Where’s the street-wise Hercules?

I rarely, if ever, feel like a hero when playing an MMO. It’s not really a matter of power though; admittedly City of Heroes allows you to take on hordes of mobs at a time, in a super-heroic effort, whilst many other games will restrict you to taking on one or two mobs before the situation starts to get a bit sticky, but even in those less bonkers-odds fights you still feel relatively powerful compared to the mobs that are are highlighted as being in the level range of your character. Ok, so this level of power is artificially generated by allowing you to conveniently gauge how powerful your current opponent is and only pick fights that you stand a chance of winning, but I think that’s fair enough in most respects: the Fellowship of the Ring would have been a very different story if Gandalf had instead shouted “C’mon noobs we can take him” and convinced the rest of the fellowship to stand their ground and fight the Balrog… I wonder if Tolkien had considered ‘corpse run’ as plot device?

Gandalf knew the Balrog was too powerful for the group to fight, so he sacrificed himself to save the rest of the group and inadvertently spawned a million copycat tanking mages in MMOs to ruin the instanced runs of groups everywhere. But that’s another story.

Power isn’t really the problem, it’s the very nature of being the hero that just doesn’t work. You notice I wrote the hero. In most cases the RPG in MMORPGs these days is taken as referring to a bunch of ‘stats’ that make up your character, which you increase Progress Quest style by slaughtering every living thing in the world, its children and its children’s children, until you are king of the genocidal maniacs and your stats will no longer increase. The role playing part of RPG seems to have been cast by the wayside when it comes to MMOs, and the obvious reason for this is that the role most people want to play is the hero or anti-hero in a story. One of the exceptions to this idea of the player as hero is EvE Online, where it seems that the corps is the hero, the one that makes a name for itself, and players are perhaps more happy to play ‘third cruiser from the left in a field of five thousand’ as long as it furthers the status of the corps; it seems that the rise and fall of corporations drives the ‘story’ behind the game, and the players are part of that story, but never the direct focus of it. You would think that City of Heroes by its very nature – comic-book hero MMO – would allow the player to really feel like the hero, but it doesn’t really work like that. In most comic books there are multiple heroes and villains operating in the world, yet the storyline tends to follow just one character or group, and occasionally mixes in other heroes in cross-overs and the like: it’s the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, not The Amazing Adventures of Every Marvel Superhero Ever Invented. In CoH you fight your way around Paragon City, thwarting evil doers and righting wrongs, but at every turn you see another hero doing exactly the same, and a lot of the time they have the same powers as you too! After a while, you realise that you’re actually just part of the crowd and it’s the NPCs like Statesman and Positron who are the real heroes. You’re simply Mary Jane or Aunt May: there as a plot device for Spiderman. It’s the same in World of Warcraft, where the famous NPCs are the main heroes and drivers of what little storyline there is. The players are just pawns in the games of NPCs. If you imagine a novel of WoW, it would follow the adventures of Malfurion, Jaina, Thrall, Cairne, Sylvanas and the rest. If players were ever mentioned they would be the messenger that runs in and interrupts a council of elders and their speech would start “My lord, I bring grave news…”, or more likely a naked messenger bouncing into the room shouting “HELLOZ I WUD LEIK SOME GOLD PLIZ”.

Players in MMOs are the Riders of Rohan to Theoden King, Red Squadron to Luke Skywalker, Gold Rings to Sonic the Hedgehog. The hero wouldn’t get very far without the players, but the players aren’t the hero. The story isn’t about them. Now, some people won’t care about this, they’re happy to play NPCs’ bitch, as long as they get to slaughter things and are rewarded with shiny items that show they’ve slaughtered more things and for longer than anyone else, they’re happy.

But not me.

If I play an MMORPG I would like my character to be a part of a story, and I would like that story to be about my character in some way. I’d like to feel that my character has had adventures, and that these adventures were due to actions that my character took. If there are powerful NPCs in the game, I’m happy for my character to start out running errands for them, but as my character gains power and influence, I’d like to eventually help these NPCs as an equal, and perhaps eventually have them come to me for ‘work’. I would also like the moon on a stick.

Ok, I don’t actually want the moon on stick, mainly because I couldn’t dual-wield it with my sun on a chain of interlinked rainbows, but also because I do understand that there are always limitations to what can be implemented in something as complex as an MMO. But there seems to be such little innovation in the market at the moment, everything is sticking more or less to the same formula whilst evangelising their innovative feature ‘Look! now you can grind professions as well as combat skills’ or ‘Look! Now you can grind levels on an evil character that other players can then grind on’ or ‘Look! Now you can grind your character’s crotch against furniture!’. Maybe not the last one.

Then again.

The first problem with the ‘you as hero’ in MMOs is the inevitable second M in the acronym: multiplayer. If you sit down and play with your character as the hero of a story, then Joe Journals over there has to be able to sit down and play as a hero in the world too. If there are four or five of you in the world wanting to be heroes, great, you’ve got yourself a fellowship and you’re all going to do well (just watch out for that nut job who likes to tank with his mage). When you’ve got several thousand players in a world, all keen to be the focus of a story, things fall apart and the NPCs take over.

The second problem I’ll highlight is the fact that most MMOs are not persistent worlds other than that they are, hopefully, always available to players. Changes in the world generally never persist, and there are obvious reasons as to why. If a new player logs in to your game, finds that his neighbour’s farm was attacked by wolves and the neighbour would like you to join his posse to hunt them down, the new player is not going to get much joy if he gets to the area the wolves were last seen only to find that Joe Journals got there ten minutes ago, and has systematically destroyed all lupine wildlife in the area to the point of extinction. No wolves in the area to hunt, therefore no ‘quest’ to complete, therefore no reward or gratitude from your neighbour.

Or maybe there could be. The game Spore has created a buzz around its procedural generation of content, and although little is known about the technology behind it, the idea of it is intriguing. Procedural or fractal questing could be an interesting way to think of how to make MMO worlds more persistent whilst allowing players to affect it in their own way, for their own story. If we go back to the wolf example we can see how it might work on a very basic and trivial level: Joe Journals has killed-off the local wolf population, which is great for your neighbour’s farm. Or is it? With the wolf population lowered, the prey of those wolves is now free to multiply and might overrun your neighbour’s farm eating his crops, so he needs a hand with culling them somewhat; or perhaps the wolf pelts that are usually used for clothing are now in short supply, and you’re required to come up with an alternative source before the winter season arrives; or maybe the local wolf population was all that was preventing the neighbouring village from getting through the hill pass and attacking you, so now you have to help defend the village from attack.

If NPCs in games are usually the heroes, but we want players to take on that role, could we let players be NPCs as well as PCs? That is to say, one of the defining roles of an NPC is to hand out quests to players to enable them to earn experience and rewards. Instead of having thousands of NPCs, have the majority of players as the givers of quests. In this way, you involve people in each other’s story, at the same time as progressing their own. So your character has moved on from the village where you started after defending it from the wolf epidemic, and now resides in the city after being given a point of contact by one of the people you helped. You decide to look for work and find a poster outside the inn for one of the local guilds looking for new recruits. After meeting with the guild master you are tasked with accomplishing some task to further the guilds status, and when completed you gain a rank in the organisation. At this point, you can get another quest from the guild master, but due to the procedural nature of the quest system you also have some quests that you can give to junior members of the organisation, having these tasks completed for you will also gain you rankings in the organisation, perhaps more so than if you just hassle the guild master for work all the time. You have to provide suitable reward that other players will want to perform these tasks, and as you gain higher ranks in the organisation one of these rewards could be to promote other people. However, other players will also be gaining ranks in the guild, and you will have to compete to get players attention, thus making rewards more interesting and perhaps unexpected. Politics and intrigue can become entwined with your story, other players’ stories and questing in general.

Now if you’re a member of the guild of guardians, other players might be members of the assassins’ guild, so not only have you got to deal with the intrigue within your own organisation, you have to deal with the other organisations working against you. The assassins’ guild might, through various questing, open a quest to assassinate the governess of the town. This in itself will open the quest for one of the high ranking members of the guardians’ guild to protect her, which they won’t be able to do alone, so they give out various sub-quests to other players: attempt to infiltrate the assassins’ guild to learn more about the assassination; undertake work at the governess’s house in order to be in the area when the assassin’s strike. Success or failure at a quest will allow other opportunities to prevent the assassination, while the other guild works at quests that will give them an advantage. If the governess is killed, a new governor comes to town, and perhaps they tax the guardians’ guild more heavily, whilst turning a blind eye to some of the activities of the assassins. There will be a chance at a later date for the guardians to redress the balance and put a new governor in to power, but this level of semi-persistence is believable and immersive, town rulers come and go through politics and intrigue, and the story of the town and its development can be traced through the players who affected its change. Now these players might not be heroes in the traditional sense, they might not be recognised world-wide as achieving greatness, but within their story they will be, and that story will be unique to them even though other players have taken their part in it.

Like anything in ‘moon on a stick’ land, it’s easy to pontificate on the “wouldn’t it be nice”s and “oh, if only they could do this”s, and then leave the hideous complications of implementing such a thing to others, but for whatever reason, innovation in the MMO arena seems to be stifled. Don’t get me wrong, there’s innovation out there, clearly, but it’s all evolutionary and based very much on the same foundation, and that foundation is that every player is a unique individual, just like every other player. It will be interesting to see if a developer will be brave enough to take a genuine leap to another level, and how that will work out for the players and their characters.

I’m still holding out for my hero.