Tuesday, May 18, 2021

(Another) Another World

Tobold has a post up which touches on something that doesn't get mentioned often enough in most discussions of mmorpgs that I've read over the years. He's writing about the founding of Lightforge Games, a new games development studio started by a bunch of people you may or may not have heard of from a bunch of studios you very definitely will - Epic, BioWare, Zenimax, Blizzard

As expressed in the PCGamer interview Tobold links to, the pitch is vague in the extreme: "a new cross-platform, social videogame where players have the power to create worlds and tell stories in unprecedented freedom" combining "elements from Minecraft or Roblox with tabletop RPGs to form a new way to play roleplaying games". 

They go on to talk about how they intend to "revolutionize RPGs", which is pretty much the standard new company boilerplate these days. PCGamer sounds unconvinced: ""Revolutionize RPGs" is bold and vague... Roblox is more of a platform for making and playing games than a game in itself. So, are we looking at a creation tool and client for digital tabletop adventures? Or will it be more like a player-driven MMO with custom building? Something in between?"

It's probably wise to be suspicious if not outright cynical about claims of this nature. We've heard them so many times. Everyone plans on getting right all the things they see being done wrong. You'd hope so, too. No-one intends to repeat the maistakes of the past.

The "About" page on the official website is positively angelic in its positivism. I'm not knocking it. Far better to articulate aspirations and risk being called to book when you fail to justify them than not to have them in the first place. 

No, I'm not going to criticize or even critique Lightforge's intentions, nor speculate on their prospects. At this stage my only interest in the new company is as a catalyst, spurring Tobold into saying out loud something I've been thinking for a while: "The fundamental reason why virtual worlds in MMORPGs never really felt like living, breathing worlds is that most of the inhabitants aren't there most of the time. We live in the real world 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, for up to a hundred years or so. We live in virtual worlds for the few hours per day that we have the time for them, maybe not every day, and a lot of players inhabit a virtual world just for a few months before moving on to the next game."

It ties in with a reply I made to Everwake's comment on my Bless Unleashed first impressions post. I said, quite brutally, "I think we tend to expect far too much of games... Why we think every new mmorpg has to be worth dropping everything else to play for years beats me. It's more than enough for a game to be serviceable and entertaining". 

So often we allocate all the blame to execution when expectation is the real problem. It's not just that everything can't be perfect. Everything can't even be great. Some things have to be mediocre and some things have to be bad or how will we even be able to tell the difference?

It reminds me of that joke Garrison Keillor was so proud of he used it at the start of every episode of The Prairie Home Companion: "Welcome to Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average." And that's what we do all the time. Expect every new game to be above average.

It's bad enough when we're talking about single-player, standalone games with a beginning, a middle and an end but when it comes to mmorpgs the whole thing gets so much worse. Now every new game doesn't just have to be better than all the games that came before it, revolutionary, mould-breaking, innovative and original. 

No, because it's an mmorpg, or even a virtual world, it has to be capable of fulfilling all our gaming needs indefinitely. It has to be that One Game we'll play forever, a world so fascinating, so compelling, so satisfying, we'll have no choice, no desire to be anywhere else, ever again.

The "virtual world" concept, which seems to be coming back into vogue after a long time out of fashion, incorporates in its very name the idea that these are places where we can live. Not visit, not play, not goof around when we're bored until something better turns up: live.

Really? Even if that was possible, is that what we want? Is that what we ought to want?

When these discussions happen someone always brings up Star Trek. The Holodeck, that simulator where they go so the production team or the writers or the stars can get a break from space opera for a week or two, wear normal clothes, or at least different clothes. If mmorpgs were like that, someone always says, then I'd be happy. I'd never want to leave.

Star Trek is an outlier. In almost all the science fiction stories I've read, where there's a device that allows people to send their mind into a virtual, fantasy environment and "live" there indefinitely, that's the pivot of a plot about the dangers it entails. It's never fluffy bunny funtime in there. Or, if it is, it sure as hell isn't outside and that's going to be the moral.

Where is it we get these ideas, that a single mmoprg should be able to fulfill all our entertainment needs for years and years? From experience, some of us. From folk memory, the rest.

We all, or most of us, remember that feeling when we first discovered online fantasy gaming. Or mmorpgs. Or virtual worlds. When it was so overwhelmingly new, different, intense and strange we couldn't think of anything we'd rather be doing. 

Many of us timed it so that we didn't actually have an awful lot else we did have to be doing. School and college allow for an awful lot of free time. We were able to spend long enough in our virtual worlds that they started to feel more real than the mundane lives we returned to for those unhappy moments when the servers briefly went offline.

Do we go on playing those same games, our first mmorpg loves, year in, year out, thirty, forty, fifty hours a week? Thankfully, no. Most of us, anyway. We wind down, we cut back, we move on. 

Not all of us turn our backs on our old homes, delete all our characters, give away our stuff. Many of us keep popping in to see how the old place is getting on. Sometimes we stay for a while. Some of us never entirely leave. But we don't spend all our time there. We don't live there forever. 

And I don't see the people at Lightforge expecting that we should. We're the ones doing that. It's something many of us expect of ourselves and of the developers who design our games. We assess the success of each new mmorpg by how able it is to hold players indefinitely, while at the same time we complain about the methods they employ to make it happen.

What else are they supposed to do, though? Mmorpgs take five years or more to make. They cost millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions. If one doesn't catch the attention of the critical, demanding audience, that's it. Game over. Can't just knock out another.

Or can you? Isn't that what we see with the inexhaustible flow of identical games from the East? Bless being replaced by Bless Unleashed just the latest example. The annual announcements of the slates of new mmos. Games that don't intend to be anyone's forever game. Just some fun for now, enjoy it then move on. There'll be another along shortly.

If the games are filled with tricks to make us keep playing, why is that? Because we want to stay and they don't want us to leave. Is it mutual self-interest or co-dependency? 

For a couple of months this year all I wanted to do almost every day was play Valheim. It worried me at the time. I mentioned it once or twice. I knew, though, that Valheim had an endpoint. I got there and my interest dimmed and I stopped. I'm glad about that. 

I also said at the time that playing Valheim was very close to the feeling I remembered of playing EverQuest twenty years ago. It's a great feeling. Of course I want it back. I also want to know it won't last forever.

I wish Lightforge well in their quest to revolutionize the way we play rpgs online. Raph Koster, too, and all the other teams working on projects they hope will literally make our dreams come true. I wish them well but I hope they're not quite as successful as they tell us they're going to be.

I'm not sure we're ready for a true virtual world quite yet.


  1. I've viewed the Lightforge news so far through a bit of a raised brow at first, and then a sigh. Still- if we throw to the wayside reservation and doubt for the time being, what I want?

    Neverwinter Nights -- not the MMO version still running today, but the standalone Bioware title that came with it an incredible tool for creation of stories that gave life to NWN for years past the time it otherwise would've been good for. (There was also the whole Dungeon Master client to add even more dynamism to the game if you had a DM, but even the base tools were amazing this aside!)

    NWN was ultimately shoehorned into allowing for MMO-like experiences which was great, but I'd happily accept a revamp of this with small-group multiplayer.

    I had a number of successful projects under NWN, even had some stuff hosted on IGN's NWVault back when that was a thing!

    NWN did last me years upon years too -- as it did for much of the community. Expansions for it were less about the story campaign they came with (although they certainly beat the pants off the game's original campaign) -- and more about the new tilesets, creatures, class and general 'tools' that could be used to build with.

    So I don't really think it was the 'game' that lasted for years upon years, but the platform.

    If Lightforge can strike something like this... Well; it will take my breath away. Of course, it's hard to tell if this is even remotely close to what they're aiming for just yet. So I guess we'll see!

    Also on the topic of expectations for games to last: I agree with you, and a shot at limited-duration enjoyment is all I (typically) do expect out of games. Even MMOs. Belghast posted... earlier in the year? Possibly last year even? Around the concept of the 'forever game' and abandoning the search for one which resonated strongly for me as I'd felt the same but hand't articulated it quite as such.

    Even so... I understand how it can happen. Games capture the imagination which is both brilliant and terrible. It's how the hype trains behind so many games get started. Sometimes fed unreasonably by the developers (or their marketers), but sometimes driven solely by the imagination of those interested.

    Like my projection of a possibility of an NWN-rebirth onto a shaky announcement void of detail re: Lightforge. Of course, this time, I know that's the case.

    But that isn't always so. Case in point: Anthem -- although at least on the plus side for that one, it brought me back to this community. :)

    1. Great call on NWN. It brings together a whole lot of elements of this story - creative tools, platform, distribution and marketing, social media, pre-made content, virtual worlds - all in a single package. It makes me nervous, imagining what an updated, fully-functioning version of NWN might be like. Then again, if one happened to come out right around when I retire, which is only about three or four years from now, I might be in exactly the right place to make the most of it.

      The problem with NWN, though, is the problem with all these things: there really is no quick,easy way to make deep, involving, compelling worlds, whether that's in prose fiction, video or virtual worlds. It takes huge bites out of your life and if the plan is to keep on doing it then it becomes your life. YOu really have to want that and while I probably did when I was in my 20s I'm not convinced I do any more. I lost a summer to NWN when it first came out and when I finally shook free of it I wasn't at all sure I'd spent my time well. I'm still not.

      The older I get, the more I feel this is something I might have enjoyed doing as paid employment but I'm less and less convinced it's a way I'd ever want to spend my own free time. I think I'd rather funnel my creativity into something that gives more concentrated and finite results in a much shorter timeframe. Blogging really suits me in that way. I'm very happy for other people to embark on these huge, sprawling, open-ended projects and share the results but I want to be the audience not the producer.

  2. Well, I guess, a lot of the people placing these expectations on an upcoming game DO have experience of a single game not only dominating their gaming, but dominating their life, for years on end. I know I spent literally years playing no game other than WoW, and spending most of my leisure time on that WoW-playing.

    I don't actually want that anymore. But I assume some people do, and having experienced it before, I can see why they would demand it from future games, unlikely though they may be to deliver.

    1. Weirdly, I think the mmorpg I've now played the most consistently and for the longest must be GW2. I've played other games, particularly the two EQ titles, for much longer overall but I've played GW2 without any breaks for almost nine years now and I still play literally every day.

      I do like the persistence of mmorpgs, the way they're always there and you can always log in and do the same things you've always done. In the end I think that counts for a good deal more than the initial, overwhelming obsession.

  3. I think more than anything else the Holodeck killed the Star Trek franchise for me. So lazy, so pointless, so obviously just an amusement for the writers while rarely if ever being amusing for the viewers.

    Around 1987 I set up a TinyMud instance at my small (1200-student) private college. There was an explosion of building by the students; the whiteboards of Terminal Ward instantly filled with a map of the new world they were creating. Bots were built. Locations were established.

    Two weeks later it emptied just as suddenly. Folks had reached the limits of interest in the place. It became a ghost world, with only the bots for company.

    That was fun to do and amazing to observe. I can't help but feel it might be relevant somehow.

    1. Reminds me a lot of Landmark. People like to bemoan the loss of that "game", particularly in context of all the truly spectacular creativity that flourished there. Some of the things people built were hard to believe even when you were in game looking at them.

      What those people always seem to skate over is the plain fact that once players had built those structures they were done. Interest persisted for as long as people found the process involving but after that there was nothing to keep them there. Long before the servers closed down the entire game was a ghost town. It was a fascinatiing, eerie, wonderful ghost town but there was no-one there to see it.

      I've read enough blog posts about Minecraft and Wurm Online to know that plenty of people love to design and build their dream home but very few want to stay and live in it.

    2. This is the challenge. As much as I like a game world like Valheim or Minecraft, they definitely feel a empty when other players are no longer there and their bases become ghost towns.

      One thing I experimented with in Minecraft was building a base which we populated with villagers who went about their business in the base and gave life to the place (as well as serving as convenient vendors for various needed items).

      I think it would be very interesting if some of these games adopted a bit more of a simcity/minecraft villager paradigm whereby player-built infrastructure attracted NPC mob elements so that even if the players left the world, what they left behind is still a (somewhat) living breathing piece of the game rather than a ghost town artifact...

  4. The part of Tobold's post that you quote struck me as odd. I don't think a compelling virtual world requires that we spend anything like 24 hours a day there. If the design of something requires you to spend more than a few hours a session to make good progress, I would argue it's at least bordering on being something other than a game. That was one of the things that really turned me off about launch era EQ, the time investment to get to the cap back then was absurd.

    As for the other part, the expectation that games hold our 100% of our gaming attention for years on end...I can't believe some people are still wanting to measure worth using that yardstick. I don't understand why MMOs get held to a completely different standard than every other type of game. If I get at least a solid month of entertainment out of a game, to me it's a really good game. Most games I
    try I am done with before I hit the one hour mark. Just because something happens to be online and have other players running around does't mean that I have to play it for six solid years or it's somehow a terrible game. That expectation is a big part of what is wrong with MMO "fandom" in my mind. No genre can flourish with those kinds of (frankly insane) expectations on every new game.

    1. The whole genre doen't really work unless quite a lot of people stick with individual games for long periods. Years, probably. Which, by and large, they do. That then creates a whole different set of problems, of course. I tend to agree with the view that a month's solid entertainment is a clear mark of success for a game but that's a success for me as a consumer. For the producer, the problem with mmorpgs is that they're supposed to last for years. It's not as though the company can sign off on the game when it launches and move on to the next project. If players are only going to hang around for a month or so... well, they're going to need to keep finding new players at a consistent rate to replace them and that's clearly going to get harder and harder to do as the game stops being new.

      Tobold's point on virtual worlds is, I think, feeding directly off what some big-name developers keep trying to tell us, which is that virtual worlds have some kind of morally significant purpose much larger and more meaningful than anything the industry has yet achieved. The worlds they describe are the kind of places they expect we would want to spend almost all our time in. It's the pitch we've been hearing at least since Second Life, the "game" that embodied the very essence of the concept in its name. I'm not sure many players ever really wanted that (I know from personal testimony I've seen that some did - and do) but I think it remains a tenet of faith with a core cadre of zealous devs.


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