Backpedalling into the Future

Posted: August 17, 2010 by Twitchdoctor in Exemplary Games, game design, Games and Marketing
Tags: , , , , ,

If you watch a lot of old movies, particularly those that have a vaudeville-inspired dance number you will have seen this move.  A guy or gal is dancing and they are swinging their arms in huge arcs forward and back, with an enthusiastic smile on their face, and their feet are similarly moving forward and back but they are actually dancing on the spot, sometimes even moving backward.

Well, ArenaNet did its own version of this move this week as they posted a followup to the launch of their MMO Manifesto video: basically a Guild Wars 2 trailer with `tude.

The video is, naturally, thrilling, sexy, sophisticated and full of all the visual splendiferousness that you would expect from any trailer for an MMO.  Every MMO now promises to change the way we play MMOs; you don’t get invited to the party without making such a claim.  What most gamers especially don’t seem to remember is that for the most part that claim has proved to be complete and utter bullshit, steaming layers of it simply covering the fact that the developers came up with a different and better-looking grind mechanic.  The video, therefore, makes some bold claims about how this won’t be your grandmother’s MMO, that traditional MMOs have lost their way, that they don’t make you feel like a hero, and that Guild Wars 2 is going to remedy all that.  In particular, the video puts a lot of emphasis on the game’s dynamic events system and the much hyped capacity of the game to change in response to player actions. This isn’t substantially different to anything that ArenaNet has been saying for months, but the claims are now accompanied by art which seems to be making its own kind of visual claim for the kind of world-shaking changes that the fevered digits of the player base would be able to perpetrate on other players.

Well, apparently, some people diid recall these kinds of claims from the developers of previous MMOs and were deeply skeptical and ArenaNet themselves seemed to feel that they might, perhaps, just possibly, have overstepped the bounds of what is possible given the known configuration of this universe.  So they issued what amounts to a retraction.  Of course, it isn’t called a retraction.  In best PR flak-speak it is represented as a list of all the amazing, wonderful, just downright impressed and impressive feedback they received on their absolutely world-shaking cosmos-defining video.  Oh, and by the way, we just wanted to say. . .

Right, when Ree refers to, “players will kill a boss and they won’t re-spawn 10 minutes later,” she is saying when playing through your personal story line if you kill a boss, that boss will stay dead and your personal story will reflect this. It’s not really physically possible to make each dynamic event permanent, because the game needs enough content for everyone to play, and we don’t have 10,000 people making content for Guild Wars 2, event chains need to cycle and events need to repeat to ensure players have enough to do in the persistent game world. Our goal with events is to ensure that when an event ends, you feel like it actually has some sort of outcome on the game world for all players, if even for a short period of time, where traditional MMO quest in persistent areas generally have no affect on the world.

Oh.  So you mean. . .

Yeah, in the video Ree is speaking about the player’s personal story, whereas Colin is talking about dynamic events.  We like to think of personal story choices being permanent and dynamic event choices being persistent. The difference being persistent choices will remain until something comes along and changes them. So for instance, in the personal story you may choose to let an NPC die, that NPC is likely to be an important story NPC that the player feels some attachment to, their death will be permanent and will have repercussions on the characters story. This would be reflected in instances. In the persistent world a dynamic event might result in an NPC being killed. This will be a more generic NPC like a merchant or a soldier who will likely be replaced once some other event takes place.

Ah.


Sidebar: I’ve always thought it a shame that the word “persistent” became the adjective of choice to describe the state of MMO worlds.  Increasingly–and especially when we are talking about media–persistent is becoming synonymous with “annoying” for me.  Those ads on Facebook?  Persistent.  The dickheads from Wells Fargo who won’t stop trying to call me to sell life insurance?  Persistent.  Sarah Palin?  Persistent.  Sadly, many MMO worlds are persistent in this regard and I wish they weren’t.


In a post offering input from the Q&A team, the team lead had this to say:

I’m really excited to see what the public thinks of the dynamic event system and its impact on the in-game world. Some of the changes are subtle and not as noticeable as others, but every event can make a change in the world. Maybe a vendor opens to sell a product because you helped an event succeed. Maybe that vendor only sells a different product if the event fails. It’s going to take some time and a little brain power to figure out all the ways hat some of these events make their impressions on the world.

Right.

So let us review.  Your actions will have a major impact on the world around you. . .only in those instances that define the way your personal story component of the game plays out.  Outside that, they will have a limited, possibly extremely limited, and definitely transitory effect.

In other words, inside my own individual heroic “might-as-well-be-playing-a-stand-alone-RPG” type story there will be substantive, significant and permanent changes to the world around me.  Outside the instanced content, however, I will be fighting off hordes of rampaging centaurs so that some NPC merchant is forced to sell black beaded bustiers instead of the red leather ones that got trampled in the raid.  Wow.  At the moment I’m just so–to quote Steve Martin–emotionally erect I don’t know what to do with myself.

The real reason the developers are doing the arm-swinging happy dance that keeps them moving in place is because there is nothing at all innovative about this model.  As I’ve pointed out before, hints of it were already there in Tabula Rasa. If you’ve played Pirates of the Burning Sea in fact you’ve played exactly this model: a personal story, developed largely through instanced content, set within a persistent world that changes based on player input (ports could be captured, trade routes interrupted, and so on) but which periodically reset (after one side “won” the entire map, the map reset).  And if you’ve played EVE you’ve played what is in many ways a better version of this same idea.  Increasingly, as EVE has aged, it has added more individual story elements (although nowhere near as developed as in your standard RPG) to help ease players into the game.  Outside the instanced content, however, changes are not just persistent but potentially permanent (to use Arenanet’s hair-splitting differentiation): if a player pirate guild moved into your area of space you’d better believe it changed the way your world worked.  As of this writing, there are parts of EVE space that have remained in the hands of the same large corporations for years.

ArenaNet is either ignorant of the fundamental issue here (doubtful) or simply obscuring the fact that they are running up squarely against the central conundrum of MMO design.  The problem isn’t the grind.  The problem is why the grind exists.  The grind exists as a way of dealing with the potential inequality introduced into an online world by one important feature of the material world: irreversibility, i.e. permanence.  In the material world, people mess things up for other people.  Their actions impact the choices and potential of others by limiting some options but also creating new ones.  In the online world, that is regarded by players in mainstream games as “unfair.”  (That’s not the case in EVE of course, which is structurally designed to be unfair, but that is not a mainstream game, it is, in MMO terms, a niche one).  The problem is, it is irreversibility, the permanence of the consequences of our actions, that make those actions meaningful.  This is where ArenaNet is also up against the split personality of gamers themselves: they want their MMOs to deliver a unique, personalized experience. . .but they want that experience to be the same unique and personalized experience that everyone else is having.  Otherwise it would be unfair, “unbalanced,” “nerfed” etc.

None of this means, of course, that Guild Wars 2 won’t be a great game.  It certainly looks like it is going to be a gorgeous one that is blessed with some exhilarating combat.  And no monthly fees will be nice!  It will also be exciting to see quests emerge organically out of the game world itself.  I’m quite happy to dispense with the “character with a question mark above their head” model in favor of responding naturally to a sudden attack on a peaceful village (in my case that would mean joining in with the pillaging).  But it is important to note that what has changed here is really only the nature of the quest prompting mechanism, not the underlying game mechanism.  I’m still betting there will be an awful  lot of villages that need to be saved in order to get to the next level.

I’m actually pretty happy that ArenaNet has clarified the rather more limited scope of the game.  It has taken some of the air out of the balloon for me which will mean I can approach the game more on its merits and less with the expectation that it is the holy chamberpot that Jesus Christ himself used after the caterers at the Last Supper screwed up the fish course.  Of course, this won’t sway the fanbois and fanfemmes one iota.  “No, you’ll see,” they will say, “It really will be different.  It will.  I’m telling you, this time, it really will! BEST GAME EVUH!”

And I’m sure it will be a lot of fun.  However, based on what ArenaNet have said, it doesn’t look as if it will be doing anything revolutionary.  It is ironic that when I first wrote about this game I thought it would be less popular with people precisely because of its revolutionary potential.  Now it seems like a safe bet.

Of course, I’m betting people won’t notice the sameness for quite a while.  MMO players are notoriously distracted by eye candy and to judge from the trailer and the screenshots this game has it in spades.  In fact it may actually have too much of it.  They seem to have taken the same old overdone fantasy graphics and turned them up a notch.  One of the big differences between fantasy MMO players and those of other kinds of MMOs is that fantasy players just love over-done effects: they aren’t happy unless rangers are emitting giant raptors out of their boobs or wizards are shooting green crackling lightning out of their arses.  Half the time you can’t see what is going on on the screen.  Of course, if it isn’t anything particularly innovative, that is probably the idea.  At the same time, the world of Guild Wars portrayed in the trailer also seems annoyingly (persistently?) and safely PG.  If I’m going to play a fantasy game I want to see severed limbs and arterial blood.  A little more Excalibur and less Fantasia.

So, with my skepticism restored the world is back on an even keel.  Come on Arenanet, convince me.  I dare you.

–Twitchdoctor

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Comments
  1. DamarisM says:

    You know I agree. Actually I don’t know if you expected me to agree, but I do. The sad thing is, Original Guild Wars was operated on a system where everytime you stepped outside of an outpost, you entered an individual or “instanced” area. Only you, or the people partied with you were PC’s in the zone so you avoided having random people ruining your strategy, killing your boss, etc. But of course they bowed to people who wanted “Persistance”. Sigh. To my mind there is no way you can avoid grind or an increase in frustration when you’re dealing with uncontrolled free roaming PC’s all with different goals…. So my expectations took a dive from the outset. Then dived again when they said “No Monks”… BUT, it is gorgeous, there are some interesting ideas, and I know they can put out a damn fine game when they put their minds to it, so I’m still looking forward to the release. As long as not all their energy simply went into the Demo… because we’ve seen THAT happen before as well.

    • Twitchdoctor says:

      Of course I expected you to agree. People usually do when I’m right! No, seriously, this problem of the grind and the lack of a meaningfully changeable world is a problem that is particularly hard to solve for games that want to appeal to a mass (i.e. massive) audience. Anytime you try to appeal to everyone (in any sphere of endeavour) you always end up diluting the result. Looking back from a vantage point of the future it may well be that WoW will be the last true mass-market MMO. Smaller games have a number of strategies available to them because they don’t try to please everyone. Some games (POTBS or Battleground Europe) solve the problem to some degree by adopting a realm vs realm system (the world changes, but then changes back). EVE’s solution is pretty singular (as are most things good and bad with that game!): they simply built a universe that is so impossibly huge, that you can simply move to a part where you can play the game the way you want.

      But all of these issues are also tied up with one central design concern: how do you keep players playing? The big unknown for GW, I think, is whether they will have the courage to change the basic thing that dooms most MMOs to the grind (and we need to remember that there are a lot of people who like to grind; it’s not a particularly intellectually demanding activity which is what explains the popularity of so many games that use it; players claim they don’t like it but as with so many other issues, it is probably best to take player’s statements with an entire shaker of salt): the leveling mechanic. Some players play for the thrill of living in a fully-realized world; some play for their friends. But for the vast majority of players it is the skillful manipulation of patterns of inducement and reinforcement provided by character leveling and equipment upgrades that keep them coming back. If this remains unchanged in GW 2 (and that comment about needing a lot of content for players is ominous in this regard) then any other innovations in combat, dynamic event spawning, etc., won’t fundamentally change the nature of the beast.

  2. […] closely this is all a little less revolutionary than it might appear (worryingly, this is becoming something of a leitmotif with Arenanet announcements!).  At the moment, they are still thinking about this new […]

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