Star Trek’s Holodeck, Virtual Worlds and the Future That Never Was

When they write the history of virtual worlds and interactive entertainment, the introduction of the Star Trek’s holodeck that captured the imagination of millions of sci-fi fans will surely be included.

Back in 1987, a new Star Trek TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted which introduced sci-fi fans to the wonders of the holodeck. Created in the fictional future of planet earth, the holodeck was used primarily by the United Federation of Planets as a recreational activity for crew members of their starships. The holodeck was a virtual reality room where computers would accurately simulate people, creatures, objects, climates and places all within a designated world.

Unlike the virtual reality of today that is visual and audio in nature, the virtual reality in the holodeck allowed participants to use all of their senses to experience the fullness of the simulation.

The holodeck was a useful plot contrivance that breathed some fresh air into the Star Trek franchise and allowed the writers to take the crew of the Enterprise to visit locations and scenarios on Planet Earth and on other planets that would be otherwise impossible. Often, the crew of the Enterprise went back in time to visit notable heroes of fiction and non-fiction from Isaac Newton to Sherlock Holmes.

Another thing to note is the holodeck was a fully realized visual representation of a living breathing virtual world. Previously, the idea of a virtual world was in the minds of the participants as manifested in role-playing pen and paper games such as Dungeons & Dragons. In D&D, a gamemaster would create a campaign for players with its own world complete with history, races, religions, classes and more. Unlike the holodeck, the worlds of D&D were all in the minds and imaginations of the gamemaster and the players. Eventually, virtual worlds evolved as manifested on the computer platform with MUDS and their graphical successor MMORPGs.

Although the holodeck could be used to simulate games or sports, unlike the virtual worlds and MMORPGs of today, the Star Trek holodeck was not a game. There were no stats or levels or loot to accumulate. The typical holodeck experience was more of an adventure or a mystery who-done-it.

Where the holodeck truly excelled was in its ability to allow the participants to be completely immersed in the setting. Unlike the crude A.I. of most video games today, every character in the holodeck including the human participants had their own agency, meaning and purpose. Each holodeck character, scenario, location and environment had the potential to act independently and chart its own course and therein lies it’s awesome potential to those that would enter and experience it.

The holodeck was a dynamic simulation in that the environment would react to the actions and inactions of human participants. Contrast this to the virtual worlds and MMORPGs of yesteryear and today where players actions have no lasting effect on the world. The holodeck’s environments were so authentic and real, you could fall in love with a computer-generated human in the holodeck. Try doing that with an NPC in World of Warcraft.

The holodeck had other benefits: it allowed users a risk-free experience as the simulation could be paused at any time. Many video games have a “save game” feature, but virtual worlds do not as they are persistent in nature. Participants also had a safety mechanism that would prevent them from being injured or killed.

Imagine if the holodeck really existed. Imagine the possibilities and things that a person could experience. Imagine going back in time to role-play and experience important historical events or to see how people really lived. Imagine going back to see loved ones that have passed away. The possibilities are endless.

Although books and films allow the user to enter worlds of fiction and non-fiction, the user is a bystander and not a direct participant. Video games are different in that they allow — in varying degrees — the user the ability to participate directly in the world.

How Worlds Took a Backseat to Games

Along with the worlds created by Tolkien and other fantasy writers and of course the dungeon crawls in Dungeons & Dragons role-playing tabletop games and computer MUDs, the holodeck is undoubtedly one of the cardinal inspirations for graphical fantasy virtual worlds which were conceived and created in the mid to late part of the 1990’s with titles like Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call and EverQuest. The fictional contrivance of the holodeck seen by millions of TV viewers in the 1980’s quickly became a part of the cultural zeitgeist. There can be no doubt that its possibilities and potential influenced a generation of creative types that designed the first MUDS and MMORPGs.

In a recent interview with GamesIndustry.biz, veteran MMORPG developer (EverQuest, Vanguard, and the upcoming Pantheon MMORPG) Brad McQuaid mentions the importance of Star Trek’s holodeck:

“To me, a proper MMO is more than a game, it’s a world. I want to be immersed, I want to escape into a fantasy or sci-fi world. [MMO developers are] making the very, very early foundations of the Holodeck. Letting people recreate the 1930s or build new virtual worlds – that’s what MMOs are, they’re the genesis of that.”

McQuaid is absolutely right. To this day, the virtual worlds and MMORPGs represent foundations of a holodeck that someday may exist. McQuaid is also right when he says “I want to make worlds, not games.” McQuaid seems like a lone voice in the wilderness in a gaming industry distracted by identity politics and fixated on avaricious monetization schemes like loot boxes.

In recent years, the MMO development community has largely forgotten about the importance of the virtual world in their MMOs and instead focused on making games and using the world as a backdrop. Nothing irks me more when MMO devs talk about “the game” instead of the world when in reality most MMOs today do not require much skill to progress, which barely makes them games if at all.

There is no bigger culprit responsible for this philosophical design dead end of making the game more important than the world than Blizzard Entertainment with their McMMO World of Warcraft. The “world” in WoW was always given short shrift and more marketing talking point than actual substance. The world in WoW was never allowed its own agency or purpose. Their world was much like the Pirates of Carribean ride at Disneyland — essentially a heavily scripted, narrative-based, on-rails experience. The timeline was carefully scripted as each major villain would eventually be defeated before the release of the next expansion.

The worlds of MMOs like WoW exist as an incidental backdrop for the player with a “the customer is always right” ethos of pandering to the lowest common denominator design and an unhealthy lavishing of unearned hero status for every player.

Part of the problem is the mindset and aptitude of most MMORPG developers. Naturally, the typical MMORPG dev is a gamer. Gaming is all most of them know, just look at their resumes for evidence of this. World building is foreign to most of them and this is understandable as video games that are focused on players, enemies, gear and levels don’t really require deep and complex worlds.

Creating a world is an awesome responsibility and few game devs — most in their 20’s — are intellectually and philosophically equipped for the task. Worlds are complex entities that require the careful synthesis of geography, climate, races, creatures, politics, religion, physics, history and culture. It also requires gifted people who possess unparalleled imaginations. The brilliant J.R.R. Tolkien spent a lifetime creating Middle-earth. Understandably, it’s far easier to create a mere game then it is to create a world.

Groundhog Day Again and Again

The current MMO genre has become stagnant and predictable. It’s been treading water for years. Everyone knows this to be true but few have any solutions on how to fix it.

The reason why most MMORPGs have failed is that they are not true virtual worlds, not even close. A true virtual world is one that is living and breathing where all of its component parts has agency, purpose and meaning. Imagine entering into a virtual world where everything has the capability to change on its own and/or with the involvement of players. Old cities can be destroyed, new cities take their place. Civilizations rise and fall.

Go into a typical zone in any MMO today. The NPCs rarely if ever change. Most NPCs mobs wander aimlessly with no purpose other than to be killed by players. Players kill them and a few minutes later they respawn. Within a few months, players have deconstructed every zone, boss fight and NPC spawn time and loot table. NPC vendors stand at their stalls 24 hours a day, without a break, without time off to eat, sleep or spend time with their NPC families.

In the 20 years that MMORPGs have been produced, zones are still being made with this crude and primitive design philosophy. After all these years, most NPCs are little more than storefront mannequins. It’s shameful how little imagination and ambition that MMO devs have today in producing the same drivel year after year. Even worse, it’s disappointing to see how little players expect from MMO devs when they fail to hold them accountable.

The worlds of today’s MMOs are not really worlds at all. Instead they are are real as false front Hollywood movie sets. They have become predictable and boring because they have been enslaved by the limitations of being mere video games.

Over the years we here various developers talk about dynamic content as being the solution to fix the tedium that afflicts most MMORPGs. Dynamic content is just offering a bandage to a terminally ill patient.

One way to move forward is that we need to stop using the term MMORPG or MMO and start using the term virtual world. I am not saying we should remove gaming and character progression mechanics, as many of them are useful and are time-tested ways for players to self-actualize. Making worlds not games has to be more than a bumper sticker slogan, it has to be a real and genuine mindset.

Even if a video game studio doesn’t want to make a virtual world, they can still improve their video games by creating their game world with virtual world authenticity. When you start creating a living and breathing virtual world you end up imparting a sense of plausibility that increases immersion which helps players to suspend their disbelief. This is a literary device called verisimilitude.

Developers Need to Let Go

Over the years, from EverQuest to World of Warcraft, developers have slowly introduced more narratives into MMORPGs. Today developers are obsessed with telling their stories, not yours. MMORPGs have gone from open sandbox experiences to rigid on-rails amusement park rides. They’ve also gone from a mindset of equality of opportunity to equality of outcome. The player is all that matters and the world is just a disposable, fleeting, unimportant stage. I believe these trends have been disastrous for the long-term health of the genre and the MMO industry has painted itself into a corner of formulaic stagnancy.

I beg to differ. I am proposing a new path. Instead of investing heavily into pandering to players by giving them comic book superhero powers, the MMO industry needs to start focusing on the primacy of the virtual world itself. Players should be regarded as just one component of a complex virtual world ecosystem.

I want to be in a virtual world that exhibits immediacy and unpredictability. I want to be in a virtual world that is interesting and dynamic. I want my actions or inactions to matter at least locally and if enough players act locally perhaps global change can result in a virtual world. I want to experience the kind of struggles and challenges that bond players together and create amazing communities. That’s the kind of world that I want to be a part of.

Think of what we could learn from authentic virtual worlds. Think of how we could study human interaction, government, economic models, agriculture, the environment, politics, religion, warfare via virtual world simulations. Virtual worlds could be used as Petri dishes were many real problems could be analyzed and solved via game theory and trial and error.

For virtual worlds to realize their true potential, developers will have to let go the reins of power. They need to find the courage and humility to reduce their addiction to narratives and storylines. If you love something, set it free. Let virtual worlds be virtual worlds. Let them be free to play out and free from meddling devs. We need less of a zoo and more of a wildlife preserve. The reality is that since developers are people and people have egos this will be hard to achieve. The company that can pull this off will need someone with the vision and charisma of a Steve Jobs.

Conclusion

Back in 2005 when I started this blog and I felt that the MMORPG genre was full of promise and unrealized potential. Thirteen years later, as I ponder the future that never was, I feel despondent about virtual worlds. Fewer people are writing about virtual worlds these days and I don’t blame them. You can only hope and dream for so long without eventually becoming utterly discouraged. Some of the blame should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the video game press who seem more concerned about advocating for social justice than championing innovation that could move the genre forward.

However, a large amount of the blame goes directly to the MMO studios. They became lazy and complacent. They stopped caring. They stopped innovating. They stopped dreaming.

Obviously, the industry has been dominated by the success of one MMORPG which has been a blessing and a curse. This success took a vibrant and hopeful industry down into a rabbit hole of predictability and copy-cat formulas. Nobody wants to invest in MMOs anymore because too many companies wanted to make the same profits as Blizzard so they copied World of Warcraft and failed. I can’t think of any other entertainment genre where one company dominates and one style of gameplay — hack and slash achievement on steroids — is promoted to the exclusion of everything else. Of course Hollywood loves to exploit formulas but at least the current film and TV studios offer programming to suit many diverse tastes. The same is not true of the MMO industry.

Every few years a new MMO is proposed that rekindles my hopes and promises to change the landscape. A few years ago, it was EverQuest Next, today it’s Ashes of Creation. Bold promises often result in failure or yet another disappointing WoW clone.

Richard Bartle was right when in 2007 he said the MMORPG genre would be much healthier if WoW was closed down. His words ring truer today. MMO developers need to forget that WoW ever existed and pick up the torch that MUDS, Ultima Online, EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies never passed on. I believe the MMO industry has to unlearn the bad habits it’s learned over the last 14 years and refocus its goal of striving to provide a totally immersive experience that was shown to us by the holodeck from the Star Trek universe. The holodeck should be the destination on the map that the MMO genre should aspire to. The holodeck may never be realized but that should not stop us from trying.

I would like to close with a challenge to the MMO industry. Years ago, Apple’s Steve Jobs challenged then Pepsico chairman John Scully with a question:

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

I would like to ask every major MMO studio a variant of this question:

“Do you want to make games for the rest of your life, or do you want to make worlds?”

The ball is in your court MMO industry.

-Wolfshead

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