Tuesday, 17 January 2012


One of my favourite games is Minesweeper, the free game with Windows. If you haven't played it it's a simple puzzle game based on calculating safe squares to clear and unsafe squares to mark as dangerous until you can clear the whole board by identifying every safe square.

It's not immersive. I've played it for years and never felt like I was on a naval frigate in the North Sea, a gale howling around the foc'sle, anxiously spotting bobbing nautical hazards.

And that doesn't matter because it's an enjoyable game.

I also play Eve Online. And that's pretty much as non-immersive for me as Minesweeper. I really don't find myself caught up with being a spaceship pilot. I log on, admire the way certain numbers have gone up, queue skills to train, queue manfacturing and research jobs, queue planets to produce resources. Occasionally I'll become more active, join a corp, do some pvp and so on. And I enjoy all that very much, it's a very good game.

(I'm aware other people do get very immersed in Eve and I think that's actually a great feature of the game: that it's valid as either experience).

When MMOs hit mainstream with Ultima Online they were based around a dichotomy that arose in Dungeons and Dragons gameplay in the late 70s and early 80s. Just like Eve there were 2 ways to play D&D. I'll illustrate with examples:

1) The player characters are in a bar. A little old man comes up to them and offers to give them a map to a horde of treasure in an old ruined dungeon beneath a castle just outside town. The players agree to investigate. This is essentially the on rails gameplay and tends to lead to numbers playing a strong emphasis, on getting better stats as that's the way to progress.

2) The player characters are in a bar. A little old man comes up to them and offers to give them a map to a horde of treasure in an old ruined dungeon beneath a castle just outside town. The players decide to do something utterly random and unrelated. One of them because he's an elf spontaneously decides he wants to find himself a unicorn and the rest agree to help him. Some Dungeonmasters would be thrown off and upset by this and would attempt to push the party back onto the rails (perhaps there might be high level bandits in the woods who would chase the unicorn seekers out). Some Dungeonmasters would put away their carefully prepared script and get on with the task of making up story and opportunities to suit their maverick players.

Debate between fans of the respective positions have raged for decades but both of these playstyles were supported by the system and I'd argue both are perfectly valid.

However MUDs and early MMOs tended to be made by the second type of players. They built worlds with forests and unicorns and all sorts of other stuff in so players wouldn't need to be fed a quest by the stereotypical old man in the pub but could play very creatively. Unlike Dungeons and Dragons there weren't really any rail systems available until WoW, players had to take charge of their own entertainment. Perhaps not surprisingly then there was a real opportunity for a developer to provide a more balanced experience and the fact that the developer that did so already had a devoted fan base and a good reputation just iced the cake. WoW, with its Christmas tree quest hub system, showed a huge appetite for a more guided playstyle.

Now what both WoW and D&D had that made them so great was a balance between the two styles that allowed the game system to support both. For me in 2005 WoW was about progression along the rails but it was also an enhancement of my experience that it was a world that supported other stuff, even quite weird stuff like making machinima, exploring every high mountain and remote corner, blogging and so on. It made it richer.

It was, dare I say it, richer than prototypes like Everquest and Ultima Online because it had the rails as well as the open world.

I don't think people have really understood this. Thus both WoW itself and other MMOs have concentrated on designing better and better rails until we've ended up at SWTOR which is a very fine set of rails indeed.

It's not going to be a great MMO though and it won't have the endurance that WoW did. It lacks world, to such an extent it made industry expert Professor Ted Castronova furious. Nor is anyone going to "fix" MMOs by designing a great sandbox where sandbox is a synonym for an online game which is missing half the stuff that should be in it for it to be a great MMO.

Because a great MMO is both a great virtual world and a great game. As deep a world as SWG where you could pick up any object and place it on the wall of your home. As great a game as Minesweeper which is on everyone's computer.

So that's why Raph Koster's recent lament that immersion is dead in MMOs seems unlikely to me. Because MMOs need it and, as I can see from my level 50 SWTOR guildies who have stopped bothering to log in but to raid, you can't make a great MMO without it.


  1. Fun fact. My daddy (soon to be 70 years old) plays Hearts (Windows solitaire) on a daily -YES, daily- basis. Since 2009. At the easiest -YES, easiest- level.

    You would think he's not a very smart person, but he's quite the opposite. I wouldn't call him "genius" but something very close to that. He's a high-level engineer-matematician, one of those who can spend one week to solve a nearly-impossible integral for the pure pleasure of doing that.

    So when I asked "Dad... how could you possibly find any fun in that game after so much time?"

    His answer: "it's not about fun, it's about reflexes and relax".

    This Christmas I installed his 2nd game, a cool Mahjongg (Kyodai Mahjongg).

    He's now endlessly playing Mahjongg, staring at the screen like it's something magical.

  2. My Dad asked me to uninstall Hearts so he wouldn't be tempted. It's like catnip on a computer for a certain generation of men.

  3. WoW actively killed you if you ventured off the rails, back when it launched anyway. That's actually why I quit playing it.

  4. "WoW actively killed you if you ventured off the rails, back when it launched anyway."

    It did to an extent. However it offered some choices of area, particularly different starter area and supported styles of play like world pvp and exploration. We ran down to Silithus at level 35 once. Sure it was hard dodging all the high level beasties but it was possible and even though it took ages we were the first people on our server to visit the place.

    On the line from a virtual world like Second Life where you can go anywhere but there's no (intrinsic) game to a vw like SWTOR where you're on rails all the time and there's no provision for people not doing what the designers have planned for them, WoW is about 3/4 of the way along. That's enough sandbox for most of us.

    Sandbox/theme park isn't binary. Eve for instance has tons of designed content: missions, epic story arcs, anomalies and sites.

  5. Ed, not Ted, Castronova.

  6. Using the adequate term:

    Pretty much sums up a lot of thoughts about MMOs I had lately.

  7. And I f***ed up my name. It's meant to be golfdfish, not foldfish. No freudian fault, just fidgeting with my cellphone.