Massive Effects.

Are badgers simply the criminal element of Ger society, and somewhere in the wild there is an as yet undiscovered policing subfamily of blue and white striped Mustelidae called the goodger?

Who knows! I must confess that it was just meant as a distraction, a piece of flavoursome bait placed carefully on the ground, covered in leaf litter and attached to a thick vine rope that will snag you by the leg, swing you up into the captive audience tree and force you to hang there so that I can bludgeon you with rather rudimentary ruminations regarding MMOs without risk of reprisal.

My apologies.

But hey, now that you’re here and conveniently immobilised hanging upside down by your mind’s leg (a bit like your mind’s eye, but it allows your mind to wander), I feel perhaps that you would be receptive to a little wistful blathering on my part about one of my favourite hobbies. If during the course of my diatribe you start to feel faint, hallucinate or develop an intense migraine, it is possibly just the blood rushing to your head as you dangle there, on the other hand these are also known side effects when listening to me for any extended period of time.

So the real question I want to pose is this: is ‘massive’ the wrong focus for multiplayer online RPGs?

I’ve recently started playing Mass Effect due to my need for a single player game that can be dropped at the scream of a baby (which is like the drop of a hat, only faster and requiring more poo clearing), and for the short amount of time that I’ve played it I’ve enjoyed the experience tremendously. However, somewhere at the back of my mind there is the parasite of dissatisfaction, nibbling delicately on my pia mater and making me wonder how much better the game would be if my two fellow adventurenauts weren’t controlled by an AI suffering dementia on a scale that would make HAL’s red eye turn green with envy, but were instead controlled by my close friends, who I am happy to report are not demented in the slightest. Although based on the witterings of this post, that may not be as much of an endorsement as I had intended. Fighting the parasite of dissatisfaction are the antibiotics of immersion, which help me to look past the fact that my compatriots in the game have had their intelligence modelled on the philosophies and theorems of an especially thick oak sideboard and their movement routines lifted wholesale from the frantic rampage of a hyperactive puppy with chronic diarrhoea, by pointing out that all the NPCs, every other character in the game in fact, is a paragon of subtle method acting and restrained existence. There are no crowds of people whizzing past me at full pelt blowing raspberries and emoting in spurious ways, no diplomats or traders spinning through three hundred and sixty degrees as they bounce back and forward between two spots of the queue they’re waiting in. None of them dance naked on top of the Citadel tour guide terminals. Everyone I speak to uses sentences, none of them talk in tongues, I mean not one person has shouted out in the alien embassies “HAI EVR1 LUVS ME COS I TLK LEIK GIBBON”.

The level of immersion is intense. Well apart from the times when I, as commander, tell my squad to move forward and hold a position; off we charge, assault rifles blazing, I’m taking a bit of damage, actually a bit more damage than I should if I was being given covering fire and so I search around for said coverers. Lo and behold, my squad have in actual fact run in the opposite direction to the one I commanded and are even now having a competition to see who can repeatedly ram their crotch the hardest into the sentry gun we skirted around earlier, while it merrily plugs away at the privates’ privates.

The thought that followed was: could I have had this experience in World of Warcraft? I’m talking about the immersion part here not the crotch ramming team-mate part, for that I’d just need to join the first pick-up group I could find. The answer was: quite possibly, if I’d taken the time to learn how to run a private (read pirate) server, a server where I just granted accounts to my friends, and perhaps a few of their closest friends. The world would still be populated with NPCs, the major cities would be no more empty than they currently are, Shattrath, Ogrimmar and Stormwind excepted, and yet the world would be entirely devoid of smacktards intent on ruining your gaming experience in whatever manner possible.

I then wondered, what if WoW itself was like that by default? Instead of logging into a single server with a population of six thousand people, what if guilds in the game actually had their own instance of a server? You’d log into your server and all the PCs would be guild mates, and they’d all (assuming you were sensible with who you invited) share the same goals and want the same things from the game. What advantages might this set-up have?

For a start, players would feel more like the hero in the traditional fantasy tale, part of a select group of individuals who were destined to change the world, not a nondescript part of the shambling mass of quest tourists and January Loot Sale fanatics that currently ravage Azeroth on a daily basis. The community would be small and close knit, and individuals in that community would have greater opportunities to make a name for themselves and create legends around their character. It would be easier to make player-driven storylines, because giving just one character the Immortal Songblade of Arsewhopping on a server wouldn’t mean that thousands of other players were missing out on having that item. It would also be easier to allow players on a small guild server to be able to affect the world around them in a way that mattered and changed it permanently, because again it wouldn’t be denying that experience to thousands of other players. I also imagine that the virtual world would feel less claustrophobic, because when you take your first tentative steps into the foreboding Forest of Dark & Doom[TM], you wouldn’t peer around the first set of trees only to see an entirely deforested swampland with the indigenous population of Flaming Hellforged Dire Wolves of Armageddon dashing past you, yelping and with their tails between their legs, as one hundred and forty adventurers clatter after them screaming “LOOOOOL”.

Not to mention that you could kiss goodbye to any gold seller chat and mail spam, because without an invite to your server, they’re not getting near you. There could be a public server for trial accounts, and I’m sure the gold sellers would make the place the home of their verbal fallout, but from a subscription sales point of view, it would only encourage players to subscribe and join their own private haven free from such unctuous spiced ham and the inevitable vituperation that follows.

There are many disadvantages even outside of the technical limitations, of course, but those that I have thought of so far are not all that bad, and certainly worth enduring to remove the smacktarded majority whilst maintain the ability to explore and adventure with others. Auction houses, for example, could be linked between server instances, so that all saleable items appeared to all players of the game, hence a universal economy would exist even with the worlds being instanced. And although there’s no real solution to the ‘fancy meeting you here’ effect, where you just happen to meet the same fellow adventurers day after day, you can look at it another way: Lord of the Rings would have been even harder to keep up with if the main cast had changed entirely on a daily basis, and besides, it’s not really any different from having a guild that you regularly group to the exclusion of pickup groups and others.

Obviously this is all dependent on the type of MMO. Planetside, for example, would probably be pretty dull with forty to fifty people on the server, although having said that, Starsiege Tribes didn’t have many more per game, and it was still brilliant fun, but then its maps were a lot smaller. EVE lends itself well to having as many concurrent players as its infrastructure can handle, but then its ‘world’ is actually a universe, which slightly edges out the two meagre continents of Azeroth in terms of ‘space for player to spread out in’.

Perhaps my point isn’t that these multiplayer games should not be massive at all, but that the measure of the massiveness shouldn’t necessarily be the number of concurrent players in the world but could in certain circumstances focus on the number of instances of the world. Just look at the constant demand for new servers from players in World of Warcraft, who want a fresh start and another crack at the world before everything has been done and completed; if the game offered you the chance to create a new fresh instance of the world whenever you wanted, and to only invite those people who you consider to be friends or to have the same play-style or mindset as you, would people find less of a problem with reaching the end-game and stagnating?

Although, all things considered, I have enough problems with alternative characters in MMOs, without the option of creating alternative worlds.

I think I just invented multiversitus.

Anyway, must dash, I can hear goodger sirens approaching; they must have found that stash of bread and milk I stole from old Mrs Crumbly’s garden.

8 thoughts on “Massive Effects.

  1. Van Hemlock

    Guild Wars pretty much functions as you describe; you’re sort of aware that there are other players out there, somewhere, but only tend to meet them by a determined effort in the shared town lobbies, an effort that you’re much more likely to want to make for a guild or group of friends, and less so for the ‘cat-like-typing-detected’ crowd.

    Its all very well to hate instancing, but it does do a lot to protect us from idiots sometimes.

    Also relevant, wiki the ‘Dunbar Number’, which suggests that the human brain is neurologically capable of only giving a toss about a 150 people at once, life-wide!

  2. Elf

    It may be nice to play with a small group of close-knit friends, but you have to admit that there is a certain scale to the game that is only made possible by an autonomous bustling population.

    However, it seems that current gaming AI is good enough (or better!) to simulate the nobmongers that make up most of the population of a server that isn’t $YOU or $YOUR_FRIENDS, so it seems possible to have a small group of people being the heroes of the world whilst simultaneously allowing for the hundreds of peons, played by AIs, inhabiting and grinding away in the general areas of the game.

    For added fun, make the game PvP so that you can take out your frustrations on the lesser AIs that kill-steal or train mobs.

  3. Melmoth

    Van Hemlock wrote: Guild Wars pretty much functions as you describe

    Very true, it certainly goes a long way to removing the element of smacktardium (periodic number 666) from the majority of the game. I still find myself grinding my teeth somewhat whenever I have to enter a city though, even with most of the chat channels turned off, in fact it’s that much more jarring because the instanced part of the game is so normal; so believable; so not naked and dancing.

    Elf wrote: It may be nice to play with a small group of close-knit friends, but you have to admit that there is a certain scale to the game that is only made possible by an autonomous bustling population.

    Although it is often marked on the scale of horror when most of that population is standing on a mailbox and doing the naked orgy dance. I’ll totally agree that that vision of scale a city can achieve with a live populace is something that fires the imagination and tugs on the strings of inspiration, but having also recently purchased Assassin’s Creed, I have to say that creating that feeling and atmosphere without real people behind the controls of the general populace is most certainly achievable.

    Van Hemlock wrote: Also relevant, wiki the ‘Dunbar Number’, which suggests that the human brain is neurologically capable of only giving a toss about a 150 people at once, life-wide!

    Blimey I must be slacking or overly discerning or somethingl! So I’ve just placed an advert in a lonely hearts magazine:

    MWM, tall, slim, short-cropped brown hair, beard, enjoys MMOs and long autumn evenings. Seeks: 120 people to give a toss about.

  4. sean

    Your ceaseless ability to use the english language in such as way as to leave me with tears rolling down my cheeks from laughter has left me speechless friends…
    Anyway, screaming babies aside, I wanted to stop by and say hello and I apologize for not dropping by as often as I would like to, but you know how things can be IRL…
    Take it easy!

  5. Taymar

    “I’ve recently started playing Mass Effect due to my need for a single player game that can be dropped at the scream of a baby ”

    This made me laugh out loud. I certainly do remember needing games that fit that criteria.

    (Now I have a 14-year-old begging me to allow him to buy Mass Effect :))

  6. Melmoth

    @Sean: Good to see you’re still around and kicking, hope to read about your adventures in Age of Conan soon.

    @Taymar: 14 year-old interested in gaming, eh? Have you considered training them to farm gold for your characters in whichever MMO you play?

    It doesn’t work with babies though, no matter how loudly you shout “FARM!” “FARM!” at them while pointing at the PC screen. I, uh, read somewhere. Apparently.

  7. Melmoth

    Interesting, although I hear that The World Drum is getting nerfed in Real Life patch 3.1415 and then those 120 people will probably all re-roll into another class.

    Why are they always nerfing Shamans? Tsk.

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