Experience Points: Living In a Living World

What it really means to be a living world

Each week, Chris "Syeric" Coke gives his unfiltered thoughts on the MMO industry. Taking on the news and hottest topics, Chris brings his extensive experience as a player and blogger to bear in Experience Points. This week he looks at Guild Wars 2 and what it means to really offer a living world in an MMORPG.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when “MMORPG” was synonymous with Virtual World. Players approached these games as they would a looming mountain; mysterious silhouettes growing larger with each passing footstep, things that existed before and would exist after and promised adventure deep in its hidden recesses. But somewhere along the line that mountain shrank. MMOs became slaves to their own accessibility, cannibalizing the very intrigue that catapulted them to success. The virtual world faded before cardboard sets and theme park rides. ArenaNet wants to change that. Its goal is, as Chris Whiteside explained, to push Guild Wars 2 as close to a living, breathing world as any MMO has yet come. I’m not sure that’s possible.

Make no mistake; frequent content updates are a very good thing. Releasing meaty new patches every two weeks is nothing short of astounding. As a story fan, I am particularly interested witnessing a renaissance our genre’s narrative capabilities. But it strikes me that Guild Wars 2 is not a particularly livable game. You can spend hours and hours within its walls of rendering and code, progressing and gaining power, finishing out storylines and becoming attached to your surroundings. But does that make it a living world? I don’t think so.

The Stuff of Living Worlds

Image credit: GuardianHQ.com

Even with revolutionary updates and the tidal ebb and flow of faction versus faction warfare, Guild Wars 2 can never break free of its finite, players-in-sequence design. The same can be said of World of Warcraft, TERA, RIFT, SWTOR and any number of modern theme park games. In a living world, you are not an epic hero simply because you exist. You do not take on threats to all existence and pause to logout for dinner. Quest chains are not lone excursions between assignments. Those are theme park attributes, it’s true, but theme parks are not precluded from being something more.

Living worlds bear a quality that isn’t necessarily evolution. It isn’t story and dynamic events – though those certainly help. In a living world, when you touch it, it touches back. A living world can be touched. That isn’t the case in the vast majority of MMORPGs available today. Think about the last time you went on a quest and weren’t finished within 30 minutes. Did the quest giver turn away his dead eyes to the next adventurer in the time it took to close the quest window? Quest-driven design has its place but it falls short of adventure. By its nature, an adventure requires risk, excitement and commitment. Killing ten wolves is more errand than emprise.

Virtual worlds need to resonate with their players. They need to touch them both emotionally and physically through their avatars. They need to stand up to the testing of their limits and be ready to say NO when players demand to see the full deck before they’ve earned it. Living worlds rest in the unknown and embrace mystery at every turn.

Exploration – Not For Everyone, Not All the Time

Exploring a virtual world is one of its greatest joys. That’s not because there are hidden treasures and content around every corner but simply because there could be. To be at their best, players need to feel small. They shouldn’t be able to explore everything, not without long hours and hard work. Syl described it beautifully when discussing 100% map completion in Guild Wars 2:

The moment we draw the last line in that picture is the moment we limit our world, the moment where it becomes small and finite – when hypothesis and speculation become hard fact and there is no more ‘may be’. To a traveler and explorer “finishing a world” is the death of his play style. I want to stand at the shore of the southern sea and wonder forever what may lie beyond.” 

Yet this line of thinking opposes accessibility and has been abandoned by MMORPG developers. Is it any wonder our game worlds feel small and shallow? Guild Wars 2 offers an immense landmass with innumerable goodies to discover… except they’re not innumerable and exist as a checklist on the world map. This, coupled with a short leveling process, quickly draws borders on the map and reminds players they’re playing a game. It makes them think about design and staffing and budget limitations: immersion shattering considerations that are no considerations at all. In short, allowing players to see everything only hastens an unavoidable disillusionment. Players need to work and scramble and stand high on the mountain before they fade, to do it all over again or share their journey with another.

What’s more, the unknown keeps the world shrouded in mystery. In the days of Ultima Online and EverQuest, venturing into new lands was dangerous, exciting and even a little scary. If you died, there was a good chance you couldn’t retrieve your corpse without help. Years of coddling have convinced players that any other way is terrible, even though the majority, joining up after World of Warcraft, have written off difference as failure. Daring a new zone when you weren’t ready was thrilling in a way modern (AAA) MMOs find impossible to create.

Players are More Important than Content

Players may not like it, but inter-reliance is more than just important, it’s mandatory. If you can avoid interacting with other players, you’re not in a virtual world. Look at our own lives as an example, the depth of systems enabled by other thinking minds; plumbing, electricity, transportation; emotions: love, laughter, fury, fun. Life is a shared experience. MMOs have replaced real people with automatons and silent ghosts once seen rarely to be seen again. It is selfish and survivor-ish, a series of moments aligned in perfect order to create the Hero Complex. It is also a perfect way to relax and escape at the end of a long day, but moments of instantaneous heroism are shallow and fleeting and ever in need of renewal. Even here, what lasts are shared experiences. Raid kills, PvP victories, roleplay events, group quests, Ventrilo chat: these are the soil and seed of long-term memory.

Players are the truest form of dynamic content. They are better than any programmer could ever script. They infuriate you, inspire you and make you laugh because they are also the only element which actually lives. Bad behavior is enabled by anonymity and independence, so when names are remembered and players have to rely on one another values, standards and player policing take hold. Keen recently described how this worked in EverQuest. Bob raged at the group and went AFK mid-fight. The next night Bob can’t find a group. And the next and next and so on. Before long, Bob realizes he either needs to change or find a new game. Either way, player policing wins.

A World Simulation

Image credit: Edge-Online.com

In the beginning, many MMO designers seemed fixated on the concept of creating virtual reality. During Ultima Online’s beta, Richard Garriott and company went so far as to create the Artificial Life Engine which simulated the ecology of everything to create a truly interconnected world. Starr Long, the game’s Associate Producer, described it like this:

If the rabbit population suddenly drops (because some gung-ho adventurer was trying out his new mace) then wolves may have to find different food sources (e.g., deer). When the deer population drops as a result, the local dragon, unable to find the food he’s accustomed to, may head into a local village and attack. Since all of this happens automatically, it generates numerous adventure possibilities.

But it didn’t work. Players simply killed off too many creatures too fast for the simulation to take root.

I list this here as an example of our genre’s movement. In 1996, that was our idea of a virtual world. Now, nearly twenty years later, it’s been all but abandoned.

Back to Guild Wars 2

Guild Wars 2 is not the game I’ve been describing. That’s okay. Games which place “gameplay” above simulation are targeting a different audience – and really, is there any wonder why one concept is harder to sell than the other? But players having experienced it have another story to tell. They were a part of, a member of, a community and a citizen. They were adventurers in true, those whose names could truly echo across game worlds. That’s the core behind games like EVE, a game that is still growing to this day.

Guild Wars 2 is making a delivery goal. They’re promising story events with each update. They’re getting as close to a living world as that type of MMO is ever likely to get. I am impressed and excited and will cheer on those guys spearheading this new path. But it’s worth remembering our roots and what a “living world” could mean in another setting.

One of these days, someone will revisit the goals of 1996 and make them a reality. I think we’re ready.


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but do the numbers support it
# Jul 11 2013 at 8:52 PM Rating: Decent
37 posts
When we talk about the history of gamers, and specifically MMO gamers, if we go back to the 90s the population was pretty small. While the population of MMO gamers has grown substantially, they are by far not the same kind of MMO gamer we saw in the 90s.

If you return to 90s design, you also likely are moving to a similarly sized pool of players. The difference is today there is far more competition. Would a game developer be happy with the same number or *less* subscribers than was common in the 90s? There in lies the problem.

Also when you have very large populations the more likely it becomes that you won't run into the same people. It is the nature of the beast, and the larger your player base, the more anonymous it is going to feel.

They have to encourage player involvement, not force it. They need to make sure systems supporting player involvement are well designed and easy to use. More than anything a game needs to be fun, sometimes this requires that you don't listen to your players, but if you aren't providing them with a fun experience then they aren't going to stay.
# Jul 11 2013 at 4:54 PM Rating: Decent
17 posts
They need to stand up to the testing of their limits and be ready to say NO when players demand to see the full deck before they’ve earned it. Living worlds rest in the unknown and embrace mystery at every turn.

This, I feel, is THEE most important thing to understand about an MMO. Mysticism needs to be part of what lies ahead. There needs to be that idea that, hell, I might never get to see what's over that mountain, unless I try hard and dedicate some time to figuring out the landscape. The idea that everyone should see everything has its merits, it just so easily slips into, everyone sees everything EASILY.

I don't get what the deal is with this whole attitude of "I payed for a game I should be able to see it all!" This isn't how ANY game works across ANY genre. You don't get to see all of an RPG unless you put the time and effort into getting to certain places. You don't get to enjoy all of the weapons in some shooters unless you prove you have the skill to unlock them. These are all KEYING processes disguised as level milestones. It shouldn't be different in an MMO. You should have to work to get to the highest places, and if you fail and are discouraged, you aren't meant for MMOs (or frankly RPGs).

Everquest had a WORLD that was interesting. Norrath was full of quests, it's just they didn't have a giant ! over the character. Instead you had to 'Hail' an NPC and say the correct word or sentence to continue the quest, or get information about a current quest. It wasn't lined up for you in a quest window, because it did it all behind the scenes and left the mysticism to you to figure out.

People will say that, "Even if you don't have a quest UI, you can just go to ZAM and read a walkthrough for the quests anyways." Well that's the nature of the beast. The same way GameFAQs is going to have Walkthroughs within the first week of a games release, ZAM or any other site is going to have quest/mob info very quickly.

This was a wonderful read that made me long for Everquest quest days (epics, flagging (I know not everyones favorite), and the unknown), and hoping that an ecological mechanic could be introduced in the future, that could adapt to players killing one species.
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