“Living worlds.” This is the promise that’s been given to us over and over again by the current generation of MMORPGs. From the Guild Wars 2 marketing materials to the Destiny announcement trailer, the promise of a virtual world that grows and evolves at the whim of its inhabitants has been dangled in front our noses for years now. Try as they might, it seems that none of the developers who promised such lofty accomplishments have managed to deliver.
Every time a new MMO comes out, I jump onboard to see if someone has finally found the solution to this long-standing challenge of MMO development. Every time I leave disappointed, with just a few hours of gameplay invested; I’ve discovered that no living world has yet been created for me.
Inevitably, I end up doing more or less the same thing in every MMO. When I play Planetside 2, I shoot other players to gain experience. When I play World of Warcraft or Guild Wars 2, I kill goblins and their ilk to gain experience. Whether it's a sci-fi world with laser beams and spaceships, or some Tolkien-esque hodgepodge of fantasy themes, every popular MMO universe is inhabited by thousands of people who kill stuff for a living, to the exclusion of any other profession one can imagine.
This is not the vibrant virtual society I was promised. A world where 99% of the population is engaged in nothing but the slaughter of wildlife for money does not convince me of its realism.
Sure, there's the odd World of Warcraft player who spends their time managing a storefront of some sort, buying and selling goods as their main preoccupation, but they are a tiny minority. What's more, they all got to where they are by fighting stuff, as the core gameplay of World of Warcraft - the meat of the game that you are required to participate in if you want to progress through levels, gear quality, etc. - consists entirely of fighting stuff. You can't reach the level cap by buying and selling items in your storefront, or by doing anything other than killing bad guys and collecting loot, gold and experience points off their corpses.
This is a common theme amongst the current crop of MMOs. Even those which do let you gain some sort of progression from your non-combat feats seem insistent on making you fight people if you want to progress efficiently. I've played several MMOs while trying not to get sucked into the endless goblin-or-player-killing quests that make up most of their gameplay, and been universally unsuccessful.
When I first tried playing played Planetside, for example, I immediately bought a Sunderer (the game's troop transport vehicle) and became a chauffeur for my team’s massive groups of infantry. Unfortunately, it turned out that the amount of experience one gets for having someone spawn on your troop transport, or for someone getting a kill with the gun turret on your roof, is about 2% of what you get for killing a single man with your own gun. To make any sort of progress, I'd have to park in a convenient spawn point and wait for dozens and dozens of troopers to unload from my Sunderer. Meanwhile, everyone else was gaining experience many times faster than me, simply by hopping out of the truck and shooting the bad guys.
Unless I was willing to condemn myself to a life of snail-paced progression, while all my friends leveled up orders of magnitude faster than me, there was no way this was going to work. While this style of play provided some entertainment, it fell flat fairly quickly due to how slowly I was progressing. So much of the enjoyment derived from RPGs is the feeling of progression one gets from leveling up and acquiring better equipment, and with this aspect of the game all but stripped away from my experience, the whole thing felt hollow; it felt like I was playing the game wrong, and being punished for it.
Similar quandaries have faced me in every other MMO I’ve tried these types of non-combat roles in. Inevitably, the experience falls short of what one feels like the more combat-friendly players are enjoying, and the people participating in the core gameplay loop of these games – the combat grind – are sailing past you in level and power while you continue slogging through your attempts at pacifism.
Eventually, I am forced into a combat role. Just like every single other player I encounter in the world. Just like everyone else who may well have been interested in doing something other than fighting goblins, but found themselves stymied by the mechanics of the game.
None of the window dressing of NPC merchants and quest givers is enough to convince me that this is truly the living world I was promised. I know these people are not people at all, and that there really is no blacksmith, tailor, or professor of wizardry. These are constructs made to sell me on the idea of this being a realistic and diverse world, but they aren’t working. I want to be the blacksmith, not buy weapons from the unlimited stockpile of a fake one, along with all my fellow adventurers, with their identical quests and objectives.
Why is this necessary? Why do all the people who are put here to act like this is a functioning society have to be shallow simulacra? Are we to believe that no human being would want to fulfill these seemingly mundane roles?
Ask yourself: Would you rather be a brave adventurer, slaying dragons and saving the world, or would you rather be the guy who makes swords in a dimly-lit forge all day, waiting for those adventurers to show up and do business with you? Looked at in a vacuum, it might seem like an obvious choice: badass adventurer, please!
There’s more to it than that, though. Maybe some of us are sick of going adventuring all the time. That’s been the main conceit of every RPG for the last three decades. Maybe we really do just want to stay home and make swords for our adventurer friends. To hone our craft, improve our skills, and run a successful business.
If there’s anything we can learn from the brilliance of games like Cart Life and Papers, Please, it’s that there’s incredibly fun and engaging gameplay to be found in even the most mundane of tasks. We live in a world where a company can be successful while making nothing but truck driving simulators. I’ve personally played more hours of Euro Truck Simulator 2 than I’m comfortable admitting. It’s a fantastic, cathartic experience.
Let me be that guy in your “living worlds.” There are many people like me, and we will happily be your tinkers and tailors, allowing others to fulfill the more traditional roles of soldiers and spies. Do away with the shallow NPC facsimiles of these professions, and build a system that will let us real humans ply those trades.
Most importantly, make these systems as robust as the systems you’ve built for your adventuring murderers. I don’t want to feel like my chosen play style is an afterthought, and that the combat specialists are playing the “real” game. I want to feel like part of the real, functioning civilization you’re trying to build in your virtual world. Let me.
This, above everything else, is the thing that your MMO worlds are missing. The concept of different people fulfilling different roles in society is practically what it means to be a society in the first place. The time for faking this effect with one-liner NPCs is over.
A virtual world built on the premise of offering players the opportunity to pursue whatever career they so desire will be better and more immersive for everyone involved – even the people who choose to just be an adventurer anyways. People like me will get to play the way we want to, and will invest ourselves in games that we otherwise wouldn’t enjoy. People who want to play a more traditional RPG can still do so, and have a better time of it, because their shallow NPCs have been replaced by real people with whom they can converse, do business, and build relationships. There is no downside here.
I’m ready. Let’s build.
Mitch Bowman writes about games, technology and music for a variety of fine Internet publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @Niyeaux.