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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Reduce then Rebuild

Today's MMOs are an insult. Designed to favour simplicity, MMO gamers become simpletons. Repetition is the resultant gameplay. The time will come when we may view today's MMOs through a veneer of nostalgia - World of Warcraft will be seen as quaint. This day cannot come soon enough, here's why:

Clearly MMOs possess an appeal... perhaps a trait beyond mere appeal - they offer a community, a unique place of being; they aid in definition of the self - 'World of Warcraft player' becomes an attribute - player's lifestyles are altered to:
a) Meet the actual and temporal demands of the community.
b) Reap the benefits conferred through membership of the community.
c) Commonly, to meet personal goals, eg: 'I've got to reach the next level tonight, even if it means my boredom'. Personal goals are often established to confer a long-term benefit.

I believe the popularity of current MMOs can be explained through community motivation. Ironically, community motivation is an unintentional byproduct of MMO retail - developers cannot assure their code will encourage the formation of community but must instead offer an appeal able to attract individuals - the community's composition.

So, to reiterate, the community is good - it should be preserved. Lifestyle changes which favour the play of MMOs may bring about negative health consequences and potentially alienate real-world relationships, but this is the responsibility of the individual (or, if the gamer is young, the responsible parent) to ensure the MMO is enhancing life, rather than controlling it. This is exactly where I believe today's MMOs to be in fault. The successful MMO need only offer a limited appeal, perhaps hyped through a pervasive marketing campaign, attract players, then allow community motivation to become an adhesive.

The successful MMO is a venus fly-trap, its sweetness serving only to attract. Once lured, the MMO's effect on its players is corrosive, its labyrinthine innards offer nothing of value besides the quest for appeal - 'I've heared this game only really begins when you've got a mount/Oh, my mount is superficial but at least it will aid me in attaining the maximum level, that's when the game really gets going/I'm a Being of Pure Ownage, I raid the labyrinth with my buds every day, but gosh I miss the fun of earning this privilege'. People search the virtual worlds for nourishment, not noticing they are being digested.

If you can see some truth behind these words, I think you'll agree MMOs need to change. To bring about a meaningful revolution we must first identify the sepsis in need of removal, then build upon it. I believe the most pitiful failing of MMOs lies in the rigidity of their structure. For example, Planetside's primary objective is the conquest of bases, continents, and eventually the world, but the methods available to achieve success are sourly limited by the game's content - inflexible and unimaginative - walls cannot be smashed, bases follow a standard blueprint, new content dribbles into the world at the pace of school custard - hype becomes the tool of choice for a developing team unable to meet the demands of its subscribers, announcements of distant content are the means of coaxing players into staying another month. The MMO world presents itself too often as a developer-defined barrier - an impassible mountain or single-purpose item - and could be resolved by granting players the power to refine and create. The crafting system of World of Warcraft deceives gamers into a belief they are engaging in a unique process when in truth each outcome of item creation has been narrowly defined and fixed, unchangeable. The virtual world could become truly alive if developers granted their players an ability to rearrange and form new content without needing permission. Oddly, Second Life defines itself as something other than a game, and yet it embraces a philosophy of freedom never seen in MMOs.

As gamers, and as the source of income for MMO developers, we should demand the re-questioning of each and every facet of game structure. The question should be, 'Does this element restrict our players?', and, if yes, 'How can we change this to empower our players?'. Unfortunately, with subscribers numbering in the millions, the established MMOs of this generation are unlikely to hold the motivation essential for this question to be addressed. In turn, we must look to the future. Let's view our MMOs critically and allow our opinions to be known. This way, when tomorrow's MMO enters development, revolutionary concepts will be implemented from the outset.

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