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The views expressed here are my own, and not necessarily endorsed by any former or current employer.
This piece was originally written as an opinion piece for Game Informer magazine.
Anyone remember what cyberspace looked like a decade ago? There we were, all fresh arrivals in the Metaverse, dreaming of Snow Crash’s virtual bars and William Gibson’s skies like televisions on dead channels. We wondered if the Holodeck would require one of those newfangled 3d hardware video cards or not. If we were really old-school sci-fi fans, maybe we thought about Bradbury’s Veldt or Vernor Vinge’s “True Names.”
Back then, we dreamed about dynamic worlds that we could morph on the fly with a thought (or at least a twitch of a mouse). We had a lot of grand visions about really realistic NPCs that would move about the world like the ones in Ultima VII did. We thought maybe the orcs would be invading virtual towns because they wanted to, not because there were spawn points set up by the city gates.
These days, after suffering through Lawnmower Man and Disclosure, maybe our dreams are a bit less lofty. Heck, these days, a lot of kids don’t even know what static on a dead channel looks like. As gamers, we’re all a bit more familiar with how online worlds and virtual realities work. We know about NPC schedules, and we’ve sunk enough hours into the games to see exactly where Maid Marian walks every day on her predefined path, until we wish she’d trip and fall head-first into her milk bucket. We know how spawn points work, and (thanks to strategy websites) exactly how often the watery floozy will raise her hand and offer us Excalibur—it’s a rare drop, right?
Even worse, we’re all starting to wonder where exactly the stories are. After all, there was a plot in those novels and on those TV shows. Yes, even in VR5 (if a plot falls in the forest and nobody is there to watch it, does it make a sound? What about if it makes no sense?). These stories were full of a sense of purpose, and we look around our adventures in Norrath, Vanadiel, Dereth, Rubi-Ka, Britannia, Paragon City, and sometimes wonder if phat lewt is really what it’s all about.
MMO fans will, of course, tell you in a heartbeat that it’s the friendships they make online that make the difference, that they have experienced epic sagas and incredible gripping stories. But even they will probably admit that we’re not quite at the dream of cyberspace yet.
Online worlds offer us more than just a game—they offer a virtual space into which many games can be placed. The problem, really, is that it’s a bit too broad a canvas for us game devs. The issues facing the genre today are mostly still a matter of learning curve on the part of developers. The curious thing about online worlds is that the first ones (text muds) got going in the late 70s and early 80s, but we still have a lot to learn.
Let me tell you where I think we’re going. I think we’re heading for a time and place where Maid Marian sometimes does trip. She might even cuss a bit sometimes. Where the orcs invade the town because there’s something there they want, and where players fight them off because the town is too important to lose. I think that the grass will die where players trample it too much, and enterprising players might divert a river to grow their crops. I think we’re heading for a game where purpose arises organically out of the game, because Evil Overlords dwelling in the Misty Mountains who try to bring about the Worldending Winter are just part of how the game world works.
These aren’t unsolvable problems. They’re hard, don’t get me wrong, but they can be dealt with. It’s more a matter of having the will than not being able to find a way. And, of course, it needs to make commercial sense, and it needs to be fun in the end. Too often, the simulations built into games make them less fun, rather than more so. But that, too, is something we can solve, I think.
A bigger question is whether the game industry will be willing to be patient while we work on licking these problems. There’s going to be a lot of false starts and mistakes made along the way. We’re already seeing a lot of announced MMORPGs fail to make it to market because publishers are seeing the costs skyrocket and the development challenges rise. But there’s encouraging signs all over the world—the rate of growth of MMORPGs as a whole is exceeding the rate of growth of the Internet, and in some countries, it’s the accepted normal way of gaming. Try picking up a console in China. Xbox? What’s that?
We’re also seeing the single-player gaming world start to converge towards a lot of the basic premises of online worlds—shared profiles, online items, regularly updated content… I think we’re going to see a lot more of this in the coming years. Right now a lot of folks get hung up on the business model—paying subscription fees—but I have to tell you, business models change in response to the market. The way the money flows may change over time, but I’m betting that online gaming is not only here to stay, but that it is going to absorb a pretty large portion of the games market as a whole.
Just a few years ago, that last sentence would have seemed not radical, but loopy crazy. And in the end, that’s why I have faith that online worlds will eventually reach that wacky impossible cyberspace dream. We’ve come a long way from
> North. You see an orc here.
So I’ll meet ya in the virtual bar, and maybe we can take a whack at stopping the Worldending Winter. I’ll introduce ya to Marian. Heck, even the invading orcs are kinda nice guys once you get to know them. Just don’t forget to bring your sword, and if you can conjure one with a thought, even better.