Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Massively Multiplayer Illusion

My complement convinced me to try out Granado Espada recently, and one of the things I noticed while playing was that occasionally another player would walk by. Now, this might seem like a rather silly thing to "notice" since I was playing an MMO, but that's just my point - it struck me that a substantial part of my game experience DIDN'T involve interacting with other people, and even when they popped into view, they usually went on toward whatever monster spawn point they were heading to without stopping to say hello. It was funny, I thought, that I was playing an MMORPG and yet after a full hour of play had only spoken and interacted with NPCs and monsters. And by "funny" I mean weird.

Let's consider another example: Guild Wars. In Guild Wars the only persistent environments are the cities. All explorable areas are instances that contain only the party that set out to explore them. This means that even though there are millions (I don't know what the specific number is) of people who play Guild Wars, and thousands who are online at any given time, throughout most of the time I spend playing, I only see 1-7 other players. Even then, you can fill up the empty slots in your party with henchmen, and in the newer expansions, heroes. What does all of this mean? It means that when I play Guild Wars, I play in a party of me, two friends, and a bunch of NPCs. Despite the supposed "massively multiplayer" nature of the game, my experience, as a player, is that of playing of a 3-person multiplayer game. That's not necessarily a bad thing - I prefer playing with my friends to playing with random 13-year-olds - but it's not really a "massively multiplayer" experience.

But, you object, like I just said, the cities are persistent, and there you can interact with many people at once. This is true. It has also lead to some fun multiplayer experiences, or as I like to call them, "social experiments." I one case, I decided to start running laps around Ascalon city, talking about "staying in shape" while I did it. My friend was amused and joined in, and then a random stranger joined...10 minutes later I had an entourage of 60 players, all running laps around Ascalon city behind me. Some of the people in the back of the line asked "where are we going?" Needless to say, I was pleased with the results. Nonetheless, that totaled about a half-hour of play, and clearly wasn't something the game designers really intended for me to spend my time doing. Outside of district 1 of Ascalon city, which is a 24/7 dance marathon, cities serve two purposes - to gather parties and to customize your character. The thing is, this exists in games that aren't MMOs, as well. Consider Counter-Strike, or just about any RTS game: you join a server where you can create games, customize anything you can control out of game (for example, your "deck" in Age of Empires 3), and chat with people. The only difference is that instead of usernames on the side of the screen, the players in GW have avatars in their giant server rooms.

This brings me to the crux of my post: why is there such a huge push to make games "massively" multiplayer? What happened to making games just multiplayer? The reason I ask is because it seems that most designers working on MMORPGs are under the impression that because they're making an MMO, they're greatly restricted in their options, and that they have to have feature x, y, and z. As I've tried to explain above, however, most of the multiplayer aspects of an MMO are available in games that don't count as being MMOs simply because they don't choose to present themselves as MMOs. In AoE3, you can not only team up with your friends against bots, but by doing so you gain experience and levels which carry over into your future matches and increase your range of abilities. Yet this is not an MMORPG. It's not even an MMORTS. It's just an RTS game.

I think what designers should consider for each and every virtual world they build are 1) just what the unique possibilities of MMOs really are, and 2) how non-MMO games get around the major pitfalls of MMORPGs. I don't have time to go into both these questions in detail, but I'll say something brief about the first one. I think MMOs present two elements that cannot be achieved in single player and "merely multiplayer" games: living economies and co-operative world creation.

Since you have many people sharing (and competing for) the same resources, the value of any item in the game is determined not by design-fiat, but by supply and demand. This is incredibly interesting, and some players are drawn to play MMOs specifically play with the game's economy. That said, most MMORPGs have terribly distorted economies. After the game has been going on for a while, the majority of items are worth either next to nothing or ludicrously large amounts, and even in games with professions and large marketplaces, the richest players are always the high-level players that have completed the highest-level dungeons, who then get to determine the shape of the economy with their enormous expenditures. In other words, economies in MMORPGs are actually very limited, and I'd be willing to bet that almost no MMORPG developers prioritize the economy as one of the most fundamental elements. Rather, they start with combat and quest design, and then get around to worrying about the economy later, when the core mechanics are already decided.

The other unique element that MMOs present is in an even worse position: most MMORPGs lack co-operative world creation altogether. The world that you play in a carefully crafted static world where you can have no impact on anything except your own resources. The static nature of the world is, of course, one of the aspects of MMORPGs that people complain about most often, and is often excused as simply an inescapable consequence of making the game massively multiplayer. I don't understand this excuse at all. As I just said, the potential for co-operative world creation is one of the unique things that MMOs have to offer. Think about all those hundreds of quests in Oblivion, in a world with only one hero running around inside it. Even a dedicated player is only able to explore a fraction of the world, much less the possibility space in the game for different character types, different choices at different turns, etc. If there were a couple hundred, much less a couple of thousand, players running around this world, stealing from people's homes, catching and imprisoning thieves, closing Oblivion gates, etc., you might get an emergent narrative.

The only games that take advantage of these features of MMOs are the ones with little or no gameplay, such as Second Life. Just imagine a game that has an economy and user generated spaces like Second Life, and interesting and dynamic game mechanics to back it up and make the world alive. Then go and play a massively multiplayer game, and prepare to be disappointed. What I want is either a game that's really willing to run with the "MMO" bit and explore the potential of large-scale user interactions, or else a solid RPG that's willing to settle for being "merely multiplayer", so I can play with my friends without having to deal with grind-based gameplay, simplistic quest objectives, and an in-world economy that's in worse trouble than our real world economy is.

-Silent Ellipsis

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Virtual Worlds News has an article today about CitySpace, a virtual world being developed by LivePlace. The long and short of it is that CitySpace is a 3D virtual world with incredible graphical detail that will require no download. I have no idea what kind of gameplay it will have, if any, but if the world displays like it does in the video, then it's a major technical achievement.

Of course, it won't work like it does in the video. Apparently there is some suspicion that the demo includes pre-rendered segments, but even if it doesn't, the thing is going to be as slow as molasses. If anyone has tried out Google's Lively, you might realize that even with such a big name behind it, it's going to be an uphill slog to get users to play in a virtual world that not only requires a download, but takes a full half-hour to load a room with the download. It kind of defeats the purpose of being able to embed the virtual world in a webpage if it doesn't load on a realistic timescale. If this is a problem for the relatively simple graphics of Lively, just imagine the wait times you'll face to get into a room in CitySpace.

This reminds me of a post I made on the RocketOn blog about why it was better for us to go with a 2D virtual world. I don't think that the primary market for social virtual worlds is the same as the market for ultra-realistic 3D environments that let you show off your fancy computer specs. That said, if by some miracle it is able to show off that kind of graphical detail rendered server-side without making users wait hours to enter a page, it will be pretty exciting.

-Silent Ellipsis

Monday, August 11, 2008

Undiscovered Pixels: Game Censorship

So apparently I'm not the only person who was inspired to make a post about censorship today. I don't know if the folks at Penny Arcade were also motivated by the news that an edited version of Fallout 3 is going to be released in Australia, but one way or another it seems to be topical right now.

Aside from the Fallout 3 news, what really brought this up for me was running across uncensored versions of sprites from Final Fantasy VI recently, as I've been on a sprite-hunt to gather material for a game I'm making. Not only are these 32-bit pixelated images that were being censored in the 90s, but they weren't exactly the most offensive of images to begin with. Let's look at a couple examples.

Here we have one of the parts of the final boss fight, specifically the "Godess." She has gone from not-nude to more-not-nude, which is truly a profound change. I mean really, 60% of a pixelated female thigh is ok, but 80% of a pixelated female thigh is just asking for eternal damnation, apparently.

But FFVI didn't just include scantily clad women.

That's right. FFVI's last boss fight also included a bare-assed man. Oh, the humanity. Actually, both this picture and the manner in which it has been censored remind me of something...

To quote my AP Art History teacher, "See that cloth there? There used to be a big old shlong hanging out there." He later claimed that he was just trying to keep students awake when he said that, but I think it's a very informative way of putting it. Michelangelo's Last Judgement happened to coincide with the beginnings of the counter-reformation, and the artist was forced to censor his painting in order to maintain propriety. It was ridiculous, but worth pointing out that 1) The original figures were actually nude, and 2) They were very realistic, masterfully painted figures, not pixelated enemies (that's not an insult to FFVI's sprites - we're comparing them to Michelangelo's Last Judgement here). Does this mean that we (and by we I mean Americans in the 1990s) have become more prudish since the 16th century? That's quite an accomplishment.

Or is it because we believe that video games are a kids' activity, and therefore should be tailored to be consumed by children? Despite the fact that the average gamer is not a 13 year old kid, many people seem to be holding on to the belief that video games are fundamentally a child-oriented medium. The creation of games like Fallout 3 is evidence that this is simply not the case. Many games are being created for mature audiences (just as many movies and books are), and to account for the difference, we have a game rating system. Just as children shouldn't be taken to R-rated movies, they should be given M-rated games. It's not hard to find these ratings - unlike movies they're printed right on the front of every game released, in plain view. Instead of taking three seconds to look at the rating and try to gauge the game in question, however, paranoid parents want to make developers jump through hoops to release even mildly adult content in games, and in doing so limit the narrative possibilities of games.

What about the question of going international? In FFVI, we had a Japanese game being censored for American audiences, but in the case of Fallout 3 we have an American game being censored for Australian audiences. I can't fault Bethesda here: if in order to sell your game in another country you have to edit it, it just makes sense as a company to do so. Still, I can't help feeling like developers are losing something when they compromise in a case like this. I'd rather Australians get to play a censored version of Fallout 3 than no Fallout at all, but it saddens me to think that people there won't be able to see Fallout 3 as it was originally conceived. Note that in this paragraph I'm running on the assumption that Fallout 3 will be a good game - I can't say that for certain, obviously, but knowing it's being developed by Bethesda I don't think it's unreasonable to have high expectations.

Silent Ellipsis

P.S. Didn't get around to mentioning the most hilarious examples of censoring in FFVI. In one area, a sign that says "Pub" is changed to "Cafe," and one enemy smoking an opium pipe is censored - to not include the smoke (the pipe is still there). Really, what are we supposed to expect the pipe is for?