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Worlds of Borecraft

World of Warcraft - a dull blade

Like most teenage video game addicts in the late 80’s, I fantasized about being able to play my favourite games online along with my friends and any number of random strangers. In those days doing such a thing on an average home computer was absurdly beyond the reach of technology. It wasn’t long before commercial multi-user games appeared though, such as Shades, a game I longed to try but sadly I was unable to convince my parents to invest in a modem for that sole purpose.

I eventually realised the dream while I was at university, where I started playing an obscure multi-user game called Nanvaent. It still exists, basking in the same text-based glory that it had back in 1996. I played Nanvaent and played it hard over the next seven years, eventually becoming a “creator” or coder. Indeed I suspect it was instrumental in my failing to complete my doctorate, and equally instrumental in ensuring I was able to salvage a career as a programmer from the ashes of my academic dreams. And once I’d made that switch, I never touched the game again.

I stopped playing partly because I became too busy to devote the proper time to it, but also because I grew to understand that the basic idea of a multi-user role-playing game was founded on a nonsense. Nanvaent, like all multi-user games before and since, was full of quests many of which chained together into a plot of sorts. But all those quests were open to each and every new character. You might go and kill Grimtooth and his relatives and earn your quest points but Grimtooth still returned to the bar of the Hole and Firkin every ten minutes or so for repeated slaughter by aspiring questers or, indeed, any powerful characters who fancied the xp and the loot. The same applied to every non-player character and every quest in the game.

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This inconsistency fundamentally destroyed my suspension of disbelief in the game. It was categorically not what I wanted from a roleplaying game. I wanted story, narrative and the chance to role-play, to lose myself in another world, a fantastic place that I could nevertheless believe in. Text-based multi-user games could give me none of that. And as far as I can tell in spite of all the advances in hardware and software in the intervening 25 years their modern descendants, MMORPGs, still can’t. What both kinds of games can and do offer is the possibility of exploring a fantasy world alongside a very large number of fellow humans instead of the digital constructs that have stalked the corridors of computerised dungeons since the advent of computer games.

Yes, they really are that addictive

That is a big offering. Anyone who’s ever played a computer adventure game of any sort will have bemoaned the necessarily shallow interactions you can have with the characters and monsters in single player games. Multi-player versions of those games solve this by giving you lots of other real people to interact with. But it’s a trade off, because to gain that sense of reality, you have to sacrifice the reality inherent in a linear, single-player experience.

Which brings up the big question of “which is better”? To which there is of course no one answer as different people expect different things from their games. For me, narrative wins every time. For other people the powerful sense of community offered by jointly delving into a make-believe world is what pushes their buttons. It’s not to be underestimated: it kept me playing Nanvaent for seven years. And far be it from me to proffer judgement on what people should or should not enjoy in games. But here’s the aspect I do find puzzling: I get a similar sense of community engagement from participating in websites such as this one. What drives some people to choose a highly addictive source for their online chat kicks instead?

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The clue is in the question. It’s not a choice, but an addiction. The response-reward model at the heart of almost all computer RPGs is incredibly addictive. It comprises basically the entirety of the appeal in the multi-million selling Diablo series. Likewise, the sense of instant connectivity offered by online communities is also oddly compulsive, as wryly highlighted by this famous XKCD cartoon. Computer interaction is inherently obsessive. So with MMORPGs, players are hit with a triple whammy of digital crack. And once you’ve tasted that sweet nectar, there’s no going back, even when you realise the sugar is poisoning your body and your mind.

Diablo 3 - game, or addiction machine?

Truth be told, knowledge of my own weakness and fear of enslavement is a large part of what originally kept me away from MMORPGs. But as I’ve aged, I’ve found the appeal of online gaming generally to have diminished. There was once a time when I’d cram in as much of the original Team Fortress mod as I could manage. But servers nowadays are too often populated by a hideous mixture of the repellently aggressive who’ll abuse you during and after every game, and the repellently obsessive who’ll put in hour upon hour of solo play to learn the maps and relentlessly thrash any lesser mortal who sets foot on their domain. Often these two stereotypes are both applicable to the same individuals. Playing against them isn’t fun: it’s the equivalent of choosing to stand up and be bullied.

Playing against your friends, on the other hand, is fun. It’s more fun if you can actually be in the same room, but given the time and space constraints of our modern, grown-up lives, I’ll take a network connection and a headset as an acceptable alternative. And of course the multiplayer component of most games allows us to create private, password protected realms for doing just that. But MMORPGs thrive on packing as many gamers as possible into the same realms. For them, it’s not an option and everyone is exposed to the trolls and the griefers and the obsessive-compulsive in all their hideous glory whether they want to be or not. Some multi-player games, such as Day Z, make a virtue of this, but the MMORPG needs a real sense of community and cooperation to function.

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These then, are the reasons I find the allure of MMORPGs rather baffling. They offer no sense of coherent narrative. They are dangerously addictive. The communities they create have an unfortunate tendency to exclusivity. I find that a sufficiently elevated soap box to climb on and lecture other gamers on the deficiencies of the genre as a whole from a great height. But am only one individual. And surely, eleven million World of Warcraft subscribers can’t all be wrong. Can they?

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded FortressAT.com and writes there and at NoHighScores.com

15 thoughts to “Worlds of Borecraft”

  1. There are some notable exceptions to your hypothesis of disjoint narratives. Ok maybe just one I can think of. EVE online, but what makes this work is there is no pretense that everyone is a special snowflake. That’s what MMO’s need to create a narrative that survives other people. When the narrative says you are merely a peon in a larger conflict then other people participating with you reenforces that. If you do get to be special it is because of what you have done (those Titans are beyond what one person can build, so you must command many others to get one).

    I played the game 5-6 years ago, and haven’t touched it since, but it still has fond memories for that reason. What I did in the game was determined by my skill, and planning. The problem is that is, and always will be, niche. People want to be special in games, they want the power fantasy. If you indulge the power fantasy you can not have a narrative that survives any scrutiny in such large playerbases. This is the fundamental flaw in MMO’s, this is why I don’t play them. If they created a game where not everyone was the hero, but you could earn that right, I might be interested. How to make being a bit player fun or interesting is the trick. EVE could do it because of the inherent cool factor of spaceships. Being a medieval thatcher would be far less interesting.

    1. EVE, UO, AC, MxO and DayZ all have that in common as illustrated in your first paragraph. To an extent what’s happening with Guild Wars 2 Halloween event that’s taking place on Sunday where it’s only going to happen once and everyone wants to be the guy, even though they cannot make the event.

  2. I have never played a MMO, so I am not sure. The only on-line game I play – other than the occassional Blood Bowl match – is “Left 4 Dead” and, then, I usually only play with my friends. I love co-op gaming. It’s easily the thing I like most about gaming. While I prefer “couch co-op”, given that my friends (like so many others) are scattered all over, getting together for on-line gaming is what we have to rely on most. That being said, I don’t often like to play with and/or against strangers. Sure, I have had some good luck with it, but bad luck as well.

    So, I can see the appeal of MMOs as a way to play games with your friends, have those shared experiences and all of that. Beyond that, I don’t quite stand the allure, but that’s fine. There are plenty of things that a lot of people love, like reality TV, golf, and NASCAR, that I don’t stand the allure of either.

  3. Nice piece. I do hope Todd reads it.

    As far as what people like about MMO’s, well, I can’t answer that as most MMO’s are quite crap to me. People like the leveling up. People like the exploration. People like crafting. People like wasting time. People like other people.

    I imagine there’s not one good answer here as there’s simply so much to a typical MMO experience. However, at the end of the day, I do believe it’s the friendships people form with other players that keeps them hooked into MMO’s like WoW. At least that’s my experience from the seasoned MMO fans. For me, no amount of boring mechanics and inane story can keep me interested past level 20, even when playing with friends.

    That said, Guild Wars 2 and EVE are my two MMO staples. GW2 is still quite new, but the lack of a subscription fee plays a huge role in keeping me interested as the game design moved away from the time sink model that is WoW et al. Sure, it’s still very much an MMO in most ways, but things have been streamlined to such a degree and filled with many wonderful little things (environments, cheeky dialogue, exploration, etc.) I keep coming back. I don’t power level or anything, I play as much as I want and come back when I feel like it. It’s nice.

    EVE, as Craig mentions above, is a whole different sort of beast. I come back to that because it is the one true MMO, if I were to be hyperbolic about it. Your actions truly do matter, they have a real effect on the game world. But I’m not a continual EVE player. Why? Well, it’s a gigantic time sink and I don’t like the gameplay mechanics. I like everything else, but I just don’t like playing it, which is sad.

    I’m hoping the game we’ve all been hoping for comes along. World of Warcraft brought the genre to millions of people, but in many ways it was a step back from the more free-roaming Everquest and Ultima Online days. Here’s to hoping one day we get a game world that works like EVE, is attractive to a large player base (cause I would like to play with my friends) and has interesting gameplay mechanics. One day. … One day.

    PS- “Likewise, the sense of instant connectivity offered by online communities is also oddly compulsive, as wryly highlighted by this famous XKCD cartoon.”

    Nothing was linked here. 😉

    1. It’s this kind of talk about EVE that gets me interested in trying it, but at this point, I keep feeling like I’d be too far behind to accomplish anything; some people have been playing in this persistent world forever, and it does feel like the mechanics are complex enough so that a new player can never really catch up (or at least, it looks that way from the outside).

      Sad to hear the game mechanics aren’t all that fun, because the stories emerging from EVE are fantastic. I’d like to see another MMO that tries to achieve the open-world feel of EVE, but it seems pretty risky.

      That said, there’s a Tabletop RPG company (Paizo Publishing) that’s planning an open-world, player-driver MMORPG that’s supposed to launch in the next year or two that sound like it could be interesting, but given that tabletop to online hasn’t always been very successful, I’m very skeptical, but given that they’re targeting EVE-style gameplay in an open fantasy world, I can’t help but be intrigued.

      1. Eve is not something where a new character doesn’t have a chance – if you’re in the right crew of people. There are certain tasks in the game that are best suited for newbies – frankly fairly suicidal ones that are covered by older players. Tackling (imagine running up to a soldier and throwing your unarmed self at his ankles, holding them tight. While he’s distracted, stomping you into oblivion, your friends show up and shoot him. Even if you die, you’ve helped your crew win the fight, and they cover your losses.

        There is also scamming. It’s a legit trade in the game, where you part fools from their hard earned money.

        The big thing about Eve is that it’s a social game, and abjectly sucks if you play solo. Most bad reviews are from people who try the PVE verses PVP aspects, and alone. At that point, you’re a tiny cog in a big universe, spinning alone…

    2. “Nice piece. I do hope Todd reads it.”

      He did and he’s with pretty much inline with Team Matt’s views on the genre. 😉 Good stuff, Matt!

  4. I agree with you entirely. I kept away from the WoW scene for very specific reasons; I don’t want to pay a monthly subscription to casually play a game that other people are obsessed with & I lack the brain component that makes other people feel satisfied by grinding out lvls. I feel no need to be better than the digital asshole next to me. I want substance, narrative, immersion — things that are usually lacking in MMOs. I like the games that make me forget how much I hate most people. I like games that let me forget that the youth of the United States are almost completely illiterate. I like the games that don’t make me feel like I want to punch a mother fucker in the face for talking shit about my Wood Elf.

    And besides, those fucking MMOs are run by money hungry greed-heads (as the Good Doctor would put it). They’re basically black holes in which to throw your money. In the end, what are you really getting?

  5. It’s funny, I saw Matt’s post on Facebook, and by the time I got over here, there were already 2 posts mentioning Eve Online.

    That would be my poison of choice. I’ve played it consistently for the last 6 years. I’ve traveled to Iceland 4 times for conventions, and host a midwestern Meetup twice a year for my Alliance in game, the somewhat famously terrible Goonswarm Alliance (where I am a director).

    It’s addicting. Here’s the thing though – you don’t tend to get addicted to things that are not fun. Certain types of games might not appeal to you, but that doesn’t take away their overall design aspects – it’s just like many games, they’re not all aimed at YOUR target market. It’s hard, it’s nearly Zero sum (if I kill you, you lose your stuff, and I take it, and you can’t get it back until you make more, or kill me and try to take it back). It’s famously full of griefers.

    When you say ‘Playing against your Friends is fun’ – that’s what I’m doing. I’m very good friends with a IT guy who lives in Nottingham. I’m regularly on voice comms and chat with a father of 4 in Utah, a radio DJ in Tennessee, a bartender in Iceland, an scottish retired engineer, and *literally* hundreds more.

    But yes, it does eat time. I think of the amount of time and energy I’ve spent the last few years – and wonder what else I could have done with that. However, I don’t regret it. I’ve made friends that I really treasure, and it’s change my character for the better. I’ve toughened up, stopped giving a shit about other people’s opinion when I don’t respect them (as dumb as it sounds, 10 years ago, if some jerk I had met once talked a lot of crap about me, I would take it personally.) I’ve gained management skills, negotiation skills, and I can now shit talk like a top tier internet troll

    1. I’ve wanted to join Goons for awhile but sheeze, applying to university had fewer steps than applying to Goons. Plus I don’t get why you have to be a member of a certain internet site. But anyways, yeah, midwest guy here so that caught my eye.

  6. Eh, I dunno. When I played WoW, I enjoyed leveling up with my girlfriend-turned-wife, then enjoyed raiding with friends once a week. I used to call it my bowling night. It was fun to get online, bullshit with friends, and work to learn the patterns needed to kill a boss.

    After Cataclysm came out, I didn’t feel like putting in the effort to level up again (wife wasn’t really interested at that point). Nor was I particularly excited about the content they were providing, and so I didn’t feel like replacing all of my Lich King and going through the entire process again.

    I recognize and agree with most issues people have with MMOs. I’m burnt out on the bullshit questing, gameplay mechanics, and rat race design. I’m tired of feeling like nothing I do in the game is important. That said, I enjoyed the time I had when I could set those things aside and enjoy the company. It was fun. Right now I play mostly single player games, because that’s where these things can be different. But I had a lot of fun with D3 because I could play with friends and it was a good water cooler subject at the office.

  7. But yes, it does eat time. I think of the amount of time and energy I’ve spent the last few years.

    Don’t worry about that. Time spent doing something you enjoy is time well wasted!

  8. For me, the draw of MMOs has nothing to do with any of the things you discuss. It is about one primary thing: the mechanics of the game and using them to interact with a gigantic world and it’s inhabitants in whatever way I choose. I include other players in ‘inhabitants’ but not at all for the social aspects, rather, entirely for their mechanical place in the world as help or hindrance (world pvp is essential for me) to my goals. The human element here is essential. A situation is completely changed by the presence of one or more player characters, each of which may act in different ways. This creates an endless variety of personal narratives. A single player RPG can never match that.

    The kinds of MMOs I am interested in have a few key characteristics:

    1. extensive character customization – the ability to build a wide array of characters with differing capabilities is essential for replay.

    2. leveling with skills doled out over levels – each level represents a unique set of choices and is essentially a separate unique character build which I get to play for a few hours after which I must learn a different (admittedly slightly) build.

    3. interesting gear choices to reinforce the character build – gear progression which is about trade-offs and special abilities.

    4. a large world with a variety of enemies of various power, including ‘group’ content – the key factor here is the ability to choose your own difficulty level at any given time. Group content is often doable solo with smart play at or slightly above the intended level. Forming impromptu groups to tackle a challenge is great too.

    5. world pvp – I can’t emphasize this enough. the idea that an aggressive player (yes, even one which greatly out levels me) can show up at any moment adds the tension that these games require.

    I’m in no way arguing that most people enjoy MMOs in this way. No doubt that many people play for the instant gratification/addiction, e-peening, or glorified chatroom aspects. Just pointing that there is usually an actual game under all that which can be enjoyed on it’s own merits.

  9. I always get excited when a big new MMO comes on the scene because there is something about the idea that I want to be good – but I seriously doubt I’ll ever play an MMO again. There are lots of games where I can have fun leveling and scratch that itch without having to deal with the slog of repetitive, stupid quests. That said, I believe the experience in each individual game is essentially a direct result of who you are playing with. If you’re lucky enough to play a game with your friends or to find a fun group of people to play with, you’re probably going to have an okay time. For instance, I played LotR for a bit of time. I liked the game, though I wouldn’t call it spectacular or groundbreaking in any way, but I mostly had fun because I randomly encountered a group of people who were fun to play with. I could probably have had more fun for less money hanging out with my buddies at a bar, though.

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