What if J.R.R. Tolkien had named his classic fantasy trilogy How Frodo Destroyed the One Ring at Mount Doom? Thankfully he had the good sense and propriety not to do so as it would have been foolish to have revealed the climax of the story within the title of the book.
Part of the reward for the reader who invests their time in a work of fiction, is the gradual revelation of the story. The same paradigm should apply to MMOs and virtual worlds that are story based. As the player delves deeper into the world they are rewarded by experiencing more of the story. I’m not a big fan of story based MMO’s but if you are going to create one, then at least do it correctly.
Why then is Blizzard so eager to destroy this classic relationship of author, story and reader by routinely previewing the future in the World of Warcraft?
Arthas Will Die Whether You Like it Or Not
To illustrate my point, today as I loaded up WoW I was greeted with a small graphic that was an advertisement for Patch 3.3: The Fall of the Lich King. The name of the patch bothered me. It seems that Blizzard has preordained that Arthas will die on schedule in the next path. This is insulting to the players because it assumes that Arthas will be killed regardless if it happens or not.
Apparently Blizzard believes in creating a virtual world where everything is scripted down to the last detail. Everything is calculated and preordained. It’s almost as if the efforts of the players are irrelevant and subservient to the decrees of the game designers and storytellers at Blizzard.
As far as Blizzard is concerned, *you* the player are not that important in the grand scheme of things. Events will unfold in Azeroth at the appointed time and place. You the player are impotent and powerless to shape your virtual world? Just shut up and play.
The BlizzCon Grand Reveal
When you think about it, the very same problem plagues the annual BlizzCon gathering. In this event, Blizzard basically previews the next expansion for millions of players around the world. It’s nothing more than a gloried spoiler fest. By doing this they are cheating their millions of fans by removing the element of surprise and destroying the thrill of discovery.
For the next WoW expansion Cataclysm we already know far too much about what will happen and it’s still less than 2 years away.
Why can’t players be allowed to experience content as it happens? Why is Blizzard so intent on previewing content years in advance? Why is Blizzard cheating their subscribers by revealing spoilers, important details and plot-lines when they haven’t even happened yet in the course of time?
The Right of Self-Determination for Players
I’ve long held the belief that players in virtual worlds should have the right to tell their own stories and create their own futures. Instead of being slaves to predestination, players need to know that the fate of their server/shard is in their hands — not the hands of the developers.
Let me play the devil’s advocate: why does Arthas have to die at all? What if the population of a particular server decides they would like to serve Arthas instead of defeating them? Shouldn’t that be their choice?
When you preordain the future you have taken away liberty from your players. Players become spectators instead of participants.
When a particular outcome is guaranteed what is the point of being part of a virtual world?
The video game industry and their marketing departments are seemingly trapped in a sort of preview mania. You have beta testing, patch testing, demo versions and countless magazine and web previews for upcoming video games. All of these things exist to generate buzz about their games. In the end it’s all about money.
If story didn’t matter the element of surprise and discovery would be inconsequential. But, for MMOs that are so heavily scripted and story-based it’s critical to guard and respect these fundamental mechanics. MMO companies need to stop treating players like children and allow them to experience the story for themselves.
Even better, have the courage to give players the tools and autonomy to make their own stories and create their own destinies. What a shame that a decade after the release of the venerable EverQuest we are nowhere closer to realizing that dream in a mass market MMO.