In my mind, there is no doubt that in sandbox virtual words, the player is the ultimate game designer. What other genre of entertainment can you choose your face, your sex, your race, your class, your starting city, your guild, your professions, your armor, your weapons, your guild, those you play with, when you play, and where you travel in the game world? All of these choices allow the player to design their experiences in vastly greater ways than any game designer ever could.
In addition to those choices, every player has the opportunity to impact other players by their words, deeds, and actions. When I think back of the most memorable experiences I’ve had playing MMORPGs like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, it is those times where other people were involved.
The rare magic of virtual worlds it they allow players to express themselves in various ways. Another term for this is called player agency. Whether for good or evil or done in a spirit of roleplay, the results of player expression is far more memorable and “real” than the scripted quests and events that have come to characterize most modern amusement park MMOs.
By a simple act of kindness, a wave or a “hello”, a serendipitous meeting with a stranger or helping others by answering questions or teaching a newbie how to play, players can dramatically enhance the gameplay for themselves and others far more than any quest designer. Instead of passively consuming content, players can design their experiences via their interactions. It is in this way that players can truly impact their virtual world by impacting their fellow players.
Somewhere along the line quest designers supplanted and replaced the all important game master. MMO designers at one point used to actually show up in their worlds and orchestrate unexpected and unscripted random events. This almost never happens now as most devs are completely detached from the players they purport to serve.
Game designers have fallen into the trap that think their role is to create epic stories and narratives so the players can sing their praises. In the case of virtuals worlds, this is misguided. The designer is here to serve the player by creating backdrops and context for the player. Players should not exist solely to be audience members and validate the work of the designer.
The problem is that hubris and narcissism is rampant in our culture. The concept of humility is almost non-existent as people are taught to be thinking of themselves at all times. Video game designers are the same. They are looking to create some amazing “epic” quest or storyline that will get them noticed with a DICE award and then hopefully they will get a promotion and leverage their fame to move to a higher paying job at a different studio.
Another problem is that it’s hard to monetize social gameplay, so resources are spent on things that produce revenue. But social gameplay is unique value proposition of virtual worlds and the reason that we’re all here. By social I don’t mean allowing players to water their neighbors virtual crops, I mean creating a world face to face interaction is possible and by building interdependency into the mechanics. MMO studios have to pay it forward and invest or this genre will fade into oblivion.
Too often, and I am guilty of this, most video game and MMO commentary ends up being how the designers make mistakes or even how they did something remarkably good. Our happiness as players should not be dependent on the competency and personal ambitions of game and quest designers.
At least in the realm of virtual worlds, I think it’s time for designers to get out of the way. The designer should be like a stage hand or set designer, always in the background not drawing attention to themselves. They should facilitate ways for players to express themselves in the game world. They should not become rocks stars or be sitting in front of fireplaces contributing to a cult of personality. The video game press needs to stop putting game designers on pedestals and stop treating them as “gamer gods” and celebrities.
Game developers need to find the humility to let the players shine instead of their scripted creations. Fantasy virtual worlds are for the players and not for the designers.
It is quite troubling that MMORPGS have become episodic lore PEZ dispensers and players have become participation trophy spectators. In this warped paradigm, players are not the leaders, they are the followers. The are hapless passengers subject to the whims of the captain piloting the ship. The predictable destinies of these virtual worlds sails merrily along without the consent of the players.
The virtual world is the highest level of online social and participatory gameplay ever invented. It’s just too bad that few strides have been made by AAA video game studios to leverage this unique form of entertainment. Even though the social potential of virtual worlds has been completely ignored and unexplored, we still have one important tool to create our own memorable epic experiences: ourselves.
You as a player have far more power than you think to shape your world. Start using it.