So having played a few years of online games, and talking about what’s great about them, what’s not so great? There’s no shortage of articles claiming the anti-social nature of computer gaming, and I even talked about it a bit in my last blog, so I thought for a change it might be good to talk a little more about the shortfalls within the games themselves –the things that prevent these games from being truly great.
One of the things I loved as a tabletop roleplayer (Dungeons & Dragons is the one everyone knows, but there are many more genres, just as there are many computer games), was that as a player character, you had the incredible ability to do anything you wanted within the context of the game. Sir Valiant the Knight could choose to react any way he liked to a particular challenge – confronted by guards to the enemy castle, he could choose to bluff his way through, sneak over or under the walls at night, go in disguise, bribe the guards, or charm a villager into smuggling them through in the back of their cart. In fact, in this particular case, a frontal assault on the guards would most likely result in a quick and ugly death, unless the hero brought back help.
Conflict and Killing
So why do most of these online games insist on emphasizing the most simple-minded approach to all conflict? Killing things is where 90 percent of a player’s time will be spent in playing World of Warcaft. I guess they don’t call it Warcraft for nothing, but it seems to me more options to dealing with conflict would make for a much more creative and interesting game. As it is, let’s just say that killing monster and after monster quickly becomes monotonous and mind-numbingly boring.
Warcraft, to be fair, has tried to introduce some variety to questing with escort, delivery, gathering and infiltration quests, but simply varying the quest type seems like more of patch than a true answer. Myst might be the best example of a game where conflict could only be resolved by using your head – there were no fights at all within the game, only a mystery to be solved. Yes, there was a lot of tension and conflict behind that mystery, but there was nothing to be killed. In fact, killing would solve nothing within that game.
This isn’t to say there is never a case for fighting, but far too many games present violence as the only option instead of one of a several possible choices. A few games (Fable, Mass Effect 2, DragonAge, and just recently, the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG) have tried to mix in choice as part of their engine, and this is certainly in a step in the right direction.
Top Down vs. Interactive Storytelling
I’m guessing that part of the problem here is that it’s really difficult to program infinite choice. In a recent talk I attended on story in games, the speaker, while offering lots of sage advice on how to include storyline within games, also essentially said player choice was overrated. “The author spends a great deal of time creating a story – who are they players to think they can change it?” Despite the speaker’s gaming credentials, I respectfully disagree. Interactive storytelling is where I think games must move if they are to grow, and what that means is a shift from top down storytelling to group storytelling.
A little bit of digression here. Ancient civilizations understood the value of group storytelling. Stories around the campfire went through many iterations – with changes to the main plot, principal characters and even the outcome. Odin became Zeus, who became Jupiter. This is not a new idea – group storytelling has been with us since the days of the caveman, and yet today, we rely on highly-paid dreammakers to supply our stories, whether it be in novels, movies, broadway shows, or TV serials. That’s not to say that there aren’t great stories that come from these avenues, just that I believe that we have precious few places to share our own stories interactively anymore. This was the promise that was beautifully realized in tabletop roleplaying. We could gather with our friends and create a story together in the context of any world we could imagine.
Another digression. An online podcast called The Sandbox is broadcast by a group of online gamers who consistently promote the idea of an open gaming world. The idea here is for developers to create a “pure” virtual world background, with minimal attention spent on top-down (author-created) storylines that players must step through to enjoy the game. In other words, players are dropped into a virtual world (albeit one rich in background and atmosphere), and left to create their own stories.
My thought is that the folks who promote top-down stories and the other folks who want player-created stories are both right; it’s just that currently games are more weighted to the former than the latter. That is, game makers don’t trust players to create their own stories, and most players aren’t given enough options to realize they may want to. Here’s where I see a huge opportunity, and the one game where I see it best fulfilled is, ironically, in a single player game. In Bethesda software’s Skyrim, the player is completely free to explore the world in any way they see fit, while at the same time has many, many optional author-created quests and stories they can explore if and when they choose. Because it is a single player game, there are no real world players to interact with, but there are plenty of game characters, cities and settings with threads of stories that can be pursued or ignored. And the player’s choice and achievements affect the world – after defeating a dragon who has attacked a local village, the character may become famous, and the people will react to the hero differently.
But this could be even more interesting than that. Often in these games, failures are never recorded, only achievements, and the player has the opportunity to save the game and start over until they win. What if when you lost, you lost, but other opportunities to defeat the dragon were still available? So, your character “dies,” and wakes up in the local healer’s cottage. Everyone knows you were defeated, and react to you accordingly. But more like real life, instead of repeating the fight over and over, you learn that the village was destroyed, and people are scattered to the countryside. Your defeat matters as much as your victory. This could be upsetting to some, but when paired with another opportunity in another time and another place, makes the eventual defeat of the dragon much sweeter.
Top Down Content Leads to Complacency
So all online games have a huge number of strategy books and websites dedicated to showing players exactly how emerge victorious from a dungeon run or a challenging in-game encounter. Pretty soon, the hardcore players know all these strategies by heart, and gloat over “noobs” (new players) who have not dedicated themselves to such study. But what if there was no one tried-and-true way to victory? What if you could mix violent and non-violent strategies to achieve your goal? What if the encounter was simply presented along with all the tools needed to achieve victory? In my case of gaining entrance to a guarded castle, what if you could indeed smuggle yourself in with some local peasants, or sneak over the wall at night? What if you could disguise yourself? All these strategies need not be spelled out to players – instead, simply provide the tools needed to accomplish the goal. A sympathetic local peasant, or just the ability to hide under a hay bale in the back of a wagon. A set of clothes that disguise your features. A grappling hook that can be purchased from the local smithy. A bluffing skill that can be used on the local guard? If you can use it in the world, it should allow you to do certain things, but only limited by the player’s imagination – they key here is to get away from the hand-holding that is popular in these games, and urge people to think about how best to solve a problem, and that there are many ways to do so.
One of the cottage growth areas in online gaming is the use of “mods” or add-ons to the game that provide some additional functionality over the default game interface. One such mod for World of Warcraft adds maps that are not available to players as part of the regular game. Why not extend this to optional storylines? What if players could create their own scenario add-ons to the game that could be downloaded and played by anyone in the gaming community? So maybe I have this great idea for a quest within Warcraft that I want to make available to my local group – if I had the tools to add maps, take from the world’s bestiary, design character encounters or interactions, and then post it as available, folks could download and run through them as they like. The most popular ones would do well, while less liked scenarios would fall through the cracks. Most game companies would want to control the rewards that are handed out as part of these quests, and perhaps the designer could designate the difficulty of the quest (based on character level), and the rewards would be generated accordingly to avert abuse. Of course the challenges would need to match up with the designated difficulty, and only tools appropriate to the difficulty would be available to the designer.
Too Much Hand-Holding
So what happened to using your head to solve problems in the online gaming experience? One of my fondest memories of an online game growing up was the old DOS-based Ultima, a single player game with lots of little hidden clues and mysteries to solve as you went along. We had a huge notebook of notes we’d take down as we worked to piece together the mystery of the great threat to the world. In Warcraft, I often talk to people who just pull up the quest, accept it without reading and then following the arrow to the spot where the monsters will be, killing them and then turning it in for experience. I have to ask myself why the person is even playing the game if they are so disinterested in the mysteries and atmosphere of the world. The Old Republic, which just recently launched is attempting to do a little better by offering lots of in-game cinematics to convey the story, and offering players several choices in how to respond to the characters they meet—definitely a step in a better direction. But here is where I say “old school” tabletop gaming and computer games can teach the new game builders some lessons.
I understand the desire to make these games as accessible to as many people as possible, and reaching a massive audience is the desire of every game maker. But what if there were additional rewards for those who chose to solve the more difficult mysteries of the game? What if those who chose to use their heads to figure out a non-so-obvious puzzle were rewarded with the most satisfying gaming experience? Myst spawned a whole series of imitators and sequels, but the real satisfaction in that game was figuring out a particular puzzle and then seeing how that puzzle fit within the overarching storyline. People are longing for more than brain dead follow-the-arrow quests, and I believe there is a huge opportunity to those companies who can bring back that tradition.
There’s a huge spurt of new games that arrived in 2011 and early this year, and already we’re seeing some signs that a return to the interactive story within the game is underway. Skyrim and Star Wars: The Old Republic seem to be stepping back into a space where story is more central to the game, and where a more immersive experience is possible. Coming soon are titles such as Guild Wars 2, Kingdoms of Amalur and The Secret Wars. Let’s continue to push for more from these big companies, and get back to games that require more thought and interaction from the player.