Like most gamers, I tend to think a lot about what I am playing lately. Heck, if I were to be completely honest, I do more than think about Minecraft, I obsess over it. I’ve even dreamt I was in the game, forever placing blocks. Before I saw the true potential of this game for myself, I was one of those naysayers on the sidelines lobbing jabs. Blocks? You want to play with block all day? What are we five?
That was until I saw Minecraft in action, and learned that what I had been searching for in MMOs was in this little game and had been all along: A truly custom experience. In the last few days, though, this line of reasoning has turned into a sort of hypothesis, mainly because when I log out of Minecraft and into a game like World of Warcraft, I am instantly bored. It’s like the game has ruined MMOs for me, or at minimum colored my opinion of the games I used to live to play. But can we have a persistent game that provides a deeply personal custom experience for every player while still retaining mammoth scale? I think we can, but for that to happen, we have to rethink the basic ideas of what an online game should be.
MMOs as they stand today are a genre of games defined as role playing games. Oddly enough, the role playing aspect of these games is limited largely to the stats your character has, and resembles little the pen and paper games that originated such systems. In a tabletop RPG there is a huge deal of customization – in fact the entire game can be created by the players, with the story crafted by the DM and the character being built by those that play them. From scratch even, if you like. There is only a finite number of stat combinations in RPGs, and when you get into the social pressure aspects of playing the game – things like tanking roles, healing roles, etc. – there is barely a scrap of customization left in the game.
Sure there are role play opportunities within MMOs, mostly player-driven through server and guild/clan selection and social interaction, but never does the player affect the game world. My travel through the Condemned Subway in Anarchy Online never changes the world around me. I kill the mobs, and in a minute they will respawn for someone else to kill. The quests I complete in Aion will never alter the game, they only serve as a vehicle for my character to adjust my stats. Some MMOs are realizing that gamers, particularly RPG gamers, crave the feeling of importance in a game, and are creating systems that simulate this. Simulate, rather than create it. Why? Because it seems too difficult to have everyone changing the world. It would be chaos. Or would it?
On the opposite spectrum sits Minecraft, the little game that could. Minecraft is replete with customization. It’s a blank slate with monsters and a weather system, a block of clay just waiting for players to mold and shape. I cannot describe how it moved me to first be able to log into the game, carve out my little home, and know that there it will be, until the world ends and the server corrodes into data bits. In MMOs I can be a hero, saving civilization in exactly the same way that thousands, if not millions, have done before me. In Minecraft, I am mistress of my own destiny, and what I do matters. If I want to strip mine the world and rip up every piece of iron leaving it a dry husk, I can. If I want to raze forests to the ground, I can, but it will mean less wood for me to use later. Or I can decide to practice sustainable farming and replant as I go. It’s up to me, and the world will never be the same because I spent time in it.
This feeling of impact on your surroundings is illusory in MMOs the same way it is in our real lives. We game, therefore to feel powerful, but ultimately that feeling fades as we realize everyone else is just as powerful, if not more so.
So how do you inject this feeling into today’s MMO? The short answer is you don’t. MMO game design needs to change at the fundamental level for this to be possible. You have to think of a game’s content not as a static thing (I write this quest for this NPC in this quest hub), you have to think dynamically. Games are already generating some of their graphics in this way. Let me provide you with a scenario so that you see what I mean:
You are playing a Fantasy-based MMO, one that’s not yet on the market. You roll your character, creating their parents and their lineage, which determines how they look and act. They you step into the game world, in a town that looks like it was cut/pasted out of a British travel magazine. As you stand in the middle of the Inn trying to get your bearings, another player of much higher rank runs into the Inn and slaughters the Innkeeper. Just stabs him there in broad daylight. Well there goes your quest giver. Might as well wait for him to respawn, right? Wrong.
The guards come running, survey the scene, and then things start to happen: The offending player is run out of town, the guards having instantly put a bounty on his head for his crime. The tavern wench, now out of a job, decides that since she’s got mouths to feed she’s going to loot the place while the guards are busy. A witness runs to the mayor, who realizes he’s going to need a new Innkeeper if he wants to keep business flowing in his town. He offers you the job, which you decline, and then he offers you the chance to help escort a new Innkeeper from the next town over. You’ve received a quest in the midst of all this chaos, and have a part in fixing the problem.
You can choose to complete your quest or not, to join the tavern lady in clearing the shelves of anything valuable and run for the hills. Either way, you are affecting the town around you. The game design hasn’t specified which stories happen, it has instead provided a dynamic system in which you are the main character, impacting the game world around you.
Systems similar to this concept are already being modded into Minecraft. What is missing, naturally, is the massive multiplayer element, and the elements rooted in tabletop RPGs – stats and such. Still, this is where MMOs need to go. If they are going to keep their audiences invested, they are going to have to come up with ways to have the game truly change because of the player. And once they do that, they will forever have my heart, and my dollar.