Friday 30 September 2011

It could be the best of MMOGs, it could be the worst of MMOGs

Fallout: New Vegas would make a great MMOG. Some tweaks would be needed; it starts well for a single player game, as you’re shot and left for dead. I say “well”, I mean it gives an immediate hook with good strong motivation to find your assailant, obviously the whole being-shot-in-the-head business puts a bit of a crimp on your plans for the day. As you pursue your shooter with the firm intention of giving the cheeky scamp a stern talking to, possibly even boxing his ears, you’re introduced to the other factions fighting for control of the Mojave, and the stakes get progressively higher (as befits a Vegas-oriented game) until your actions have deep and far-reaching consequences for the whole region.

A problem I found was the more important I became in the world-changing struggle, the less engaged I felt; I didn’t really want to have the fate of the region resting on my shoulders, but none of the competing factions seemed ideal ranging as they did from “evil murdering nutters” through “broadly benevolent (but still a nutter)” to “generally all right for the most part but a bit inflexible and perhaps a smidge too expansionist to really get behind (though at least not, so far as I can tell, nutters)”. I felt compelled, therefore, to seize power myself, for altruistic reasons rather than megalomaniac tendencies, but even then things didn’t quite work out precisely as I would’ve liked. Still, as Oscar Wilde said (when he was lead singer of the Stones) “you can’t always get what you want”.

It wasn’t as much of a letdown as Fallout 3, where I really felt railroaded at the end after a great start, I felt more in control of what was going on, but like the previous game, for me Fallout was most satisfying when more intimate, wandering around the wasteland uncovering desolate shacks, abandoned mines, communities barely scratching out an existence, or best of all the trademark vaults, underground bunkers built to survive the nuclear apocalypse, excellent places to shelter apart from the tiny issue that most of them turned out to be horrific psychological experiments.

That’s why it would be a great MMOG; after all they seldom have a single main story, more a series of areas, zones or dungeons, sometimes with linking threads but rarely as the main focus. I finished off the main New Vegas game, just to see what happens, then reloaded from a point before the final act kicked off and did some more exploring, and ran through the DLC packs. The structure seems like it would fit a virtual world really well, just lose the central plot and turn the players loose.

Fallout: New Vegas would make a terrible MMOG. The problem is that turning other players loose in the world would ruin it. It could support a few, no doubt; there are several companions you can join up with in the course of the game, with their own backgrounds and stories, almost like human party members (only far more obedient). Scale up to tens, hundreds, maybe thousands of players, though, and everything breaks down. A while back I suggested the Azerothian census would break down as “0.4% – Farming (livestock & dairy); 0.5% – Farming (arable); 0.8% – Innkeepers; 1.4% – Retail; 97.9% – The Chosen One Who Will Rid This World Of Evil. Slightly tongue in cheek, of course, WoW doesn’t really push your character as *the* Chosen One, but even when you’re not personally responsible for saving the entire galaxy, in the vast majority of games your character has a disproportionate effect on the world; as per another old post, “Over the course of Call of Duty 1, 2 and expansion packs, I’ve been personally responsible for wiping out approximately two and a half Axis infantry divisions, four armoured regiments and a few squadrons of dive bombers in the bits where you get hold of an anti-aircraft gun. By those measures, the invasion and liberation of continental Europe in 1944 would have required a total Allied force of twenty three people, and seven of those just to fill in when others had to go AFK for their tea.”

That disparity forces compromises in MMOGs like endlessly respawning mobs, instancing, and the generally unchanging nature of the world. Exploring vaults in New Vegas can be creepy, intriguing or action-packed (frequently all three), perhaps one was overrun and inhabited by a slaver gang, you clear them out, kill their leader, and report back to a nearby farming community that they should be a bit safer now. The impact would be pretty much removed if everything had reset the next day (or next minute), and you ran back through it again with four random people in the hope that the slaver leader would drop a nice item this time, but that would at least be better than turning up and finding players had been there six months ago, killed anything that moved and stripped the place of anything that could be carried.

In a perfect (virtual) world, those other players could have claimed the vault for themselves and set up a community there, that you could trade with, or join, or attack, but games structured in that way don’t really appeal. The *theory* is splendid, I find things like Ganakalicious’ Sandbox Challenge interesting, but the practise, so far, isn’t for me (“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is.”) Call me a rampant egotist, but I like being a superman, and the majority of single player games suggest it’s not just me. It doesn’t have to be at the “saviour of the universe” (ahh ah) level, I wasn’t so keen when New Vegas was really ramping up my personal significance to the region, but even down in local, isolated cases you’re pretty special; one man, up against an entire gang of gun-toting slavers, armed with nothing more than a pistol? (And a sniper rifle. And a couple of submachine guns. And a thermal lance for close up stuff. And a robot dog.) Just another day in the computer gaming office.

I’m not sure what the chances are for an actual Fallout MMO, with the protracted legal wranglings. I’m sure it’ll be worth a look if something does get released, but for wandering around a virtual world (albeit offline), it’s hard to beat Fallout: New Vegas. Especially with the fantastic Old World Blues DLC pack.

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