Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sandboxes, Theme Parks & User-Created Content

I wrote in my last post about my beginnings as a gamer, and hopefully this went towards giving you an idea of what I like in MMOs. I suppose it’s obvious: I’m a sandbox guy, unapologetically. Now you know how I voted in our poll. It isn’t that I don’t enjoy a good raid every now and then, or a good round of PVP, but what really gets me going is just seeing what people can create in virtual worlds. If it’s contextual, all the better. But if it’s completely out of left field, the wacky side of me as well as the part that digs on the somewhat random nature of the human creative impulse is also tickled.

I’ve been finding it pretty interesting to watch what people have been doing with the Spore Creature Creator. Not only is it great marketing for that game, the creator is so addictive that it bodes very, very ill for the future sleep habits of gamers everywhere when Spore finally does come out. I not only laughed my ass off over this guy but appreciated the fact that, once they get over the novelty of making giant penis monsters, a million monkeys on typewriters are going to turn their formidable collective consciousness to making some of the most entertaining critters ever.

Sure, EA got a little snippy over the fact that people were using their vaunted creature editor to create things that weren’t exactly family friendly. But they’re going to filter what uploads into the game, right? Since I’m sort of an anarchist about these things, I wish they wouldn’t. But I can appreciate why they need to.

Why can’t we see more user-generated content in MMOs? Don’t tell me it would break the immersion. Immersion is only important in rigidly controlled, probably franchised gameworlds that want to run me on a hamster wheel. This is obviously a slight exaggeration, but still: give me the tools, and I’ll make my own immersion. So will many other people.

When I think about the Spore Creature Creator, I imagine it being put to use in a game like SWG to generate in-game objects. No need for noob staff aquarium walls then, although I grant you that they work very, very well. If you like, make sure the style of the items that people generate is contextual.


Naturally, I’d love to see some games that don’t even try to do that. And surely, Second Life is one. Unfortunately, it also neatly illustrates why the full-chaos model doesn’t work either. Too little structure can be just as off-putting as too much.


Second Life’s “problem” in a nutshell is that it isn’t really a game at all. You can play games in SL but that word has a different definition there. SL is essentially a 3D development platform. So that formidable collective consciousness I talked about is there in spades, but not to game; to socialize, to do business, to roleplay. That last taking place in a giant bunny suit, with your partner of choice resplendent in the latest zebra head fashions of the day, along with the obligatory little black dress. And believe me, you two will e-urinate on one another for hours.

Because Second Life doesn’t have an inherent game structure, it also tends to attract the sort who find the above appealing. Because they aren’t looking to game the way I’m looking to game. They’re looking for something a little more basic that probably has more to do with, um, hormonally and intellectually based human social interaction.

While there’s a place for those crazy bunny suit people in my utopian virtual world, and elements of what they want to do are indisputably valid gaming activities, not all the right MMO ingredients really exist in SL. That simply was never Linden's intent. Plus, you have to learn the proprietary scripting language to make anything. And, let's face it, you have to be a graphic designer. Finally, there’s also always the risk of your PC melting into a smoking pool of hot metal. SL can really lag, on any machine.


So, much as I appreciate the parts of it that are groundbreaking, much as I love that it was born out of Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Second Life is not “playable” the way I define that word. To find something like that, I have to head back towards the mainstream.

I’ve talked a lot about user generated content, and also about how plain crazy Second Life can be. But I don’t think that user generated content and utter, random wackiness have to be mutually dependant. Surely one can find a middle ground between total anarchy and the rigidly stratified, narrowly specific gameworld that is WoW: the one where every bit of art in the game looks like it was drawn by the same guy. And, you know, even though some of the more over-the-top player additions to SWG were not exactly helping one roleplay, you never forgot that you were running around in the Star Wars universe.

Problem is, short of Second Life and SWG, I can’t even think of a game with much user generated content, and certainly not one that allows the player to use that content in a sandbox-type environment. Being able to design your own ship sails in Pirates of the Burning Sea is pretty cool, but it isn’t really what I’m after.


Since I just used WoW as a cautionary example of what not to do, I want to allay some concerns about just how much of a lunatic sandbox MMOer I really am. The basic premise of any game is to have fun, and WoW is fun without a doubt. Combat is intuitive and quick, but there’s a lot of depth to how you play a class, both in PVP and PVE. Everything just… works right, and that counts for so much. It's rare in MMOs! In that, WoW is the anti Second Life, as well as the anti SWG.


To continue playing devil’s advocate, there’s also something to be said for WoW’s higher-end content. It has a way of bringing people together through necessity. I’ll bet a thousand real-life friendships have been born out of raiding BWL, and there’s nothing negative I can say about that. Plus, the strategic, almost sport-like element of most raids can be pretty compelling.

It’s plain satisfying to take down a really big boss, on your fifth try, with 39 other people screaming into the mic. And hopefully you had enough DKP saved, because the Talisman of Reformatting Entire Noob Hard Drives finally dropped, and it’s a priest item. But it’s not satisfying for long.


Unfortunately, in an industry that thrives almost solely on the big hits, that, like Hollywood, needs them to survive, you’ll excuse me if I worry that a whole lot more WoW flavor is in our MMO future. To the exclusion of all else.

Blizzard broke the mold, and showed you guys that the theme park style can be phenomenally popular (and profitable). Put people on a loot treadmill, and run them through a world that is perfectly realized, on an engine that is rock stable. Lower-level players will see the shiny, glowing weapons and armor of the 70s, and lust after them. But they need time, numbers and organization for that. So they’ll be forced into big guilds, will start grinding up, and before you know it they’re studying YouTube videos of raid progression, and blocking out their raid schedule two weeks in advance. They’re playing (and subscribing) more than they ever thought they would, but along the way, they will move through a gameworld that never changes, never evolves. Something is absent from it.


That something is what I have futilely hunted for in virtually every MMO outside SWG that I’ve played. The old sense of wonder, caused by an appreciation of just how much interesting stuff people get up to when you give them the tools and step carefully back.


When I ran around in WoW, I enjoyed myself the first few weeks. All the cool gnome technology. The sense of humor and cartoony irreverence that is in all of Blizzard’s (really Games Workshop’s) art. But as a player, you cannot contribute. You’re really just running around in someone else’s movie.


Even a game like EQII, which I suppose was a good transition from the sandbox of SWG to the theme park of WoW, has always had that same sense of narrowness. I understand that you EQII devs felt you had to protect the intellectual property of Norrath by not allowing players to throw up houses and guild halls all over the landscape, but that instanced housing in the cities was not a solution. We weren’t contributing to the world; we were just renting rooms in your hotel. Sure, we could put our collections of stuff there (and I did), but it never felt like we figured into how the game evolved. Actually, I guess that’s the point; it didn’t. EQII is the same static, ladder-style questfest as WoW, just with different skins and less PVP.


When I think about EQII, the thing that most stands out for me about that gameworld isn’t the first time I stood someplace and gaped at the scenery. Sure, it was very quality stuff, and I did peer a little. But, like in WoW, there was little sense of wonder. What sticks is, bizarrely: Narek Bonecarver.

Narek was an armor quest mob who I believe you simply had to kill. He’d spawn on you when you found his spot, provided you had the quest. Problem was, for as long as I played, he also spawned on you if you had ever had the quest. Even if you had killed his ass into the ground sixteen times and once more for good measure. You could be level 46 and decked out, but if you passed his spot in Nektulos Forest, level 25 Narek would pop, scream in rage and commit comic three hit suicide. As one friend pointed out, Narek was pissed, and he was coming after you for the rest of your life.


For some reason, I always found it hilarious when Narek came out to remind us that he hadn’t forgotten what we did to him back when Nek Forest was scary, and everything conned orange and red to us.


Maybe it’s because the world in EQII was just so… perfect. It needed a little smudge, and Narek provided that.


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