Rants tag

Rants, ruminations, and rambling remarks from my mad, muddled, meandering mind.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Little Player in a Very Big MMORPG

So, on Friday Petter Mårtensson of Don't Fear the Mutant, talking on Twitter, began what turned to out to be a somewhat lively conversation about the role of the player characters (PCs) in an MMORPG. Many other Tweeps/Bloggers chimed in. It ended up being more about something a little closer to my heart as a player.

Petter opened with this volley, "If you're going to do a lot of heavy storytelling, please look at Blizzard's phasing. Looking at you, Rift, but certainly SWTOR."

This led to a brief discussion between Petter, myself, plus Peter Smith if Dragonchasers and @Siberwulf of Going Rancid, about the pros and cons of Blizzard's method of "phasing" to give the impression that a PC has made an impact in the World of Warcraft. I say "impression" because, of course, the phasing only affects each character individually. Overall, the world has not changed at all. In many ways this is OK, and I agree with Petter that Blizz implements the phasing very well. Petter eventually said, "I find it much more immersive than instancing." To which I replied in part, "I guess I kinda like the really old nothing-ever-changes. Because it's a little like the real world." Others began to chime in about my sentiment, indicating it was not unique or original.

Petter quoted Ragnar Tornquist saying that The Secret World will treat the PC like "one of many." Tesh of Tish Tosh Tesh said "I believe that MMOs should be about the player's story in a vital virtual world that's indifferent to them." Petter answered Tesh, "I'm not 100% certain I understand what you mean, but I agree."

While I cannot speak for Tesh, I agree with him and this is my attempt to clarify, in a way that may be impossible on Twitter.

When I started playing World of Warcraft in June of 2006, I had no illusions about my importance—or lack thereof—in the course of the game. I had started a Dwarf Hunter, Oakheart, and there was a big wide World out there to explore. There were fun little quests to complete in Coldridge Valley. Then, when I was ready, I was instructed to report to Kharanos, the first real town in my journey. The run to Kharanos was fraught with danger, OK really only some troggs, plus I passed a Dwarven Mortar Team that did the same thing over and over again, practicing their "craft" of destruction. I would later learn that this was one of many in-game references to the Warcraft RTS series. (Of course, the entire game is. But yeah, anyway. . .) In Kharanos, there was more stuff to do, none of it major: collect some boar ribs to get a recipe, kill some Wendigos, and recover stolen goods, that sort of thing. Through this and other experiences on other toons, I developed a feel for the World. I was an adventurer helping the locals out where I could. The world went largely unchanged by my passing, and I was OK with that. Azeroth did not revolve around me.

In Single Player RPGs, like KOTOR, for example. the PC is integral to the story and rightfully so. You are "reliving" the history of a major hero in the game world. I expect to be at the center of world changing events in an SPRPG. On the other hand, in a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, why should I expect the same? The world is big, and I am small. This is how Vanilla WoW was, and how I felt The Burning Crusade started out. Star Trek Online follows this model somewhat, though Cryptic's approach is different. I am one of many Starship Captains, taking my crew on many adventures, even even as other starship captains in a vast Starfleet implement the policy of an even larger United Federation of Planets, each one a Hero of Another Story.

Then, with Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard introduced Phasing. Note: I like the storytelling possibilities of phasing, and Blizzard does it very well. But no longer is my character a small fish in a big pond, now I am the center of the story. Things happen, because I am there; and stay that way, at least for my current PC.

HERE THAR BE SPOILERS (skip to Captain Kirk):

My DGF and I recently went through Westfall, which introduced a bit of phasing in the course of our questing there. With the death of Edwin VanCleef, the leader of the Defias Brotherhood, things seem to be changing somewhat for the area, especially around Sentinel Hill. The homeless problem seems to have increased, though (and a thoroughly modern First World problem by the way, not realistic in this context IMHO.) Through some clever phasing, we witnessed the rise of the Defias under the leadership of VanCleef's daughter, Vanessa. Meanwhile, I visited Sentinel Hill on my Main, the level-80 Rowanblaze and Sentinel Hill is unaffected. No sign of the Defias, or the beleaguered state of the regional capital, which is surely the lore.

Perhaps, the most egregious example of the PC being too important to the story is the opening questline of the Goblins. Amuntoth of Manifest Pixel highlights this in a recent post. The PC (everyone who plays a Goblin) is an up-and-coming citizen of Kezan, about to be promoted to the position(rank?) of Trade Prince, rivaling the tool who currently holds that position of authority over the Goblins. (Mind you, this is not the neutral Goblin faction of the Steamwheedle Cartel, but the rival Bilgewater Cartel.) The Cataclysm accompanying Deathwing's prison break destroys the island and the player repeatedly saves the entire passel of survivors, only to be double-crossed by Gallywix in a series of betrayals of the entire remnant of Goblins. The PC even personally rescues Thrall from the Alliance. Yet Thrall still—inexplicably—appoints the bastard Gallywix to be Trade Prince of the Cartel as part of the Horde. By rights, it should be the PC who gets that honor, but that makes no sense in the lore. Of course, neither does the current situation. All this could have played out differently if the Goblin PC were a nobody instead of the rival of the faction leader who therefore has a personal vendetta against the PC.

In real life, we affect things and people around us in little ways, but most of us honestly have little impact on the course of history or the shaping of the world. We are soldiers, not Generals or World Leaders. I expect, even prefer to feel this way in a massive game world filled with numerous people. I don't need to be the hero of the Rebellion, or the savior of the Nation.

Does that help, Petter? :)


  1. In the specific case of Rift, the game has a bit of an identity crisis. Yeah, you're an Ascended and when you first enter the world people are going a little nuts about you and how you're going to safe the world. but very soon after you meet up with some higher ranking Ascended and are treated as part of something bigger (at least on the Guardian side, which I'm more familiar with).

    Then when you start fighting rifts, even the gameplay reinforces that you're part of an organization and not The One True Hero.

    WoW's phasing is technologically impressive but it also seems to make the world feel emptier since you only see that sub-set of players on the same phase as you.

    Petter took a cheap shot at Rift by posting a screenshot of his chat window after he'd gone AFK next to a random NPC that comments on Ascended as the run past. So she said the same thing over and over.

    Fair enough that does seem silly, but then he lauds WoW and it's phasing, but there are *plenty* of NPCs in WoW that stand around all day saying the same thing over and over!

    Anyway, I generally "internally role play" as a kind of wanderer. Yeah I can be the hero to some farmers when I run off bandits, but I never expect to be the Savior of the World in an MMO. That feels pretty artificial, unless someone comes up with a system where just 1 player can be that Savior (but even in that case, I'd never be that player).

  2. It wasn't meant as a "cheap shot" at Rift in particular, it was meant as a shot as MMOs in general. WoW certainly suffers from the same problem, and it gets especially silly in places like Skettis and Isle of Quel'Danas where the NPCs hail players and muse over what heroes they are.

    Those are really the kind of things I react against - this whole idea that the player would be unique and treated thus by the game. In AoC, everyone is the "chosen one" on Tortage, in SWG we're all captured by the Empire because we're somehow "special". In Rift, you are greeted with awe as you step out of the tutorial area - while a myriad of other players were coming through at the same time as me.

    Phasing doesn't really make the world seem emptier, there are usually people in the same "phase" as you, and once you've finished an area it stays the same - so everybody ends up there sooner or later. Also, WoW has smaller versions of phasing - NPCs can move, or simply disappear, where needed, without changing the whole area or phasing away other players.

    My point at the time, that either my fever or Twitter didn't help get across, was that if you have to do it this way I prefer phasing above instancing stuff. Then again, I've never been a fan of instancing and would hate to see Rift use it. Then I'd rather see a NPC faint every time she sees an Ascended.

  3. WoW is a single player game until max level. AT max level it is a match making game. It is meant to be played like it. That you see other people, who also 'level' is basically a bug, at worst an inconvenience.

    For what it is, WoW is a great game.
    But it is not a virtual world and I would like to play a char in a virtual world.

  4. It's a match making game? Huh, why do I run heroics with guildies, plan raids with them, group with my friends, group with strangers when we find ourselves "queuing" for a named quest mob? Who are all these people running around Stormwind?! Gah, I'm inconvinienced!

    While a lot of criticism can be directed towards Blizzard and WoW, and I have a ton of it myself, calling the fact that you see other people a "bug" is taking it way too far. Constructive criticism is one thing, but the silly WoW-bashing that's not founded in reality is just silly.

  5. I'd say that phasing works excellently well when the game is trying to tell a story or teach the player something. Like the starter area quests leading the PC up to the point where s/he has to survive on her/his own in the big bad world. But as the only way of levelling up... not my bowl of porridge. It leads to hand holding levelling like Hyjal or Vashj'ir, generally having the replay value of zero on those areas.

    In Rift this is solved by story quest chains, depicted in golden quest boxes. And yes, as far as I saw, they change the world slightly to the player. Mostly because you don't have any reason to return there... except to fight the invasions, close Rifts or do some other 'dynamic content' stuff not bound to questing content.

    There are different ways to immerse the player into the lore/story. Phasing is just one - being also newest - tool in the disposal of the devs.

    C out

  6. Great points, everyone. I agree that it is ineveitable that the NPCs repeat the same words and activities over and over. They even made a bit of a joke of it in Honor Hold and couple other places during TBC. If you think about it, I'd be willing to bet you do almost the exact same thing everyday in your real life, too. It's called routine. The Skettis area and a couple others are kinda funny, and I did appreciate at first seeing my name in the NPC chat, once I'd hit exhalted with that faction.

    @Nils, I am not sure what you mean by WoW not being a virtual world. Compared to what? I also agree with Petter about the leveling. I don't think it's a "bug" that you see other player during that process. I think it was the intent of the game. I do agree that the game changes once you hit max level. This has been a major criticism of WoW for years. Of course many people like it.

    What if, intead of 85 levels, WoW only had maybe 20, enough to learn to play your toon, then the rest of the game was "leveling" through itemization? I think people would have a more accurate impression of what "end-game" would be like.

    @Copra, WoW has had quest chains, too, before phasing was introduced. While I like phasing as a storytelling device, I am not sure how necessary it is.

    Thanks for the comments. :)

  7. Heh, there's only so much one can communicate with 140 characters, hm? Thanks for the mention! This really is an interesting topic, so thanks for the great article.

    To clarify my quip a wee bit, I don't want to be the Big Durn Hero of the World of Warcraft. That, for two major reasons.

    First, I just want to be an itinerant wanderer who works on the jobs I feel like doing, for whatever reason, whenever I feel like it. Like Mr. Incredible, I'd get tired of being the guy on call when the world inevitably needs saving again. Can't it just stay saved?

    And honestly, is Deathwing, who apparently *really* hates the world, *really* going to wait until I hit level 85 and iLevel 4567 and bring nine of my favorite buddies to his lair to follow up on his bluster, only to get killed and farmed until the next expansion? Some Big Bad he is, the wuss. What did you do, big boy, get tired after ripping up the Barrens and yelling at Goblins? Come on, Mr. "the world will burn", get off your lazy butt and stop blowing hot air.

    Second, tying into that, there really can't be millions of the One True Hero, and the Big Bad can't be all that bad if he has to die thousands of times in a cave where he's not an active threat.

    The Goblin starting area is a great example; "my" character would be a singular and unique Goblin after all that, not Goblin #16458 that goes through all the same stupid fetch quests that everyone else does once he hits Orgrimmar.

    Oh, and tangentially, I think Thrall is certifiably losing his mind. First Garrosh, then Gallywix? Not to mention being captured by the Alliance in the first place and being held by a single finger-wiggling poncy mage. Master of the elements? Strongest Shaman alive? Stupidhead.

    While I appreciate the unique and fascinating storytelling potential of games in general, I firmly believe that MMOs should lean more toward the "virtual world" game design and let the play experience be about the player's story, not the devs' story. If you want a strong narrative, you have to restrict player agency. If you want them to be the Big Hero, they can't be just one of the herd. The dissonance makes for an unsatisfying experience.

    Far better in my mind to make an interesting, vital, living world that can function perfectly well without the players, then throw them in the deep end and let them make their way in said world. If they carve out their own herodom, it would make sense. They wouldn't be the hero because the story Said So, but because they actually earned it. Don't try to hoodwink them into thinking that they are the savior of the world that obviously doesn't need saving, or that they are the Only One that can help... until the next guy comes along. That's silly.

  8. Technically in Rift, you're not SUPPOSED to be one in a million, which is supported by the gameplay itself. You're a soldier who's been brought back, along with many, many others. Sure, you're better then the average bystander, but the Ascended (other players) are all in the same boat as you, so when you go into a rift with other players, you're fighting alongside other superhuman foot soldiers.

    Of course, Guild Wars is the worst offender when it comes to the side-effects of instanced systems, being an inverse instance (big world is instanced, with hubs being the common zones). I agree that if a game REALLY has a story to tell, go with the phasing. It removes the distraction of other players bunny-hopping around you, ruining the immersion.

  9. Even in WoW, the PC is a cut above, but it seems that the storylines have become ever more Save-the-World instead of save-our-farm or -our-town.

  10. The problem is, how to capture the die hard Single player feeling of being the "One" True Hero, when playing in a world of Millions trying to be the same thing? You can't. Well, not when the first MMO was designed, so compromise had to be achieved. Players would get the same encounter as the previous player. Nothing would be unique.

    At least till the invention of instancing, but that just didn't feel right. There was an abrupt cut between the main world and this forced perspective designed for a smaller group world and it was just annoying.

    Enter Phasing. A way to customize the story to individuals by removing them physically from everyone else and only letting them experience the world one on one. This is much better, but again, once phasing is over, your back being a cog in a bigger wheel.

    Being able to personalize certain aspects of the game to your character is the true goal now. I think that Blizzard and other games on the horizon, SWOTOR for one, are trying to make the MMO experience unique to your character and hopefully more innovations beyond phasing will be seen in more games to come.

  11. I see what you are saying, Oakstout, but it goes back to the question of whether it's necessary. Don't Single Player games fulfill that niche? Think of Mass Effect, for example. There is a fairly open world to explore, but there is also a story to follow.

    No matter what an MMO does there will always be the feeling that someone just did what I am about to do and that someone else will do it when I am done. When that task is killing a few things or collecting a few items, that is OK. When it's killing the Most Evil Being that has ever threatened the world, it falls flat IMHO.

    I am looking forward to TOR; I am content to be one of many Jedi, or Sith, etc. I don't need to be TOR's Anakin Skywalker, the Chosen One.

  12. This is actually and ironically why CoX, Champions Online, and DCUO hold no interest for me. Paraphrasing "The Incredibles" Syndrome, in a city full of Supers, no one is.

  13. Oh, yes, there were quest chains and storylines in the Vanilla WoW already, but you couldn't recognize them at all from the noise of myriard quests in your quest log: thus Rift makes it more clear that certain quests are storyline quests instead of leaving them as one of the lot.

    In the basic sense, I agree with you completely: is phasing and "single player is the hero" really necessary?

    Have we players gotten too lazy to play on our own terms?

    C out