Monday 8 June 2009

We even picked up a preacher for some reason, and a bona fide companion.

Have you noticed a change in the people who you play MMOs with? It could be the close friends who you play with on a regular basis, or the random people with whom you group to complete that rare quest; rare in an MMO these days at least, because it isn’t soloable whilst your character is naked with one arm tied behind their back. And blindfolded. And unconscious.

It’s perhaps a subtle change at first, that one person of the group who is always late, you know the one, they always keep you waiting around outside an instance, and when they finally get there and are invited into the group they have to go and have their dinner and will ‘be back in 5 mins’. Which is actually code for ‘be back in about half an hour, or when at least two other members of the group have quit out of boredom and frustration, whichever comes first’. That person suddenly starts showing up on time, as soon as you form your party, bam, there they are, geared-up and ready to go. Next to change is the whiner, the person in the group who finds fault in every little thing, from the way the game plays to the way party members play the game. They don’t so much grind XP as grind down the good intentions and will to live of every other member of their party. All of a sudden though you’re noticing that they’re not whining much – at all, in fact – instead, they offer a chipper little greeting and then start merrily crawling their way through the dungeon with nary a grumble. You start to get a funny feeling that something is not quite right when the whiner starts making light banter with you, offering witty one-liners and quipping ‘take that’s and ‘have at you’s and generally seeming to enjoy the whole experience as much as anyone else. Enjoying it perhaps a little too much.

Gradually, slowly, inexorably, your fellow MMO players change, one by one. Generally for the better. They become less whiney, more helpful; less greedy, more cooperative; less emotional and more amenable. And then it hits you one day, as your party forms up on time, all geared-up and ready to go, with the correct skill sets for the dungeon you’re going to delve into, and all their equipment repaired and in tip-top condition; nobody needing anything from the bank: they’ve all got the key to the dungeon door; everyone has the same set of quests, all at the same point, all requiring the same dungeon that you are all now formed-up in front of, after having been online and in-game for all of forty five seconds or so. It’s perfect. The perfect MMO group experience. Too perfect, it feels… wrong somehow. Where are the laggards who always make the efficient people wait around outside the entrance to the dungeon for half an hour? The sort of delay that leads the waiting players to have some light banter while they wait, where they get to know each other a bit better; discuss how their days went outside of the game; maybe discuss the news for a bit; discover that sexy Selina the elf is really Alan the construction worker in real life. Where is the conflict resolution? The fights over loot where we discover that the Warrior likes to roll on every sword, even the ones clearly meant for a Rogue; the fights over strategy where we find that the Mage clearly thinks that they’re a better tank than the Warrior since they seem to constantly be buried under a pile of angry enemies. These are the real fights in an MMO, the ones that develop not the player character but the character of the player.

And that’s when the realisation comes crashing down on top of you. These aren’t other people that you’re playing with. Like some nerdy virtual online recreation of the Stepford Wives you find that all of your friends and fellows are gone, replaced with artificial constructs designed to mimic them in every way except one: these new companions are perfect. No flaws. No tardiness, no complaints, no huge hairy fifty year olds pretending to be jailbait prostitutes with pointy ears. No arguments, no ninja looting, no drama. But also, ironically, these companions also can’t offer the one thing that comes from dealing with real people, and the problems that come with real people: companionship.

Guild Wars has offered companions for some time. You can play the game – outside of its PvP element (and possibly you can even play PvP with companions if the match is set to allow it) – entirely without dealing with another player. However, there is no pretence that this is anything but a mechanic to let you play the game when you can’t find enough people to form a full party. These aren’t simulacrums of real players, they are artificial constructs attempting to fill a defined and well recognised role in your party: tank, healer, dps, cc, etc. These aren’t companions so much as mindless slaves, drafted in to your party where they perform their role unquestioningly and, AI weirdness excepted, unerringly. Lord of the Rings Online has hinted that it will be adding a similar feature to its comprehensive list of ‘everything every other MMO can do, we can do too’ features, and these soldiers will be trainable and customisable, such that you could almost begin to treat them like slightly more than pixelated slaves, perhaps considering them more like a loyal guard dog or other faithful pet. It’s still far from the idea that these characters are companions and not just party fillers, much like those flying saucer sweets that parents used to pack by the fistful into the little plastic bags that kids take home from a birthday party, mainly because they were cheap and took up a lot of space while constituting ninety percent air.

Star Trek Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic claim to offer a new take on companions, the next generation of companions if you will. TOR in particular, with their claims of compelling player character story and development, leads us to believe that companions in that game will offer us story hooks with chances to help companions or alienate them. To discuss your story with them and find out their background story. Fight alongside them. Fight with them. Love them?

Hey, it would be a fine way to make an alt, it being the offspring of your main character and some fox/hunk (delete as applicable, no foxy hunks allowed unless they’re Nathan Fillion). Although perhaps we’re veering slightly too much towards the Firefly definition of companion here.

The danger that I see here is that in trying to fulfil that oft lauded idea of character story in an MMO, of feeling a part of a world and of having an effect upon it, developers are potentially sacrificing the one thing that should always be the fundamental part of any MMO and which should never be sacrificed: other people. If TOR is playable without the intervention of other players, if the story of the game is interwoven tightly around companion characters that you meet on your adventures, and if you need not require anyone but these companions in order to make your way through the game, then what are you playing other than a single player game with a monthly subscription fee? I’m sure that there are people out there who don’t think that this would be a bad idea, who think that a version of Knights of the Old Republic where you can meet and chat with friends in the cantina on Bespin’s Cloud City before going on adventures with your perfectly formed group of perfectly formed companions, all perfectly on time, perfectly polite and perfectly functional, would be heaven compared to the hideous pain that is involved in actually playing alongside real people who are, by Nature’s design, flawed and imperfect. So with all your companions performing their roles correctly and without question – no Wookies chasing after enemy droids in order to pull their arms off, or Jedi trying to tank everything using only a blaster – the game is really all about you: failure or success is down to you. The twists and turns that the story takes are down to you. You are the hero of the game. Story and ‘being the hero’ then, if true, means they’ve got the two biggest desires for MMO players sorted out right there. Haven’t they? Not really, it is smoke and mirrors, they’re trying to convince you that what you’re playing is an MMO, when in actual fact you’re playing a single player RPG with some online connectivity. Sure you’ll be able to go off and team-up with your friends and run an instanced dungeon, but the bulk of the game will be about you and your companions, rather than you and your friends.

Developers need to be careful with where they take the MMO genre next. Enforced grouping as found in EQ and elsewhere is just as bad as the increasingly prevalent solo MMO as exemplified by World of Warcraft, where the levelling content is now nothing more than a quick solo slog in order to get to the group content. Yet the group content in WoW is just a perversion of the solo arcade games of yore, playing the same content over and over in order to progress slightly further and post your highest score. Gear upgrades from raid dungeons are the equivalent to level codes in arcade games, allowing you to skip the early content that you have comprehensively beaten and move on to the harder levels. The difference being that WoW raids require you to a) rely on other people – a Good Thing in my opinion, it’s part of the MMO experience, drama and all – and b) dedicate at least a couple of hours solidly in one sitting to make any progress. This is where it falls down: if I play an arcade game I can drop it at any moment, move off and do something else and come back to it, most of the time I can hit pause, come back to the game later and continue. I may have lost my ‘gaming groove’ by that point, but it’s very easy to do and there is no pressure, self inflicted or from peers, to carry on.

The Tuesday Console Club plays Gears of War 2’s Horde Mode on occasion. We’ve started off on the lowest difficulty and have to fend off wave after wave of enemies represented by fifty levels of content. When we’ve finished it on easy mode, we will up the difficulty by one notch. Why is this so much better than raiding in an MMO? For a start it takes all of thirty seconds from when everyone is online until we’re in and playing the game. We can select which level to play from, so we can carry on from where we left off. The characters do not develop, do not improve with gear or experience, only the players do. Anyone joining us in the middle of a game will be a bit out of their depth for a while, but they will be able to play a part from the very beginning: their character will be just as powerful as any other character in the game, the only difference in the effectiveness of that power will be how the player behind the character utilises it. So what makes this repeated content fun? The unpredictability of other players. I could play the game with bots, but it is a stale and mundane affair, like a drizzly overcast autumn morning, everything looks the same, no variety. When you play with other people there is a random element added to the game that no developer could encapsulate in code, there is no set of algorithms which can capture the camaraderie, that can encode the variation of experience. Never in a game would you share with a bot the exhilarated laughter from the launch a mortar down a street which wipes out an entire wave of oncoming enemies with a well placed yet knowingly fluky shot, and in the next instant share an embarrassed laugh as that same bot launches the next mortar accidentally from within the confines of a building, blowing themselves and all their teammates to kingdom come. And you can laugh, because restarting a level is as near to instantaneous as a game can get. A quick score table appears and then you are off again. Playing the game, having fun. Is repairing gear, recasting buffs, eating more food for buffs, running back into an instance, fun? Is it because it’s an MMO that grindy tedious monotony like that is expected and tolerated? It’s certainly what makes causing a raid to wipe a painful experience, something to be ashamed of for not performing well, for not being dedicated enough, for not executing your job perfectly. Because it is a job, it’s not game-play, not at that level. Not by any stretch of the imagination. If you cause a wipe in Gears of War 2, it’s a matter of hilarity, of light-hearted ribbing and joviality, and then you reset within seconds and are playing again. Mistakes forgotten, only camaraderie remains.

The balance in MMOs, therefore, comes from allowing structure and story in the game whilst at the same time maintaining that element of randomness which no computer generated content can provide. No mean feat. It takes a special kind of companion to enable that element of game-play, and it has taken nature millions of years to perfect it. To think that we can substitute for it with a few years worth of simplistic AI and procedurally generated content is a mistake. The focus needs to be not in replacing other players with unnatural copies that perform perfectly and to script, but to remove those elements of game-play which punish people for being… people. I look at raids in popular MMOs and see something strange, I see people reduced to robots, they have a defined role, a defined pattern of action, a defined place they need to stand. Then move over there. Then run over there. You know, I had a toy when I was a child called a Big Trak with which you could do essentially the same thing: program it to turn on the spot, shoot its laser cannon, run fowards a bit, turn, shoot, run backwards, dodge an obstacle. The curious thing now is that MMO developers do in fact seem to be trying to compensate for this trend, creating more compelling story and game-play by not reducing players to robots, but at the expense of replacing all their fellow players with robots instead.

I wonder if a balance can be struck between compelling story-based game-play and the fundamental basis of an MMO: that being massively multiplayer content. Developers perhaps need to concentrate less to start off with on how the game plays, and instead build the foundation of their game on how they will enable players to come together, play together and have fun together. Not only that but they need to take randomness and imperfection and make it a part of the enjoyment of the game. Developers of MMOs spend man-months trying to encapsulate and encode randomness into their games, and yet they neglectfully ignore, nay more often than not punish the greatest source of randomness the world has ever known: human nature.

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