I loved the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. Sure, it could have been better, but the core concept and Murray’s performance proved to be both entertaining and thought provoking. So… yeah… MMOs. In a world where nothing major really changes (at least, not because of player actions), and where completing a quest makes you the Hero of the Day!!! for all of ten minutes before the next schlub turns in the same quest, I think the “infinite loop day” is a relatively relevant concept.
It’s even fun, for a while. Humans like patterns, after all. We like the comfortable, rote, repetitive recitations of life. We like that the Deeprun Tram always goes back and forth between Ironforge and Stormwind. We like that mobs respawn in a few minutes, so that we can get the experience, quest item, or loot drop that we missed (or are getting again). We like that Onyxia always does pretty much the same thing every time she spawns for us, since if she started exhibiting some real AI, she’d eat our healers, squish our DPSers and pick her teeth with the tank.
But what of story? What of the lore that makes these virtual worlds so interesting? Are stories that don’t really go anywhere just as interesting as the grand tales of old? This post is what got me thinking a little more concretely about story, and it’s a good quick read, with some good comments:
If it’s not obvious from my other writings, I’m a lore goob. I love the art and the storycrafting that has gone into the WoW universe. I’d probably geek out over LotRO, GW, and maybe even EVE if I let myself burn the time to do so. (AoC doesn’t interest me, however. I don’t like gutter content.) To me, a fair dose of why I’m even interested in WoW (despite my many misgivings about the business model and idiots online) is based in the lore. It just seems ripe for good storytelling to me. Yes, it’s cartoony, yes, it’s a wee bit stereotypical, yes, the Forsaken make me a bit queasy. It’s still a well-crafted bit of work, and one that I’m happy to delve into.
And yet… I can’t help but think that as an MMO, it’s really not quite what I’m looking for.
In WoW, nothing really changes all that much. There are all these fascinating little stories driven by the plight or triumph of NPCs, and plenty of opportunities to be hailed for killing stuff, but nothing really changes as a result of player actions. Ransacking Stormwind as a Horde raiding band doesn’t stop those filthy humans from breeding, and exorcising the Undercity doesn’t get rid of those creepy corpsewalkers. Killing the local wildlife doesn’t really make the town safer, since those mean nasties regenerate in a few minutes. (And patrol just outside of town, waiting for the next battle.)
There’s a balance that needs to be struck between the familiar patterns that keep players feeling powerful, and the crazy, dynamic content that can come when the world really starts to feel alive, and actions have consequences, for better or worse.
I’ve had an idea rattling around in my head for a “periodic MMO” that can try to blend the “cyclical experience” with giving players the ability to affect the world. Yeah, everyone and his dog and his dog’s shampooer have MMO ideas these days. Call this an intellectual exercise in design, if that makes it sound better.
At its heart, the design would simply be a world where players can change things, but the world gets “reset” by a periodic cataclysm that wipes out all of the petty player efforts. Characters are all destroyed (except for those sooper sekrit special story characters), but their “essence” carries through somehow, thus preserving player time investment. I’m cobbling together concepts from games such as Dark Cloud, Final Fantasy, Dinotopia (the original books, not the subpar spinoffs in other media) and Harvest Moon, with a healthy helping of “well that’s weird” thrown in. The hope is that by doing a story-driven wipe every few months (the frequency might need to be tuned), players can be given a chance to run amuk for a bit, but still wind up starting the next cycle more or less on the same foot.
Each cycle would have its own story, and the whole “periodic wipe” mechanic would have an overarching story. It would require more work and even some in-game GM manipulation, as well as a tight rein lest any players get too out of hand, but I just can’t help but think that it might wind up to be a bit more fulfilling than “turn in Van Cleef’s head” right after you saw that other dude do the same thing. It should also allow for more interesting storytelling, since things can actually change over time.
Even so, my own little repeatable world is just extending the time frame of repetition. Is there a way to make a world that changes and evolves without the “reset” mechanic? Is it possible to balance the power properly, and make skill a prime key in success, rather than hours in-game?
In sum, then, Groundhog Day is good fun. Even so, it’s pretty unique among movies. Why, then, are we as players and designers content to let such an overwhelmingly static experience be the mainstream of the MMO market, when it barely lives up to the vast potential of a virtual, persistent world? It’s a fun little treadmill, but when do we get to take a walk through some real wilderness?
Image taken from here, unknown whom to credit: