Chasing Rainbows: The Myth of the Perfect MMORPG
By Merriandra Eldaronde
There are three fundamental characteristics of human beings that have helped the online gaming industry to survive and to build a thriving market comprised of
individuals from a wide array of backgrounds and demographics. Competition, imagination, and hope: without these, the first and flawed MMO worlds would have imploded, leaving behind only dark stars.
The fact that competition keeps the average player coming back to a virtual world, again and again, seems obvious, but it’s not always about the race to attain the highest level or conquer the most difficult zone. That’s competition on a larger scale, and while it does play a role in keeping a game popular and “alive”, it can also lead to the alienation of portions of the online community when the drive to compete is the central motivation.
An example might be Dark Ages of Camelot, when a high proportion of the server populations had reached level 50 and found that the only way to keep the game fresh and challenging was through constant PvP warfare in the frontiers of the realms. The cities of Hibernia, Midgard, and Albion were all but deserted. Fortunately, developers who are in touch with the needs of the online community can begin to craft solutions which can maintain the player base or lure former players to return.
Competition can often be seen in healthier doses among guildmates and groups of friends. In the past, I’ve seen damage-parsing programs used to determine damage-per-second on a more serious basis in a large raiding guild, but I’ve used the same programs to test my own skill against the skills of my companions. Of course, battle-cleric I’m not. Nor has my bard often stepped up from a support role, so that I have more often been entertained by the boastful nature of my friends’ bets than my own prowess.
Do you remember your first big fight as a solo player? Was the creature an orange /con? A yellow? My first significant challenge occurred in EverQuest, in Crushbone, facing the Trainer up on his hill, waiting for him to “pop”, and managing confrontation with other players waiting for the same spawn. In retrospect, although I felt angry and threatened by the others all looking for the advantage in reaching the Trainer, it was a little bit like playing King-of-the-Mountain in my neighborhood when I was nine. When I defended the summit, there was no feeling to compare.
In order to create large-scale and small-scale competition, a game needs to have challenges. If everything was as easy to kill as the wasps in the newbie areas of EverQuest or the bunnies of Asheron’s Call, there would be little reason to participate in a virtual world. If Gorenaire could have been killed by a party of six on the day that the lands of Kunark were first explored, EverQuest players would never have been forced to use logic, strategy, tactics, and imagination to engineer her eventual demise.
Imagination is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary, as the “an act or process of forming a conscious idea or mental image of something never before wholly perceived in reality by the one forming the images (as through a synthesis of remembered elements of previous sensory experiences or ideas as modified by unconscious defense mechanisms); also, the ability or gift of forming such conscious ideas or mental images especially for the purposes of artistic or intellectual creation.”
As we participate in virtual worlds, we are drawn in by the possibilities. We know that in the next new zone, there could be a griffon that looks like a griffawn but is twenty levels more dangerous. We believe that the loot dropped by the boss in the instanced zone will be worth dying, and running back to the instance, and refreshing our buffs, and trying again. We also imagine that the other players in our community can see the possibilities too.
I look at the screenshots provided by Sigil to give us a glimpse into Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, and I marvel at the detail and the artistry. Yet beyond the shimmer of the reflection in the water’s surface, I wonder if there is a creature hidden in the depths. I wonder if the creature is dark, like a black shadow on the bottom of the reservoir, or if it has a sleek, silver hide that casts all those little glimmers of light back toward my eyes. I wonder if it has fangs, or if I will be able to see the joints and scars of its bones. Do you wonder? Do you imagine?
Last, but not least, the human character provides with the ability to hope. In order to have hope, you need to believe. The majority of players who remained members of the EverQuest community for years believed that the developers were seeking to find the perfect balance. Similarly, those who remained in the Anarchy Online community past the dreadful days of lag after initial release believed that there were structural and programming changes that could solve the worst of the troubles. These situations are not unique: every online world to date has had its own unique problems and pitfalls.
Poet Emily Dickenson wrote:
Personally, I am looking forward to Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, since I believe that the developers are in touch with the MMORPG community at large. The constant activity on the Official Vanguard Forums is, in my mind, a harbinger of promise. Am I being too hopeful? Am I merely using my imagination? Regardless, I am looking forward to fresh challenges and the competition that a new world may bring.
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