by Scott Holliday
Behold! I'm about to reveal my amazing powers of deduction. Watch closely and learn.
Imagine that your best friend has just bought you a computer game as a present. Can you guess what it is? It's still wrapped up in pretty paper and ribbons so you don't have much to work with. But what if your friend gives you a hint? It's a single-player fantasy RPG. Never mind the title... can you at least guess the plot? Take a second and think about it. This should be pretty easy...
My guess? Regardless of the title, at some point, the plot will revolve around how you save the world. Alternately, you will be saving yourself, your buddies, or your pet. Or maybe rescue the princess? Don't forget the princess! Along the way, you'll quite possibly become outrageously powerful, rich, and famous. Probably you'll get to beat up some bad guys too. Regardless, you'll be doing something that feels important. NPCs will thank you profusely.
Occasionally, a game comes out that breaks the mold. Perhaps your job is to destroy the world? Or maybe the goal is to cause as much murder and mayhem as possible. In any case, both of these still fit into a larger pattern. You're still doing something important. Your footsteps shake the world. Your choices influence other's lives and livelihoods. NPCs tremble at the sound of your name. Your actions are relevant.
Now, let's switch gears and look at MMORPGs. Recently, I took some time and tried out one that I remember enjoying a long time ago. As might be expected, there was zero learning curve. A few classes, skills, and abilities had been buffed or nerfed - no biggie. There were some new places to go if I had the tenacity to reach the levels necessary to survive. Within a few hours of play, the verdict was clear. The world was still in the same endless loop. In all of the years I had been absent, nobody had saved the world. Nor had anyone destroyed it. Not even a single pebble.
No big surprise, eh? You can't save the world. Despite all the back-story and current troubles, it was never really in any danger. If it was saved, what would the heroic player find to do afterwards? You can't destroy it for the same reasons. Status quo ad infinitum. Each piece of the world took a good deal of developer time to put together. Which means there is no way it is going to be removed without a really good reason. Player choice - the grand illusion.
Maybe the game I picked was a bad example. Newer games are giving players more and more influence. Build, destroy, protect, pillage. Yet, is it important? How often are players "the" hero? Do their actions really matter on a larger scale? In most cases, this is still quite far from the truth. Though, there are some games coming out that we should be keeping an eye on. World simulations where the players must hunt down "the bad guys" before they multiply, else they become an even worse problem. Although no one player can truly be "the" hero, everyone has their chance to be in the spotlight and maybe even save the day.
Is this the wave of the future? My guess is that it will be an important step. I still want to see even greater risks. Clearly, developers aren't going to like the idea of shutting down their servers. But what about a world that wipes and resets if the heroes lose? That alone would give people incentive to really play a hero. At the same time, it would give the evil player exactly the tools they need to REALLY wreak some havoc.