Here’s a passage from The Roadmender by Michael Fairless:

In olden days the herd led his flock, going first in the post of danger to defend the creatures he had weaned from their natural habits for his various uses. Now that good relationship has ceased for us to exist, man drives the beasts before him, means to his end, but with no harmony between end and means. All day long the droves of sheep pass me on their lame and patient way, no longer freely and instinctively following a protector and forerunner, but DRIVEN, impelled by force and resistless will–the same will which once went before without force. They are all trimmed as much as possible to one pattern, and all make the same sad plaint. It is a day on which to thank God for the unknown tongue. The drover and his lad in dusty blue coats plod along stolidly, deaf and blind to all but the way before them; no longer wielding the crook, instrument of deliverance, or at most of gentle compulsion, but armed with a heavy stick and mechanically dealing blows on the short thick fleeces; without evil intent because without thought– it is the ritual of the trade.

It struck a chord with me as I read it, because I believe it is a good analogy for the current trends in the MMO market, with a hat-tip, as always, to the danger of overly elaborate analogies.

In essence, MMO developers have stopped being the shepherd of yore to their flock of players; they no longer lead us kindly, taking the risks on themselves and hoping that they can guide us carefully and with encouragement into strange new lands and onwards to fresh pastures. It seems now that we are forced forward, driven through the restrictive and repetitive pens of game-play, and as sheep we follow the content laid out before us without questioning it, without pausing to ponder where we are going or why, and without even trying to leap the barriers and see what is beyond the confines of the treadmill of existence.

And indeed the developers don’t do this with evil intent, they mass produce MMOs like cars at a factory – all the same model, just with different colours and fittings – not because they are lazy, and not because they are unimaginative, but because this production line mentality of the MMO that carefully runs you on rails from level one to the level cap, this polished and perfectly orchestrated treadmill has become the ritual of the trade. It has become entrenched in a custom that no longer focuses, in its part, on the customer, but wholly on the company and the shareholder. The Azerothian Tour bus, if you will, taking you from location to location, rushing you along their predetermined list of monuments and archaeology, with only the briefest of glimpses before you are ushered with impatient waving hands back onto the bus; it can never give the spiritual connection that visiting the sites of your own volition and experiencing them in your own way can, such that you are able to eventually feel that ineffable connection to the past, and to reach an understanding and sense of awe at the mysteries of the place and the history that unfolded there.

The accepted stance for the industry at the moment is to compare every new game to World of Warcraft and ask whether it is doing better, and if not, then whether it is doing well enough. Generally there is this smug aggrandisement of WoW, that the juggernaut cannot be bettered, that they got enough things right that the bar has been set too high for those that follow. I don’t believe this is necessarily so, I believe that they did enough things differently and took the risk of being out at the front leading the way, such that the herd freely and instinctively followed them. Even to this day, when it is evident that Blizzard now stands firmly behind its flock and harries them onwards, the sheep carry on the path laid out before them because they see no other inspiration, there is no company seemingly willing to be out in front, in whom the players can put their trust and follow as a guide and protector through strange and frightening new places.

This is not necessarily about innovation; it’s about developers taking a different direction, and in doing so putting faith in their flock to follow them. The trust has to go both ways though, the developer must give the players reason to trust in them, they must guide them with kind intent, with the wish to lead them to better places lush with the green pastures of gaming fulfilment.

Then we come to the most important part of the analogy, where the developers wait for their flock of players to have their fill, and then take them all to slaughter, before baking them in a huge pie and serving them up at the shareholders party. You see, this is why analogies suck. Oh well, can’t blame a fellow for trying.

Perhaps there’s a deeper sadness to the sheep analogy, which for me was trigged by the current crop of “World First” and “Server First” entries popping up on the Age of Conan forums and various blogs. Here we have guilds, two days into the early access and they’re already half-way through the known content and building their villages and cities. If, at general release, you rolled onto a PvP server with one of these guilds on it, I’m so sorry that you lost the game so quickly, because let’s face it, these guilds are going to be ganking you from level 1 to, well, whatever level you manage to stick it out to. Some of you will probably get to 80, I’m not sure whether that shows strength of character or some serious personality disorder. Being one of the Carebear brigade, it’s not my place to judge.

But if we’re honest, you’re completely bonkers in the brainpan.

These guilds, with their server firsts are really just the MMO equivalent of the “First” reply that comes with every new post to a forum these days (let’s not get into the fucked-up futility of the “Second” and “Third” replies). It’s pointless beyond words, beyond insanity, beyond the mental faculties of any normally adjusted human being. This is the wide-eyed, bleating mentality of sheep following the trend, trying to be first, trying to stay ahead of the predator behind them. Except that the predator is simply herding them, driving them into the temporary comfort of the truck of fleeting fame, and onwards to the slaughterhouse of endlessly repetitive raiding.

In Age of Conan, Zoso and I were the first on our server to perform an act of Hamlet entirely through the use of the hugefish_m emote.

Let the sheep bleat on, it’s infinitely more relaxing and fun to run with wolves.

Posted by Melmoth at 8:33 am