I figured out what it is that I don’t like about MMOs. There are just too many people in them.
This article sums it up nicely, and it reminds me of Saylah on occasion. (That’s a good thing; she pegs the solo MMO player mentality extremely well.)
Then there’s the whole WoW Zombie event and the fuss that game of it… chronicled nearly anywhere bloggers were talking about MMOs, but these few links are good places to start. At the heart of that conflict is the difference between PvE and PvP, which naturally brings to mind the market for each. Even so, there are other, subtler differentiations between different motivations for multiplayer play.
I fall firmly into the PvE camp, whether or not it’s multiplayer. Some snootily call it the carebear camp. (Tangentially, I like my Druid; nothing like a ton of hair and teeth to bring out that feral wrath.)
Y’know, sometimes I like some good PvP action. The Smash Brothers series, for instance, is a blast. I’ve played it solo, and it’s just not the same as playing against my friend or my little brother. (Both of whom consistently slap me silly in the game for the most part, but have learned to fear Jigglypuff.) There’s something fantastically fun pitting your skills against those of other people rather than a (stinking rotten cheapshotting) AI. I used to love multiplayer Doom back in high school. I can only wish that I could have played multiplayer Descent. I’ve seen friends while away many hours in Counterstrike, though it never did really strike a chord with me.
Thing is, those games are built around combat and frantic action. They provide more or less even playing fields with minimal frippery and let player skill take the reins in providing the fun. That some like Doom have single player modes is somewhat incidental, though those can be fun as well. (Tellingly, Quake 3 was multiplayer ONLY.) I loved the single player part of Descent, for instance, because I could noodle around in the environment.
…and that’s the crux of the matter when it comes to gameplay. If a game is fun in either mode, single player or multiplayer, I’m happy with it. It’s when the two intermingle that problems start to pop up. These aren’t “chocolate in my peanut butter” problems, either, they are more like “sardines in my raspberry sherbet”. If you’re going to take players out of the single player comfort zone, multiplayer has to be separated into different audiences.
MMORPGs are ostensibly built around the notion that a persistent online world with lots of players in it is an interesting place to spend time in. I’ll readily concede, it can be. More often than not, though, it’s a cesspool of anonymous internet idiots who seem to enjoy causing other players trouble. At least, that’s on PvP servers, where players can attack each other. One of the simple answers is to make what WoW calls PvE servers, where players specifically have to opt in to any PvP play, rather than being targets simply because they exist. It’s a fair compromise, but it also removes a lot of the interaction between players that is one of the main points for playing an MMO in the first place. (And especially WoW, where the factions are supposed to be, y’know, at war with each other.)
This makes sense, since RPGs are typically solo affairs. Not only that, but games in general are usually pretty solitary efforts. Players get involved to get away from the real world and all those annoying people they have to deal with every day.
The trouble I have with that is that the poor PvE MMO game then becomes many people playing parallel lives in the same game. They don’t interact. That’s why I keep harping on the concept of making WoW an offline single player game, or at least monetizing it in line with how it’s played, as a single player exploring the content (like Guild Wars’ business model). To be sure, there are Pick Up Groups (PUGs) or spontaneous acts of kindness and cooperation that pop up, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule.
Some game designers recognize this, and go so far as to try to force grouping in order to let players progress. The thought goes something like “it’s an MMO, learn to play with others or else “. Or, the more colloquial “L2P, nub”. They are grouping anyone who wants the option of multiplayer into a broad population that just isn’t homogenous.
These people are coming at it all wrong. It should be “L2Design, nit”.
For a long time, the RPG genre was built around strong linear stories for a single player. That’s how you get the best stories. Someone saw that multiplayer was fun, and thought they would shove multiplayer into an RPG mold. That’s the sardine-raspberry sherbet clash. Both types of play are fun, but to different people and/or for different reasons. It’s like putting a posse of extroverts into a room with an introvert, and then being surprised that the reception isn’t warm and happy.
If that gamer, that introvert, wanted to play with people, they would do so. Forcing the issue tends to cause the “odd one out” to dig in their heels, rather than conform. If they do conform, they are often resentful about it. It works if you reverse the extrovert/introvert equation, too. An extrovert in a room of introverts would go mad trying to make small talk, much less arrange a conga line.
The thing is, WoW has set up an expectation that players on PvE servers will just go about living their parallel gaming lives, free of those annoying extrovert Killer characters. It’s schizophrenic to present RPG content that is largely built on solo effort, and then try to force multiplayer on it. There’s nothing wrong with players doing their own thing.
People in the real world live parallel lives. We interact with a select few, typically family and friends (occasionally a nemesis). We sort of have this vague sense that there are other people out there, but for the most part, we don’t keep track of everyone. We simply aren’t equipped to do so. As long as everyone looks out for their best interests, the “invisible hand” of the market does its job keeping everyone blithely living withing their sphere of influence, counting on others to get groceries to the store and keep the plumbing working. We don’t really notice other people until there’s a disruption of the rote little lives we live. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Of course, we should also be kind and try to help other people, so that society doesn’t fall apart at the seams and descend in to anarchy. Even so, how many people really start lifelong friendships with every little old lady they help across the street, or every harried father they hold the door open for? Much kindness outside of our immediate web of contacts is anonymous, and we’re pretty content to leave it that way.
That’s a rough analog to how WoW plays, what with regular playing groups (friends) and Guilds (big families). People interact through the Auction House much like a fantasy eBay, largely anonymously. Other people are there, sure, but you don’t need more than a simple interface (checkout counter?) to do business. You need never see them or really interact with them. That’s the strength of a persistent online world (as opposed to a Counterstrike server); people are in it, but you don’t need to cling to them all the time. Your gameplay isn’t defined solely by interaction with other people.
There are some fun anonymous interactions out there in the world at large, like the custom of drive-by buffing or reflexive group efforts, but for the most part, players are content to do their own thing, maybe with some of their friends. It’s not surprising, considering the psychology, and it’s a pretty good model of multiplayer play… but it’s also pretty solidly PvE.
People tend to work best in relatively small groups. Large business units get bogged down in internal bookkeeping, and lose efficiency. Large family reunions descend into either anonymous blobs where everyone has nametags and has to explain their connections to everyone they meet, or naturally clump into smaller family groups. That such would be the case in a game that real people play is no surprise, nor is it a bad thing. Even WoW (PvE) raids by design cap out at a few dozen people, even if the server technology could handle more. Chris over on ihaspc captured that sort of self-selecting clumping in a great proposal for small scale private WoW servers. It’s a brilliant idea, one that I wish would be implemented.
So, this bizarre notion that MMO players really want a giant Woodstockian mosh pit to play in with thousands of their closest (anonymous) friends just doesn’t hold water. We’re not really wired that way psychologically, and the game can’t even function that way. We like smaller, relatively intimate groups of those who we can trust. Even then, not everyone wants the same multiplayer experience.
Back to PvE and PvP, then. I like some PvP, but only against those who I can trust not to be complete jerks. If I wanted random senseless violence, I’d go prowl Central Park. I want my PvP in games to be tightly moderated, with clear rules and a level playing field. Otherwise, it’s anarchy, and I play games to relax. There are those who like random PvP and crazy gankfests, so I’m not suggesting removing that option for those who like it. It’s just not my taste.
Large scale PvP invites that sort of crazy anarchy. World PvP, sometimes called RvR (Realm vs. Realm) can invite some sense of organization, but it’s not common. Again, it’s some folks’ cup of sardine juice, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not what I’m looking for.
If I’m going to play multiplayer, it’s going to be with people I trust, and it’s going to be PvE for the most part. That fosters a sense of cooperation and low stress, which is what I want out of multiplayer gaming. PvE servers allow for a light, deft touch, since grouping and such are optional. It’s possible to reach out and make friends without really committing to much or altering your gameplay much. PvP raises the interaction bar, and the concurrent stress.
So what’s the upshot of all this? Call it my scattershot ode to PvE, perhaps. I can admit, I’m rambling a bit, but this was written in bits and pieces. MMORPGs have the potential of being good multiplayer fun in a persistent world, but there’s an imbalance between those who want PvE and those who want PvP. I’m pretty sure there are more PvE players who, if they want multiplayer at all, want to play with friends, not against random idiots. PvP and PvE players don’t mix well, which is why WoW’s different servers are a great idea. Forcing interaction between the two is ill-advised. Not everyone who wants multiplayer wants the same sort of experience.
This is also why designers need to keep the different audiences in mind. There will be those who want the Warhammer sort of always-on PvP (both small scale and large scale), there will be the solo PvE players who just interact with others via the Auction House, there will be the small family groups, and there will be the large groups. More often than not, these groups cannot be mixed without wrecking the game for some of the players, so it’s smart to design aspects of the game for each, all under a “persistent world” umbrella, yet separated so that troubles don’t pop up. If that means different servers, or just different sections of your world, or an offline client and an online suite, it doesn’t matter. The more compelling your persistent world, the more different people you will have wanting to play, and making environments for each of them to enjoy the world will make for a broader clientele. Telling players to play only in any one of the subtypes will more often than not just mean they leave the game, rather than conform (especially if you bait and switch the experience). Games should be about presenting choices, not constraining players unnecessarily or forcing choices or change. This is especially true in MMOs.
Is my way the only way to play? No, but neither is Jack the PvPer’s way. Give players options, and build smart fences around those who would disrupt the choices that others make. Every game needs rules, or else there’s no metric for progress or reason to play. That’s true on a small scale (how the game itself plays) as well as on a metascale (how players are allowed to approach the game).