Thursday, May 8, 2008

My Secret Life

In the comments to one of my recent posts, I admitted to a deep dark secret: I regularly play and enjoy World of Warcraft. In many gaming circles, not just old school ones, WoW is viewed as the Devil's own tool. Ritual denunciations of the most successful MMO in history are de rigeur for these gamers, as a way of establishing their bona fides as "true" gamers. Heck, even game designers go out of their way to bash WoW, to ensure that we know they're "one of us" and not one of those guys.

Well, I'm one of those guys and I make no bones about it. I play World of Warcraft and have since shortly after its release in November 2004. I'm even among that rarefied sub-set within WoW players -- a raider, which is to say, that I get together for several hours every few nights with twenty-four other people scattered across the globe to take on the most difficult encounters the game has to offer.

I find World of Warcraft a great deal of fun. I'm not much of a video game player and had never touched an MMO before WoW. I'm still far from certain that, when WoW loses its appeal for me, I'll seek out a replacement. WoW is, quite frankly, a brilliantly designed video game and anyone with an interest in good game design of any sort would be wise to familiarize oneself with what WoW does and how it does it. Like all such things, it's not for everyone, but I also think that there's little to be gained by sneering at it -- or indeed any MMO -- as if the very idea were somehow repulsive.

The simple reality is that, for a lot of gamers out there, WoW scratches a number of itches that tabletop RPGs either don't or can't. First and foremost, WoW is very easy to play, both in terms of its actual mechanics, but, perhaps more importantly, in terms of the time investment needed to enjoy it. Lots of people will tell you that MMOs are massive time sinks and, for many players, they certainly are. Raiding at the level I do does take lots of time, but most MMO players don't raid and have no interest in doing so. These "casual" players simply want to play a fantasy character in a beautifully presented world, where they can fight bad guys and quest with their friends -- or alone -- for a few hours. That's it and WoW accommodates that style of play superbly -- no more 20 minutes of fun packed into 4 hours.

No, MMOs like WoW do not allow you to go anywhere or do anything. There are "walls" in the world that you can't surmount, no matter how hard you try. Likewise, the main storylines of the Warcraft world -- and make no mistake, there are storylines -- are all pre-scripted and follow trajectories determined by the good folks at Blizzard rather than your own imagination. But, frankly, these storylines are (mostly) extremely well-done and engaging and use technology effectively to give the impression -- a false one, to be sure -- that your individual character is a unique individual whose actions have forever changed the world. For many gamers, this is more than they get in their tabletop games -- and they can play whenever they want for as long as they want without the need to schedule a mutually agreeable time to get together with their friends. That's a powerful advantage of MMOs, particularly for gamers who work, have families, or are otherwise unable to drop everything to game as they did in high school or college.

So it's true that MMOs are not flexible or as open-ended as tabletop RPGs, at least not yet. On the other hand, gamers are by nature inn0vative and clever. Roleplayers have found many ways to create their own stories and use the tools MMOs give them to do in a virtual environment what they might do on the tabletop. There are still limits, of course. For example, some in-game characters are unkillable and others, though killable, don't stay dead. This tends to limit the extent of roleplaying that is possible, but it doesn't wholly preclude it and anyone who claims that "you can't roleplay in an MMO" is either trying to sell you something -- probably his RPG -- or has never played an MMO for any length of time.

For myself, I see World of Warcraft as a video game. I enjoy it primarily as tactical combat game with some roleplaying elements, much like a first-person shooter game, but in a far more complex environment. It's a great way to unwind with friends I've made online, much in the way some people watch TV. I don't see it as an alternative to tabletop roleplaying, at least not for me. Rather, I see it as a complementary entertainment that more than satisfies my need for flashy special effects -- "better graphics than my imagination," in the famous words of a friend -- and exciting "gamist" play. That is, I never once think about why my WoW character's powers and abilities work as they do or what their impact would be on the game's setting. It's just a fun diversion, nothing more. (I won't say "mindless," because most high-level raid encounters require a lot of thought, planning, and skill)

Despite all this, MMOs clearly cause a lot of apprehension in the hobby. Beneath of a lot of the contempt for the medium, I sense a fair bit of envy. World of Warcraft is the D&D of the 21st century -- a huge fad that makes the RPG boom of the late 70s/early 80s look utterly insignificant by comparison. I think there's also an implicit acknowledgment that the future of fantasy gaming belongs to computer games and MMOs. As technology gets better and the capacity for open-ended, individually customizable games becomes ever more possible, tabletop RPGs will seem even more "quaint" than they already do and no amount of harrumphing about how MMOs are as much fun as banging your head against the wall will change that.

That's why I believe, if tabletop RPGs are to survive and prosper, the last thing they should be doing is conceding computer games a home field advantage. Tabletop RPGs will never be able to beat video games when it comes to exciting combats or flashy graphics. Computer games own those things and always will. But what tabletop RPGs have always done best is provide context and continuity to those combats that are emergent properties rather than carefully designed ones.

Tabletop RPGs are notoriously "swingy" things, sometimes uproariously fun, sometimes mind-bendingly boring. Their fun depends almost entirely on intangibles -- personal chemistry, mental nimbleness, and random chance -- that simply cannot be boiled down into algorithms and mechanized. There is no way to guarantee that any given tabletop RPG session will be fun or even tolerable. Many sessions, in my experience, are painful and yet, in retrospect, those painful sessions can often lay the groundwork for the fun that emerges later on. And there's nothing even the most talented and determined game designer can do to lay that groundwork or ensure that there is ever a payoff in the end. Sometimes it happens; often it doesn't. When it does, though, it's glorious and no technology will ever be able to duplicate that.

For me, it's this that RPGs should focus on and teach people to expect and enjoy. Anything else is just ceding the field to the machines.


  1. "I'm not much of a video game player and had never touched an MMO before WoW."

    You know, with this simple sentence, I totally get where you're coming from. To me, however, every single aspect of World of Warcraft (save one, which I'll get to), has been done so much better elsewhere that the game just falls apart into a heap of mediocrity.

    The one thing World of Warcraft *does* do very well, is to foster addiction, and not just in a bad way (although we've all heard the horror stories). There's something admirable about the way World of Warcraft keeps its players hooked month after month, when the basic gameplay (especially before high level play) is just so repetitive, monotonous, predictable and... easy.

    I hope I don't come off as too bitter, although I'm certainly miffed at MMORPGs taking the Everquest route instead of building on the early days of Ultima Online (an insane free for all with griefers all around and real consequences for death).

  2. Oh, and by "real consequences" I mean losing all your *virtual* stuff.... ;)

  3. Have you tried UO? What did you think about it?

  4. As I said, I've never played a MMO before WoW, so I can't say anything about UO except that I often hear people speak about it in fond terms as a "path not taken" wrt MMOs.

  5. As a RPG enthusiast, the only thing that bothers me about computer RPGs or MMOs is the myth—that many casual gamers have—that they make RPGs obsolete.

    It’s a natural assumption, though RPGs still retain much appeal. Just as movies and TV haven’t made reading obsolete. Just as my 9yo son can be more excited about a game of marbles than video-games.

    I enjoy CRPGs. I haven’t played an MMO, but I enjoyed a lot of MUD/MUSH/MOOs. (I don’t bad-mouth WoW because I have never played it.)

    Whenever possible, though, I want to suggest to someone who thinks, “I won’t play an pen & paper RPG because I’ve got FF or WoW,” that there are reasons to play RPGs in addition to those other games.

  6. there are reasons to play RPGs in addition to those other games.

    That's more or less my attitude. I see the two media as existing side by side. For me, they serve different purposes, much as books and TV do (a very good analogy).

    The real problem, though, is that many of the people who, in the past, would have become tabletop gamers because there was no other option will now become MMO or CRPG players instead. They're the "casual" gamers you mention and, for them, gaming won't be a lifelong hobby but a temporary diversion. Those guys outnumber the hardcore hobbyists by a wide margin and I suspect they're going to be lost to the hobby forever.

  7. I ask because I've heard of UO spoken in favorable terms with people that I game with in favorable terms. (That and it's compatible with Linux, FTW)

    It seems that the old style of MUDs had sandboxes as well as some main plot lines and didn't require the grinding unless you wanted to grind levels. Then again, we were dealing in text where half the effort was on our part to contribute to the overall atmosphere, rather thank clicking on something.

    Graphics and more advanced graphics feeds a different spot in my mind than reading words. I can look at a game like Morrowind or even Ultima and be taken one place and reading an all encompassing book (like Thomas Convenant, which I'm rereading for inspiration...) or participating in something where language is involved, like text MUDs or pen/paper - that's a whole different story.

    Seems that perhaps old school would be best found in an MMORPG that has the best of both worlds.

  8. Yeah, I don't get the idea that one form of game has to preclude another. However, I like all types: Computer, Card, minis and TT RPGs, but apparently most gamers don't cross the lines...

  9. I suspect the truth, bobmungovan, is that most gamers do indeed cross the lines and find enjoyment in a wide range of games. Silently. It is only a few (but loud) oddballs that make it seem otherwise.

    Plus, perhaps, some of us for whom hyperbolë is an instinctive tool of rhetoric. (^_^)

  10. You should give DDO (Dungeons & Dragons Online) a look. Although it is 3.5(ish) and based in Eberron, it is still D&D...hehe.

    It's not "per the book", mainly because MMOs seem to need certain variances. But it follows as close as it can, I guess.

    At any rate, it's the only MMO I play with any regularity. I have tried WoW, albeit breifly as only the free trial, but I knew it would not give me what I get from DDO, so I did not continue with it past that.

    In DDO, 5 members of my guild and I play in a "static group" (meaning only us 6 ever in the group), once a week, and try our best to get the most PnP feel from it, as far as dungeon crawling, sharing treasure (whomever needs it gets it), and pulling our resources together to buy potions, weapons, wands, etc for the betterment of the group as a whole....pretty slick.

    Anyway, I'd suggest it as something for you to try. You may not like it due to your heavy involvement in PnP D&D (OD&D, B/X D&D, AD&D, etc), but for me it is amazing, as I cannot commit to a regular PnP group at this point in my life...wish I could.

    It's just amazing that we have these types of online games to play, and it's not worth bickering back and forth on which one is better, eh?...just play!

  11. I've had a WoW account since the game was released. I was fast to 60 and got bored, returned to raid frequently and got burned out. When I get computer game burn-out, I take a break for a few months and possibly return to fiddle around with it again. I do that with WoW and two other Blizzard titles. MMO's do indeed make things easier and more accessible than pen and paper.

    WoW is a descendant of D&D, but it's not in the same genre as pen and paper D&D. I do hope that future generations can find the time to discover the differences between pen and paper and MMO, and embrace the original spirit of the game that gave birth to these MMOs.

    I often come off as an MMO or CCG basher, but it's only in comparison to D&D. Both the MMO and CCG genre are, from a business model stance, the antithesis of D&D. D&D cannot generate the revenue that these other gaming forms do. There's a reason for that.

    I'm a gamer at heart, and I enjoy many forms of games. D&D is simply my favorite.

  12. On a totally different side of MMOs, here is the Chinese style (link compliments of Penny Arcade).

  13. Re: DDO

    Strangely, I found DDO to be both visually uninteresting -- a key component to playing any video game for me -- and its gameplay neither fish nor fowl, which is to say, neither sufficiently like D&D to intrigue me nor sufficiently tactically interesting to hold my attention as a "pure" video game. Plus, it's set in Eberron, perhaps the dullest D&D setting in many a moon.

  14. Both the MMO and CCG genre are, from a business model stance, the antithesis of D&D. D&D cannot generate the revenue that these other gaming forms do. There's a reason for that.

    Correct and I expect that, if WotC expects otherwise with 4e, they will be sorely disappointed. It's for this reason that I think so many of their design and marketing decisions for 4e make no sense and will ultimately prove a huge mistake.