[MUD-Dev] Removing the Massively from MMOG (long)

cruise cruise at casual-tempest.net
Fri Nov 18 05:57:38 New Zealand Daylight Time 2005

This is an idea that has been brewing in my mind for a while now,
and many of the recent threads have convinced me enough to finally
write it all down.


I'll reproduce it here, for ease, and so I can fix all the typos I
can't be bothered to fix in the original :P


Massively-Mulitplayer Online Games seem to be quite the fashion at
the moment. Especially with World of Warcraft storming the sales
charts, everyone wants a slice of the pie. Their proponents point to
the wonderful social opportunities provided by being able to
interact with potentially millions of people across the globe. They
say gaming has finally grown-up past the solitary gamer eschewing
social interaction in favour of computer generated characters.

Like hell they have. And they never, ever will.

There already is a place where huge numbers from disperate
backgrounds can meet. It's called life. History tells us what
happens when such large groups of people converge. They fight, they
bicker and they argue.

Funnily enough, this seems to be quite common in many MMOG's. In
fact, many of them use it as the basis of their core
gameplay. MMOG's aren't a new stage in the evolution of
games. They're exactly the same computer games we've always made,
just you get to hit other people instead of computer people, and
have all the associated socialogical problems you'd expect from such

Those that try to avoid this make heavy use of instanced areas,
where it's only you, or maybe a small group, and no one else. The
rest of the world is simply a very pretty place to locate other
people with whom to experience the much smaller, restricted and
protected content.

This isn't just my opinion. Much research has been done both in
sociology and within online games that shows the optimum long-term
group size is about ten. Any more and keeping the required strength
of social bonds with everyone takes too much time or effort. Past
that size, whether you have a thousand or a million, it doesn't
really make much difference.

The only advantage of having those hordes of players is to provide
more choice from which to select those ten. Again, life already does
a lot of that for me. I have three or four friends who play CoH with
me, so there goes half my quota already.

Of course, this doesn't make having that many players online a bad
idea. Just somewhat of a waste. A lobby system coupled with a
friends list as used on things like gamespy performs much the same
task, and often in a much simpler way.

This isn't the only reason for this diatribe, however. With all
those people, a handful of whom you may actually want to associate
with on a regular basis comes a whole lot of people that you would
not. The ratio of idiots to friends is appalling, quite frankly. In
small social groups, it's harder to be an annoying, abusive idiot,
simply because it's easier to reach a social consesus. You can kick
someone from a team, but it takes appeals to a higher power to kick
someone from a game.

There is often talk about players policing themselves, and in many
ways that is an ideal solution. The problem is dealt with quickly
and always to their satisfaction. The problem is, it doesn't
scale. Again, we only need to look to life to see the evidence. As
civilisation has advanced up the urban development ladder, community
and social taboos have waned considerably. Those who transgressed
accepted social behaviour could be shunned or ejected from a small
hamlet. It's somewhat harder in a city.

Now, hopefully, alarm bells are ringing somewhere, as the
environment I'm describing sounds terribly repressive. Indeed it is,
but the wonders of cyberspace come to our aid in this regard. We
have instant mobility. Don't like the little community you find
yourself in? Go find another.

To do that you need lots of players, true. Lots of players all in
their own little communities and areas, though, not hurled into one
giant melting pot where all the scum rises to the top.

Social constraints aren't the only reason for my statement. There
are more practical reasons too. Anybody who's ever played an MMOG
knows the "save the same damned helpless NPC a hundred times"
syndrome, where every player gets given the same quest to rescue the
cat/grandmother/husband/pet tree from impending DOOOOOOOM. And then
you team up and do it six times in a row, once for each of you in
the team.

Is it any wonder we have no real attachment to the storyline, when
we know all too well that whatever deeds of heroism we perform, it
won't change a thing? Ideally, every single player would have their
own unique quests, that only they have. Of course, to produce
sufficient quests for the several hundred thousand players would
likely take until the heat death of the universe, especially
considering the prevelance of alts.

Automatically generating quests based on the state of the world
would be one solution, but way beyond our technical
capabilities. Especially since the usual role for the player is a
famous (or potentially famous) hero - it's very hard for that many
people to all be saving the world at the same time.

Realism suffers too. There no feasible way of having a "proper"
economic model with realistic behaviours for supply and demand. The
size of world that could support half a million wandering
mercenaries is frankly ludicrous. Not to mention handle the effects
on the ecosystem of hordes of these mercenaries rampaging through
the landscape killing anything that moves.

The sheer number of characters in the current crop of MMOG's makes
any form of enjoyable socialising or meaningful emotional
interaction impossible. They are focused on war and destruction
because that's the only human activity that can reasonably be
simulated within such an environment.

To advance beyond this puerile masculine posturing and ego-stroking
we have to limit the number of people. Not /necessarily/ in total,
though that's one solution, just the number that are together at any
one time. Most deathmatch games do this already. Yes there are still
cheaters and anti-social idiots. But given a good, cohesive
community with sufficient support from the game, they will only be
able to disrupt a server once. The ratio between friends and losers
is considerably better. Neverwinter Nights is another game that
follows this model - a central repository for characters, but that
can wander from server to server, game to game.

Deep social interaction within a game is a solved problem. Board
games and LARP's have been doing it for years. Unfortunately the
technical possibilities of having so many people playing together
seems to have gone to our head. And of course, the demands of
financial success exacerbate the problem.

We could have so much more. But only if we're willing to settle for

[ cruise / casual-tempest.net / transference.org ]
   "quantam sufficit"
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