Friday, July 15, 2022

No Labels

As is usually the way of things in this hobby, after a period of calm, everything seems to be happening at once. Or maybe it's not. I think I need to clarify what I mean by "this hobby".

Until now, when I've tossed that term around, it's been with the understanding that everyone reading would pretty much know what I meant, without having to think about it all that much. It was a fair assumption; Inventory Full began quite specifically as an mmorpg blog, arising out of my already decade-long involvement, loose though as it was, with the mmo blogosphere.

We all knew what we meant by mmos back then - persistent worlds in which we met and adventured with friends and strangers. As time went on, though, some of us began to feel the need to differentiate between "MMOs" and "MMORPGs" because there seemed to be an increasing tendency to gather all kinds of games and experiences under the mmo umbrella, some of which didn't always seem to belong there.

A few years back, I took to using the acronym "mmorpg" exclusively to describe the games I was interested in, sometimes appending qualifiers like "DIKU-MUD" or "EQ/WoW style" to make things even clearer.

It was a losing battle, for reasons explained in two posts I read yesterday, one by Azuriel, the other by Wilhelm. Azuriel is talking specifically about his growing appreciation of what makes a game compelling to him, personally, while Wilhelm is focused more on the state of the genre per se, but both of them place their observations in a historical context from which it's clear the old certainties no longer apply.

It seems to me that there's no longer much agreement anywhere about what either of the acronyms, MMO or MMORPG, mean. Taking each, letter by letter, it's hard to argue in favor of any of the component parts any more, other than the O for "Online". 

We never did really agree on what we meant by "Massively". Now, with so many games enjoying truly massive populations, all online in the same game at the same time, receiving updates and seeing their worlds change, yet playing on dedicated, personal servers, the word means less than it ever did. When you combine that with "Multiple", the proliferation of small, separate servers all running Valheim or Minecraft simultaneously could easily be interpreted as having moved the meaning of the phrase closer to its linguistic value than further away.

As for "RPG", that's a concept as malleable as any poppet-maker's wax. For a very long time it's been increasingly hard to find any games that don't use mechanics rooted in old-school table-top role-playing - except for the actual pretending to be someone other than yourself part, of course. No-one does that any more.

For a good, long while I struggled against all of this, trying to hold the line even as the line became increasingly hard to see, let alone define. Hence all the maneuvering around terminology mentioned above. Something about the mmorpg genre and my relationship with it felt so connected to my sense of self, it seemed vitally important to preserve its integrity, in language and discussion at least, if not in my actual playstyle.

But now, guess what? I don't think I care any more. The strange, gnawing need I felt to be in a shared environment along with hundreds or thousands of strangers and the concommitant hollowness I felt when exploring imaginary worlds in which I was the only living being has been dissipating for a while now. I think perhaps it may finally have evaporated.

I don't even feel the lack of the handful of other players Wilhelm still considers necessary to bring a virtual world alive. While I agree their presence would add much to the experience, I no longer feel their absence invalidates or even diminishes the value of exploring or home-making alone. 

And, yes, I think I have Valheim to thank - or blame - for changing my mind. Not because it was the first to offer the possibility but because, for me, it was the first to reveal it. Or maybe that's post hoc rationalization. I could trawl back through my own gaming history as represented on this blog to try and establish a timeline but, y'know, I don't think I will. 

This isn't about what happened to make me feel this way. It's about how I feel. And I feel good. 

I feel liberated. I feel really not all that different to how I felt all those years ago, when I discovered EverQuest and with it a whole, new way of playing video games. It was a wonderful discovery that became a beautiful obsession but like all obsessions it ran the risk of blinding me to other possibilities. I'm happy to have that blindfold lifted.

All of which brings me back to where I began: this hobby. As Azuriel and Wilhelm suggest, in their varying fashion, it's changing, growing, spreading. Mutating, perhaps we should say.

This morning I downloaded a new version of Chimeraland, through Steam this time. I've already played for over an hour and absolutely loved it. No doubt posts will follow. 

Chimeraland describes itself on Steam as "an open-world sandbox RPG". It's clearly an mmorpg under the old definition and also clearly a survival game under the tenets of that genre. I wonder why it doesn't want us to know?

Ikonei Island is definitely not an mmo. Maybe. Probably. I don't know! 

I like it, whatever it is. I was annoyed when I had to stop playing because of the game-breaking bug I encountered after half an hour's play. 

I liked it enough to buy an XBox-style controller for my PC just to play it.  Even though, as I said, I got on well enough with the keyboard controls, everyone else seemed to think it was a different experience entirely with a controller. A much better one.

Okay, that wasn't the only reason I bought the controller. I wanted to buy something from the Prime sale so it was an excuse to indulge myself. And it seemed like the right time to give the controller a go. I have never used one before, nor wanted to, but increasingly I'm finding the games I want to play are optimized for that means of control, with keyboard/mouse a second-rate afterthought.

The controller worked, perfectly and instantly, straight out of the box. It's comfortable and intuitive to use and Ikonei Island, already fun, now feels even more compelling to play. It's not an mmo, let alone an mmorpg, but given the way I've been playing those kinds of games this last decade, I'm not sure that makes much difference. Subjectively, it feels like more of the same, which is what I've been saying I wanted for years.

As if two new games in two days wasn't enough, I had to have a third. Well, almost. 

Yesterday I saw this news item on MassivelyOP. I registered for Noah's Heart a few weeks back so I would have thought I'd have gotten an email, since I'm in one of the eight Early Access territories. 

I didn't, though, so I went to the website instead and tried to download the game, only to find I couldn't. It took me awhile but eventually Twitter told me the soft launch is for IOS and Android only. PC players have to wait another couple of weeks for the full, global reveal.

Is Noah's Heart an mmo? An mmorpg? A survival game? All of the above? 

Pass. Whatever it is, I was interested enough to try and download it for my Kindle Fire. Naturally, that aging dinosaur doesn't meet the specs. Neither does my phone, which I couldn't have used anyway, thanks to the flickering screen. 

And so time marches on. The games change, the genres change and apparently I'm fine with that, now, but the operating systems and platforms change too, about which I'm a little less sanguine. More and more often I'm beginning to run up against technical specifications my devices, including the PC, can't meet. 

It used only to be games and genres that didn't much interest me. Mmos and mmorpgs seemed bulletproof. By definition, they needed to make themselves available to the broadest range of players, else how could they be truly "massive"? Average gear was good enough, out of game as well as inside.

Those days are over, it seems. I guess I'd better get some new kit if I want to keep up with the pace. I'd really hate to be locked out of Nightingale when it soft launches later this year...

... and no, I don't know how to label that one, either!


  1. My post yesterday was one of those ones where I had an idea but then wanted to go to bed before it was fully explored.

    But the essence, as you get at here, is that something like EverQuest was successful in 1999 because there was a very wide gap between it and other types of game. Now, with server rentals and more powerful computers and far more ubiquitous high speed internet, there are a lot more variations in the spread of titles where EQ once stood with few other titles.

    Valheim, which was my prime example, delivers a lot of the key things I want from the experience. Not everything, but enough things, that it is a competitive substitute for our group. So we went from playing Valheim to WoW Classic to New World to Lost Ark to Valheim again as our primary game.

    1. A question I often ask myself is "If I'd had the choice of games I have now back in 1999, would I have picked EverQuest?", which is obviously impossible to answer. At the time I had a choice of precisely three mmorpgs - UO, AC and EQ (plus a couple I didn't know about like Meridian 59 and Lineage). I picked the one that looked the most accessible and easy to get the hang of of the three. If there'd been slicker, fancier and particularly easier ones, I imagine I would have gone for those.

  2. One of the things with MMORPG today is that their role as a place to meet strangers and make friends has been ROFLstopmed by social networks. SN generate enough human interaction to steal all availabe time in the process of, not meeting strangers (which invariably turn to be a-holes), but to pamper to "friends" and"followers".

    Thus, MMORPGs (or the games that used to be MMORPGs) have become a place to play in a virtual environment populated by "others", but where nobody really wants those "others" to have an impact on your own leisure time.

    Games be like:"Here! A stranger! Go have fun together!"
    Experience be like "Here! This stranger is messing up your game experience and putting your precious time to waste..."
    And Social Networks be like : "Here! A Interesting Stranger! Follow It and give us precious data so we sell your soul to advertising!"

    Essentially, strangers have become a liability. And probably people with limited leisure time don't want liabilities in getting the reward they expect from picking one choice to entertain themselves. Active leisure like playing vidoe games has become goal-oriented. People play games for a reason, and that reason no longer is to meet someone new in a shared world. Post-Social Network Reality is our virtual world, and it's become a quagmire of publicity and propaganda.

    "Why people play video games" has today an answer wildly different from the times when Facebook wasn't a thing and video games came in boxes for a fixed price and learning about new games was a tad more difficult than opening a webpage.

    1. I don't buy the whole "strangers in mmos are bad" argument at all, simply because that has almost never been my experience. Mostly they're neutral, tending towards pleasant rather than the other way. If I ask questions in game I tend to get either no response or people at least trying to be helpful. If I join formal groups people are either silent and/or only interested in practicalities or else they're pleasant and willing to chat. In auto-grouped or active public content, most people don't say anything, a few people are (or try to be) helpful and a few more are (or try to be) funny. It's rare for me to see anyone actively being disruptive and generally I find other people a welcome addition to my gameplay rather than the other way around.

      This, of course, has a lot to do with a) the games i play and b) the content within them that I participate in. I don't do much that requires a competitive attitude and even less where people feel they need to get things done on a timer. Mostly it's activity that's quite forgiving of errors and incompetence. A lot of newer mmos are designed to give huge leeway to a wide range of skill levels within the same event so no-one really cares all that much if a few people barely know what they're doing.

      My feeling is that the bad rep "strangers" get in mmos comes from a smallish selection of high-visibility titles that have chosen to double down on the old, core "gamer" demographic. WoW would be the prime example but there are others. In those setings, strangers are indeed highly suspect because they may bring down the average. In most of the mmos I've played in the last decade, there hasn't really been an average to be brought down - everyone is pretty much playing alone with others around them, which does indeed make the old idea of games being a place to make friends somewhat redundant.

      Mmos remain a great place to make acquaintances, though.


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