Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Do you invest yourself in your characters?

I saw an interesting article last week that tickled the synapses and had to do with personal investment in our characters and how that relates to the games we play. I have related many times that Sony’s Star Wars Galaxy (SWG) was my first MMO, and that I played it from July 2002 to March 2005. With many years of MMO play under my belt now I can look back and realize what a terribly developed game SWG was. It was a near complete sand-box, which relied almost exclusively on player created content to entertain. PVP was the corner stone of the game, yet the technology of the time would not support the “massive” battles that the game advertised, and players clearly wanted. Battles over bases were like slide shows—frustratingly so.

Prior to March 2005—before the “Combat Upgrade (CU)” was released SWG had 32 different classes; had no levels, as each character was allotted a set number of skill points to spend in any tree of any class they wished; and there was absolutely no PVE content beyond a number of horrifically boring missions that you could run repetitively for money. Class balance? Let us just say that class balance was something aspired to, but never achieved.

All of which begs the question “then why did you stay and play”? First, it was my first MMO so I really didn’t know better. But more importantly I loved my characters. In fact this blog and my tech website are named for my first character (Iggep) and I continue to use that name in WoW today. I’ve come to a curious conclusion about how people generally grow attached to a game, and then stay over the long term. For many, I believe the back story, or lore, is very important. It’s what turns a 2-d experience into a 3-d experience; creates the depth into which immersion happens. It’s what sets apart MMOs like WoW from other MMOs like AION, though obviously that is just the beginning. Afterall, Mythic’s WAR has as rich a lore as Blizzard’s WoW does yet the outcome of those games is very different. And if we want an even better example, Funcom’s Age of Conan should have been the blow out MMO if the decade if Lore was the only factor that mattered. Clearly it isn’t.

Lore is the beginning and sets the tone—draws us in and creates that rich keenness of anticipation for many, but not for all. If that is the beginning then what keeps us is the tone and activity of the game and allows the player to reach that attachment to their characters. MMOs that achieve the basic tenants of player desire do well, but don’t necessarily rise to the top. Not only do those MMOs have to deliver on those core principles, but they also need a level of level polish that impresses. Games like SWG pre-CU had the lore and the immersive qualities and polish that enabled players to create those character attachments, but it also ultimately failed because it didn’t deliver on those core player desires. If it had delivered that crucial element players like me would still be playing it. Yet I believe the only people playing it now are those that started playing it after NGE. It essentially became a completely new game yet I had already let go. I’d passed onto another MMO and eventually grew immersed in it.

WoW became what it is—something that was by no means expected back in 2002 and 2003—because it had a rich back story, and enough of the immersive qualities to keep its players beyond the free month of play. And enough of those players formed strong attachments to their characters, on which the rest of the community that we see today was built. Though I have grown somewhat weary of WoW lately I continue to play because of my “oldest” character -- My Druid. If I didn’t have a character that I was that attached to I am absolutely certain I would not be playing WoW right now. I probably wouldn’t be playing any current MMO because none of them seem to deliver on what I want, other than WoW.

Even Aion doesn’t attract me. I don’t know enough about the lore of the game to get that interested, and it doesn’t deliver on enough of the core player desires. And even more importantly it doesn’t learn from previous MMO mistakes in that it more or less forces players to PVP in order to advance beyond a certain point and doesn’t cater to a varied type of content. In short it’s just another in a long list of PVP centric MMOs that ultimately relies—absolutely relies—on a high population to keep that type of content active. Once the population starts to drop there won’t be enough “content” to keep a majority of players active and happy and the population will start to drop even more dramatically. Sorry Aion, but I’ve been there and done that already and have no desire to do it again. Little known lore; few of the core desires delivered upon; content contrary to my playing tastes—means I just wasn’t all that attached to my character and didn’t see the point of continuing with the game. I gave it a shot, but I’m one of many that already cancelled within the free month of play and a lesson to NCSoft.

Developers, if you want to create truly engrossing games then select an IP that has roots. Then create a bridge that enables players to attach to their characters.