Thursday, September 03, 2009
The Illusion of Impact
World of Warcraft is a highly strategic game, in which players have to figure out what the best strategy is to beat a raid boss. Guilds in World of Warcraft become so famous that they get sponsoring contracts from international companies, and appear on TV. World of Warcraft is also a highly creative game, in which players make videos about how they and their friends play WoW, get millions of hits on YouTube, and end up making music videos starring themselves.
Does this sound like a representative description of World of Warcraft to you? Obviously it is not. While everything I listed there is documented and true, this is not how World of Warcraft plays for the average player. Only a handful of players figure out raid boss strategies, everybody else just follows them. Guilds with sponsoring contracts like Ensidia are few and far between. And, thank God, there aren't all that many Felicia Days making Do You Want to Date my Avatar music videos.
EVE Online is a game of high intrigue, politics, and treachery. Guilds get toppled by assassins setting up a clever trap. The universe's most powerful alliances break up when a highly placed member turns traitor. Players pull of clever scams and bank heists, and get away with stealing virtual currency they can legally sell for thousands of dollars.
Does this sound like a representative description of EVE Online to you? Obviously it is not. While everything I listed there is documented and true, this is not how EVE Online plays for the average player. Only a handful of players is engaged in high politics or intergalactic bank scams. The average EVE player logs on, does a couple of missions, gets into a couple of space fights, mines a little, transports some goods, and logs off again.
Why, oh why, are we letting the fans and makers of EVE Online get away with presenting their game as something which it isn't for the huge majority of players, and do not apply the same logic to other games, be it World of Warcraft or anything else? Every game has a few outstanding players that have a huge impact on how the rest of the players play the game. If you happen to be the first to kill a boss in World of Warcraft, and post the strategy on YouTube and elsewhere, *millions* of players will follow your instructions to the letter, or die trying. If you subvert a powerful alliance in EVE, you'll make headlines on various gaming sites. But that is not what these games are about for the regular player. Whether you could become the next Felicia Day or the next Haargoth Agamar is about as relevant for your daily life as whether you could become the next president of the United States. That isn't to say it is impossible, it just is so extremely unlikely that it doesn't really matter.
It is certainly true that World of Warcraft raid gameplay is more scripted than gameplay in more sandboxy virtual worlds. Two different raid groups killing Onyxia back in vanilla WoW did so in very, very similar ways, because the scripted behavior of the raid boss determines the players strategy. But then, if you play for example Warhammer Online and participate in several keep raids in different locations, you'll notice that there will also be huge similarities between the different events. There is nothing scripted, but the layout of the keep, plus the way the game works, ends up determining player strategy just the same way.
The whole idea that the behavior of a single player will impact the whole virtual world is a carefully crafted and marketed illusion. Just like the illusion that *you* could become president, or win the lottery. It isn't strictly false, and as there are obviously presidents and lottery winners and players influencing virtual worlds, it is easy to keep up the illusion. But you can do statistics, and see that out of 300 million Americans only 1 is president, that the chance to win the lottery is 1 in X million, and that out of 300,000 EVE players only a handful ever had a major impact on the world. To know what a game is really about, you have to look at what the average player is doing in it, not what a few exceptional personalities do.
P.S. As I had to moderate one comment on this subject in yesterday's thread, I'd like to remind you that you do have the right to strongly disagree with what I say here, but only as long as you manage to do that without name calling. Insulting me or your fellow commenters is not only not helping your argument, it will also result in your argument not getting posted in the first place.