An aborted post and some lingering thoughts from older arguments has me thinking about the value of atmosphere to an MMO. In an entry a few months back (one of my most-read and most controversial,) I claimed that Warhammer Online had no soul. I’m still pretty convinced of that, but my intention of taking that argument and refining it further, or at least breaking down the components of what I mean by ‘soul,’ went by the wayside as other things came up.
What I mean by it is something closely tied to, but perhaps not totally congruent with, the idea of immersion, or, more broadly, engaging atmosphere, the latter of which is probably a better way to put it. It may not be important to some folks, although I suspect that it is to anyone who has even a little bit of the Explorer in them, to use the terminology of the Bartle Test.
A part of the appeal of roleplaying games in general (and not just the online kind,) is the notion of having an alternate identity in a more dramatic and adventurous milieu than the mundane world provides to most people. The environment of such an activity is an integral component of that ideal, since it provides the context in which to place the other piece of that puzzle, the character. Since MMOs are (up to now) primarily RPGs this factor is very important.
Obviously some players are deeply into character-building or combat or what have you, but while I think the former represents a significant part of the MMO audience, people who are all about the fighting and killing are probably better served by choosing an FPS or an RTS that can be played against other people online, because, let’s face it, MMO combat systems tend not to be all that engaging in comparison. There are (I think) valid reasons for this, since MMO players need to be able to function in a social environment as well, whereas your average Team Fortress 2 player can get by with just being good at shooting stuff. Character-builders, in contrast, can do that outside of the actiony parts of the game, and can do it while partaking in social aspects as well.
One does not play the atmosphere of an MMO, but it’s always there, and always contributing to the experience, in the best cases in a positive way. You may or may not recognize it as a concrete thing, but your brain does, and it might care whether your conscious mind does or not.
So what is it? What gives one game an engaging atmosphere and another a boring and uninteresting series of obstacles? I think that’s hard to pin down in totality, but I’m going to try by breaking it into a number of subcomponents that I think contribute to it.
Firstly and perhaps most obviously, graphics can contribute to atmosphere, and here I’m talking about artistry within the graphics rather than polygon counts or the degree of photorealism. In the movies we might call this cinematography or production design. Does the environment have a distinct look, with a coherent visual flavor? Good graphics, in this sense, render the world distinct, but while nobody can look at EQ2 and mistake it for WoW, neither is the world of EQ2 very attractive or appealing in a visual sense, at least not consistently. The character models, too, are a part of this, but bear an additional burden because most people (I think) want their characters to look cool – or at least to have the potential to look cool at some point.
Music is also important. To take the movie analogy again, music can be a subtle thing, because if what’s on screen is any good you’re paying attention to that instead of the soundtrack in the background. But your brain hears it, and ties it to the visual stimuli flowing into your eyes, and the right marriage between the two can be the difference between a great movie (Gladiator) and a merely decent one (Troy.) So too is it with MMOs, where I would say that a great soundtrack is very helpful, and perhaps absolutely necessary, to building and maintaining a strong and cohesive atmosphere. This is where games like WoW, AoC and yes, Vanguard, are very strong and where Warhammer Online falls flat on its ass with a lame and derivative soundtrack which sounds a lot like stuff that may have been rejected by Blizzard.
But it’s not just the passive input from visuals and audio – the mind has the be stimulated as well, and this is where the content comes in. It has to be interesting, obviously, which may or may not mean that there’s a big ‘story’ to follow – although I think that can help if it’s done well (AoC, LotRO.) There also has to be a variety of different things to do; different kinds of quests, crafting, exploration, PvP, whatever. This is, again, where WoW is strong and Warhammer is exceptionally weak, because only some of its aspects of play are remotely engaging, and those require access to other players who are typically not around or available.
Not that these are the only factors in a game’s success. Most obviously, everything has to actually work, too, a big reason why Vanguard looked to be in danger of expiry for the first year of its life. And it has to be reasonably user-friendly, a factor in why hardly any new players sign up for EverQuest anymore – or at least in why they don’t stay long if they’re accustomed to newer titles. It has to be challenging but not too challenging, and certainly not frustrating.
Ultimately I think the engaging atmosphere is important to an MMO because it’s important to me. And it happens that I think WoW is actually pretty strong in that department, despite the numerous clear issues that it has, which anyone passingly familiar with it could point out. It is coincidence that one of the more immersive MMOs is sitting atop a very big heap while most others are clustered around the bottom? Maybe. But if so, it’s also a coincidence that another title with a very strong atmosphere (Vanguard) has challenged all probability in merely surviving and finding a comfortable niche for itself, and why another MMO with a distinct and evocative atmosphere (EVE Online) has become one of the outstanding success stories in the hobby, and why an otherwise outstanding game whose strengths lie elsewhere (EQ2) has struggled even to keep up with its more primitive ancestor.
Maybe it’s only important to me. But maybe, as Goldfinger taught us, a sufficient number of coincidences add up to a trend. Maybe it’s enemy action.