Consequences, memories, and making an impact

Warning: This is going to be one of those rambling, stream-of-consciousness posts. A few different ideas have been thrown at my head recently, and they’re all twisting together in my brain, and I have to write my thoughts down to sort them out.

First, Ysharros wrote about wanting her actions to make a real difference in an MMO world: Persistence: ourstory

Then Ascii Dreams wrote about Permadeath (which also touches on emergent gameplay), which got me thinking about risk in MMOs.

In my comments on Ysharros’s post, I first wondered how developers could build a game in which every player can have a measurable impact on the world, and still remain fiscally solvent (the devs, not the players). But as I navel-gazed on Ysh’s dime, I started to wonder about what matters more: our actions having an impact on the MMO world, or our actions having an impact on us?

I decided that I, at least, don’t really care if my character’s actions change the MMO world as much as I care that my character’s actions leave me with rich memories of virtual adventures. I can remember adventures and exchanges from launch-era Ultima Online and EQ1 – things that happened 10+ years ago. But I remember very little from my time in Warhammer Online or Age of Conan, games I played in the last year. Nothing worth remembering happened in those games. I mean, I remember playing the games, of course, but I have no “Tales of Adventure” that I could share with you.

Again in the comments at Ysh’s, Tesh suggested that killing Onyxia when hundreds of other groups had already killed her is a weak substitute for telling your own unique stories, and yet one of my most recent “Tales of Adventure” comes from a similar (lower level!) encounter in WOW, and that was fighting General Drakkisath in the pre-Burning Crusades days. As a hunter, it was my job to ‘kite’ Drak away from the battle so that the rest of my comrades could take down his minions before fighing the General himself.

A zillion people had done this before me, and yet (in my mind at least) it remains one of my “Tales of Adventure.” And why is that?


I knew if I failed, Drak would return and wipe out my comrades.

For 99% of the things I do in MMOs these days, failure brings with it consequences so light as to really not matter. And that’s how I’ve wanted it. Wandering into the wrong area in UO and being ganked and stripped of everything I’d worked so hard to acquire was not fun. Dying in EQ and losing a level was not fun.

And yet those were the games where real memories and adventures were formed.

As MMO players, we argue against anything not-fun. We want insta-travel, hate death penalties, don’t want to grind, don’t want to have to spend hours at a time playing in order to accomplish anything. We want everything convenient and risk-free and for the most part, developers have obliged us.

And what we’re left with is games where we don’t have stories worth telling because nothing we do entails risk, and without an element of risk, a story isn’t worth telling. Without adversity, there can be no heroes.

I’m not arguing that grinding is adversity, or that having to run 10 minutes is, either. No, but these ‘features’ are deterrents. If we know that failing means having to grind for another hour (or even run for 10 minutes) to get back to where we were, then suddenly failing has real meaning, and from the real meaning comes emotional involvement.

I don’t know what the solution is, or if this is even a problem for very many people. I think back on my “Tales of Adventure” and I’d love to experience that kind of intensity in my gaming again, but I’m not willing to put the rest of my life in a box in order to obtain it, and that is surely what I was doing back then. UO almost cost me my job and my relationship. Kiting Drak only happened because I was unemployed. These days, when I can only squeeze in an hour to play an MMO in a given evening, I don’t *want* to have to spend it grinding or running around.

And yet, the games feel like games now, not alternate worlds of adventure. And damn, do I miss being a hero.

17 thoughts on “Consequences, memories, and making an impact

  1. I feel like we’re all on the same wavelength this weekend, I was just writing about the same sort of thing.

  2. I also suspect that the most meaningful experiences we have tend to be those involving other RL players, not the coded mobs. (Sorry, low on coffee today, also tending to be a bit stream of conscious πŸ™‚ )

  3. “I feel like we’re all on the same wavelength this weekend” — it’s the Blogger Hive-Mind at work I tell ya!

    Nice post, Pete! Can’t say more cuz I have to go see the doc πŸ˜› (Nothing major.) I do agree though — also it’s clear that we all have different yardsticks for what’s memorable, though maybe the main point is that we really really want these games to create memories, and they’re not so good at that anymore.

  4. @Spinks As a somewhat aggressive pro-solo blogger, I was less than honest in not including that fact (that the most meaningful experiences tend to involved RL players). Thank you for calling me on that, and I agree. None of my personal “Tales of Adventure” happened when I was soloing.

  5. Consequences for actions that form meaningful memories need not be punishment for failure, or rewards for success.

  6. I’m not sure I agree with you. Most of life’s lasting memories are from either a rewards or a punishment, in some sense of the word. Meet the right girl (or guy), your reward is a loving relationship. Get caught cheating on your taxes, your punishment is paying a fine. Complete 4 years of school, your reward is graduating.

    The other category of lasting memory is from random occurrence. If a meteor crashes through your roof and kills your spouse, it isn’t a reward or a punishment. But in game terms, I don’t think random events are the way to drive player involvement.

    Granted, sometimes the punishment or reward is happening to someone else, so you’re an observer of it. But still *someone* is being rewarded or punished. I vividly remember the night my father died of a heart attack, but his death, to some extent, was his punishment for living a very unhealthy lifestyle (smoking, overweight, drinking) mixed with random occurrence.

    Examples of meaningful memories that have no aspect of punishment or reward are welcome!

  7. I love having UO and EQ and even SWG stories to talk about with my friends. We experienced that stuff together, and we were having fun with it.

    I can honestly think of about 2 things in the past four and a half years that even might be worth a story from WoW. The game just doesn’t lend itself to that kind of adventure, and that’s really sad. I had a good time playing, and I’m kind of hankering for getting back involved with my druid right now, but in the end, I know it’s not anywhere near the adventure that other MMOs have been in the past.

    I hope that TOR or some other game can try to rekindle that sense of adventure for me.

  8. Pete, it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve disagreed with me. πŸ˜‰

    I’m talking about finding joy in the journey, and memorable moments in just being alive and playing in an interesting, beautiful world. A sunrise at just the right time, a random act of kindness, seeing someone do or say something funny, that sort of thing. I suppose that any of those could be framed as being a reward for being in the right place at the right time, though. (Like being struck with lightning is being in the wrong place at the right time.)

    In a game that’s largely reward-driven, this sort of transient joy that has nothing to do with the major combat minigame or political gerrymandering will indeed be less obvious, just because the game isn’t designed for that. They happen as a result of the world state, random other people, and even your own frame of mind.

    Games are all about rewards and punishments, so perhaps I’m looking in the wrong place for this sort of ephemeral trancendental moment. I’ve hoped that “virtual worlds” might provide something closer to those than Street Fighter, but perhaps the “game” mentality is indeed too strong (by design).

  9. The problem I see with most of the current crop of games is that the only way to get the reward is to follow a certain script.

    The issue isn’t that 100 other groups have killed Onyxia but that 100 other groups have killed Onyxia in exactly the same way. Or even worse, the only way you’ll ever kill Onyxia is to follow these exact steps.

    What has always made the most memorable experiences for me in MMO’s is when the group I was with survived impossible odds (or even attempted impossible odds) and had to use every skill at our disposal to do it. Clerics rooting to handle crowd control while the Chanter medded etc.

    It’s these loss of options that are making it hard to create memorable moments.

  10. @Tesh — You make valid points. I can remember (though didn’t until your comment sparked it) some pretty vivid times of being alone somewhere in the world of WoW and just experiencing things. Like the sweep of the Westfall Lighthouse’s light across the sea late at night (one thing that I think is pretty special about WoW is their real-world day/night cycle). Or the time some crazy Horde players made characters with names that spelled out a sentence and managed to die, Burma-Shave Style, on the road to Stormwind.

    Those are good memories, but they aren’t good stories (IMO). I mean, they’re good personal stories, but they don’t relate well unless you were there. I don’t mean to infer they are somehow less valuable just because they’re not as relatable as more ‘action-driven’ stories.

    @Sisca — How do you know that every group kills Onyxia in the exact same way, though? If you didn’t know… if you and your friends played the game without ever reading forums or discussing strategies with other players, and you beat Onyxia, wouldn’t that be a satisfying event for you? And if so, how does then learning that other people did it the same way cheapen that experience?

    What happens is, again, the (in this case indirect) dumbing down of MMOs, thanks to the crazy amount of coverage they have on the internet. The only ones who figured out how to take down Onyxia were the first groups that encountered her. The people that came after looked up how to do it online, and followed that plan.

    That’s like doing a crossword with the answer key in front of you, and looking up the answer every time you’re the least bit stuck. Of course it isn’t going to be satisfying, but the players can control that. They don’t *have* to research the ‘best’ way to defeat an encounter and follow that best way like a script, if they don’t want to.

    But the temptation to do so is admittedly huge. And the time requirements of getting to Onyxia mean that for most of us, beating her via trial and error would take months…

    Hmm, interesting points. Thank you, everyone, for sharing.

  11. One of the differences I’ve noticed is this — the first MMO I played (EQ) we were figuring things out together, as we went along. Furthermore, we mostly spent our time in dungeons, not doing scripted events, so everything was a bit random. Flash forward a few years, trying to recapture that magic with those same people, but in WoW. Even though we mostly still did instances — well, they were a bit more scripted (because they are group-specific, not a contested dungeon) and our friends had either done them before with their mains, or couldn’t resist looking at their handy-dandy officially sanctioned guide book… Either way, the fact that *I* didn’t know ‘the right way’ to do the instance didn’t much matter — they did, so that’s how we did it. Somehow, it just wasn’t as fun that way. :/

  12. Aye, I’m more about telling your own story, less about glory seeking. Being a hero pretty much needs someone offering the hero worship. Sometimes it’s an NPC, sometimes it’s fellow players. The adulation of your peers tends to be more satisfying to the ego. Beside that, the NPC hero worship is just so much broken record “me too” heroism that anyone can do, hence the Onyxia comment. They don’t really care that you’ve done the deed, they just dispensed the reward.

    Not coincidentally, that’s why I keep harping on the notion that MMOs aren’t the place for strong NPC storytelling; you can’t really change the world. Single player games can give the player enormous power and really build up the hero mythos within a strong story. MMOs have to rely on “phat lewt” and interpersonal hero worship, for better or worse, and let players tell their own stories.

    Me, I like the quiet ones with more introspection than vivisection, which is why I’m not all that fussed by the general “conquer/reward” paradigm. It’s a matter of personal taste, nothing more. πŸ™‚

  13. re: Onyxia. The first time I beat her in a 40 man raid was a terrifically meaningful experience for me (and for the others too I think). We took the head and paraded it through Stormwind on a slow mounted march, RP-style. It really didn’t matter how many other groups around the world had done the same thing before.

  14. Peter, I’d call your attention back to AO and DAOC, both as examples of adventure stories and games with consequence.

    AO, the world was SO immense, it was easy to “do something new” today, even if it meant exploring an area well beyond your level, full of fear and trepidation for how far you could go before dying. Plus death, unless recently insured, was costly. Hundreds of thousands of experience points that took some time to gain gone. Even worse, depending on where one last insured, it could be literally hours to get back to where you were — minutes were only for those smart enough to insure locally… assuming one remembered to reinsure back at base when they returned. A wicked catch 22, that insurance system. Not to mention passing into 0 suppression gas areas and suddenly being open to attack from anyone. Once beyond the “newbie” zones, lots of places were not only unsafe from a creature point of view, but just plain unsafe such that anyone approaching could be friend or foe. I loved that emotional engagement. THAT made an adventure out of every play session where I was willing to wander. And if I wasn’t, if I wanted to be safe (relatively speaking), I could stay in areas I knew were in my limits and 75% suppression gas (no PVP).

    DAOC I think was the only game where I was in an RP guild that really grooved on and embraced roleplay. I’ve been in some WoW guilds too that made that claim, but really it was more a “the real me is my character” kind of RP. DAOC was fantastic for that, I could spend hours being a forge rat, happily in character with the other forge rats. Lots of memories of Edeor and I, in higher tiers of crafting, laden with metal from the remote areas it could be found, trying to get back to base without the enemies spotting us and killing us on the spot. Couldn’t run, couldn’t fight well, pockets so full of metal and neither of us smart enough to enlist friends or even hire rogues to come along and guard us. I still vividly remember my first foray outside the walls of Camelot and into the Frontier, certain I’d be dead before I’d even left the gates. Which in fact did prove to be the case, but that’s only because we all ran off the cliffs like a pack of lemmings and fell to our deaths. Not the most auspicious beginning, but certainly memorable!

    I love playing WoW, mostly because I like the character class and like the gameplay. But it’s not an adventure. I play it more like a single player game than any other MMO I’ve ever played (and I’m content to do so). But I’d give anything for a game that made my heart race, made me afraid as I ran for my life or giddy when I managed to sneak to the heart of a crazy dangerous place, still intact. Or a place that spawned the imagination and great roleplaying — where have all the good roleplayers gone?

  15. Oh! And playing Neverwinter Nights on the Nordock shard — there was adventure there, too, albeit in a more controlled/limited fashion. But still, there’s something to be said for the MMO that’s limited to just you and your best friends.

  16. @Gwyn — Yes!! Great memories from those days of Anarchy Online, and to a lesser extent (for me) DAoC. When DAoC came around I was all over the place, playing on Midgard on one server and Albion on another, and I think that ‘watered down’ the experience some. But then there was Darkness Falls, too. I loved diving into there right after the sides switched, wondering if there were enemies creeping about. (I’m not even sure there could have been, but I didn’t know that at the time.)

    Travel time in AO is a nice point to touch on. There’s a lot of debate on ‘meaningful travel’ and I think your example is a perfect illustration of why it *should* take a while to go from point a to point b — it gives value to the journey, in a way.

    And Nordock… that was something truly special, and whenever I think of it, I think of Xavitor standing under the waterfall getting his monthly shower. What was his character’s name? Lord Bahael? Or was that Pokke? I forget the characters, but I remember the people. Rest in Peace, Xavitor — you were taken from us much, much too early.

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