The Virtual World is Not Dead

There’s a post over on Massively today asking the question, “Do you miss virtual worlds?” The body of the article touches on one of my pet topics, and my reply got so big that I figured I may as well bloat it some more and get a blog post out of it.

With the exception of Second Life, you’d be hard pressed to find a well-known MMO that isn’t an exercise in tightly-controlled carrot-chasing in one form or another, and the days of highly evolved non-combat gameplay systems seem to have gone the way of the dodo bird.

If I had anything like the time to do it this week, I’d record a podcast to rant about it. Because this point is raised with some regularity, and the writer always seems to manage to miss the giant starship orbiting at 4km and shooting rockets at him, trying desperately to get his attention.

The phenomenon cited by the author is quite real, of course. MMOs have become much more focused on the game rather than the virtual space the players inhabit. It’s tempting to blame WoW for this, but it’s really not Blizzard’s fault as much as it is that of the developers of other games who’ve followed in its footsteps, and tried to tread down the same path of Big Big Money. Developers, commentators and fans all seem to focus on WoW’s gameplay as the reason for its tremendous success. I take the position that, while it’s certainly a factor, the very credible virtual world world that WoW takes place in is also important – maybe even more important.

WoW’s gameplay is very directed, it’s true. But it also has a (mostly) seamless virtual world behind it, a robust emote system and a thriving simulacrum of an economy. There are even in-world events that happen, like that big battle in the Barrens that fires occasionally (It happens to fire when a quest is triggered by somebody, but that’s largely transparent to somebody who just happens to be wandering through and doesn’t know about it.) These are all components of the virtual space rather than directly attached to gameplay per se. Azeroth is a believable place to inhabit. Over the course of updates and expansions, WoW’s gotten away from this, using questing and instancing more heavily, to the point that now major sections of the world are not open, and virtually all level-cap play happens in instances. This wasn’t true when the game launched, and it suggests that even Blizzard’s team has tended to forget the importance of the virtual world.

Even so, for the casual player (i. e. most WoW players,) this high-level perspective is much less obvious, and folks working their way up through the levels to Burning Crusade, seeing only Old Azeroth, which remains (for now) very open, eventful and filled with neat nooks and crannies to explore. My fear for Cataclysm is that it’ll erase everything in the old world that’s not directly tied to the quest progression in the name of providing a more focused experience for new players – which will, I think, be a net loss for the world, and therefore for the game. We’ve gotten to the point where Blizzard is changing their game to copy other titles which themselves copied from WoW.

Which gets us back around to the supposed abandonment of the virtual world. As I said, this is a very real phenomenon, and one that works to the detriment of the MMO’s long-term appeal. But there are exceptions, aside from media darling Second Life, and that the biggest one is so consistently overlooked by people making this point is a source of ongoing irritation for me.

Western (i. e. North American and European,) commentators tend to focus on western MMOs, and pay less attention to the various Asian offerings. Among those western games, EVE Online holds very steady at #2-3 behind World of Warcraft, aside from occasional aberrant periods surrounding launches (and we’re in one of those now, with LotRO having gone free-to-play and Midget Bunnyhop Hentai Battles squatting out a new expansion.) Yet “sandbox games are dead,” and “nobody cares about virtual worlds anymore.” How is this the case when the second or third most popular title in the field is one that those terms fit exactly?

One could point out that EVE is an odd duck of a title in many respects, which would be true. It’s unusual if for no other reason than that it’s continued to grow over the course of its lifetime, whereas every other title has gone into a period of decline from which there has yet to be an escape. The near-universal scenario (the “MMO Lifetime Curve,” if you will,) over the long term has been a burst at launch, rapid growth for a while after that, then an inevitable peak, followed by a long, slow decline. Almost nobody would try to make the case that WoW hasn’t hit the last stretch of that curve yet. EVE has utterly defied it.

And yet we have CCP’s little game that lots of folks like to forget about, humming happily along in the top rank of extant MMOs, continuing to grow slowly but surely, with its open virtual world, sandbox play and player-driven economy. How come nobody thinks to copy that?

And don’t tell me EVE is a “hardcore PvP” game. Anyone who’s played it for any length of time knows that not only is that not true, the very definition falls apart in EVE’s case. About 80% of people never leave Empire – how hardcore does that sound? The threat of PvP is always there, sure, but actual shooting is almost opt-in, as somebody pointed out in a comment here not too long ago. Players who exercise proper caution will seldom if ever find their ships shot out from under them. And EVE utterly defies most people’s expectations of PvP (“people shooting at me,”) because while EVE is overwhelmingly PvP-driven, PvP can take many dimensions outside of firefights, and people can contribute to that not only without firing a shot, but without even making any real enemies.

The open world, the sandbox MMO… it’s alive and well and living in Iceland, and snacking on weird fermented fish washed down with Brennivín.

13 responses to “The Virtual World is Not Dead

  1. I’m tabbed out of EQ2 as I write this. Norrath, both the original and the 500 years later versions, are virtual worlds. So is Telon. So are most of the spaces in which most of the MMOs I’ve played take place.

    You can wake your avatar and walk or swim or fly or sail or ride around three-dimensional landscapes. You can watch things happens, hear the inhabitants converse, in many cases you can have your avatar take actions that make changes in the world that you see.

    You can build houses that stand there in the countryside, that others can enter. You can decorate and construct spaces within the space of the world in a dazzling variety of styles. You can moor your boat at a dock and other avatars can board it and you can all sail off into the ocean while other avatars wave to youfrom the shore as they watch your boat shrink and finally disappear.

    I could go on. For a long time.

    Just because some players choose to ignore the worldness of these worlds in favor of the gameness doesn’t make the virtual worlds fold up and disappear. There’s not much to worry about over the lack of VWs, but we might wonder why increasingly fewer players in them seem to find them interesting outside of their function as the backdrop for a “game”.

  2. The thing to remember about eve is that it does not suffer fools gladly. The design philosophy seems to be: “Give them a truck load of rope and an instruction manual on how to tie a noose and then make sure the players can build plenty of scaffolds”. Once one gets over the shock of not having one’s hand held by some nanny, the game is quite fun. The thing is you need to remember is you are playing EVE, not some single player space simulator you were dreaming of when you signed up.

    A lot of people quit EVE the first time they play it. It’s like drinking scotch for the first time. Rough and a bit of an acquired taste. Some of them come back when they are ready for it. But once you’ve gotten over your preconceptions, it’s got attractive features and possibilities that no other game out there has. That’s why people stick around.

  3. I’m one of those that payed for EVE once then never played it again.

    There’s no way around it: you’ll be peer-pressured to learn to pvp fight, and to do what other players want you to do, and to play the way other players want you to play. At least if you join a player-run corp… and everyone will tell you you have to do that to really enjoy the game.
    If you see no fun in killing each other and chasing people while being chased fearing for your ship and all you’ve worked for, you’ll just be labeled a carebear and made fun of.

    I like most other things about the game way better than other games, seeing as I dislike MMOs for the very reason they’re just not deep, immersive, or believable as a world. So EVE came off to me as one of the better ones, reminding me of old spaceship strategy games.

    But the pvp fanatics on EVE is a constant annoyance. I was surprised by the carebear hate. I was turned off by older players feeling superior and passively telling me how to play (“you can do anything on EVE! But you won’t really be one of us until you join a player-run corp and fight for us 😉 oh and you’ll need this and that”).

  4. I play EVE, and I dont give a flying rat’s ass about peer pressure. I dont join player corps and I go about my business in the universe my way, which is usually alone. I dont rake in billions thats for sure, but I make a living and have fun doing it.
    I agree with Ashiya to an extent, most people talk about EVE like its full of possibilities, but those are usually the same people who tell you you have to join a player corp to enjoy the game. So where are the possibilities then?
    But for me thats not true. I used to doing my own thing, the world be damned, and thats what I do in EVE aswell.

    Virtual worlds in themepark-style mmorpgs arent worlds in my opinion, because a world is ever changing and not something static. Azeroth is static, middle earth is static. Nothing changes (save rare, usually expantion-related occasions). Eden is changing all the time, and its all the players’ doing. If players cant change the world, then it isnt a world, its a set.

  5. @Bhagpuss: Everything you say is 100% right. However, the point of the post (one of them, anyway) was to point out that the sandbox/themepark and virtual world/game labels are not either/or binary switches. In fact I don’t think that either pair represents a true axis, in that I don’t find any of the four elements to be exclusive of one another. Just because, say, WoW has huge themepark elements doesn’t preclude it also having a strong virtual world or sandbox elements as well – although it happens to be a very weak sandbox, I don’t find this to be an inevitable consequence of game/themepark MMO design. I think this is something that gets lost in MMO design, perhaps due to budgeting reasons or development time constraints, so we tend to get games that focus design with the axes in mind, homing in on one or two of those elements to the exclusion of the others.

    EVE, as the extant title least in the MMO design rut, it again perhaps the best example of this. It does have themepark elements, despite having a very strong and dynamic virtual world and being the biggest sandbox we’ve seen so far.

  6. I have to chuckle at posts like this. Do you know the #1 reason why Sandbox/Virtual World MMOs are not prevalent today? Because people are not playing them.

    Go take a tour of the Indie-MMO scene and you will see a LOT of virtual world MMOs that everybody seems to ignore. If you want these type of games to become AAA titles, you have to actually play them so they can grow.

    I could list a half-a-dozen games that qualify, but why should I do the work for you. Get off your butts, quit whining, and go play them!

    If you “play” it, “notoriety” will come. 🙂

  7. @CF: that is a great point. There are a screaming ton of well and truly innovative MMOs out there, and that no-one plays or will even try.

    @Ardwulf: I think your main point is one that seems to be lost on a lot of MMO commentators. WoW, doesn’t have a lot of “virtual world” elements. Nor do WAR and AoC. However, all of the other big (100K+ subs) MMOs in the western market have pretty extensive systems in place that have almost nothing to do whith chracter progression. For example, FFXI, LoTRO, and EQ II all have deep housing systems which are in large part “fluff.” There is little point to decorating a home save to feel more immersed in your world.

    In LoTRO you also have a whole emote mini game (unlocking all the emotes is fairly involved), the music system, and fishing. None of them does a bit to make you more powerful in game.

  8. I’ve found EQ2E has felt like a world over the last 4 weeks. I’ve rolled several characters and none of them have followed the golden path (Halas – Butcherblock – Steamfont). When I log in I really have no idea where I’ll end up playing that night with any character over 20.

    Eve has been copied. A game called Perpetuum, made by Eve fans, using robots instead of ships. I tried it in Beta it’s a decent game.

  9. @CF: Yeah, but the notoriety for a game like EVE is there, and I expect all but the most provincial commentators (i. e. folks writing blogs dealing with multiple games, or writing for Massively or Beckett MOG or the like – both paid jobs, I might add,) to be more than peripherally aware of it. EVE isn’t A Tale in the Desert, a tiny indie title being played by a few thousand people – it’s like the #2 or #3 MMO, has hundreds of thousands of players, and gets a ton of press and advertising all over the place, including in the very places where such comments sometimes appear. If you’re going to make it your business to talk about MMOs, you should know better. (Not you specifically, of course – “you” in the general sense.)

    As an aside, a statement like “I assert *thus*, but go research it yourself” is bad rhetorical strategy. I happen to agree with you, but dropping the legwork on the reader without even a hint or two to start with isn’t going to convince anybody.

    @Yeebo: True, but there’s virtual world components to every MMO – I’d have said ‘almost’ but games beyond a certain point (of lacking such elements,) are titles that get frequently labeled ‘not an MMO’ by commentators. Guild Wars and DDO are prominent examples of this, and WAR comes dangerously close.

    In WoW’s case, you win some, you lose some – it has few subsystems not directly related to character progression, but it’s got a pretty good selection of emotes and the open world. Like I said, it’s not a binary label where a game either has a ‘virtual world’ or it doesn’t – even the boundaries of that term are fairly blurry.

    Fun Latin fact of the Day: The “i.e.” that I keep using is an abbreviation of the Latin id est, “that is (to say).” It means the same thing in English as it does literally in Latin.

  10. @Ardwulf

    I guess this all comes down to how we define a “sandbox” MMO. I really don’t see it with EVE. I mean, yeah, you can fly all over the place quest free, you can trade with people, etc, but you can do that in WoW too if you ignore the quest lines.

    On the flip side you could say that *every* MMO is a virtual/sandbox world to some degree. I personally think this, but it’s obvious that some certainly make you “feel” like it more than others. The more influence the player has on the environment/world, the more sanbox-like it becomes. Here’s how I see it, with a few of the Indie titles I made reference to above:

    Less Sandbox-like More Sandbox-like
    Guild Wars>>>WoW/LOTRO/Runes of Magic/EQ2/Warhammer/Aion>>>Ryzom>>>EQ1>>>EVE>>>DAoC>>>Darkfall>>>Mortal Online>>>Ultima Online>>>Haven & Hearth>>>Wurm Online>>>Cantr 2>>>Faery Tale Online>>>Shores of Hazeron

    What irks me is when people constantly complain about the derth of sandbox MMOs as they name off the same list of repetitive games over and over again. How do you think WoW got so big? As hard as it is to believe, Blizzard was a small Indie company not so long ago. It wasn’t until Diablo 1, that they started to go viral. Same with the companies behind EQ and UO – they were made by a small group of newbs, but their efforts led to a revolution in gaming.

    When shareholders and publishers begin to see a product get widespread appeal, the market will begin to trend to the new innovation.

    Just look at Minecraft. The game has gone crazy in the last few months. The guy is making millions of dollars. How much you wanna bet that we see more games pop-up like this in the future?

    Innovation won’t come until we start paying attention to the little guys. That means we have to look past a few bugs and polish issues to give them a fighting chance for survival.

  11. @CF: I mostly agree with you, although I’d note that a couple of the titles you list aren’t MMORPGs in any conventional sense.

    Certainly every MMO is a virtual world to some degree or another, even DDO, which is less so than just about anything else I can think of but is conventionally lumped into the category.

    Both EVE and your list are remarkable in that once we hit that point in the sequence you’ve given, we see a very steep decline in popularity. If you define a sandbox that way, I’m not sure how you don’t see as much sandbox in EVE as some, when you have persistent player-run empires that can rise or fall based on (potentially) a single player’s actions. But then, while this is nice, I don’t define a sandbox that way.

    I think the sandbox label comes with a lack of direction by the game itself as to what you should be doing and how you should be playing, alongside an infrastructure which provides options for self-direction. The ability of individual players to concretely impact the game world, while it’s a great selling point in its own right, is tangental to that.

    To take the obvious and prominent example (WoW,) you can ignore the directed gameplay if you prefer, but you’re kind of hosed in the long run if you do. In fact, in some scenarios (DK starting area and Goblin/Worgen starting areas come Cataclysm,) you’ll be stopped dead in very short order if you do. WoW is a game about linear progression, and although the lines are squiggly in places, the game strongly encourages you to mostly stick to the paths established by the game design.

    EVE doesn’t do this. You get a short tutorial (that you can blow off if you want, although you generally shouldn’t,) and then are dumped into the universe with a couple of very gentle pointers toward common player activities like mining, trading, mission-running, research and PvP. You can ignore all that and forge your own path if you want, or mix and match freely. While EVE is by no means a perfect sandbox, it’s the closest we’ve seen with much notoriety at the present time, and it’s also notable in that it’s headed steadily further in the sandbox direction since release – despite also adding some themepark elements as well (more missions and mission infrastructure, factional warfare, etc.)

    Innovation won’t come until we start paying attention to the little guys. That means we have to look past a few bugs and polish issues to give them a fighting chance for survival.

    Yes, but this is virtually always true in every field. As a rule, attentive people working in those fields are paying attention to the little guys. But innovation rises up from the bottom – it doesn’t trickle down from the top.

  12. @Ardwulf

    I just don’t buy your arguments. Nobody’s making you run quests or progress linearly in WoW. It may be geared toward that, but it’s not forced. Like I said, every MMO can be a virtual world, but some are less accomodating than that.

    And I’d like to hear your argument as to why Wurm Online, Haven & Hearth and Mortal Online are not MMORPGs. You say they are not “convential” MMOs and that’s why you and many others refuse to give the Indies a chance.

    It’s almost comical. People argue for more sandbox MMOs, yet as soon as they are presented with one that breaks the mold, they say, “Oh that’s not convential, so that doesn’t count”. Duh! Of course it isn’t “convential”. If it was convential, it would be the theme-park or static-world crap that we get in WoW, Aion, and, yes, EVE! The pitiful excuses presented against these true sandbox games are really sad, and, in my mind, really underscores why the MMO scene has stagnated.

    Take Shores of Hazeron for instance. This game beats the pants of EVE in every aspect. Can you land on planets in EVE, get out of your ship, build a house, farm a field, sail the oceans, build vehicles and kill alien creatures? Can you craft your own custom-built starship, move around the interior, and pilot it with your friends a la Star Trek? Can you custom design your own alien race to be seen and played in-game? No, I didn’t think so.

    EVE, to me is no different than WoW – the differences are negligible. It’s just a boring static universe to explore. The impact you can make as a player on it is very insignificant. You can call it a sandbox or virtual world all you want, but your sandbox is a concrete slab compared to the others I’ve listed.

  13. @CF: You do realize that I’m agreeing with most of what you’re saying, right? The only thing I’m questioning is the way you seem to be defining ‘sandbox’, which is different than how it’s defined by other folks, including myself.

    I’m not about to question the credentials of several of the games on your list – I confess to not having heard of three of them (Haven & Hearth, Cantr 2 and Shores of Hazeron.) Nor, you’ll note, did I question the order of sandboxy-ness that you put them in. (If I were to make such a list it would of course be different, but that’s just the way opinions vary.)