I was talking with a friend who is still trying to convince me that playing World Of Warcraft is a good lifestyle choice (as opposed to, say "dedicated husband, father, software developer, blogger"). Kidding aside, spare time is really my only stumbling block here, it's not as if I have something against heavy gaming in general (though I do recoil from the idea of having to pay a periodic subscription fee, I'd rather spend some time on a single-purchase game like Bethesda's Oblivion that's all about "me").

Anyway, looking at the game (which to my eyes was visually comparable to Morrowind but with multiple players) made me think of how things are getting closer and closer to simulating real life. I'm not talking about visual perception of the game world (though the graphics are certainly improving on a yearly basis), but I'm talking about the game-play mechanics. The more I think about this, the more I'm becoming convinced that simulating life means actually simplifying game-play rules rather than adding more and more complex rules.

I'll clarify up front that when I say "simplify" I'm not necessarily talking about the game engine complexity itself. I'm talking about the experience as a player for the most part. Let me give some examples:

Game Environment Seams

Some games have boundaries between wilderness areas and city areas, requiring the game to shift perspective into those new areas. The oldest example of this that I can think of is the original Ultima game which actually has three major perspectives: overhead wilderness, overhead city and first-person dungeon. In Ultima, an entire city takes up one single square in the wilderness area, going into the city then opens up the city map (which is suddenly much much larger on your screen).

Morrowind was one of those first games that I knew of where the scale and experience stayed the same between wilderness and cities, though there is still a hard break between buildings and "outside areas". In fact, you can't look into buildings when you are outside them. Bringing the experience closer to real life means actually removing any difference between enclosed buildings and outside areas. Suddenly, everything is one homogenous environment and follows the same rules.

Other Game Environment Limitations

In Morrowind, why can't I stake out a section in a forest, chop down some trees, use the wood to build a house, dig a trench around it and proclaim myself a new country? The limitations really only come down to the physical environment - trees and ground are not destructible. If they were and you could manipulate the objects that you chop down or dig up, then theoretically it would be possible to do all the things that I mention above.

Don't get me wrong, this certainly adds complexity to the underlying physics engine. My only argument here is that when certain things in the game world are fixed and cannot change, something which contrasts drastically with the real world, it adds a certain amount of complexity to the user experience. So I can pick up a quiver of arrows that somebody dropped, but I can't pick up this rock on a path?

A user completely new to gaming has only the knowledge of the real world to draw on when trying to relate to the game. The fact that there are things within the game world that are alien to the real world takes some getting used to.

Character Alignments, Classes

If I understand things correctly, in WoW you have to choose a side: Alliance or Horde. This has certain effects in the game (if your character is on the Alliance side and are in a region that is controlled by Alliance, you get certain bonuses or something). Alignment also enables you to play certain player vs. player games like "capture the flag", etc. At this point, I don't even want to know the details in case I get sucked in and want to play the bloody game...

But the point is that real life is not like that. Each person has their own personal and specific motivations, and these things only broadly fit into certain categorical distinctions (and then only sometimes). People in the real world may ally themselves on the surface with something, but there is no true physical law that binds this. It's a personal choice that may change from moment to moment (and people may ally themselves with multiple conflicting organizations also, unbeknownst to each organization). Forcing the user to choose a side within the game-world context, even if they are allowed to switch within the game, usually means that there are physical rules constraining the character - and real life is not like that - if I choose to be a Canadian there is no physical rule (as in game-world physics) that prevents me crossing the border into the U.S. (though there may be a guard who will try to prevent me, etc). If I'm a Democrat, I could still vote for a Republican candidate, etc...

Character class also is another poorly modelled construct of the real world. If I choose "Mage" as my character class, then I can cast spells, but can I learn to do the same thing if I'm a "Thief"? Can I pick pockets as a Mage? I know that character classes are attempting to model the fact that some people have natural talents for some skills over others, but the bottom line is those natural talents should come through in the game-play experience itself, not restricted by some arbitrary choice when I created the character. Morrowind did away with this to a certain degree by allowing all skills to be available to any character, your character class just sets up the initial skill level of some skills at the beginning but it is theoretically possible to start as a Mage and end up as a Master Thief by the end of the game if you continue to focus and improve those skills. I really liked that aspect of Morrowind/Oblivion.

The bottom line is that picking character class, alignments, guilds, clans are arbitrary game rules that have been set up to model the real world. I guess I'm suggesting that these things do so poorly. The ultimate game would have no distinctions on these things and allow personal abilities and motivations to drive them within the context of the game world. In other words, if you remove class and alignment as something driving game mechanics, you've simplified the game engine complexity and brought it closer to real life.

I'm not saying you can't have guilds (for instance) within a game world, but guild membership should be based on what they are based on in real life: word-of-mouth, written record, etc.

Of course there's another facet of this that I'm not talking about and that is these constructs are also in place to give the game developers a chance to control the social ecology of the game world. In other words, maybe at this stage such things are necessary in order to keep some sort of balance in massive online games like WoW and to limit the amount of anarchy in the game. I think that once game engines evolve to a point, there will be no reason to put in such artifices into the game world - let the people playing the games work out the rules/laws (and associated punishments) and see what's what. This is where the very interesting history of online worlds begins, with complex social interaction not dictated by some "overlords". I will stop my exposition now in case I delve too far into the spiritual/religious areas.

Anyway, I intend to write some more about social structures within online game worlds one day as it's extremely interesting to me, but I need to get my thoughts in order and probably actually try a game or two...

What Does the Future Hold?

It will be very interesting to see how future online worlds evolve as games get richer and closer to real life. I'm sure we'll see all evolution of political structures (despotism, monarchies, democracies, etc), systems of law, wars between virtual countries, you name it. At some point, the games will become rich enough that you will no longer need manufactured quests - the quests will come out of interactions within the game world (i.e. player 1 steals a magical item from player 2 so player 2 recruits people to help get it back, etc). It will be an exciting time! Perhaps by then I'll feel comfortable with the monthly subscription fee 😉

§282 · September 14, 2006 · Entertainment, Games, Life · · [Print]

Leave a Comment to “Games vs. Life”

  1. Nice website man, picked up a couple nuggets here…just can’t wait for Cataclysm, I saw a rumor that it is going to be coming out Nov 2010, but with Blizzard you can never tell :/