Building Better Worlds - an MMO Tale

If you come at the king, you best not miss.

There's an oft-heard argument that surrounds the launch of any big-budget MMO - one that inevitably involves a reference to World of Warcraft, and centres around the idea that comparisons are unfair due to the seven years of content and polish that particular game has enjoyed. It's predictably raised its head again in the inevitable is-it-WOW-with-lightsabers-or-isn't-it post-launch analysis of The Old Republic.

It's born partly of the natural frustration we all feel whenever given staples of the genre - a robust economy and UI modification to name just two - fail to materialise at launch and, yes, partly of multi-year PR manipulation that leaves us emotionally invested in the promise of the end-product. Previous evidence to the contrary should, but rarely does, caution us all against all of this.

But even ignoring the valid counter-argument that one developer's seven years of hard work and polish is another developer's free lunch, I feel this comparison fundamentally misses the point of what made WOW special from the very beginning - and that very few have noted and emulated since.

Let's start with a frank and fair reality check. When WOW launched in Europe in 2005, it was a joke that would have been a good deal funnier were it not for the frustration of playing - and paying - for the privilege. Anyone who played in that first year will remember those early days well: daily maintenance, crashing servers, and characters rubber-banding their way across the landscape.

It was entirely possible to find yourself playing for up to ten minutes at a time, running around the dwarven capital of Ironforge and screaming blue murder at the mailbox delay - before realising that you now represented the only living actor on a stage of rigid mannequins. Shortly afterwards, the server would go to lunch. Technical improvements in this area are rightly applauded.

What WOW managed to do though - something too often overlooked - was to build a tangible, persistent world first and then fill it with story and characters later. The illusion of a second life is fragile, and the inevitable price of an inter-continental loading screen was one that played gently with the effect. In the spirit of the argument now brought out in defence of every MMO released in WOW's shadow, it's worth noting that Blizzard achieved all this with what is now a historical engine, one that still combines freedom of exploration with the illusion of persistence.

My first character was created prior to the introduction of the Darnassus auction house and, starting out in Teldrassil, it soon felt like the most unfortunate decision possible. While the other races enjoyed easy access to sell their goods to other players, Night Elves were effectively forced to sell whatever they found to the in-game vendors.

But while in hindsight this was an irritation, it ultimately provided me with my fondest memory of the game. Hearing from a friend that he'd discovered a whole expansive continent lying just over the local waters, I set out on an adventure to find the Ironforge auction house.

It was an epic journey that took in flights over sea, perilous swamplands where even the safety of the road didn't guarantee protection from the higher-level enemies, and sprints through tunnels carved into the mountainside, before emerging into the snow-blind landscape of Dun Morogh. Shortly after, the thrilling thumping dwarven magic of Ironforge was mine. Save for a continent-switching brief load, it was an adventure in its own right through virgin land, with music and environments bleeding into each other.

As a result, and long before I became just one of many heroes, I was an explorer who earned his right to heroism, rather than being shoe-horned into a level-appropriate zone on a conveyor belt to destiny.

There were other realms behind those mountains, worlds that were occupied right now with friends and foes alike. Even on a player-versus-environment server, where player combat is consensual and the only threats are the local wildlife, it felt as though there was danger around each corner because the unknown really did lie behind each corner, with no possibility of escape via a protective loading screen. The journey ahead was there, as was I, and who knew what would happen when we collided? For my money, this is Blizzard's secret sauce.

Similarly, the universe of Eve Online is ultimately nothing more than a series of inter-connected maps laid out across a super-server, but the illusion persists by virtue of the mechanics and game design. Travel is slow and it really shouldn't work (indeed as a single-player game it surely wouldn't work), and yet in an expansive universe where distance is king, transitions between solar systems feel natural within the game's philosophy.

At Eve Fanfest last year, CCP's lead economist Dr Eyjˇlfur Gu­mundsson made an important observation: 
"These worlds are not virtual," he said. "If you're in a conference call to your grandmother, are you in a virtual world?"

It's tempting to answer that you would presume so if you had to use a menu to flip through instances of reality to find her, or endure a loading screen every time we decided to move on to a different topic of conversation. Seamlessness lies at the heart of the issue, and that such an esoterically designed game can succeed against all the odds of its accessibility speaks volumes.

All of this technical subterfuge is of course nothing more than smoke-and-mirrors. No-one sincerely believes that there's a fully rendered world that exists on a server somewhere, where deer and gazelles fearfully tread (or wait in the wings smoking a cigarette) as they wait for you, the ultimate actor, to step into the scene and give them animated purpose.

I can't shake the conviction that it's impossible to maintain the illusion so essential to a great MMO experience via a series of convenient loading screens - a constant reminder that we are participating in a fragmented world that neither exists, nor persists. To put it simply, the design of MMOs post-WOW feels archaic. If the world defines your game, it seems logical to build a tangible and persistent world first, before filling it with story and characters. Build technology to suit your world, not the other way around.

Released less than a month ago, SWOTR's first update has already been revealed.

Lest I be accused of having blind affection towards Blizzard's MMO design philosophy - or a Luddite in the face of innovation - I now find the text-heavy exposition of WOW's expansions to be a source of irritation, given that every player's true destiny lies five to ten levels ahead where the end-game waits impatiently. Blizzard's stall has been laid out for far too long in this manner, but it's hard to argue that it hasn't been a success for them.

I also wouldn't deny that the gentle evolutions that have been attempted - most recently with the voice-acting and storytelling of The Old Republic - aren't welcome and overdue necessities for the genre. But without the critical persistence of a world, these features strike me as gimmicks, for years taken as a given in single-player games, and so offering insufficient reason for a player to take up long-term residence in what can only ever remain a series of crudely connected corridors.

Build people a world, rather than a series of maps, and they'll explore it and make a home. Once in their home, give them something new to do and they'll make friends and neighbours. Collectively, they might even evangelise about their new world and encourage long-lost friends to join them. None of this can be patched.

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