For the past 15 years, virtual worlds and MMOs have been experiencing a steady inspirational decline. This once great pastime has fallen into a formulaic rut that has all but snuffed out the creative light from the genre. As the accounting and marketing departments have taken over the helm of most MMO companies, the resulting creative vision of the developers has dimmed and become more uninspired and shopworn.
Writing articles about MMO design with the intent to convince an increasingly insular and deaf industry can only get you so far. Sometimes you need to change your strategy to make your point and hopefully for the reader a lightbulb turns on and the aha moment will happen.
It is in this spirit that I appeal to the creative types and those that call themselves designers in the MMO industry. I know you are still there. There are other art forms and mediums that have lessons that will benefit you the developers and as a result the players and the genre itself. I point to a kindred visual medium: motion pictures. There is much that MMO and virtual world developers can learn from being exposed to ideas from motion pictures.
Without further ado, here is my selection of 5 films that every MMO designer should watch:
Westworld is one of my favorite movies of all time. This film was written and directed by Michael Crichton who is also one of my favorite writers. With Westworld, Crichton foreshadowed the advent and appeal of interactive escapism via MMOs and virtual worlds. But instead of a virtual theme park he envisioned actual theme parks where visitors immerse themselves and act out their fantasies. The difference is that in Westworld the participant was free to interact with whomever he pleased and was not stuck on the rails of a predictable amusement park ride.
Here’s the plot summary from IMDB:
“A amusement park for rich vacationers. The park provides its customers a way to live out their fantasies through the use of robots that provide anything they want. Two of the vacationers choose a wild west adventure. However, after a computer breakdown, they find that they are now being stalked by a rogue robot gunslinger”.
Note: A Westworld TV series is being produced by HBO and will be available sometime in 2016.
Lesson 1: Give the player sufficient autonomy to control their experiences and create their own story
The important lesson from this movie is that the MMO experience should be lived out and directed by the player. This is in sharp contrast to MMOs like World of Warcraft where the player follows a predetermined story and is incidental to the grand storyline of the quest designers.
The only memories worth having are the ones that are personalized and unique. MMO companies like Blizzard have usurped these possible player memories and replaced them with scripted events where there can only be one eventual outcome: the hero slays the villain in a prescribed manner. As an example, when you kill the Lich King or any other boss — they always die the same way every time — complete with canned dialogue and a cut-scene.
Lesson 2: Unpredictability and Surprises creates drama
As the Westworld movie progressed something went wrong as the robots started malfunctioning and turned against the vacationers. Suddenly the experience of these participants became gripping and visceral. The film really comes into its own as the characters are on now on real adventure with their lives in the balance.
A similar glitch happened in Blizzard’s WoW: it was called the Corrupted Plague Incident. It became one of the most noteworthy and interesting events that ever happened in Blizzard’s Azeroth. For a brief few days, WoW was at last a living and breathing virtual world full of unpredictability and consequences. Sadly, Blizzard never bothered to capitalize on this and failed to allow WoW to evolve in this exciting and unpredictable direction.
Rarely does anything ever happen that is unintended in today’s MMOs. MMOs have become far too predictable and sanitized due to the insatiable need for the developers to control every aspect of gameplay. It’s almost as if the need to reduce friction between players via an overly strict set of mechanics has sapped the life and freedom out of MMOs and virtual worlds.
MMOs have been reduced to a virtual police state where emergent gameplay is frowned up and discouraged and the “perpetrators” punished. Free will, autonomy and self-expression have all been muted and players given very few ways to express themselves outside of chat.
MMO devs need to stop seeing player conflict as a customer service problem and instead see it as a way to breathe life into your virtual world. MMO devs need to loosen up the rules and allow for more drama and conflict between players. The more drama and conflict you have, the more players will band together and form social bonds to self-police those players that violate general well-being of the community.
2. The Matrix
Released in 1999, the same year as EverQuest, this ground-breaking movie introduced millions of people to the concept of a virtual world. In this case the virtual world was a construct of computers known as the “Matrix”.
Instead of trying to break into a virtual world like millions of people do each day, the film’s characters paradoxically have decided to leave their comfy fantasy world and venture back to the harsh and foreboding reality of their Dystopian world.
Here’s the plot summary from IMDB:
In the near future, a computer hacker named Neo discovers that all life on Earth may be nothing more than an elaborate facade created by a malevolent cyber-intelligence, for the purpose of placating us while our life essence is “farmed” to fuel the Matrix’s campaign of domination in the “real” world. He joins like-minded Rebel warriors Morpheus and Trinity in their struggle to overthrow the Matrix.
Lesson 1: Players will eventually stop suspending their disbelief
The main characters in the Matrix broke out of their false virtual world and discovered the truth of the real world. They preferred the harsh authenticity of the real world over the artificial and predictable comfort of the false world; to them it was the only existence worth living.
Like the Matrix film, eventually most veteran MMO players start seeing inconsistencies and flaws in their virtual world and they start to ask questions. No longer pumped up with the initial euphoria of awe and wonderment, they begin to ponder if the creators (like the machines in the Matrix) have the best interests of the world at heart. They start posting to forums and even begin to question and critique mechanics. Some of these people actually start blogs and engage in the critical analysis of the MMO which becomes a pastime unto itself.
Players must be continually distracted with new content or they will stop suspending their disbelief. Distractions within the context of virtual worlds are good and noble as they contribute to the illusion of a living and breathing world.
The problem with content in the form of quests and scripted scenarios is that it is finite. Immersion is eroded when players run out of things to do and the result is that the world seems false and contrived. The clearest example of this is the pre-expansion period in many popular MMORPGs where all the existing content has been consumed and players are getting restless and bored. MMOs like WoW are more prone to this because they are almost exclusively based on a model that reveals storylines via repetitive content.
Lesson 2: Achievement-centric systems breeds players that are bent on deconstruction
Another symptom of a lack of dynamic and new content this need to deconstruct is the practice of theory-crafting; this is where players reduce the joy of adventure found in MMOs into a philosophy of efficiency that involves number crunching that serves the end goal of achievement above all else. This is really the fault of the developers who create MMOs where player enjoyment is disproportionately directed towards rewards and the acquisition of gear.
Achievement and efficiency has its place within MMOs but it should not be the end all and be all of the MMO experience.
Another movie based on a book by Michael Crichton, (the book was far better than the film). A team of scientists go back in time and are forced to exist and communicate in a completely foreign land. Here’s the plot summary from IMDB:
A group of archaeological students become trapped in the past when they go there to retrieve their professor. The group must survive in 14th century France long enough to be rescued.
Lesson 1: Role-playing should matter and your virtual life should depend upon it
The characters in the movie and book had to understand and be able to speak 14th century French. They also had to know the customs and how to dress. Failure to do so would have meant capture and ultimately death. These characters “role-played” as if their very lives depended on it.
Yet that is not the case in today’s MMORPGs where role-playing is seen as archaic and pointless. MMO companies are to blame as they rarely enforce role-playing conventions, naming policies are largely unenforced. It doesn’t help that many irresponsible developers also wantonly violate the sanctity of the Fourth Wall (more on this later) and break immersion with pop culture references and other marketing gimmicks.
Lesson 2: Start expecting more from your players
MMO companies rarely require anything from their players other then they just show up after they pay the price of admission. This is like the mentality of people who attend a theatre, a play, renaissance faire or a sporting event. Players arrive and have the mentality of spectators sitting safely above the fray in cushioned seats. The players expect a show and MMO devs become all too eager to give it to them with scripted boss battles and cutscenes that require players memorize complex
As previously mentioned, the current MMO design ethos is that the the involvement and participation of the player is secondary to the story, the lore, the narrative and the plot arcs created by the egocentric developers. Story arcs such as the predictable rise and fall of the Lich King in WoW are dictated by the unseen hand of the game designers commence with or without the participation of the players. The powerless and ineffectual player has become an outsider and has a sense of detachment from the virtual world.
At the same time that players are denied basic freedoms and the ability to self-actualize, they are coddled. The player is like a well-kept slave. The result is that today most MMO players now have a sense of entitlement and are victims of low expectations of game designers. This predicament is all thanks to the dominance of the “everyone’s a hero” God of War school of video game design that puts the player on a undeserved and unhealthy pedestal.
The problem boils down to this: most MMO devs are creating a game and not a virtual world. When you are making game, your focus is on creating fun and entertaining the players. This is different than the philosophy of a virtual world where players are just one component of a larger, more complex and unpredictable organism where the rewards of player involvement and interaction are far deeper and more satisfying than the pedestrian pursuit of fun.
4. The Truman Show
Truman Burbank played by Jim Carrey grows up in a staged world that has created for him by TV producers. Eventually due to carelessness from the show’s producers, cracks appear in The Fourth Wall and he starts to question the authenticity of the world he has known all his life.
Plot summary from IMDB:
Truman Burbank is happy with his life. He is a successful business man, he has a nice wife and many friends. However, Truman finds his life is getting very repetitive. Actually every moment of his life is being filmed, being watched by millions, and that his world is limited in a small Hollywood film set. Truman decides to follow his discovery no matter how hard and how much it pains him.
Lesson 1: Don’t Sabotage the Players Journey into Escapism
Novel authors, film directors and even MMO developers have a very difficult job. The most important job is of course to convince the person that the world they have created is believable. The enemy of belief is disbelief. This is why the suspension of disbelief is critical.
In the film, Truman starts to see inconsistencies and patterns that cause him to question the reality around him. We as players are different but the same. We know that the MMOs we play are not real but they become a sort of alternate reality for us to visit and escape to. We too want to believe in them. The more we believe and suspend our disbelief the more we are immersed. The more we are immersed the more our enjoyment of our journey into escapism increases and the longer we stay around.
Like Truman Burbank, MMO players are always on the verge of sensing the falseness around them and escaping from escapism. MMO devs should be doing all they can to help facilitate the player’s journey into escapism and at the same time should prevent the player from escaping.
Too often MMO devs will try to sneak in real world technology and political agendas into their fantasy MMOs. Blizzard with their pop culture references and absurd motorcycles and flying ships in WoW is one of the biggest offenders. Arenanet with their promotion of the sexual identity political agenda in Guild Wars 2 is another example.
Art direction in MMOs often falls into a similarly immersion breaking trap when their art becomes imitative and derivative. When they run out of ideas, many MMOs eventually trot out the “Asian” themed expansion. Some do the “Egypt” themed expansion on so on. Guess who the biggest offender is? Of course it is Blizzard with WoW. Appropriating inspiration from real world culture is acceptable but when it is done without any effort to transmute it into something more original the player has more difficulty suspending their disbelief.
Anything that detracts from immersion should be avoided and anything that promotes immersion should be embraced by the devs.
Lesson 2: Players will do unpredictable things
Like Truman Burbank, players will get bored and start to do unpredictable things in your virtual world. Not all unpredictable player behaviors are bad. Some player actions are done out of necessity. When players use the resources and mechanics of the virtual world to solve problems it is evidence that players using their ingenuity and creativity which is good.
Respect that often what you as a dev may consider unintended behaviour is in fact emergent behavior. Don’t get defensive. Instead embrace emergent behavior and allow players to play your MMO their way — not your way.
Case in point: many player techniques used today in MMORPGs were invented in EverQuest. Combat techniques such as: snare kiting, fear kiting, monk pulling, root pulling and area of effect groups just to name a few. For some fantasy MMORPG classes, even soloing was emergent behavior as it was never really intended. What all these behaviors had in common was they helped to bond the player with the virtual world because it allowed for the player to express themselves and solve problems in a unique and personal way.
5. Groundhog Day
No film better epitomizes the stagnant state of MMOs today than Groundhog Day. Like the main character in the movie that experiences the same day over and over, so too is the MMO player subject to a predictable world where nothing changes and everything respawns. Instead of a 24 hour respawn which takes place in the film, the MMO player is confronted with a virtual world where most generic NPCs respawn in intervals from 6 – 24 minutes.
Plot summary from IMDB:
A weather man is reluctantly sent to cover a story about a weather forecasting “rat” (as he calls it). This is his fourth year on the story, and he makes no effort to hide his frustration. On awaking the ‘following’ day he discovers that it’s Groundhog Day again, and again, and again. First he uses this to his advantage, then comes the realization that he is doomed to spend the rest of eternity in the same place, seeing the same people do the same thing EVERY day.
Lesson 1: Respawning NPCs breaks immersion
Living in the world of Groundhog Day eventually becomes tiresome and pointless. Logging on to the same MMO each day where nothing changes (except for the players) is no different. A virtual world that never changes and lacks dynamism is the biggest problem with MMOs today.
After the initial wonder and awe of encountering a new world fades, the MMO player sees through the facade and the illusion of a living breathing world vanishes. The player finally realizes that their actions have no real lasting impact on the world and the player feels duped and betrayed.
The fact that most MMOs lack any way for a player to have an impact on their world is perhaps the Achilles Heel of the genre.
Unlike in single-player games where NPCs stay dead after you kill them, MMO designers invented the mechanic of the respawning NPC. NPCs in MMOs are essentially immortal. No matter how often they are killed by players in this disguised version of Whack a Mole, they miraculously resurrect. This predicament certainly is analogous to the Groundhog Day film where nothing ever changes.
Instancing was devised to partially address this problem as most mobs do not respawn or respawn at a slower rate. But instancing was a poor trade-off as it cheapened accomplishments and eroded the importance of community for MMOs.
Much could be done to make the existence, migration and motivations of NPCs more realistic and organic. If the players vanquish a group of NPCs, other groups of NPCs could move in to fill the vacuum.
Variances in weather, day and night, seasonal changes, famines, natural disasters, pestilence, territorial disputes and depletion of resources could be introduced to break up the monotony and predictability of NPC spawning mechanics.
There is simply no excuse to continue to propagate the antiquated respawning mechanic that was devised by EverQuest in the 1990’s.
Lesson 2: A lack of sophisticated mob A.I. has created a predictable play experience
The experience of the main character in Groundhog Day who learns from his mistakes and become better at winning the heart of the female character parallels the learning process for people who play MMOs. The MMO player is given a set of enemies with predictable behaviors. With the benefit of mobs respawning and giving the player more chances to practise against the same NPC opponent, the player learns to counteract these behaviors and his chance of victory improves. We see something similar in a recent Tom Cruise film Edge of Tomorrow where the main character is stuck in a time loop and is able to improve his skills and eventually advance and be victorious.
NPCs in MMOs aren’t granted the same advantages of Bill Murray’s character who is stuck in GroundHog Day and remain predictable and permanently stunted; they don’t get to learn and grow as their opponents (the players) do. So 16 years after the introduction of EverQuest we have boss encounters found in group and raid dungeons still follow this bizarre formula.
Success in MMOs has become all about researching all of the abilities of the mobs you face and doing appropriate preparation. As Pathfinder Online’s Ryan Dancey noted at the MMORPG.com PAX 2014 Future of Online Games Panel, killing a boss mob is like solving a puzzle. Once a player or group of players break the puzzle code, the content then goes on “farm” mode and the MMO becomes a harvesting experience much like picking crops in Farmville.
MMO devs need to improve mob A.I. so players will have to think on their toes and the result will be a more exciting and gripping play experience which has the added benefit of making your MMO more replayable.
MMOs and virtual worlds share a lot of characteristics with the realm of film, the main one being that creation and preservation of the suspension of disbelief is one of the highest goals. I believe that designers can benefit from the lessons contained within those films if not directly then perhaps indirectly to at least stimulate the imagination of what is possible. The 5 films I have mentioned here today are not the end all and be all of films with useful lessons for the virtual world developer. I’m sure there are many more and I’d be happy to list more in the comments section and discuss them with readers.