Massively Multiplayer Online game. Though there was never a time when that wasn’t an awful, clumsy name, there was a time when it was a new and exciting concept. I remember that time. I remember when people said “search” instead of “google”. Lord, I’m old.
That was a time before World of Warcraft. It’s a little hard to even imagine now, that name has become so famous, so successful, and so crippling in its stranglehold over the concept of an MMO that it could kill it stone dead. But I don’t blame WoW or its imitators for that. No. I blame “gamers”.
About a year ago I got a text from a new friend, describing herself as “forever on the verge of full geekdom”. My response was that I knew what she meant, for I write poems, but poetry is inscrutable bullshit. I loved being a librarian, but libraries are full of bitter harridans. I love games, but gamers are screeching brats or unbearable nerds. Turns out this was exactly what she meant, so we went out and got shitfaced and danced until I had to walk home at 3am in the snow, because London still hasn’t figured out that things happen at the weekend even after the Boris is tucked up in bed with an archaic nightcap and a copy of Just So Stories.
It’s a stereotype, of course. I don’t really mean that everyone who plays games is terrible (I make no such concessions about poetry). But I’ve played games since my earliest years, without ever taking a break, on every platform and of every type I could get my hands on. I talk about them, I write about them, I’ve lost entire nights because I was so absorbed in them. There’s a good chance I’ve played more games than some of you have ever seen, and yet I’ve never once considered myself a “gamer”. And after years of trying and failing to enjoy a single MMO, which finally came to an end in the last couple of months, I’ve realised why. It’s precisely because of what the term says. Gamers do not play games. They game. And it’s why MMOs are almost all World of Warcraft again.
The first time I enjoyed an MMO, it was a multiplayer server of Minecraft. In 2010 the denizens of a forum started talking about Minecraft, just as it was about to take off. Due to my home situation at the time, I was unable to play it, but could read the gleeful accounts of other people playing, setting up a server, building an enormous world with varied and magnificent structures, from simple recreations of their real homes, to technicolour stone cathedrals, right up to astonishingly elaborate and ambitious DNA-inspired spiralling complexes. I missed all of it. The bastards. But about a year later, my situation changed. I played Minecraft, and posted a running account of my first few terrifying, glorious days. Minecraft is well on its way to matching WoW in terms of cultural impact, and everyone remembers their first experiences. I was there, man. I’m still trying to find that little wooden statue I built when I got stuck in that shallow cave, hiding from sinister, unexplained noises in the night. One day.
And then a kind soul on the forum brought the old, abandoned multiplayer server back up. I went in, and was dumped unceremoniously into the water by a large dock in the middle of the night. I splashed my way to a shore, and found myself in a nightmare. I was alone, lost and unarmed on the edge of a vast, alien city crawling with monsters. The server didn’t have the nasties when they started, see, and some of them hadn’t even been invented. None of the nearby buildings were built with them in mind, and I had no idea where to go anyway. I was still new to the game and only knew the very basics.
It was glorious.
For a few days, I alternated between gazing in wonder at the new and fascinating buildings, mines, tunnels and unexplained shapes around every corner, and screeching and running in a panic from the still-terrifying spiders and skeletons that had taken full advantage of the dark, unpredictable buildings and excavations the ancients built. And ancients they surely were, for this was a once thriving metropolis brought to apocalyptic ruin by a mysterious catastrophe that left it crawling with undead ghouls and terrifying green avatars of hate and destruction. And I had to protect it.
The only surviving image.
I built a crude shelter by the dock, and started to gather some stone picks and axes. I put up signs warning any other survivors of danger spots, nearby shelters, supply dumps dug underneath an obsidian statue of a calculator. I started monster-proofing the buildings I found, soon leaving the pristine gardens and walkways dotted with hastily placed dirt stairs and blockades, and pockmarked with craters formed in the fight with the greenie menace.
I explored a forumite’s virtual house only for three “greenies” to leap from an open loft hatch and bomb me almost to death along with his bedroom and most of his kitchen. That one I had to board up and mark with DANGER signs.
“Let’s form a little team”, I said eagerly, “and try to survive and fight back and reclaim the place!”. I had notions of a group of us venturing out to gather more supplies, building makeshift shelters, and slowly purging the city, our efforts rewarded with the sights of yet more new and strange constructions of yesteryear.
It didn’t happen, of course. Everyone had already done Minecraft. The planning, the building, the falling down a shaft to the centre of the earth. Instead, the monsters were disabled, and everyone went to the stash where they’d spawned 300 diamond pickaxes, and went to look around the stuff they’d done last year.
It wasn’t my server or my world, so I accepted this. I built a little mine, and had some fun ‘building’ with the game’s few irreplaceable items (unmined ore – try it! Building a mine means working around the ore and not immediately mining it. It also means Creepers are even more devastating) and lots of decorative wooden platforms and struts. But it still felt like a terrible lost opportunity.
People didn’t want to play The Omega Mine. This was Minecraft, and they’d already found the best way to play Minecraft. They’d gamed it. And they’d got bored. And because it was an MMO, they were the audience, and their way became the de facto law. Hell, there were people who hated Minecraft because “it’s not a game”, since there were no quests or XP or skills, and all it had was a pile of fun things to play with. I have not enough face to palm.
And this is what happens, because of gamers. However varied, however open, however imaginative and original you made your MMO, World of Warcraft and its ilk have defined, codified, and mummified what an MMO is. Inevitably, some gamers will find a way to dominate the skills, resources, scores, territory, or whatever metric you use, and soon everyone will have to do the same to survive. They’ll become the audience, and their gaming of the system will force the system to adapt, which will only accelerate the process.
In the early days of DayZ (try typing that while drunk), some players were friendly. Others were neutral. I ran into only a few hostile people, maybe about 15-20% of the people I saw, and those I was lucky enough to kill quickly, or simply avoid. Typically the people I’d meet would say hello, offer a trade, and some tips on the local area, and we’d go our separate ways, or briefly team up without a word to fight off a horde.
Months later, DayZ is a glorified single player FPS, because the gamers found out they could just kill everyone they saw, and/or team up with their friends from outside, talking over Mumble and never really interacting with other players. There’s no point even playing if you want to do otherwise.
DayZ’s primary form of communication.
I’ve already seen people who played the wonderful, colourful, jetpack-and-cloak-laden (though bloody hard to screenshot. War photographers could train on this thing) game of Planetside 2 with the same weary, practical routine as the excruciatingly realistic Arma 2, which in turn has been turned into an explosion watching simulator for anyone who isn’t a bomber pilot. DayZ was gamed – just get your friends over and bring up an external map, ignoring the whole unique “alone an unknown wilderness” aspect, and win it. Planetside 2 has been gamed – just spawn 300 tanks and bombers and nuke everything. At least the latter is still fun if you avoid the biggest gamer herds (tellingly referred to as the “zerg” by players, named for Starcraft’s mindless horde whose primary tactic is attrition).
The Secret World will continue to struggle and, I believe, fail, because it doesn’t change the standard formula enough to attract enough people like me. It will appeal to MMO fans, to people who care not about having a laugh but about the most efficient way to grind to the top. They will grow tired of it, many not even noticing its strong writing and interesting setting, because who cares when there are skills to level and (ugh) mobs to (blueagh) farm for (aieeeeeggrhh thud) XP. There’s also the problem of its embarassingly backwards pricing system, but that’s a whole other can of worms. Suffice to say that even if it were free, I wouldn’t give the Secret World a third chance, because outside of its dialogue it’s just another MMO. And its slightly creepy, mysterious atmosphere is ruined anyway, the instant you leave the introduction (which I won’t call a tutorial because it explains next to nothing about even basic controls, assuming that you already play other, functionally identical games – an approach at odds with its “this isn’t just another WoW!” marketing) and 300 strangers appear with you, standing around awkwardly or yelling about items they want to trade. I take no pleasure in saying this, because I was impressed by the concept and introduction, and would be all over it if they’d attached all that to a game that was more than another place for gamers to turn into WoW.
And finally, there’s Wurm Online, an open world RPG that leaves a six-year beta tomorrow night, and served as the inspiration for this post. Wurm Online is lovely. I’ve enjoyed my time with it a great deal, and will probably continue to play it for a while. The people I’ve met there have been more helpful and kind than most people I’ve met in real life, and certainly many thousands of times better than the people in any other game I’ve played online. I feel a little bad even using it as an example because the people I’ve met were so pleasant, but I do so because I feel it’s already having its great potential squandered.
Wurm Online sets you down in one of several mostly forested landscapes, in a world with a vaguely medieval technological level plus some generic fantasy creatures, and a few magical elements. There are no levels or XP, no NPCs, and no “kill ten rats and bring me their bladders. Here is a stick. It is the least useful item in the universe”. It’s closer to Minecraft, with a world players can landscape as they see fit, which is done by gathering resources and banging them together into tools, which create other tools, which create items and buildings, and so on. But it does have skills, which affect everything from how quickly you dig to the effectiveness of tools you create. These skills improve with use and oh no, here come the gamers.
Skill gain, you say? I guess I’d better go hit that pig in the face to train my punching and strength stats. And I can chop up that wood and throw it away to increase my carpentry. I must tame that animal, not because I want to tame it but because taming it will increase my taming skill and mind attribute. And I guess everyone had better do the same or be left behind, their wares unsellable, and their defences negligible if I decide to fight them.
The best things about Wurm have nothing to do with your stats.
The gamers in Wurm Online are lovely. Really, I can’t stress enough how kind they’ve been. The very first person I met dropped what they were doing and went out of their way for several minutes just to show me something I said, conversationally, I was looking for, and another person I practically had to run away from to stop them handing me a high-quality weapon. I don’t want to be handed a sword; I want to make my own, or forage or make some things to trade for one. I don’t want to warp to world 4.3; I want to make my own way there.
They’re nice people. But they’ve gamed the system, and in doing so tainted it. I don’t want to dictate how people play, but when people will leave a lair full of deadly monsters intact directly next to the village waterpump so it will spawn monsters they can kill to grind their fighting skills, that’s what gamers end up doing as a by-product. The world feels less like a world and more like a system, the sense of living a sane life in a fantasy world diminishes, and worse, the system itself is forced to adjust, effectively pricing and thereby pushing non-gamers out because it’s simply not effective to play another way.
Tomorrow night Wurm Online launches a new server to mark its 1.0 release (this means the game is finished, basically, and considered fit for market rather than being in a testing phase). A whole new unspoiled world will come into being, and I just know exactly what will happen. Before anyone gets a chance to wander and explore and marvel at this untouched wilderness, about fifty gamers will immediately rush off to cut down a tree, build a hut and figuratively, if not literally shout “FIRST!!!”. Piles of resources will accumulate as people mechanically grind their skills, then identical villages will appear, then the huge, ugly stone walls and big doors will replace the much nicer wooden ones (because their x stat is y more than z), then five or six enormous vanity statues will be put up by the experienced gamers who’ve done all this a hundred times before, and all the new players will either be dragged along with them, or sigh and give up. Within a couple of weeks, it’ll be identical to every other server, and those bystanders will probably have a good idea of how some of the settlers of the New World felt. If I wanted to live like this I could have stayed in La Rochelle!
It’s not the game’s fault. I like the game, dull progress bars and lo-tech non-animations and all, and despite my criticisms I do recommend it. I’ve spent a pleasant evening camping out and making little wooden things and foraging seeds to trade with people I meet on my travels, but as soon as I get to a settlement it’s all the same, and most of what I’ve made is useless anyway because I haven’t gamed the system along with everyone else.
And christ, don’t even get me started on EVE. Wonderful concept. Fascinating subject of sociological, economic and technological study. Fucking horrible game, so infested with gamers over players that they’re not even content with staying within EVE, but have invented an entire culture of meta-gaming to exploit and manipulate the system (and indeed, other people) from without.
Every one of the games here I’ve mentioned because it saddens me to see their vast potential being mostly ignored. I don’t begrudge people having EVE the way it is, or having WoW the way it is, but could you please let the rest of us have something different? This very blog was inspired by people like Chris Livingston, Tom Francis and Scott Sharkey, who exhibit an attitude of experimentalism and playfulness that too many of us are sucking out of games. I want to see more of that. I want that to be a viable thing to do. I want those audiences that are being crowded out by gamers to have some games of their own. And all this is just in how gamers game, never mind how a vocal subset (NOT a majority) of gamers are actively and deliberately cruel, rude, ignorant and outright abusive to people who don’t do the same. But that’s an even bigger can of worms that can remain sealed for now.
It’s not just MMOs, either, not by a long shot, but they strike me as the biggest casualty, because they should be fueled by people. People will always be more interesting and unpredictable than AI, and the section of people who play games becomes bigger and more diverse every year. MMOs should be capitalising on that, but the gamers won’t let them. We’ve allowed a term that should mean “anyone can play this, any way they like” to come to mean “like World of Warcraft but”, and even the “but” is often generous. Maybe that’s why the acronym always stopped, nonsensically, before “game”, since why make a game to play when all the gamers want is a system to game? But that’s not enough. Not anymore.
There’s a big question hanging over the future of MMOs, and it’s not one about their profitability, or about the “free to play or pay to win” debate. That has a bearing on the discussion, but it’s not the important part. The real discussion to be had is about how much more they can be if we change how we play them, or more accurately, how we don’t.