post up at Kill Ten Rats concerning the desirability, necessity even, of player interaction in MMORPGs. He references something Turbine producer Jeffrey Steefel once said that rings very true to me:
"Players don’t want to ‘play’ with thousands of people, they want to play
with a small group in the presence of thousands. It’s like an
old-school arcade. You don’t want to play pinball with 10 people, but
playing by yourself in a crowded room is a lot more fun."
I hadn't happened upon this quote before but I've expressed those sentiments countless times. This, often, has been the experience I've looked for, playing MMORPGs. Over the past decade-and-a-half and more it's been an experience that I've, sometimes, been lucky enough to find.
The analogy I've tended to use is of reading at a pavement cafe; one of the finest, most complex experiences to which a human being can aspire. It's one of those magical hinterlands, where awareness fades towards the ineffable as inner and outer worlds move tectonically against and through each other, building up layers of sensual, intellectual, imaginative and creative involvement, hallucinatory in their intensity.
The play of sun and wind on the skin, the ambient sounds of the street, snatches of conversation with their flurried undertows of emotion, rubbing up against and abrading the mind's firm determination to recreate the imagined world of characters, themselves acting out the creative imaginings of an author both absent and present: at the best of times, under these assaults, my sense of self breaks down and for a glorious moment I lose myself in who I am.
Reading alone at home can be deeply moving, intense, absorbing, memorable, life-affirming, all of those things readers so often claim for books, but it remains deeply solipsistic. It can't begin match the humanity of reading in the presence of others. Similarly, playing video games alone sacrifices the outer for the inner, gains focus at the expense of scope.
I still read alone but playing MMOs broke offline games for me. Maybe forever.
Looking back, playing video games alone seems like an aberration, anyway. Gaming has always been a social activity. My first time was in a pub and for a few years that's what gaming meant - drinking, talking, laughing, playing, all together.
Playing Space Invaders, Breakout, Frogger, Galaxians and the rest, it was as much about being with people as pixels. More. Even in the home that was understood. The Atari 2600 I owned in the early 1980s came with two joysticks. The increasingly sophisticated consoles of succeeding generations found their place in the communal, shared, family rooms as much or more than they did hidden away in bedrooms or studies.
The migration of digital entertainment to the internet attenuated, stratified and confused the simplicity of that shared experience, though it continued and continues. So many anecdotal nostalgies of days and nights spent playing Everquest or World of Warcraft stem not only the distant togetherness of raiding with guilds made up of members from all around the world but from the intimacy of sharing a dorm room or a bedroom with another addict.
It's hard to disentangle the emotions and the memories. Did we love the games because of the friends we made in them or make the friends we did because we loved the games? Was life better before Trammel, before PoP, before the NGE, before Dungeon Finder, because the games were better then, the interactions closer, more meaningful, more real? Or was it just because we were younger, less worn-down with responsibility or failure or ennui or cynicism?
Did we talk to strangers as we waited for spawns at the Splitpaw spires or between pulls in The Deadmines because the pace was slower and we had more time or was it because our minds were more open, then, to new experiences? At the turn of the Millennium, for many of us, being online, not just talking to someone in Sao Paulo, Seattle or Singapore but seeing his avatar moving, acting in real-time there in front of us on the screen, in our own house, how could we not respond to that? It wasn't merely magical; it was actual, real magic.
And now it's not. Everyone does it. Without thinking. There's nothing magical about the internet any more. It's in your pocket, in your car, in your office, in the air, everywhere. There's nothing amazing any more in joining with dozens of people of all ages and races and genders and religions separated by thousands of miles and an infinity of experiences, coming together to imagine killing a giant dragon or a destroying a titanic spacecraft. Happens all the time.
The experience of playing alone together in MMORPGs always lacked the physical, sensual layers that can make reading a novel at the table of a pavement cafe so overwhelming but for a while it had instead a vast and mesmerizing sense of wonder that worked as well in the annihilation of the self. That's gone and it's not coming back.
What's left? With what can we replace that which we have lost? Ravious, pushed out of his comfort zone by connections and friendships, finds a faint echo in the unfamiliar experience of rolling a character on an RP-PvP world in WoW. After a sequence of unexceptional, predictable encounters he says:
"None of that would have happened if I had not been on a PvP server.
Except for my one foray into the dungeon finder, I would have had
virtually zero interaction with other players. There would have been no
story for me to tell except “I did the quests in three zones, and it was
what you would expect.”
Of course it's true that none of that would have happened. But something would. Whether he'd have had a story to tell us about it would depend entirely on how good a storyteller he is. A good storyteller can keep an audience spellbound with a description of a single character in an empty room. The tale is in the telling, always.
The last half-decade and more of MMO history is characterized by developers' attempts to mechanize human interaction in MMOs, to codify and commodify it. From Warhammer's Public Quests through Rift's eponymous planar incursions to GW2's Dynamic Events, from Dungeon Finder through Instant Adventures to LFR, they seek to find that magic, bottle it and sell it back. It can't be done.
Here's what happened. We got older. We lost patience. We gave up. A whisper from a stranger, new to the game, new to the world, lost and looking for someone, anyone, to help, ceased to seem like a chance to show off our experience and expertise. After fifty or a hundred times, who wants to answer the same old questions? Isn't it obvious? Go read the wiki or just google it ffs! You must know how to do that - you're playing this game on the frickin' internet, aren't you?!
I used to abandon plans just because I saw someone having a tough time. They wouldn't even need to be asking for help. I knew things and I wanted to share. I had a Chipped Bone Rod and I knew how to use it and what's more I knew where to take you so you could buy one too. I knew how to get to the sewers under Qeynos and I knew how to get out the other side. I knew barbarians couldn't see in the dark, while my half-elf had infravision, and even though I'd only just met you I trusted you to give me back my Greater Lightstone at the end of the tunnel to Blackburrow because otherwise what were you going to do? Stay in Everfrost the rest of your life?
That was when we were all living a shared imaginary life in a shared imaginary world. Before we all started playing games. How long did that last, really? That it took years to wind down to an ending is maybe the most amazing thing of all.
And we miss it so much. Perhaps that's why we chase every new game almost before it appears, hoping we'll catch the unicorn by the tail and swing back astride before it vanishes around the corner, yet again. All we get are a few strands of silver that quickly lose their shine or, worse, a thumping kick, a humiliating stumble, a painful fall.
So, I don't hold out hope that imposed PvP rulesets or autonomic grouping systems or any clever, mechanical intervention can bring back the wonder. Our friends lists won't refill with all those people with whom we shared formative or traumatic or hysterical moments, one night, one session, out of the blue. The MMO experience has moved on. It's no longer about wonder and awe and strangeness, just dailies and achievements and gear.
And that's okay. Those aren't bad things. Just not the same. Nothing stays new forever. Let it go. Love it for what it is, not what it was or what you wish it would be. Then maybe, just maybe, if we remember once in a while to answer that question in map chat or send a tell, a little of the magic might flicker on again.
At the pinball table or the pavement cafe, when someone asks you for a light for a cigarette, you don't always have to tell them you don't smoke. Maybe you could even carry matches, just in case.