Sunday, August 19, 2012

Discussing MMOs: World of Warcraft

I don't have a lot of tabletop gaming going on, but I am active in online gaming with MMOs, so I thought I might talk a bit about those. Now, I have no background in computers, and I've never developed a game; I've got an MA (hopefully soon a PhD) in English. I like good stories, and I like to be able to be involved and see change occur in a persistent gaming world. I also like to play games online with friends, and so I feel drawn to MMOs as an easy way to keep in touch and play games with friends that I otherwise don't see very often. I've played a number of MMOs, and there are a lot of things, both good and bad, I have seen in each; I thought it might be interesting to talk about those.

World of Warcraft is up first because, even 7+ years after release, it is still the leader of the MMO market. It has something like 9 million subscribers, even after such a long time on the market, and is set to release its fourth expansion later this year. I started playing World of Warcraft (or WoW) the day after it was released, in large part because I had been so fond of the Warcraft series of strategy games that had preceded it. The world of WoW is a familiar one to anyone even moderately familiar with fantasy; there are two player factions, the Alliance (made up of, originally, Humans, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Night Elves) and the Horde (consisting of Orcs, Trolls, Tauren, and Undead). They are in a state of constant low-grade war over the lands of the world of Azeroth, and being a fantays land, it fits many of the tropes of traditional fantasy - dwarves live in a city in a mountain; night elves live in a tree city; orcs are savage, yet also somewhat noble, barbarians. Wizards wear robes, paladins fight evil, and both sides are trying to keep their place in the world.

As a WoW player, I played an Alliance character almost exclusively, so that is most of what I saw in the game; I also tended to avoid too much PvP, as it didn't really interest me. As an MMO player, I am interested in three things - exploring the world that is available to me; learning and playing a part in the story of the world; and advancing my own character (of which a large part was being able to clothe my character in armor and weapons I thought looked good). From the very first day in WoW, I had a blast with exploration; I slowly worked my way through the world, taking quests when I saw them, following storylines, and being able to see all the amazing sights that the game's developers had included. There are two main continents in basic WoW; the continent of the eastern Kingdoms consisted, at launch, of 23 zones, while the continents of Kalimdor had 18. This is, frankly, a massive amount of content; even considering that 6 of those zones were essentially for totally new players, it still left 35 zones to travel in, and that doesn't even count the faction cities - of which there were 3 per faction. Amount of content for exploration is one of the areas I feel that World of Warcraft really has yet to be exceeded. And the content was beautiful and thematic; from the idyllic forests of Westfall to the rocky, desolate Badlands, from the rolling plains of Mulgore to the ancient ruins of Azshara, each zone had a distinct feel to it. Sometimes the change between zones was a bit shocking - traveling from the oppressively dark, terrifying forest of Duskwood in to the lush jungles of Stranglethorn Vale was a bit jarring, but each area was its own place.

The story of WoW was, of necessity, often somewhat static. Since there were players in both factions, it was hard to have one clearly triumph over the other and still keep the players who were on the losing side, so there were other threats that had to emerge to keep the two sides in an uneasy cold war-type standoff. Humans contended with their own rebels and malcontents, while dwarves and gnomes dealt with the results of experiments gone wrong and the actions of the ancestors; orcs tried to carve out a place for themselves in a continent previously inhabited mostly by night elves, while the Undead of the Horde had to face their darker cousins in the Scourge. Most zones had quests that followed a theme or story, though at first this was somewhat disjointed; it wasn't until the Cataclysm expansion that almost every zone had its own coherent line of quests. Many of the important, world-changing events happened only in instances, whether for a single group or for a larger raid, and this was where I started having trouble. Once I had explored the world of Azeroth, I wanted to know who I was fighting, and why, and then I wanted to defeat them. The greatest opponents, though, were only faced in raids - foes like the great dragon Onyxia, or the lord of fire elementals, Ragnaros. For someone who was more interested in exploration than spending hours repeating boss fights in order to learn how to kill them, it was difficult to get into a raid and see how the story of Onyxia or Ragnaros played out. I was, and still mostly am, a 'casual' player; even though I can devote a large amount of time to playing games like WoW, I don't enjoy having to set aside 4-5 hours of time in a block to throw my character at the same fights time and time again - I wasn't going through those raids for the items that each boss dropped when killed (though some of it was nice), but rather to find out how the story played out. That's a personal problem, but it was the start of my disillusionment with WoW.

Advancing my character became a problem that extended from that. Once a character in WoW hit the level cap, there wasn't a lot to do on one's own; to get better gear, or find out the big parts of the story, you had to join groups, which often meant guilds. And while I enjoy being social in MMOs, I prefer to socialize with a smaller group of people I know, rather than dozens or hundreds at a time, in a guild where I may not know every member. I shied away from what were known as PUGs (or pick-up groups, groups that came together just for a single instance and often didn't know each other) because I found that, for the most part, it was hard to trust players I didn't know to either play seriously or to understand that I was not a perfect player. While I had my own story that I kept to myself about my main character (a human paladin named Helliyas), I found that most players had no interest in the game's story, or in telling their own story; they just wanted cool items with bigger numbers, or to kill the biggest number of opposing players, and those were things I had little interest in (the only items I was interested in were ones that I thought looked cool). While I did eventually manage to find groups of players that shared many of the same interests, the necessity of raiding in order to find out the best parts of the story still bothered me.

WoW, being the big dog of MMOs, is often pointed out as the originators of something called the Holy Trinity (no relation to Christian concepts): groups were made up of three characters types, a tank, a healer, and damage dealers. I hear that Everquest did this before WoW, and it may have been done before that; Everquest and WoW were certainly not the first players in the MMO market. Even in the granddaddy of RPGs, the original Dungeons & Dragons, there were originally only three classes - the Fighting Man, the Magic-User, and the Cleric (with the Thief coming later), and these classes vaguely fit the Holy Trinity at work in WoW grouping. It works in WoW, but I think that it has become one of those concepts that newer MMOs see and can't seem to think their way out of. WoW is only culpable in this because they are such a large market presence that other games seem to feel the need to copy at least some part of their gameplay in order to get off the ground.

The static nature of WoW didn't always bug me, but after I had explored everywhere and done nearly everything (at one point, there were literally fewer than ten Alliance quests that I had not done, in a quest with hundreds or thousands), I wanted things to change. I wanted what I was doing to have some effect on the world around me; if I killed all the rebels, I wanted an area to stay clear, or if I saved an NPC, I wanted them to stay saved, and maybe say thank you when I saw them after that. Because even Blizzard can't devote that much time to changing the game world, though, I began to feel like my character, who was as powerful (or moreso) than most NPCs, was basically invisible; enemies I killed reappeared moments later for other players to kill, while NPCs I saved were back in danger again in a minute or so. My character's deeds were rarely acknowledged, and on the off chance they were, it wasn't for long. There was almost nothing I could do to change the world, which made all my time feel somewhat wasted. This is one of my big sticking points; at some point in almost every MMO, I begin to feel like nothing I have done has mattered. It's part of why I play tabletop RPGs, because in a game like that, when we save someone, they stay saved, and kingdoms remain toppled. MMO worlds are persistent, yes, but they are static by necessity, rather than changing with the actions of players. I wish this could change, and WoW, even with this, still has more content to play through than almost every other MMO out there, but barring massive changes in game development, an adaptive, persistent MMO world is beyond our reach.

Next up: Champions Online.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not convinced it's impossible to have a dynamic-world online game with non-respawning items and bosses, with individual actions affecting plot, with perma-death. I say "online game" rather than "MMO" because I don't think it's possible for a massively-multiplayer game to be that dynamic. I'd guess that about a thousand players per server (to pull a number out of thin air) would work. More, and there won't be enough unique content to go around. All the princesses will have already been saved, all the kingdoms toppled, by the time most players even sign up. Fewer, and there won't be a broad enough spectrum of character types and player motivations represented for conflict to emerge naturally. Most or all metaplot could be reused across servers, and the actions of individual players would determine--would in fact be--the server-specific plot details. So it wouldn't really be more work for the developers, the users would be paying for the privilege of doing the developers' jobs for them. I'm envisioning:

    1. Characters gradually age and eventually die of natural causes (after a month? six months?).
    2. Characters who die, whether of old age or in combat, stay dead.
    3. Reincarnation exists. Not just because players can remember their own previous characters, but as an in-game mechanic of some sort. Stat bonuses or (partial and random) inheritance of gold and items or something.
    4. PvP is always on (limited to characters of the same approximate level), but murder and theft are illegal in-game, with a police force of PCs.
    5. Detective work must be not only possible, but interesting enough that some players would choose to be cops. There must be various methods of tracking and evasion.
    6. The punishment for theft is 1.5x restitution. The punishment for murder, or for the inability to pay restitution for theft, is death. Repeat offenders get progressively decreasing reincarnation bonuses, and can eventually be banned.
    7. Every server has a magistrate NPC who will not permit the falsely accused to be punished. If the police guess wrong too many times (3? 5? Enough that roughly half of crimes are solved), the true culprit gets off scot-free.
    8. Reincarnated murder victims can freely hunt their attackers, the magistrate will never convict them of crimes for revenge. Thieves likewise get no legal protection from theft by their own previous targets.
    9. Each server has a limited quantity of resources--gold, unique items, raw materials for smithing, alchemy ingredients, monsters. Players are inherently in competition with each other for access to resources.
    10. The in-game economy is unregulated. There are no NPC shopkeepers selling items at predetermined prices. Players can trade items, or services, at whatever price they negotiate amongst themselves.
    11. Rare items that appeal to one class are found in areas most easily accessible to another class, to encourage trade.
    12. Gold farming, or the sale of in-game goods for real money, is permitted, with an in-game interface. The developers get a percentage of every sale.
    13. There are occasional metaplot events, server-wide threats which cannot be overcome without some degree of cooperation. So, players are simultaneously allies in terms of metaplot and competitors in terms of plot, along the lines of medieval lords scheming against one another for status and power within their kingdom but united against threats from other kingdoms.
    14. Metaplot events happen three or four times per character lifetime--seldom enough that player interaction is a bigger part of the game, but often enough that metaplot does not feel like deus ex machina intervention.
    15. Servers limit the number of hours played per week by each player. There are different limits for different servers. Lifespans are longer and metaplot events are less frequent on low-limit servers. Casual gamers can therefore enjoy the full game experience at their own pace, while hardcore gamers don't have to put up with a constant influx of n00bz.