Monday, January 15, 2007
The Crushbone Factor
I keep mentioning it, so I think it's time to dedicate a post to it: The Crushbone factor. As the term dates back to the time where Everquest had a near-monopoly grip on the MMOG market it is maybe a bit outdated. But on the other hand I haven't found a better word yet to describe a puzzling phenomenon: If you take two MMORPG which have a very similar feature list and actually play both of them, one of them can be much more fun as the other, without you being able to describe what the difference is. And I think the difference is often one of Crushbone factor.
Crushbone was the name of a low-level zone in the original Everquest, located just north of the wood elf starting area. The zone was populated by orcs. But it wasn't just a zone full of orc camps, the place felt positively alive. There was a whole orc ecosystem there. Emperor Crushbone is sitting in his castle, planning an invasion of Faydark with the help of his evil dark elf advisor, Ambassador D'vinn. There were mines in which the orcs forced slaves to labor. There was a hill on which the orc trainer was training the troops. And you got to see all that, because there were quests which told you the story of the place, and some of the best items in the game for that level, like the Shiny Brass Shield dropped there. The place was dangerous, especially if you wanted to take down the emperor himself, but the rewards were worth it. It was a bit like a non-instanced raid dungeon. And there is barely an Everquest player who didn't visit it, and who doesn't remember it fondly. So fondly that the latest EQ2 expansion, Echoes of Faydwer, which brings back Crushbone and the other zones of that continent is renewing the interest of many veteran gamers in that game.
The Crushbone factor is the hard to explain difference between Crushbone and a generic zone full of generic orcs. The added value that you get from having a zone that is alive, which is more than the sum of its parts, where everything fall together to create a fun and memorable experience. Unfortunately it is not only hard to describe, it is even harder to recreate.
Even World of Warcraft doesn't always manage it, although the game has some good zones. For example most of the cities in World of Warcraft seem relatively alive. Who doesn't remember the little boy William in Stormwind, stealing his sister's dolly, and running all over the place with her? But that experience isn't perfect, because while we wish we could smack William and give the dolly back to his sister Molly, we can't. There is no interaction with the players. World of Warcraft scores better with similar game elements, like the rabbits or sheep running around farm communities. Not only can you see the rabbits being chased and killed by wolves, you can interfere and either kill the rabbit or the wolf. You can skin the rabbit, or the sheep, and the sheep even sometimes gives you wool from skinning, which is a nice touch. The sick deer in Darkshore can be cured by a quest. All this is helping to make the virtual world feel more real, but still it is not as good as Crushbone. The best places are those where you get the feeling that you kill mobs for some greater purpose, and not just for getting some xp, loot, and a quest reward. Where your adventures make you part of the world, where you live the story.
But this is more of a feeling than a list of required features. Over the weekend I played in the Vanguard and LotRO betas, and LotRO had a strong Crushbone factor feeling (better than WoW actually), while Vanguard didn't. Besides the NDA not permitting me to talk about LotRO features, it is actually easier to explain what Vanguard doesn't have than to explain what LotRO has. Vanguard simple often feels too empty and dead. You travel along a river, and come upon a camp of huts. You expect somebody to live there, and approach carefully, not knowing whether there are peaceful fishermen, or some sort of humanoid monsters. And then you are disappointed that it is neither, the camp is simply void of all life, there is nothing to interact with. And you get the same experience over and over again, huge cities with few inhabitants, beautiful ruins with nobody around, large stretches of fantastic landscapes where you meet neither mob nor NPC nor harmless animals running around. What is sad about it is the obvious potential to be a living, breathing world. Much of the landscape and architecture of Vanguard is breathtaking. The fishing village or the abandoned ruins are *there*, the developers would just need more time to fill them. And given the size of the world, they would need a lot of time to fill the whole world with life. Time that the January 30th release date is not going to give them. And filling a world with life after it has been released is a lot more difficult.
Besides filling the world with life, and interweaving the quests and mobs in an area into a coherent story, I can't even really give advice to the developers. Just like most of us are able to see a movie and decide whether it is "good" or "bad", without being able to make a good movie, I as a player can feel the Crushbone factor when it is there. But I probably wouldn't be a good game developer, because I don't know much about the techniques to create a virtual world. I can only live them. And blog about them.