Thursday 21 January 2010

How big is massive?

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that size isn’t important, it’s what you do with it. That’s all well and good, but if you want to be called massive there has to be some size requirement, right? Currently looking to measure up are Star Trek Online and Global Agenda, and both have a fair number of detractors looking at their tape measures and shaking their heads.

In Global Agenda, individual fights of 10 vs 10 obviously aren’t particularly massive, any number of online shooters can support similar or greater numbers on one map, but Massively, true to name, suggest how it does live up to the tag. Star Trek, like Champions before it, features heavy instancing, so while the overall player base may be massive you share your bit of space (or starship bridge, or planet) with a much smaller number that some people don’t feel is particularly massive, especially when Eve whops its 54,446 on the table next to it. Jon “Not Van Hemlock” Shute points out that it’s not so far off the multiplayer experience that consoles have been offering since XBox Live really took off.

Though much of the debate is around the “massive” aspect being lacking, I wonder if perhaps the “G” of MMOG is as much, if not more, of an issue. To quote myself (bad form and all that) from a few years back:

“Very loosely, by “game”, I mean something with fixed rules and objectives, and by “world” an environment in which you’re free to do as you wish. They’re more vague labels on a spectrum than concrete concepts.”

“Game” and “world” might not be the best terms, having different meanings to different people; you might prefer “theme park” and “sandbox”, but it’s not as if they’re rigidly defined universal terms either, GTAIV or Saints Row 2 are widely referred to as part of a sandbox genre, but pull up the city map of Saints Row 2 and it’s studded with activities and diversions, effectively theme park rides. There’s always “emotive term designed to make my preferred setting seem the only valid choice” and “emotive term designed to make my non-preferred setting seem foolish and pointless”, but that probably wouldn’t help matters; I tried using “splong” and “thrunk” for a while, but got banned from a couple of forums when trying to explain that I loved the developer’s splong but they really needed to get thrunking to increase the player base, so “game” and “world” it is (you could always do a find and replace with something else if you’ve got a fundamental objection to the terms).

Both these things are vital components of an MMOG: with no “game” then we’re in Second Life/Virtual World territory, though of course there’s heavy overlap, blurring at the edges and whole other debates over exact classifications there. The “world” is, to me, what makes MMOGs massive, massive in scope as well as in total number of players. One tends to come at the expense of the other, though; if there’s a castle somewhere with an evil overlord, at the “game” end of the spectrum you might get specifically sent to kill him, and you’d get your own instance of the castle to do that in. Moving more towards a “world” there might only be one castle, with an overlord who spawns on an hourly basis after he’s killed; further still, adding persistent elements, you might just happen across the castle while exploring, nobody would send you there, and once you kill the overlord he stays dead, it’s your castle now (at least until someone, or something, comes to try and take it from you).

Many players seem to move towards “game”-type elements, particularly instancing, when given an alternative as Melmoth’s Thought for the day picked up with the popularity of WoW’s cross-server LFD tool and LotRO’s skirmishes. Just about every WoW blogger I read gives the thumbs up to the LFD tool, and with a bit of mischievous exaggeration (or blatantly trollish flamebaiting) it’s not too hard to picture WoW’s cities as a lobby where the players wait to head off on their small group adventures. As a slightly earlier example, City of Heroes featured Hazard Zones, large city areas designed (I believe) for teams with no particular goal or quest to roam through, defeating whatever mobs were around; very few did, though, compared to the number of players running instanced missions, so hazard zones as such generally faded away, were redesigned, and didn’t appear in City of Villains. I’m certainly at the “game”ish end of things, I do like the grand stage that you don’t get with a single player game, but I want to get on and be doing stuff. I really don’t mind the model of Champions and Star Trek; a seamless world would be great, but if things have to be split up then I prefer the many instances approach to having fixed, separate servers, as for one thing it makes it easier to get together with many groups of people (like real life friends, comrades from previous game guilds and people who find you via the blog, who sod’s law will dictate are all on different servers, factions or indeed continents if they can be). Randomessa from Casual Is As Casual Does is similarly untroubled, and has an interesting theory about MUDding origins; I never MUDded myself, but I did start with the instance-heavy City of Heroes instead of Ultimate Online or Everquest, so perhaps it does have something to do with formative gaming.

The further you go towards the “world” end of the spectrum, the harder I think it is to get right for both developer and players. Player numbers and density are vital when they’re driving the action, obviously you need a critical mass to get things going but communities can be difficult things to scale, and with hardware capability being finite then too many players in a small area cause issues as seen, for example, in EVE; even if the hardware can support it, if combat is of a scale where an individual’s contributions are hard to measure it can be much less satisfying and lead to much grousing about “zergs”. Players need their own motivation, and a greater time commitment as the player has to fit in with the world as opposed to a game that’s fitted to the player. There’s obviously an appetite out there, Saylah at Mystic Worlds has a great post that starts “When I think MMO, I think of an open minimally instanced virtual world where players co-exist with infinite opportunities to interact with each other while carrying out game objectives.” The cupboard isn’t completely bare; EVE Online is the poster child for worldly games, Darkfall has similar aims for the fantasy genre but started out a bit focused on the unrelenting combat side of things to be really rounded (according to an EVE economic newsletter 70% of players are located in hisec space; mind you, starting out with a lawless frontier and gradually adding commerce and security has a bit of an Old West feel to it and could work, as opposed to starting with traders and turning a Mongol horde on them), Wurm Online and A Tale In The Desert both sound interesting, if not quite my cup of tea. There’s not so much in the way of AAA titles, though.

Rather than taking games for what they are, though, some people (most frequently found in the comment sections of news sites) get fixated on numbers. “Massive” means whatever number they’ve got in their head (100, 500, 1000, ONE! MEEEEEELEON!, take your pick), and if you can’t see that many people on the screen then the developers are morons who should be prosecuted for obtaining money under false pretences for calling their game an MMOG. What does it matter if you’re sharing a bit of space with 50, 500 or 5000 if you’re not meaningfully engaged with them? Van Hemlock’s Pioneer’s Tale is a beautiful eulogy to Backwater, a home carved out on an unloved planet on a new Star Wars Galaxies server, with a population in its most utopian stage of around 25. Size isn’t everything…

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