are seen only by a small percentage of the playerbase, you'd have to think it's a possibility. When you consider the incredible work ANet's artists and map designers put in producing spectacles like the Bazaar of the Four Winds, The Durmand Priory Library or Glint's Lair, things they seem to be able to produce like shelled peas and which last about as long, you might decide the odds have improved.

Even if it was economically viable, though, would it work? Allowing that it was handled as well as the average moderately successful triple-A MMO? That's not a very high bar come to think of it. /wave Trion.

I'm not sure. Combat seems to be baked into the traditional themepark/diku MMO model. No matter how much fun you might be having decorating your nine-room mansion or sorting your crafting mats into ascending order by tier and tradeskill there always comes a point when you just want to get out there and kick some gnoll butt. Or maybe that's just me.

Still, I'd love to see someone try it someday.


  1. The answer is and will always be housing. Take EQ2 and multiply it by 10 and i'll spend more time there than out killing stuff.

    1. Housing is great. I love housing in MMOs. They should all have housing.

      That said, housing is still more sandbox than themepark. You do have to do most of the work yourself, even in dismal hook-based implementations like LotRO.

  2. This is where games like Landmark - build first, fight second, have some legs. Things is, I am a terrible voxel builder. I am an explorer though, but eventually someone writes a maps and takes away the wonder. Only one person can be first once.

    In single player RPGs I always play on the easiest level. I am there for the story not the fighting. Fighting typically bridges the story parts so I am good with that.

    Unfortunately MMOs are fighting, and there are no difficulty levels in MMOs (even when there are stories).

    Still.. even Jackson movies are a lot of travelling, discussions and connections with characters, and chase scenes spread out with gigantic battles. All of those are fun to watch (as long as you are not as worried about original content) and I bet they would be fun to play as well.

    Surely there could be more, and surely there will be. Someone just hasn't found the right formula yet.

    1. I was trying to work Landmark into the post but it distorts the picture too much. It's too unformed still to make an assessment of what it might look like when it's finished (if it ever is). They're just about to bring PvE combat to Landmark this month so I guess we'll find out soon enough how important a part fighting monsters is going to play there.

      Even if combat here turns out to be secondary, and I'm not sure we know that yet, my feeling is that it's going to end up being mainly a sandbox. I don't see it having the kind of developer-led, theme-park approach I was imagining, where you log in after a patch and they've added twenty new collections, a jumping puzzle and half a dozen (non-combat) quests.

  3. It's called Second Life.

    Which had its WoW-like moment of attention as the future of the internet, maybe 6-7 years ago, but seems to have settled down to a profitable, on-going concern (like most viable, non-WoW MMORPGs in fact).

    Considering the days of text can be instructive in this case.

    There were originally two streams of MMORPGs: The MUD's (Multi-User Dungeons) which had combat, and the MUSH's (backronymed to Multi-user Shared Hallucination), which had no combat baked in, but like Second Life, were highly scriptable, and given to Roleplay.

    MUDs dominated at that time, and still seem to loom largest in retrospect, but the secondary, non-combat stream has always been there.

    1. Second Life is a good example of exactly what I don't mean. Second Life is a lot of things: a virtual world, a sandbox, a platform, a primitive version of William Gibson's cyberspace even. What it isn't is a top-down, developer-led entertainment package aka a Themepark MMO.

      I haven't played (used might be a better word) Second Life but my understanding is that nothing much happens unless players (users) make it happen. I want to be entertained not to be given the tools to entertain myself. What I'm imagining is something almost exactly like WoW, preferably using a traditional post-Tolkein fantasy setting, only with 90% less combat and all the development money and developer time that frees up plowed into the same non-combat activities we often dismiss as "fluff".

      I didn't think of it when I wrote the post but actually the nearest thing I have seen and played to what I'm looking for was probably Free Realms. Still had way too much combat though.

    2. It's been 30 years since the first commercial MMO came online (MUD1). In that time, through text and graphics, if there had been a market for what you describe it would have been made.

      I suppose the question then is why don't adults in general want that? (Because it seems that kids might, as Free Realms, and the popular Habbo Hotel show).


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