Monday, April 14, 2008

can MMOs learn from GTA?

A long time ago, I told Bildo I'd explore what MMOs could learn from the GTA series. Well, here it is, finally.

The GTA games certainly contain more than their share of escapism. That's why kind-hearted, conscientious people laugh giddily while stealing cars and beating characters over the heads with baseball bats. It doesn't feel real.

On the other hand, GTA regularly alludes to the real world and participates in satire. Satire is about confronting real issues in entertaining ways. The most common form of satire is reduction to absurdity. A humorous spin can get considerations past people's natural defenses, and works much like myth in encouraging depthful thinking by providing only the right questions and the foundations of greater problems.

The point is: GTA alludes to real and controversial issues, but does so in a way that even people like me, who generally disagree with Rockstar's political and cultural views, still enjoy the games. MMOs don't have to avoid reality or serious issues. It's possible for reality and escapism to exist within the same game, with neither negating the other.

That said, there is such a thing as bad satire. Good satire presents things thoughtfully and without animosity, if also playfully kidding ("It's exactly the ethos our founding fathers had when they wrote the Constitution, and then changed it [emphasis is mine]... which is what makes it sacred now"). Bad satire attacks a viewpoint without respect or honest and just consideration (like some of GTA's other jokes), thereby accomplishing nothing more than preaching to the choir and promoting disdain.

Of course, not all humor has to be satirical. Some game settings (like Warhammer) are more conducive to humor than others (World of Darkness), but humor has a place in all games.

The most memorable MMO quests I've ever experienced were two funny quests in EQ2. One had me running all over Freeport, passing along nonsensical messages because my character was mistaken for someone else and the quest-giver thought I was speaking in code and misdirections. It was hilarious. The other, at the Crossroads of the Commonlands, had me follow an NPC who claimed to hear ghosts so that the quest-giver could denounce her as crazy. When I reported that I, too, had heard the ghost, the guard thought I was crazy as well.

The wonder of humor is that it's the human way of finding joy in the most mundane and unattractive activities and situations. We're wired to search for happiness. The jokes and humorous situations that developers include are not just valuable in their own right. They promote that search for happiness and the use of imagination in players. If you make humor a significant part of your game (even dark humor, as might fit World of Darkness), then players will be encouraged to view game flaws with a smile and turn the least interesting activities into joyful occasions.

Quick, simple kills can be fun
In general, no, it's not fun when every encounter is quick and simple. But there are countless games that prove that gamers can take pleasure from one-hit kills and swarms of lesser enemies.

Some of the most enjoyable combat I ever experienced in MMOs was managing large groups of weaker opponents in Everquest 2 and City of Heroes. Soloing necromancers on rooftops was how I experienced tactical positioning and strategic knockbacks in CoH (knocking one or two enemies off the rooftop to even the odds until those enemies made their way back up). Fighting EQ2 thugs in The Sprawl, I was nearly overwhelmed by the challenge of tactically shifting my focus between enemies (kill the toughest or weakest first? which is blocking my escape route? which was weakened most by that last area-effect attack?).

As server technology improves, it's increasingly feasible to face players with bigger groups of lesser enemies. Experiment.

Toys vs games
A game has defined rules and goals. If you use the board and pieces included in a Monopoly box but change the rules and goal, then you're not playing Monopoly.

A playground merely provides objects which can be made into instruments of fun (toys) through a little imagination. A sandbox is the quintessential playground, because sand can be shaped into anything and the player might not be provided any ideas with which to begin.

The difference between toys and games often blurs, as it does with billiards. MMOs are games, but there are great advantages to including playgrounds in their design, as GTA does:
  • Expansions unnecessary. In a playground, players expect to entertain themselves. Imagination is limitless, and is in need only of fellow playmates to inspire and approve ideas. Provide interesting settings, feed your player's imagination, and you'll have considerably less pressure to expand content through major additions. Carjacking in GTA never gets old.
  • Being is doing. Character customization palettes (ala CoH), class/skill variables, and expansive loot tables will never match the potential breadth of variety and felt individuality that accompanies imaginative and discoverable action. Players feel like individuals when they are capable of unique actions. One of the things that turns GTA players into GTA fanatics is that they can tell their friends about gameplay experiences that aren't common, despite the millions of players. The more dynamics, the more potential for personal stories... and some dynamics are better than others. The single inclusion of sticky grenades in the Halo series has enabled countless personal and enthusiastic stories. To sum up: playgrounds offer more bang for your buck (are more cost-effective).
  • Word-of-mouth is the best advertising. And the enthusiastic sharing of personal game experiences is word-of-mouth advertising. Look at the immense number of player-made videos that have popped up around Halo 3. What pictures are MMO players constantly posting on their websites? Character shots and guild raids (i.e, individually relevant experiences). The more you loosen the reins to allow players to "pause" the game to enjoy its sandbox content, the more you're encouraging personal exploration and the creation of shareable experiences. Just be sure to make the capturing and labeling of experience (screenshots, videos, etc) as simple and accessible as possible.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Aaron!

    Do you suspect that the hardest thing to translate from GTA to MMO is the feeling of worth in the game?

    In GTA your actions affect the world & change outcomes, but how often have you completed a quest in a MMO only for it to be waiting to be started by another player?

    Fundamentally MMOs are saying to players, 'explore, fight or trade but don't expect your actions to change the world set'. This I feel encourages very little positive shared gaming experiences & only promotes competiton.

    For MMOs to survive & grow they need to allow any or all it's players to be able to feel like the hero of the story, which the GTA series does so well.


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