on Jul 15, 2008
So one day Will Wright and Cliff Bleszinski decide to go to the beach. Having just enjoyed some hamburgers and ice cream cones together, they now have to wait an hour before they can go swimming. In order to pass the time, CliffyB suggests a game of volleyball.
Will agrees, but then he gets on the same side of the net as Cliff, leaving nobody on the opposite side.
Cliffy makes a face at him, “What the hell are you doing?”
Will Wright smiles earnestly, “I’m going to explore different ways of using the ball. You can do the same. Let’s experiment with hitting the ball. Rolling the ball. Spinning the ball. You know, everyone’s experience with the ball will be different. Maybe we will work together and see how long we can keep it in the air, or we could-“
“That’s stupid”, Cliff sneers, “Get over on your side of the net.”
There is an uncomfortable pause, and then Will suggests that they build sandcastles instead. Cliff shrugs indifferently, which Will takes as an approximation of, “Yes.” He goes off to find a nice patch where he’ll have an open area and access to both wet and dry sand.
Will decides that a “sandcastle” isn’t very interesting, so he decides to build something more elaborate. Maybe a sand sculpture of some sort? An animal? A geometric shape? After some deliberation he decides to go for a seven-foot reclining Buddha.
Will goes to work, heaping up sand, wetting some of it down, scooping it away. He starts with using his hands but then begins improvising using objects they happen to have at hand. He discovers the lid for the cooler is good for moving around large piles of sand, bulldozer-style. The umbrella is good for shielding his work from the wind as well as keeping the sun off. He works out a system to catch the end of incoming waves and trap a little in a small reservoir he’s dug, so that he has easy access to water, which he learns is good for getting sand into difficult shapes. He uses the end of his eyeglasses for the fine detail work on the face.
As the afternoon sun gives way to evening, Will wipes the sand and sweat from his brow and puts his glasses on to examine his handiwork at a distance. It’s a solid piece of work, although the hands didn’t come out as well as he’d hoped and it fell somewhat short of the height he was shooting for. Buddha is sitting tall and serene, and seems to be glowing red in the late sun. A few people nearby clap appreciatively at his results. It’s not professional, but it’s an admirable first try.
He’s still thinking about how this could have been done better when he hears a fierce battlecry coming from behind, a long barbaric wail as rapid footsteps rush towards him. There is a loud thud and his Buddha explodes in a cloud of sand.
“Woooooo!”, Cliify screams from atop the ruined pile.
Will is horrified, “Why on Earth did you do that?”
“I just pwned your sandcastle, bitch!“, Cliff tells him as he jumps down.
Will looks over and sees that Cliff has been making a huge pile of shapeless sand, which – now that the Buddha has been cut off mid-torso – is taller than what Will has built.
“I win!”, Cliffy says as he walks away, fist in the air.
Welcome to the world of MMO games.
Of course, it’s not quite this bad these days. At the dawn of MMO gaming the goal seemed to be to coax the Will Wrights of the world to come in and build sandcastles for the Cliff Bleszinskis of the world to knock over. Now gameplay is an awkward compromise that attempts to satisfy both types of players. This uneasy truce leads to arguments like the one we had yesterday, where people seemed to be arguing for two entirely different games. Because they were.
The other day I was running around in Auberdine with my Hunter. I came across a Tauren who was in a tangle with a Night Elf Sentinel. (For those who don’t know the game. I was in my own territory – Alliance – and he was part of the enemy faction, the Horde. The guard he was fighting was on my side. It was a “monster” to him, and a useless NPC to me.) He was a couple of levels below me, and was in a real scrape with the Sentinel. It was too late for him to to pull out, and they were both low on health. I stopped what I was doing to see how it turned out.
The Tauren won (barely) and then backed away from me the moment the Sentinel fell. Horde (him) and Alliance (me) characters can’t speak to one another, (a filter makes our chat look like different languages) so I gave him a friendly wave for making it through a tough fight.
He responded with an emote to convey thanks. It took me a minute to realize what he was saying was thanks for not killing me. As a result of fighting the Sentinel he was flagged for PvP, meaning I was free to attack him if I wanted. In his weakened condition he would have been easy prey. The thought had never crossed my mind. I mean, why would I want to knock over somebody else’s sandcastle?
In yesterday’s post on all the things wrong with World of Warcraft (yes, wrong) I got a nice mix of responses from, “Yes, these things drive me crazy about the game and make it less fun” to “if they changed that it would unbalance the game”. The most common objection to my objections was that, “If they did that, then other players would…”
From the perspective of a Will Wright, the obvious question is: Why should I care what other players do? I don’t care about most of these “balance” issues any more than I care that some people can beat Morrowwind in seven minutes. Good for them. I certainly wouldn’t want to play that way, but as long as it doesn’t hurt what I’m doing with my character…
Which is often the point, in a multiplayer game. Some people aren’t having fun unless they’re winning, which is the polite way of saying they’re making someone else lose. Sometimes you’ll see people lamenting the “grind” of quests and leveling, saying the game begins at level 70. They’re bored with the whole “building” thing, and are in a hurry to cut to the chase and knock down the other guy’s Buddha.
For the Will Wrights, the major reason to have multiplayer is for socialization. Talk about the game. Exchange strategies. Show each other the results of your efforts. Maybe collaborate. For the CliffyB’s of the world, the other players exist so that you have asses to kick.
WoW may be the best compromise between these two player types, but it’s still a compromise. There is no game that can truly give both groups what they want, because they want things that would ruin the game for the other type of player. The PvP players still have to climb to level 80 before they can do their thing, and the Builders still have to play the game with all of these annoying and arbitrary (to them) limitations on how they can play the game, all in the name of balancing a part of the game they don’t care about and will probably never see.
Blizzard is currently working on some sort of system to let players roll up fully-developed level 70 characters expressly for the purposes of PvP combat. That’s nice for those guys I guess, but now I’m wishing they would make a playground for people on the other side of the gameplay divide. I’d like a game where the mechanics make sense, you have lots of freedom in how you develop your character, and complete freedom in what activities you spend time on, without having to have the developer’s idea of “proper” gameplay imposed on you. Perhaps a world where Noor the Pacifist can flourish. (To be fair, pulling this off would be a lot harder than just making a server where everyone starts at level 70. Since they’re getting my money anyway, I doubt there would be much of an incentive for them to attempt it.)
I’m disappointed the Sims Online didn’t do better. I suspect that developers – or more importantly, publishers and investors learned the wrong lesson. They walked away thinking people don’t want a cooperative MMO. I think the truth is that the activities in Sims Online just weren’t very compelling. (I never played it. I read about it. It never sounded very fun. The activities sounded dull and grind-y.) The activities in WoW are compelling, but hampered by their need to restrict player behavior in the name of balance. (Ignoring the fact that PvP isn’t balanced anyway, but it would clearly be worse without these behavioral rails.)
The Fear the Boot motto for tabletop games is, “If you’re having fun, you’re winning.” I’d like to see this thinking brought to an MMO without all the PvP baggage. I don’t know if such a project would look attractive to developers from an economic standpoint, but I also suspect the MMO market will continue to fragment and specialize as it matures. Maybe if I gesture in this direction enough someone will take me up on it.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.