Virtual worlds are ultimately about creating, administering and experiencing a system of governance. Every day millions of players enter virtual worlds and are subject to rules and policies laid down by game designers. Not only do designers have the same power as politicians in the real world, they act as tin-pot gods that can control the color of the sky and even alter natural laws of physics within their virtual worlds.
More importantly MMO designers are virtual social engineers. They dictate how economies will ultimately behave by setting drop rates and prices for goods. They also control mobility via the level system. They create the incentives, conditions and mechanics that influence what content players will experience in the game world. They can control how players will act and react by rewarding certain behaviors and punishing others.
Given that MMOs are a form of participatory entertainment, the game designer has a vested interest in ensuring that players are attracted to their worlds. The more a player interacts with the world and experiences some form of gratification, the more likely that player will continue to inhabit that world and keep paying the monthly subscription fee.
On the other hand, players may have a different goal then the game designer. The player, out of self-interest seeks the pursuit of their own happiness within that virtual world and on their own terms.
Virtual Worlds as Entities
Finally there is the virtual world itself. Like Planet Earth, it could be argued that virtual worlds such as Azeroth, Norrath, Middle-earth take on their own intrinsic characteristics and have a unique identity. We often hear the phrase: the long term health of the MMO. This indicates that the virtual world albeit is akin to an organism that is independent of its creators (the designers) and inhabitants (the players).
What happens when the goals of the designer and the player contradict each other? Isn’t it possible that the health of the virtual world can suffer if designers do things for the wrong reasons? Isn’t it also possible that giving in to the whims and desires of players could result in the health of that MMO suffering?
Similarities Between the Real World and Virtual Worlds
Here’s an interesting exercise: let’s substitute state for virtual world, politicians for developers and citizens for players and see what we get:
What happens when the goals of the politicians and the citizen contradict each other? Isn’t it possible that the health of the state can suffer if politicians do things for the wrong reasons? Isn’t it also possible that giving in to the whims and desires of citizens could result in the health of that state suffering?
Sound familiar? The parallels with the politics of the real world are striking.
MMO developers are just like politicians except that we don’t elect them directly. Instead, we vote with our feet and dollars. Want to “vote out” your MMO developer? Stop subscribing. But that’s not really a satisfactory solution.
MMO devs are more like tyrants. There is no direct way to make them accountable for their actions and in-actions. MMO devs are tied to the popularity of their MMOs: if the MMO is popular they are free to continue their reign; if a MMO is unpopular they are dealt with severely by the marketplace and the MMO soon folds leaving them on the unemployment line or worse working on a new MMO.
It’s interesting that despite the fact that millions of players voluntarily log in to MMOs each day there is no system of representation for players. In the past companies such as SOE have set up player representatives that liaisoned with the devs. Other attempts have been made to set up forums where classes can vent and communicate with the devs. Both of these schemes ended up being public relations contrivances that had limited success.
The reality is that allowing players to vote on features and game design elements would have the effect of turning letting the monkeys run the zoo. It would be a logistical nightmare. It also goes against the control freak design philosophy that has characterized the most successful MMO of all time: World of Warcraft.
As in the real world trying to establish a democracy is very hard. This is why most countries are run by dictatorships. The truth is that totalitarianism is the most efficient form of rule.
Breaking Up is Hard to Do
Even though we may be unhappy and fed up with a MMO and the developers, it’s not that easy to leave as an act of protest. As players we’ve invested hundreds of hours into our characters and we’ve developed friendships with other players that keep us logging on each night.
MMO companies know this full well and are counting on it. This magic dust is called social cohesion.
And this is the predicament of living in a Blizzard dominated MMO universe. Where do you go when there is nowhere else to go? Do you take the devil you know or the devil you don’t know?
Special Interest Groups
As in the real world special interest groups exist in virtual worlds. There are the constituencies of hardcore players, raiders, PVPers, role-players, casuals, achievers, explorers, socializers and more. There are also demographic groups: male gamers, female games, the teen gamers, family gamers et al. The devs walk a tightrope and try to appease all them and offend none of them.
The more vocal and savvy groups play a sort of meta-game on the official forums to lobby the devs for a larger share of the development budget — just like the political lobbyists in the real world.
Then there is the silent majority. The unsung and unheralded player that pays the bills, never complains and dutifully logs on each day. Who speaks for them?
Our Fearless Leaders
If one were to be somewhat cynical, MMO devs could be viewed like self-serving politicians who bribe people with their own tax dollars in order to keep their positions of power. In the case of some MMO devs, they continue to demonstrate that they are capable of doing things that ultimately hurt the long-term integrity of the game but have the short-term effect of attracting more subscribers which increases their revenues.
Like devious Roman emperors of antiquity, some MMO devs routinely appease the masses with the distraction of bread and circuses while eroding the fundamentals of the MMO that attracted them there in the first place. Skill, status and accomplishments are transient, disposable and mean nothing to these people. As long as the MMO is “popular” and the shareholders are happy who really cares if it is good?
It has been said that politics is the art and science of government. The MMO developer that understands and transposes this realization to the virtual genre is light years ahead of their competition.
Creating and running a massively multi-player online game is no easy task. Virtual worlds and MMOs are far more advanced then single-player games because they involve the management of long-term relationships with people. Combine that with the social dynamics inherent with dealing with thousands of players that are interacting with each other and you have a complexity that only a politician could appreciate. Yet for those MMO companies that take the time to get it right, the rewards are phenomenal.
But this begs a question: given the history of this genre, why do so many MMOs fail? The life expectancy of a MMO is a direct result of the quality of the mind-set of the developers that run them. The same can be said for successes and failures of their non-virtual counterparts in the real world. Those that fail to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them.