The bushido bladed Stormgaard did tag me earlier in the week with a self-wrought meme about five lessons that one has learned from playing MMOs. My post is somewhat delayed and I should apologise, but alas it is not really entirely my fault for I am somewhat cursed with a rather fickle muse. When my muse is around I can write for hours, draw moderately splendid pictures (if I do say so myself) and undertake other such creative outlets without batting an eyelid. However, they're very rarely available and more often than not when I call on them for aid I get a rather abrupt and abusive answer-phone message which tells me in no uncertain terms where I can stuff my desire for creative stimulus. When they do finally show up they have a stinking hangover, the whiff of alcohol and cigarettes is about them and they sport a rather brutish six o'clock shadow of stubble, which is all the more frightening a proposition when you consider that my muse is female. For those of you who are aware of the more UK centric comedians, my muse could be likened to Jo Brand if she'd gone on a six day drinking binge with Mick and Ronnie of Rolling Stones fame. It's not so much a gentle seductive inspiration in the creative arts than a big lady with a fag hanging from the corner of her mouth shouting "Get on and write something you lazy oik! I'm going for a cooked breakfast; there'd better be something on that paper when I get back or I'll give you a thick ear". Charming. I should probably delete the above before she gets back, otherwise I'll be for it. I'll do that in a bit, but first I will attend to the meme at hand, so without further ado here are five lessons that I've learned whilst playing MMOs:
1) In any MMORPG the NPCs are the heroes.
It took a while for me to learn this one, and with each new game came the watery wide eyed, hand clasped, bottom lip biting look of hope that accompanies the prayer that this time I would be able to adventure with my character through strange and wonderous lands, and that with these exploits would come fame, fortune and perhaps a little bit of what I believe the hip young crowd call 'looking like a bad-ass'. What actually transpired each time was that I would adventure through oddly familiar and generic lands, and with those adventures would come the realisation that I was a mouse on a treadmill of ever increasing RPM that I would eventually no longer be able to keep up with, at which point I would be flung off and into the cage bars of reality, and as my blurred vision from the impact began to clear the reality that slowly came into focus showed me that I really was quite inconsequential in this world, that I was a mere pawn in the affairs of NPCs. Those damnable NPCs, with their matching sets of clothes and armour who, whether going shopping or standing in a field in the middle of nowhere, look ten times more awesome than I ever will. NPCs who have an arm missing but still fight better than I can with two, who wear blindfolds and yet have powers so awesome that they can lay waste to an army of opponents when I have barely etched a noughts and crosses board on the armour of one of them. NPCs, and mobs too, have incredible powers that players are just begging their trainers to instruct them in; huge damaging spells for next to no mana, heals that could top-up the health of entire continents of players in one go, debilitating powers that could lay waste to those same continents. It wouldn't be so bad, but here is my character, with many years of time spent adventuring the lands, and all he has to show for it is a slightly limp mace and a shield which I found out the other day is really just a large chocolate Christmas tree decoration in disguise; really, the shield does look like one of those chocolate Christmas tree decorations, I imagine my dwarf hiding behind it as the enemy swings some magnificent, deadly and glorious battle axe which strikes through the tin foil wrapping and gets stuck in the 20% cocoa base, at which point my dwarf peers out over the top of the shield with a huge cheesy grin and perhaps takes a little bucktoothed nibble of chocolate as the orc desperately tries to pull his gummed-up weapon away.
Could instanced worlds help alleviate this annoyance and give players a greater standing in these virtual lands in which they spend so much time inhabiting? I envisage a lobby for players to login to and tweak around with their characters, trade items and meet people but then they enter an instanced world limited to a very small number of people, perhaps a guild per instanced realm; recruitment would also take place in the lobby and there would be a default realm for the unguilded. In this way the uniqueness and involvement of a player would by multiplied by a huge factor, and the players could perhaps be more powerful in this world compared to NPCs because they come from a limited band of heroes rather than a horde of maniacal adventurers that would challenge the crowds at the January sales for sheer loot grabbing ferocity. There's often a fairly high registration on the outrage-o-meter when 'instanced' anything is suggested to players, but Guild Wars has shown that this can work successfully on an instance per group ideology, what I'm suggesting is that the actual realm would remain intact between sessions, such that when you return to the realm, rather than having a fresh world where everything has reset, you would be known in the land, if you'd helped the village of Gankton from being set upon by all the other local villages (serves them right for moving into a place called Gankton, to be honest) then the villagers there would remember your deeds, and perhaps the other villages would also remember...
Anyway, that was an ever so slightly tangential ramble, and suffice it to say that I don't believe that it would be entirely viable to create such a thing in the near future, so until then I will just have to remember the lesson that my shields will always be made of chocolate, my character will always look like a patchwork lunatic and NPCs will always be the coolest kids on the block.
2) MMOs are really social simulators for the government.
You've been fed a lie all of your MMO life, you're not playing games, you are in fact playing thinly disguised advanced social simulators run by government funded agencies. Never before have governments had the opportunity to study such social behaviours as mob mentality, crime, love, betrayal, cliques, in fact the whole Lord of the Flies shebang, without having to be accountable for the resulting harm that comes to their electorate. Reward vs Punishment, how group learning works vs singular attempts. How do the 'top' guilds form? Why do they form? What factors cause them to splinter and fracture, and what is the effect of the resulting fallout. There is so much information that can be gathered, and probably is, as to how social networks perform under various situations, it's a gold mine of data to anyone who wants to know how to make friends, influence people and take over the world.
A tad extreme, but you never know! Which is why you should always do things to confuse their data collection. I suggest acts of sabotage such as randomly stopping in populated server areas and spinning on the spot for two minutes, buying all the cheese in a shop and giving it to passing PCs, running backwards into all dungeons that start with the letter 'd', forming huge groups of fellow players and then travelling across the land while other players pretend to be herding you like cattle, and standing naked on a mailbox while dancing for the general population. Wait, scrub that last one.
3) It's just a game.
So simple to state; so difficult to master.
4) Give a chance to all things.
Games, guilds, players, they all deserve a chance before they are dismissed to the pits of mediocrity, melodrama and moronisity. Case in point: I probably wouldn't have played CoH at all if it wasn't for the enthusiasm of others, I had already written it off as being from a developer that I'd heard little about, and a game of which there had been little buzz within the pages of those gaming journals that I read at the time. Another example: I left my WoW guild prematurely, it turns out, because it looked to me as though a clique was forming and that the guild was going to consist of a few people running instances and using the rest of us to fill the holes in their dungeon running schedule when they were missing a member of the cool kids; shortly after I left the guild a huge wave of new people joined and it looks as though the guild was probably pretty good for all involved in the end. Lesson learned.
It's worth trying games whenever you can; betas are useful in this fashion, it's nice to be able to determine that a game is not for you, and not having to buy the box to find this out is a boon, but it's worth remembering that it's also a good way to find those pieces of gold that are hidden in amongst the silt that is the general gaming market.
Give players a chance. Some people are truly wonderful but have the unfortunate knack of coming across as being obnoxious when their speech is distorted in the refractive index of a textual medium. Before taking offence to something someone has said in game, try to take a look at it from another perspective, see if there's any way to interpret it in a more favourable light. Sometimes this will work, and you might realise that the other player wasn't insulting the honour of your pet hamster, but was merely trying to convey a joke that doesn't work without the complexities of vocal inflection and facial expressiveness. Sometimes the element of confusion has been introduced by your own prejudices, and is not in fact the fault of the other player in the slightest. Sometimes a simple typo can change the entire meaning of sentence.
And sometimes people are just arsing cockbags.
Just as a quick aside: out of curiosity I checked what my spellchecker thought cockbags should really be, it suggested cockboats which is apparently the unfortunate name for a small ferry boat and not, as I surmised, a supplementary vessel for astonishingly well endowed men who couldn't fit it onto a yacht for fear of getting it caught in the rigging.
5) I am uniquely not suited to MMOs.
But I play them anyway. I forever seem to be out of a guild and I am often playing solo more than I'm playing in groups. This is the fault of nobody else, it is purely a failing of my own through my uncanny ability to project my real world social ineptness even unto virtual worlds where nobody knows my name and where nobody can readily determine my painful shyness and incompetence in casual conversation. Still I let it affect me, and thus it often spoils what could otherwise be a great experience.
In MMOs nobody can hear you scream in anguish at your inability to socialise. Unless you miss the mute button on the microphone, I suppose, and even then it's just a strange gurgling sound as you try to string vowels and consonants together.
Sometimes though, just very occasionally, you get a group where things go fantastically well, where the conversation flows like honey on hot toast, where the adventures are epic and where time's very flow is halted, you feel as if you're momentarily caught by Matrix bullet time as the camera pans around your frozen form and then everything accelerates again, so quickly in fact that before you know it you find the dawn is stretching its luminous fingers underneath your door and around the edges of your curtains.
In the end it is those moments that keep me playing, because the sheer unadulterated joy of bonding with others and creating mutual enjoyment through the medium of gaming is worth all the solo pain and social aggravation that shrouds it for the rest of the time.
And there you have it, five things that I've learned, and now I shall have to depart with haste, dear reader, because my muse is back and she seems to be carrying a really rather shockingly big stick which I fully believe she intends to swing with some venom towards my cockboat.