The Endless Virtual World: A Replacement Life?

I think I’ve bumped into another one of those paradoxical concepts that are both right at the same time (we previously touched on whether Xena glorifies or denigrates women here. Kosh answer: Yes.)

Is it a good thing for a game to never end, to have long-lasting replayability, to have an endgame that keeps players in-game, playing, forever? Or are we out of our minds to hold this up as a healthy, desirable ideal? (What is wrong with variety and taking breaks, after all?)

Fair warning, this is going to be more meandersome than ever, mostly because I don’t have any idea where I’m going with this. The colliding concepts have just been bugging me a lot lately.

Spinks discusses in great depth various ‘endgame’ possibilities to keep players logged in and doing something in an MMO – some of which are traditional endgame like progression raids, some of which have always quietly existed alongside as lateral progression possibilities (PvP, accumulate achievements, collect the fluff, trading tycoon) and some which are ideal dreams  (frequent content updates that keep up interest – Rift’s managing, not sure about the rest here) or new experiments (Mists of Pandaria’s scenarios sound rather fascinating, no reliance on heals or tanks in a holy trinity game? Are they finally realizing 90% of casual players would really rather just DPS?)

Most of the time people seem to take for granted that a game that never ends is a good one. There must always be “something to do,” “something to strive toward,” “something to keep them wanting to keep logging into the game.” Why is that?

And most of the time, what they’re looking for is the raiding hamster wheel that Everquest copied off certain MUDs, and WoW mainstreamed to everybody.

I confess, I would much rather come at this from the opposite angle.

My preference tends towards non-raid progression endgame models and it’s visible in the kinds of games I prefer and support.

City of Heroes had my undying loyalty (and unceasing sub) for a long time until they decided they needed raids after all.

Guild Wars is my eternal idol because they still have no raids whatsoever, but pioneered so many other clever ways of keeping players interested in the game (not the least example being the Hall of Monuments, egads)

I’m heartily impressed by Rift (despite them having a couple raids) because Trion’s main schtick is to not mind the churn, as long as players pause their sub on good terms when they run out of content, because they will come right back once there is new content for them, and boy, can they generate new content at a good clip.

This is mostly because I burned out on the concept of raids long ago, when they still involved only 5-8 people per boss mob in a MUD, though the guild easily consisted of 24-30 people that would switch in now and then, or go on multiple runs (no lockouts in those days, just a per room player limit.)

The leading, the planning, the loot drama, the us vs them competition, the politics, the exclusivity, the elitism, the negative feelings, the inevitable obsession and addiction, the waking up at odd hours, the marathon stretches, the respawn camping, the calling in for pizza on Saturday morning during college days and not getting up again to look for food until Sunday afternoon (or was that just me?)

Call me a sour grapes Cassandra but I was watching WoW’s bait-and-switch trick over the years like a bad traffic accident predicting the inevitable burnout of many people who got caught up in the zeitgeist without really examining if they liked what they were doing.

Not that people who enjoy raiding are wrong. When I had the time to commit, I enjoyed the closeness of a small group of people that were commited to achieving a specific goal and hanging out together enjoying each other’s company. Though sometimes I wonder, did we really share that much in common, were we just projecting an idealized image of each guild member onto their names because we all just wanted the shiny loot and the others were the only means of us getting that?

More and more these days, I find my distaste for the exclusivity of it far overtakes any good that comes out of raiding. Anyone who can’t commit to a regular schedule of 2-3 uninterrupted hours with a large number of other people having the exact same free time is shit out of luck when it comes to raids. (And I’m convinced as gamers get older, that’s a growing number of us.)

But anyway, based on the current game trends, developers seem to be recognizing that raids is only one feature item on their list of things-to-maybe-have, along with stuff like PvP and PvE dailies, and they’re increasingly just trying to throw as many things to do as they can possibly think of into their game, in the hope that more options the better and might convince somebody to stick around for a while longer. (And monetizing their game in other ways by relying on F2P and  ‘whale’ spending.)

Which I suppose is all very well from a keeping-the-game-alive-by-giving-players-endless-tasks-to-do ideal, but I wonder. The same doubts about raid treadmilling are starting to creep up now in my head in respect to the whole game. At what point does it all turn into busywork and chores?

Here’s a long, meandering discussion about The Secret World’s “lastability” on their forums – most of which are just shared opinions that ultimately go nowhere, since it’s really up to the devs to strategize on if and how they want to make the game “last,” but an interesting comment by a player named Wooly caught my eye. He says:

This game is not a replacement life. MMOs are great for students on summer vacation, college students (which is basically always summer vacation), unemployed is [sic] a bad job market, etc, because they pack so much value for the money–but it’s impossible for any game company to just steady stream entertainment goodness to your brain every second of every day. Certainly not at the insanely cheap cost they sell for. It’s not a replacement to life, but an aspect thereof.

Emphasis mine. It’s meant in relation to TSW, but it applies for pretty much any MMO. And it made me wonder, just why do we demand that a single MMO be the be-all and end-all of our existence? (Obviously not, but some of the strident complaints sometimes make it seem that way.)

Are we cheap tightwads who really want our absolute money’s worth out of one poor game? Do we rely on the devs to provide that constant flood of entertainment of “things to do, things to chase on the virtual treadmill?” Is MMO playing the new version of passive television watching? Are we just hooked and conditioned like Skinner’s pigeons to keep demanding food come out when we push the button (on the remote or the keyboard?)

I dunno, it strikes me as a sad lack of imagination if that’s the reason we want an endless endgame. It’s the unexamined life and sticking to one safe comfort zone. There’s plenty of other games that can be explored and harvested for things to do, and give the poor human devs a chance to catch up with the voracious appetite of locusts.

Hell, even locusts move to new fields to chow down on if they’ve stripped one bare. They don’t just hang around wailing about the empty dirt, wanting sustenance NAO, dangit.

I’m an inveterate game hopper, so that’s not me, I long clued into the survival strategy of having an endless stream of games that I could be playing, a lot of it no thanks to Steam sales (600 games and counting, I think. *gulp*)

But while I can easily believe the worse of random troll whiner who just bitches in a single post or two on some game forums, I don’t believe that of MMO commenters and bloggers, a subset of whom also seem to be trending towards a search for an immersive, ‘deep’ (if not actually endless), nostalgia-colored player-created narrative sandbox kind of experience that might last years, and away from the consume-developer-stories-and-content themepark that lasts a couple months, if that.

Surely there are other reasons for why players are craving an endless virtual world.

What is it that we -really- want?

Could it be that we’re looking for immersion into a world that suggests it’s more of a world, less of a game? That we want a novel, yet believable setting, good stories, new content? If so, that may explain why Warhammer Online did so poorly because all the maps were laid out with very obvious ‘gamey’ metadesign and path funneling, and why The Secret World is slowly spreading attractive hooks into the community because there’s so much lore and secret stuff to keep finding.

(But TSW is far from perfect, there are plenty of people burning through the content at a vastly accelerated pace who will, no doubt, soon fall away and they certainly aren’t engendering any long term community ties with a primarily singleplayer content experience with a few bonus extras.)

Based on the expressed rose-colored glasses nostalgic sentiments, I wonder if what we’re really looking for is a sense of place.

I played none of the early MMOs that were first MMOs for a lot of people (like Everquest, Ultima Online, WoW) but I can extrapolate from my own first online experience in a MUD. It’s the feeling that in this virtual space, there is people here. Living, thriving, interacting.

Maybe getting to know one another, maybe not, because the world is so big, so vast, so unexplored, so full of the unknown, things to be learned and taught, mysteries and secrets to uncover.

A sense of place that ultimately gives rise to a sense of belonging and community.

Which is very tricky these days because we seem to have gone the other extreme in WoW’s success at bringing MMOs to the masses. We’ve moved from a comfortable tribe, a village or small town feel to a vast impersonal city or metropolis of strangers you can barely recognize and random faces that keep changing every day, and with it, has gone most of our sense of caring.

Maybe we just want a microcosm of life, not life itself. (Or a replacement life, for that matter.)

There’s that theory about Dunbar’s Number, which suggests we tend to like to hang around in a stable cohesive group community of 150-250 odd people at most, because that’s about all our brains can recognize and remember and maintain social relationships with. Beyond that number, it’s probably all us vs them kind of affairs? I don’t know.

Curiously enough, when I go looking for a sense of place and community in MMOs, there are a couple that come to mind.

(Right off, in the interests of fairness, even though I don’t play them much, let’s just quantify WoW and Eve Online.

WoW has an extensive world and sense of place, even if they’ve ruined it by now by speeding people through it to hang around queuing for instances in cities, and I’m convinced many people still hang around in WoW because of prior association with the lore and the world and the communities they formed there.

Eve has vast geographic territorial space and folks band together in corporation communities to hang out together, even if they’re promptly encouraged to tear out each others’ throats in a Lord of the Flies us vs them scenario gone terribly terribly wrong. 😛 Well, it’s a game and it’s a niche they’re catering for, all power to them.)

Lord of the Rings Online is a big one for me, even if they’ve also ruined it fairly extensively with the obtrusive cash shop and endless grinds. The landscapes and the music and the sheer power of Tolkien’s setting is phenomenal, I used to like to just log in and ride around on a mount across the -world- for a sense of peace.

Glitch is a curious place. It’s not a community that I’m deep into, because I don’t visit it enough, but I think they have formed one. Or the potential is there. Perhaps more when player housing was a part of the world, rather than spawning from the mind of each character, but there’s still ways to link houses to form neighborhoods.

Wurm Online was a good attempt at recreating a survival and pioneer town community, but ruined personally for me by being a hair too time intensive and aggravating in terms of random skill roll success, infinitely slow progress bar increments and log-in-constantly-to-keep-stuff-deteriorating mechanics. I think the time consuming nature of the game knocked out too many people who might have stuck around.

For me, the first MMO in which I found a true sense of place and oldschool community, that re-encapsulated what I felt in the MUD, was in A Tale in the Desert. Regions, housing, territories, villages and towns. People that talked to each other and interacted because the game mechanics encouraged cooperation, not defection (at least, not openly.) Chat that persisted past players’ logging out, and multiple guild affliations that situate you into a customised-for-you network of people. Though sadly, it dwindles with time. Again, way too time intensive for most, and in the mid and end game, the long term players tend to log in with intervals of days in between, not exactly great for community forming.

Besides that, well, I’m not sure that I can find it in MMOs these days. They’re just too big.

(Who knows, maybe some clever dev somewhere will think up something to surprise us, something that gives us back that sense of knowing each other and being in a virtual place, not just playing a well-designed keep-busy game. Here’s hoping, but not hoping too much.)

Ironically, I wonder if we haven’t found it in the MMO blogosphere – we have our virtual homesteads on the web, the recognizable names, the socialites, the hermits, the networkers, the grumps, the comedians, etc. and our readers, the silent but appreciative, who keep coming back and pop in for a visit and a comment chat or two.

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