Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
The emptiness of virtual worlds

When comparing the recent comments on my blog about the problems of Wurm Online with my experience with MMORPG with player housing (UO, SWG, ATiTD, ...) it struck me that a big part of the problem is that virtual houses aren't much lived in. Most players only spend something like 10% of their day online, and even then most activity in most games with player housing takes place away from your house. Virtual worlds with player housing often feel rather empty, and that visual isolation stands in the way of community building. No wonder people in a sandbox game often do selfish things, if they don't feel part of a community for which self-restraint in favor of the greater good would look like a good idea.

The player housing I felt most at home with was in A Tale in the Desert. You would build your house not too far from the schools you needed for various purposes, so that villages formed automatically. And half of your time in the game was usually spent doing crafting around your house, as you would construct your crafting structures around your house. You could make some of those structures public, for example the pottery wheels which are hard to get for new players, and you'd even have a stream of visitors. And of course the ability to join several guilds helped, as besides your main guild you would often join a local guild for some community project.

Compared to that the houses in Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies were much less lived in. But they did have one other feature which made them look less abandoned: The ability to set up your own NPC vendors there. Thus even if you weren't online, if you were known as a master smith, people would seek out your house to buy stuff. Features like that add to the sense of place, making player cities appear somewhat more real. Games like Everquest 2 or Lord of the Rings Online, with their instanced housing, manage to hide the fact that most houses are empty most of the time. But then these don't really feel like houses in the first place. Nobody sees when you are home doing crafting, and there really is no reason to even visit another house.

A reader recently recommended to me to watch the anime series Sword Art Online, which is about players being trapped 24/7 in a virtual reality MMORPG. That technology fortunately doesn't exist. But the consequence of that is that allowing players to make permanent changes to virtual worlds they only inhabit for a fraction of their time is fraught with problems. I don't think it is impossible, but I do think a working virtual world game would have to be built very differently, putting social structures in the foreground before letting players lose to deforest the landscape.

I'd say most people in Wurm Online definitely spend a lot of time around/working on their house. Parts of the game really appealed to me, but everything just seemed a little too slow. Plus the graphics were horrible. I just read a post on another blog saying that the game was going to version 1.0 soon though. This will include new character graphics and a new continent that only new characters can go to. So that might be worth checking out.
As a sidenote, the main character of SAO is a loner who avoids the (mostly NPC-staffed, PvP-free and immutable) cities, only stopping by for buying supplies and physical needs like sleeping.

Not many games even attempt to model the various strong incentives the real world has for building houses in communities. There's rarely any need to protect your character from the elements or enemies that sneak up on you during rest. And any network effects of proximity are abstracted away by fast travel and the global auction house.

But I don't think one could make players form communities by taking away those kinds of acceptable breaks from reality. The players would just revolt. Instead, they need to make city life as integral and desirable part of gameplay as combat is now. The only games that I can name that even try to do that are ATITD, Darkfall, Terraria and Minecraft. And even of those, the latter two strongly rely on building for the sake of building; Once you've made your initial shelters, there's little need to dramatically expand those aside from your personal desire to make something artistic.
Ultima Online was released in 1997. And it was awesome, immersive and unique. Nothing else could ever compare to that MMO experience, in my opinion, even considering the insane PK'ing problem.

"And any network effects of proximity are abstracted away by fast travel and the global auction house."

Reminds me of an old SF story in which an infinite number of parallel Earths were accessible, and most people built their houses on a unique one.

Rift introduced player housing recently in the form of "pocket dimensions" you can purchase and then outfit to your heart's content. One th e one hand it does seem sort of a waste...on the other hand, some people have taken to creatively turning their spaces into minigame mazes and puzzles, which is an interesting way of going about it, and possible I think mainly due to the high level of customization and scaleability that Rift's housing allows for.

For me, though, it still seems like a waste. For my wife's RP-heavy guild, however, these become highly populated safe havens for their deep RP to each their own, I suppose.
Back when I played it, Haven & Hearth had a fairly elegant approach to this.

First, the land was nearly unlimited; they would even add new squares at the ends, each as large as the central map.

Second, you could spawn at a random spot on the main map, which meant that at least the landscape wouldn't be a mess around a single spawn point.

The rest of the game was unfortunately awful, or as I like to call it, design by ideology. Haven & Hearth was unfortunately designed as a PvP game, and since it was free it attracted the dregs of gaming. Goons had a significant chapter there, and anyone who displayed any hint of carebearism was scorned and griefed out of the game by the kind of people who thought swastikas were funny.

As for "setting up NPC vendors", UO was before my time, but Wurm was a failure with that, because it turned the entire game into a trading sim that involved spending real money at one time or another. The only places people bother with are the trading hubs. Newbies who don't buy coins are forced to watch the whole thing from the sidelines.
Never really understood the whole emphasis on community with player housing.

In real life I live in an apartment building, with several families right around me. I greet them, wave, nod when we pass each other, but I certainly don't know them. Know their names, or care what they're about. There's a guy a building over who is a friend, but other than that I can't claim to particularly know anybody within half a mile of me.

I have friends from work, from shared interests, from college, from earlier relationships, family friends, all that. A 10-15 minute drive to a different neighborhood or a common meeting area isn't such a huge barrier to friendship.

For me the appeal of player housing is to have a home, a base of operations, a place that I can call mine, to store my stuff and decorate in ways that please me. A refuge I can always fall back to. All these 'fostering community' things are very puzzling to me. If I couldn't give a damn who my real life neighbors are, I certainly won't care who's next to me in game. Why do you?
For me, I think the appeal of housing has to do with the possibility of having player-driven development of the game world. And status, too, something to show off to others. That's why I never really cared for instanced housing where you need to invite people over. I do like the idea of having my house out on the map, visible to all, of building a village, something that is cohesive and pleasing to the eye.

Unfortunately, to borrow a phrase, hell is other people. Not just the griefers, but also those who don't adhere by older informal conventions (like the one on Wurm that says people shouldn't build on steppes to avoid inconveniencing hunters). True, those old conventions try to benefit older players in particular, but that's what's missing from most, if not all, sandboxes: a player-run government that acts in the interest of the community as a whole. Instead, you get the "me, my money, my land" mentality that says it's ok for someone to deed over a patch of land that was designed for a road.
In SWG you could create your own city with banks, shuttle port, shopping malls, mission terminals, guild halls, and cantinas. People would spend a lot of time within the city. My old guild in SWG had about 20 members and there was always lots of people hanging out that you could socialize with.
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