Tuesday, 29 November 2016

A Little Something for Us Tempunauts

Lewis Carroll's Red Queen would have loved MMORPGs. So would Douglas Adams. It's a wonder there's not a Milliways franchise in every spaceport from EVE to SW:ToR. If you can't believe six impossible things before breakfast you might as well not bother logging in.

My personal favorite has always been the universal genre trope of swimming in plate armor but I could probably come up with a Top 100 Cognitive Dissonance Moments without pausing for breath. Animal corpses that open to reveal weapons and armor, characters who are always "hungry" and "thirsty" yet never run out of "endurance", the way every simple shopkeeper in any tiny hamlet can come up with the coin to buy gems that would bankrupt a Czar...

Of all the unlikely, illogical and downright unbelievable shortcuts, compromises and simple design flaws that make up the fundamental mechanics of every MMO, however, perhaps the hardest to reconcile, let alone ignore, is temporal paradox. Every MMORPG launches with something that's at least intended to represent a coherent chronology but the illusion starts to break down within minutes of the servers coming online.

Schrödinger's Lion: it both is and is not destroyed.

At the absolute bedrock level there's the Multiplayer problem. If the game has ten thousand players then all ten thousand of them need to be able to do all the things a minimum of one time each. Then do it again for every new character they create. Then all the new players coming along behind them need to be able to do it all over again until the game closes down.

If Widow Jenkins needs ten rats killed in the cellar once she needs ten rats killed ten thousand times. If she happens to live in a popular part of the virtual world, a starting area for example, her cellar will fill with Adventurers, yawning and stretching as they run through their idling animations, arguing, joking or accusing each other of kill-stealing as they wait for the next rat to return from its brief trip to the rat after-life, or wherever it is mobs go until they respawn.

Insurmountable problems with the passage of time come baked into the structure of multiplayer virtual worlds as inseparably and essentially as sugar is baked into the structure of a cake. This is why instances were invented along with that awkward compromise, phasing. It's all in a futile attempt to conceal the unpalatable truth that none of this is "real"; not for any value of real you care to assign.

Pied à terre in Qeynos Hills. In need of some updating.
If there are fissures and fractures in the illusion from the moment the game launches they are as nothing compared to the chasms and gorges that open up the moment the updates begin. Few, if any, MMO producers have been willing to take up the tracks behind them as the content train rolls down the track, so everything that ever happened just goes on happening. Forever.

The first time I can remember noticing this was with something surprisingly trivial. When the long-running "Rude Individuals" storyline began in EverQuest a whole lot of small huts appeared overnight in Qeynos Hills. When the forces of Bertoxxolous were finally routed I noticed that no-one had thought to remove the huts. They never did. They're still there now, a decade and a half later.

At the other extreme stands the increasingly awkward situation in which GW2 now finds itself. The entire game rests on an all-pervasive narrative concerning the ever-growing threat posed by a handful of awakening dragons. When the game began all of these dragons were alive. Four years and one expansion later two of them are dead. As I write the storyline is winding towards the expected demise of two more.

When Jormag is dead will The Sons of Svanir fade away? Not as long as they still drop loot, I bet.

These dragons may be dead but they won't lie down. They can't. Not only are their fates entwined with every character's "Personal Story" but the dangers and problems they present form the background, center and foreground of most, if not all, the open-world maps in the game.

Mordremoth and Zhaitan may no longer live to spread their malign influence across the world but no-one seems to have told their minions, who carry out their orders as though the dawn of a new draconic age is still just over the horizon. Where you would expect clean-up operations to have begun and normality, if not to have been restored, then at least to show signs of returning, absolutely nothing at all has changed.

It can't, of course. For that to happen wouldn't just mean whole maps being revamped, entire zone-wide sequences of Dynamic Events re-written, new art assets created and voice-overs recorded. It would mean change so sweeping that ANet might more reasonably start over with GW3.

The crowds have gone but the anomaly lingers on.

A map clean could conceivably happen, albeit at great expense. WoW, after all, attempted something along those lines with the Cataclysm expansion. Merely bringing the open world maps in line with the ongoing narrative, though, would merely move the problem to a new starting point. Moreover, even if it were made an ongoing process, it would still only address the symptoms. The underlying malaise runs far deeper and any cure would be worse than the disease.

For one thing it would require unpicking and re-writing the Personal Story and that would be a step too far. Not only does the Personal Story underpin the creation of every player character but many new players cleave towards that story as an anchor in what some seem to find an unfamiliar, chaotic world. Without a formal quest-driven structure, the Personal Story offers a lifeline for tentative visitors from more traditional MMOs. Somewhere, something has to stay the same or all points of reference lose meaning.

These kinds of tectonic disparities fracture every MMO I've ever played and the irony is that the more successful the game is, the longer it persists, the less convincing it becomes as a "world". GW2 right now offers perhaps the most outrageous example of utter disregard for chronological congruity. For an MMO that has yet to see its second expansion the degree to which the parts no longer make up a whole is astounding.

It can only be with conscious irony that someone at ArenaNet decided to create a category of Achievements called "Current Events". As if the myriad conflicting legacies of three Living Stories, an expansion and any number of one-off special events wasn't enough, a few months back the developers began a series of sidebar narratives, ostensibly to fill out the gaps between major updates and give impatient players something to do with their hands.

You might have expected each of these to last only until the next appeared. Calling them "Current Events" would lead you towards such an expectation, but no. Once current, always current it seems. All are still with us.

It was only last week when I read the proof of a yet-unpublished novel whose entire theme, structure and narrative is an exposition on time travel that the penny finally dropped. Every MMO is a time travel simulator and we aren't just Adventurers but Time Travelers too.

Self-evidently, few if any of the laws of physics as we understand them pertain to the imaginary worlds in which we spend our hours. Even if the setting is supposedly contemporary, with no magical or futuristic or fantastical accoutrements at all, there's no MMO that attempts to replicate reality with anything deeper than a veneer of accuracy.

If gravity, inertia, momentum, conservation of energy and all the rest are malleable, why then should time be the exception? What's more, if time and space are indeed a continuum and everything happens at once, all the time, forever, only separated into discrete portions by our human perceptions, then MMO time is simply raw time, unprocessed.

The Pale Tree. Not entirely up to date with the news.
Human consciousness evolved to filter time so I guess it's not so surprising that we, most of us at least, seem to find little difficulty tripping through our virtual worlds without giving much regard to the anachronisms and paradoxes that surround us. In this respect the gamer's sense of time is infinitely adaptable, or so it seems.

Far more so, certainly, than the gamer's tolerance for having his or her own past experiences altered by proxy. Blizzard's attempt with Cataclysm to tidy up behind them as they moved on was not well-received. It's a move they haven't chosen to repeat and other companies haven't chosen to copy.

As I pass through the timestorm that is Tyria four years on I do sometimes wonder just how long things can continue this way. Then I consider the alternatives, check my chronometer and carry on.

6 comments:

  1. Pretty much every MMO has the issues you describe. Cataclysm refreshed a lot of it in WOW and did a pretty good job in most zones. The problem for me as a long term player was that it broke the world and my connection to it. I've been a subscriber constantly but my attachment to Azeroth has diminished in large part due to the Cataclysm changes.

    One of Crowfall's main selling points is an attempt to avoid this time issue. The campaign worlds are short term and destructible. Players will make persistent changes that last for the lifetime of the particular campaign (weeks to months for most) but then the world is destroyed and our immortal characters (Crows) move on to another campaign. We have long term continuity in the "Eternal Kingdoms" which can be either large scale personal housing for individuals, or grand shared persistent worlds for hundreds of players at once. It was this idea that had me spend up big in the kickstarter - I've paid for multiple years of "subscription" so I sure hope it works out!

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    1. I have warmed to Crowfall somewhat although it still doesn't really appeal to me. I do agree that the developers are among the handful of teams working in the genre who are openly trying to address these issues. I hope it turns out to be a success because if it does it will be copied and, while I'm not excited by Crowfall's setting or competitive structure, I'd be very interested to see a PvE MMO that restarted from scratch periodically with only the characters having continuity.

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  2. Interestingly, SWTOR has embraced this quite openly since launch. For example there is a planet called Balmorra which appears completely different depending on which faction you visit it on - Imperials experience it as ruled by the Empire, while Republic characters see it under Republic rule. Surely not both can be true at the same time? Nope, but Imperial Balmorra is ~level 20, while Republic Balmorra is ~level 40, which is later, by which point the Republic has taken over. So level is not just a measurement of power but also a marker in time.

    Of course things like increased levelling speed, level sync and generally being able to go back to lower level areas still play havoc with all of this making sense in terms of a virtual world... but it always struck me as being very honest about the issue at least.

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    1. In common with a lot of aspects of the genre, imaginative designers could do a lot more with these structural peculiarities than they ever seem willing to experiment with. They don't mind trying out all kinds of different UIs and combat mechanics and the visual vocabulary of MMOs is reasonably flexible but when it comes to the basics of what happens when and for how long and how often there's barely a cigarette paper between any of them. Of course, it all goes back to MMO players insisting they want innovation and new approaches and then voting heavily with their wallets for more of the same.

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  3. If I could only remember which MMO actually has limited coin available to a shopkeeper. You had to come back later and try again to sell. It's been a long time. It could have been an RPG as well

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    1. UO shopkeepers used to sell out of goods if I remember correctly. I wouldn't be surprised if they also ran out of money. I think I've played another MMO where it happens too but I can't recall which one it might have been. My vague memories mostly concern being annoyed by it though!

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