For a long time I have been concerned about how the focus of MMOs has changed from the community as a whole to the individual player. Practically every MMO quest these days focuses on the player as being the savior of the world.
Much of this change is due to what is going in single player video game design. MMO designers have been brought up in a video game culture where players are treated like heroes just for showing up. Load up any popular single player video game and it becomes readily apparent that players are no longer just players; instead they have been elevated to heroes.
Welcome to the Super Hero Culture
Our entertainment culture is currently inundated with super heroes. Not a month goes by without the release of yet another super hero movie. Perhaps the popularity of super hero movies suggests that people somehow need to live vicariously through the deeds of others.
The great American writer Henry David Thoreau said: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Perhaps the invention of the super hero is a tonic that helps to ease that human pain of living a normal, uneventful life.
Blizzard’s False Hero
A few years ago with the release of Blizzard’s Wrath of the Lich King expansion for WoW and the first s0-called “hero class”, I contemplated the meaning of the word “hero” in various articles. I concluded that the attempt to bestow unearned hero status on undeserving players was ill-advised and stupid. But that doesn’t matter when your goal is to sell millions of copies by bribing players with instant hero status.
Video Game Heroism: A Spectacle of Sight and Sound
What prompted my recent pondering on how players are treated by MMO designers is a recent viewing of 38 Studios Kingdoms of Amalur a single player video game that serves as the pre-quel for the upcoming MMO by 38 Studios.
When a player engages in combat in the demo video below it’s a spectacle of sight and sound that one might see in a Vegas show. It reminds me of being at a KISS concert and watching Gene Simmons. In fact, KISS was considered the first super hero rock band.
A couple of years ago, I recall reading some of founder Curt Schilling’s comments on how he wanted players to feel like heroes in his MMO. For someone like Curt who played EverQuest religiously I was perplexed by his sentiments. At the time Curt was heavily into WoW and I believe he was influenced by the seductive Blizzard design ethos of WoW.
After watching that video of Kingdoms of Amalur it looks as if Curt has got his wish and more. If this single player game is any indication of what is to come, I’m starting to worry that players might be treated like gods in his MMO. (I used the “gods” term for a reason — WoW has often been characterized as the first true God of War MMO a very popular single player video game on the PlayStation).
The Age of the Pioneer MMO Player
There is something about a pioneer that I really respect and admire. True pioneers do things that people of today would balk at. It takes guts to leave the Old World and go to the New World. Guts that most people today haven’t a clue about. Those pioneers were real heroes.
And I ask you: how many true heroes actually wake up each day with the intention of being heroes? Zero.
In fact if you want to be a hero, I daresay there is probably something seriously wrong with your character.
Ask a real hero like recent Medal of Honor winner Sargent Giunta and they’ll tell you there were just doing their job. Every MMO developer should watch this 60 Minutes interview with this true hero and they may just gain some real perspective and realize how sophomoric their current MMO design model is.
There was a day when MMO players were not instant heroes.
When MMOs started back in 1998, people didn’t see themselves as heroes. Nor did they demand to be treated as such either. Contrast that with the spoiled and pampered player of today that demands a life of ease in their virtual world. Back then, players were all MMO pioneers, they were just happy and felt privileged to be in a fantasy virtual world.
An EverQuest Fan Speaks Wisely at the 2010 Fanfaire EverQuest Next Panel
Last year at the 2010 SOE Fanfaire, they hosted a special EverQuest Next Panel where they talked about the next installment of EverQuest. One questioner really hit it out of the park with his question to the panel which received a very lame and woefully inept response by the panel that was caught off guard. (Check out video 2 in this link).
I call this person the EQ Black Shirt guy. He’s the equivalent to the WoW Red Shirt guy that stumped the BlizzCon 2010 panel last year. Here’s what he said that really resonates with me:
EQ Black Shirt Guy: I’d just like to preface this by saying, I know it’s tough to succeed in the MMO industry because you just look at all the great titles released in the last year — most of them are just gone in a year. So I worry about EQ Next but I want it to succeed but this idea of a very powerful player – I think it flies in the face of the original “you’re in our world now” concept where the world is sort of harsher and larger than you, where you need to find friends and band together, work together to defeat things maybe you can’t take on by yourself.
EQ Black Shirt Guy: I understand it’s important to draw the player in with the feeling of personal power and accomplishment but I think you also need the difficulty and the depth that comes with not being powerful in comparison with the world around you.
I could not have put it better myself. I am proud of this guy and the legions of EverQuest veterans out there that are still the keepers of the flame. We remember what MMOs were and what they can truly be if their potential is even partially realized. To those MMO players that came after EverQuest, you need to show them some respect because they have experienced things you have no clue about.
The current player as super hero (and should be treated as such) syndrome is a result of a combination of factors. There’s the alpha male guild leaders that popularized the achievement on steroids archetypes. Add to that the rise of the story narrative single player video game. And finally the super hero effect is a reflection of our own culture where children and teens grow up spoiled by doting parents and end up with a sense of entitlement.
All three factors have created the perfect storm for where we are today in MMO design.
I have to wonder how long the age of the super hero slacker MMO player will last. At what point will players collectively shout “enough!” to the Christmas morning orgy of presents that every player somehow feels entitled to in their MMO. At what point will the current crop of spineless MMO developers develop some courage and start pushing the philosophical pendulum in the other direction.
The truth is that most players do want to earn their keep in a virtual world; they are tired of being bribed with false heroism and being richly rewarded for dubious achievements. They are sick of being coddled, pampered and treated like children. Like the EQ Black Shirt guy they understand that true satisfaction comes when you make friends and band together to defeat shared challenges.
Is this so hard to grasp MMO developers?
You are spot on with your criticism of the silly Superhero Slacker mentality that crept into games and MMOs in particular. Unfortunately that seems to be popular, just like there seems to be no end to Marvel Superhero movie adapations.
I do think we all want to be adventurers and heroes in our MMOs, we want to be somebody who’s a little different, more epic maybe – that’s part of the great escapism MMOs can (used to) provide. However, there can be no heroism if everything comes for free or cheap, without challenges and struggles, without dragons to slay. So I think what you really mean to say is that instead of too many heroes, we actually got no real heroes anymore at all, because the “dragons” (obstacles and difficulties) were removed from the table to make room for goodfeel games with a lot of solo content and fast rewards. I certainly agree here and have written about this issue before.
I have encountered a paradox on the topic of player power though: one one hand it seems to have increased enormously (think of the influence of the entitlement factor), on the other hand true player power inside MMOs is smaller than ever – you cannot shape anything, create or impact on the worlds you live in, you’re just the player by now. it is quite remarkable a dynamic and to me personally, proves once more that we are less gods than ever in these games, even though we get so much of the same so easily. maybe something to dwell on for you.
Wake me up when I can be a beggar again and find that well-crafted steel sword . And be happy.