Putting the “face” back into interface

Keen’s post on WAR’s game world over at Keen & Graev’s made me think, as apparently someone else’s words sparked that post. The blogger hive mind is alive and well. Bzzzzzz.

I started my gaming “career” in Asheron’s Call and Star Wars: Galaxies, with only brief forays into EQ and UO. This undoubtedly colours my experiences and opinions, because both AC and SWG featured very large worlds and very little “help” in terms of quests, zones, all the stuff we take for granted today. They had none of the modern things we associate with games, and in many ways they were better for it, even if it wasn’t intentional.

Most of all, nobody had exclamation marks over their heads, or little bags, or trainer icons, or whatever. In AC nobody had anything over their heads, not even names, not even the other players. You had to mouse over them to see who they were (or recognise them by their avatar); I got really good at mousing over dots on my minimap as I ran past/through/to places. (Tangentially, no running has ever been as much fun as it was in AC, where you actually had a run skill you could improve; well, except maybe CoX where you can fly.) SWG had player names but nothing else — then again, SWG really didn’t have anything else. There were very few “quests” and many of those were either broken or extremely short (“go find my criminal brother in the wilderness and I’ll give you this briefcase as a reward!”); but boy, those planets were BIG. Empty, but big.

I am undoubtedly nostalgic for my personal “golden age” of gaming, but I do think there’s a wider issue here. Metagame symbols over stuff in the in-game world are incredibly distancing for me. I’ll even say it breaks my immersion, and you’ll either get that or you won’t. (Don’t tell me there’s no way to make a non-real-by-definition video world real, hence immersion is a chimera at best — maybe I’ll talk about that in another post.) Further, I’ll say it hampers the creation of genuine in-game communities, because everyone is so busy going from one shiny icon to another shiny icon, and then on to the next zone for that area’s set of shiny icons.

Metagame information in-game does several things, some of them good, some less so. It makes it much, much easier for people new to the game to get their bearings, and for total MMO-newbs to have some idea of what they should do. Quest lines and level zones make it much, much easier for game designers to put their content together in a “coherent” manner. Easier for players, easier for designers = no brainer. On the downside, it leads to worlds that aren’t worlds but rather rat mazes where you thread your way from A to B to C, with occasional forays to A-2 (other race starting area) or C-3 (just another level 23-28 area). Very pretty, often very large and complex rat mazes, but still rat mazes.

The worst thing about level-divided zones & activities (quests) is that it also level-divides the players. Back in my day (barefoot, uphill, in the snow), I hung out with my game buds — what level they were had absolutely NO bearing on it. Now, if I’m level 30 somewhere, I’m unlikely to spend “face” time with my non-50ish friends. Community isn’t just about being able to find the right tools so that you can get PhatLewtItem1006; and it’s not just about being able to create groups, though I gather that seems to be what “the masses” think it is. I need to get me a guild so I can get me some groups to get mah shiny loot and get into those 8-man instances! Screw actually getting to KNOW people — if it happens, it’s purely a fringe benefit.

Of course now, I hang out with my buds from 8 different games on IMs, IRC, voice chat, or even just in-game on guild chat and whatnot. There’s no real requirement to be in the same game-area at all — one of the reasons AC had so much face-time was probably because it had such godawful chat tools.

As in-game community strength has waned, so metagame (all games, everywhere) community strength has waxed. Our internet community tools are orders of magnitude stronger than they were even 5 years ago, so now I don’t need to log on to chat with Thrang the Orange-Helmeted Barbarian (aka my friend George).* This is good for keeping in touch; it’s less good for creating a “game home” like the one I wrote about a few days ago. (Quoting myself, how needy!)

Casualties of WAR is of course a prime example of this. We have a wild, thriving, growing-like-a-fungus guild going before the game is even released, and most of us haven’t met in-game yet. It should be a wild ride when we do.

Still… what with “oo look, that guy has a quest icon!” and linear, zone-based progress, I kind of miss just hanging out in person. In AC, lots of us kicked back in a place called “Adventurers’ Haven” (how could you not love that?), several guilds and groups, and there was usually someone to chat with after a long hunting trip (they call it grinding now — in those days we didn’t know any better, and it was still fun).

Maybe the “Guild tarverns” Mythic are adding to WAR will help. But maybe, just maybe, some of the onus for putting the face back into game-interface lies with me, the player. Taking out quest icons and un-level-limiting the zones isn’t going to happen; games have changed, mostly for the better, and aren’t changing back. So I need to change myself. I can always turn those icon displays off if I want a taste of the old country. I can try to ensure I actually meet up, god forbid, with some of these folks I’m going to be pixel-meeting over the next few weeks. I can try to find somewhere congenial to hang out, hopefully somewhere that isn’t too hard to anyone to get to. I can *gasp* make an effort beyond what the game serves up to me on a platter.

Games are good at being games. But no matter how hard the designers and devs try, games cannot make communities. They can encourage, they can provide tools, but the actual building is down to us.

I’m looking forward to it.

* Names have been altered to protect the innocent.

One response to “Putting the “face” back into interface

  1. I personally tend to think that quite a large segment of the MMO developers today don’t think of their games as social environments. They may play it lip service, and they may actually sink some time into the guild system, but they generally seem to miss the core concept of a social experience. Mythic seems to have done better than some others.

    Frankly, you’re right that the devs can only go so far. Only lead the horse to water so to speak. On the other hand, the players can usually only use the tools given, and even more importantly, can only inhabit the places provided.

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