Lifetap Volume 1, Issue 20 – Meaningful Choice and Consequence in MMOs
In today’s issue of Lifetap, we take a closer look at the concept of consequence in MMOs, and how it largely hasn’t played a very large role to date. Can EverQuest Next help jumpstart a new era of MMOs where consequence and player choice truly matter?
Imagine you’ve fired up a new MMOG for the first time, completed the character creation process, and are taking your first steps into a virtual world. At this stage, the possibilities can often seem limitless even though we’ve been conditioned over time to seek some form of guidance from the nearest NPCs.
Speaking with some of them, you set out to complete some basic tasks that are intended to introduce you to gameplay mechanics before cutting you loose to begin exploring on your own. Some of them will be simple interactions with nearby objects, and others might help guide you towards other important points of interest in the area.
As is often the case, you will ultimately be introduced to combat during this phase as well. Those bandits standing around minding their own business out in the woods? Run them through with your sword. Go ahead and burn the barn down where their leader is believed to be hiding while you’re at it.
Once you’ve played your part in the new player genocide parade, most MMOs will simply shuttle you along to the next outpost or village where you’ll do it all over again. This is the basis of theme park gaming and content-driven MMOs.
But what if that tutorial phase split off into an unexpected direction? What if there were consequences for your actions? Surely those bandits you murdered because a total stranger asked you to have friends and families that would be out looking for vengeance. Suddenly you’d become the hunted rather than the hunter, and your gameplay experience would be born out of a need to survive and deal with the consequence of your actions.
I’ve played dozens (possibly even hundreds) of MMOs at this point, and keep waiting for that moment to arrive. In all this time though, it never really has.
The Consequence of Inaction
At best there have been a handful of quests sprinkled quite sparsely throughout various titles that touch on that notion of consequence, but those still tend to boil down to heavily scripted affairs. Over the past decade, we’ve also seen a number of titles attempt to inject more dynamic gameplay into the mix. Not counting the direct imitators, some of the key points along that timeline include the following.
This game used a simple invasion mechanic to help the world seem more vital and alive. Certain outposts could be invaded by the bane at any time, and it was up to the players to work with local NPCs to drive them back.
In this case, the only consequence was that if you failed, another event would kick off in which you’d work with local NPCs to retake the outpost. Until you did so, you’d temporarily lose access to NPCs so it was typically in your best interest to participate once these events kicked off.
The whole thing was also fueled by a token reward system, so there was a reward-based encouragement to participate during either state change.
Warhammer Online took this same basic principle and packaged it into hotspots for social activity, most often twice-removed from key locations where you would need access to quest NPCs and vendors. Rather than a simple A / B state change, Public Quests had a number of phases, each one scaling in difficulty. The highest phases would often require more players, so solo gamers and small groups wouldn’t typically be able to complete Public Quests to their final stage.
The only consequence found in this system is that you might not get as much loot, or you might have needed to complete the event more than once to accrue enough currency to purchase rewards from the event vendors in that area.
While you could almost consider RIFT an indirect imitator of the Public Quest system, Trion did attempt to push things a bit further and add in at least some layer of consequence. In this case it comes in the form of the results of inaction. Allow these invasion pockets to go unchecked, and it could become quite difficult to traverse a certain portion of the environments until the rifts were dealt with.
It should be noted that, like the two previous examples, rifts are more of a reward-based system rather than one built upon that notion of consequence.
Guild Wars 2
With Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet has attempted to push the concept of changing world states much further. While Dynamic Events are still based upon a very simple A / B (and sometimes C) state change mechanic, they’ve been packaged in such a way that they help certain chunks of the world feel more alive.
Much like Tabula Rasa, key outposts or points of interest can be invaded by hostile forces, and players in the area will need to work together to flip them back under friendly NPC control. At later stages of the game, this can also impact your ability to access things like dungeon entrances, or can greatly hinder your ability to complete skill point challenges if players choose to ignore certain event content.
The consequence here is also based on that notion of access. If you want to achieve 100% world completion, for example, you are going to need access to skill challenges that require active participation in event chains to complete more often than not at higher levels. Likewise, you’ll need to participate – even on the most basic of levels – in World versus World content since a number of vistas and skill points are tucked away inside of the control point structures on each map.
Moving Beyond the Consequence of Inaction
Each of the above examples have attempted to achieve a couple of very simple goals in the post-WoW hyper-accessibility era.
- Provide a system in which social gameplay is encouraged in overland areas
- Create gameplay that is not wholly static, or helps a virtual world feel more vital and alive
The only real consequence involved in these systems, however, has boiled down to the types of rewards your characters have access to. Much like the softening of the death mechanic, that layer of consequence is often kept very minimal.
But what if a game offered a system of consequence that actually mattered, and had a direct impact on your gameplay experience?
This seems to be one of the driving questions behind EverQuest Next, and is one of the many reasons I’ve kept a close eye on its development since our first viewing at E3 2013. This week SOE released a video titled A Life of Consequence that attempts to address how intelligent AI and behaviors can be manipulated in such a way as to create a more believable virtual world setting.
The video is a bit long and is based on the original panel presentation on the subject at SOE Live 2014. However, it is worth checking out if you’re interested in learning more about how EQNext will attempt to provide a generational leap forward for MMOs.
It remains to be seen how some of their proposed systems will impact players on a personal level, though major – and the key here being persistent – world state changes are always bound to impact both the micro and the macro when it comes to active player communities.
But there are those of us who are seeking a game that offers proper support for systems based on consequence. I don’t want a static NPC to tell me about some horrible threat looming out in the woods, I want to see that threat first-hand as its beating on the city gates. When I engage in combat, I want there to be a consequence for my actions. I want the friends and families of those bandits I senselessly slaughtered out in the woods to hunt me down and force me to deal with the choices I’ve made.
In that scenario, my motivator is no longer loot, riches and glory. It engages me as a player under the notion that I want MMOs to be more than virtual checklists and spreadsheets. I want them to be true virtual worlds that change over time, and don’t leave me twiddling my thumbs or grinding dungeons or raids between major expansions.