Saturday, December 24, 2005


First, some administrative stuff: if anyone here still uses my ignmail address, I will no longer be checking that account. I went through a month's worth of unread mail, it was 98% spam and 2% mailing lists that I can move to my other accounts. Please use either my gmail or cirion accounts; I check them both, but gmail email will find me more quickly these days.

Also, Happy Holidays to everyone! I'll be celebrating here in Winfield with my family for the next week. I obviously have Internet access (we have like six functional computers here), but unfortunately no computer capable of playing Civ IV, so I'm afraid you won't be hearing much from me on that point. Except to say that patch 1.52 came out earlier this week, so if you have the game (or get it for Christmas or Chanukah or Festivus or Capitalismas), be sure to run the update from the main menu. This patch is supposed to include huge improvements to memory use in the game, and early reports are that it resolves many performance issues people were having. Anyways, I'll probably blog once or twice in the coming week, and if any of my readers are in the Greater Wheaton Region, let's go out or something!

The other night I cancelled my subscription to World of Warcraft. I can continue playing a few more days without being charged, but I probably won't. I'll look on this experience as a bit of hands-on research and be glad I walked away with my shirt.

I was fascinated for a long time by the idea of MMORPGs. These games are the modern-day descendents of MUDs and MUSHs, which predate the Web and play prominent roles in some of the more exciting computer history books. These games, often fantastically themed, would seem a perfect match for me; they provide a fully constructed alternate reality, in which you can create your own persona and really lose yourself in the world, while still interacting with other (unpredictable) human players that keep the game from getting old.

Again, while I found the idea intriguing, our family didn't even own a modem until 1996, and the hourly charges (remember those?) kept me from investigating the idea. However, I knew I was doomed when I picked up a copy of "PC Gamer" and saw that there was a new game under development: Ultima Online, which took the mythos of my favorite franchise game and turned it into a living, breathing, evolving world governed by player dynamics.

This was the first time I had ever heard the term MMORPG (now often just MMO or Massive); UO was the latest innovative child of the MUDs, building on the promise of Meridian 59, which added a graphical frontend to the text-dominated features of earlier games. The more I read the more entranced I became. The game would be truly massive, with thousands of players together at the same time. Everything in the game would be dynamic; if players sold lots of animal skins in a city, the price of those skins would go down, which in turn would allow other players to pick them up cheaper and sew clothes with them, etc.

One of my favorite things about the Ultima series is how meticulously detailed and full the world has traditionally been. In Ultima VI, you can go into a field and pick cotton from plants. You can then go to a spinner and turn that cotton into thread. You can take that thread to a loom and turn it into a garment. You can do similar things like churn milk (collected from a cow) into butter, etc. Of course, almost nobody will want to spend all the time it takes to do those things; but the fact that the game ALLOWS you to do that helps make the entire world feel real. Because of this historic attention to detail, my hopes were high that the online game would provide an immersive experience, made even better by the other players. I was encouraged by information about all the skills present in the game. You didn't just have combat abilities; you could train in skinning, in forging, a variety of trade skills. Pompous press releases announced that players could lead entire lives as a shopkeeper or tradesman without once setting foot in a dungeon.

I was also intrigued by the backstory. The original Ultima game, from way back around 1980, featured an evil wizard named Mondain. At the end of the game you slew him and destroyed his magic crystal. According to UO, this crystal actually contained the world of Brittannia; when it shattered, each shard became a parallel universe, initially identical to each other but steadily diverging based on the choices made by each player. The events of Ultima II-VII (not really VIII) took place in just one of those, the canon or Avatar shard. In other shards, the Avatar never appeared, and the citizens of Brittannia needed to control their own destiny.

Man... now I'm trying to decide whether or not to get into Richard Garriot's moral philosophy and the System of Virtues. It's fascinating stuff but even less relevant to the topic at hand, so I'll let it go for now.

Anyways. In the UO shards, Lord British still rules Brittannia. He advocates the System of Virtues, a moral code by which its citizens should live. He is generally all about promoting Order. His best friend but ideological opposite is Lord Blackthorn, who fears the controlling, invasive aspects of British's philosophy and preaches freedom for the individual, loosely described as Chaos. Lord British has built Shrines for the Virtues; Blackthorn has constructed a Shrine to Chaos. They argue with one another about the best way, and meanwhile the people must choose for themselves how to go.

As plots go, it's a little loose - there's no "Evil people are taking over the world!" here - but I did like its open-endedness. After all, you'd want the game to keep on going, it wouldn't be much fun if, a week after it started, a ten-year-old in Indiana slew the Dark Lord and everyone's game ended.

UO seemed to be in development forever, but it finally came out. I saved up my money and bought... the strategy guide. Still wasn't sure how to play the game online, but I was so into it that I wanted to devour everything about it that I could. The guide had black-and-white pictures and I spent hours pouring over it, looking at different animals, examining the strength of weapons, trying to plot a skill path.

I finally figured out how to play the game without putting us over the hourly limit on ATT Worldnet, and picked it up. Like all Ultima games it came with a lovely cloth map of the world, as well as some extra goodies. I made a new account under my standard online handle, Cirion, chose a shard (Great Lakes), and started to play.

Like in most RPGs I played a rogue/thief character. My name was Cirion. My base of operations was in Vesper. Early on, I spent a lot of time wandering around and absorbing the world. I would chat with NPCs, sit in an inn, explore the city. I'd already read about the explosive threat of Player Killers, and didn't want to stray far from the city before getting stronger.

As my confidence grew, I traveled further afield. I went to Brittannia, the capital city, and explored Lord British's castle and Blackthorn's manor. I went to Minoc and traded with tinkers. In my most daring exploit, I stole a ship and sailed to Buccaneer's Den, a lawless city, in search of a guildmaster for the Thieves' Guild. (I never found one.)

I played on weekend nights for three or six months, and called it quits. It was an interesting experience, and I learned a lot about myself in the process.

The first was probably the most disturbing: I think I might not like people all that much. Oh, I like individual people a great deal, but taken as a mass, I'm less social than I thought. I'm quite shy in real life, and had just sort of assumed that, naturally, if I was interacting with others virtually that shyness would drop away and I would develop a gregarious and infectious alter ego. It turned out, though, that I was just as unlikely to strike up a random conversation online as I was in real life, and felt just as awkward when a stranger started chatting with me in Vesper as I would in Wheaton.

What's funny about this is, I really like role-playing. I had a blast for several years as both the GM and as a PC for a MERP campaign with some friends; I also enjoyed playing a character in several "How to Host a Murder" parties. In these cases I stepped outside my normal personality and play-acted at an extroverted personality, and had a lot of fun doing it. My experience with UO makes me think that this only feels natural if I'm doing it with friends, people who already know me; I get a kick from seeing them adjust to my new behavior, and I don't feel disengenuous because they know what I'm really like.

(A corrollary to this, though, is that while I think I'd have stuck with UO if I'd brought in some real-life friends, I also hate the scheduling and committments required to make that happen. I even saw this in the past when trying to schedule online games of Civ II with Justin and David; I wanted to do it and would nag them to play, but as soon as we set up a regular schedule to meet online, I instantly began to resent the [miniscule] intrusion on my schedule. This gets at something essentially selfish about me, that I wanted friends to be available when I wanted them, but didn't want to be available to them. I hope that I have matured since then in that regard.)

I also learned that, while immersive worlds can make games great, there has to be a game there first. This may seem self-evident to you but was a discovery to me. I'd always thought of Ultima's vibrant world as the key to its success, but they were really essential roots for a good game to grow out of. Consider Tolkien: his fantasy is the best because he fully realized Middle-earth before writing it; but if it wasn't for Lord of the Rings, nobody would bother to learn Sindarin. In UO, there was a world and there was a theme, but there was no grand action, no ultimate goal to reach. This is realistic, but not very much fun. It ended up being thousands of players running around, each doing their own thing.

Some particular memories from my time with UO include:
* Getting drunk in Vesper
* Seeing someone summon a demon in town and instantly getting zapped by guards
* Some jerk stealing my wand in Minoc and try to sell it back to me
* Stealing another jerk's bone armor outside Vesper, then running away from him for like 20 minutes
* Walking down a line of ships, trying to get into each one until I found one that was unlocked
* Talking with the guy who was holding like 2000 stone of gear for his guild
* Sailing to Buccaneer's Den with 1000 gold (guild entrance fee) and being really frightened of getting PK'd.
* Wandering around the guildhall, wondering where on earth the guildmaster was
* Massive crowds of people around every bank

So, I was glad to have done it, but I wasn't sorry to leave it behind.

In the intervening years, I've vaguely been aware of other MMORPGs as they are developed and executed, simply because I keep up with the gaming press and not because I'm very tempted to join. UO was the groundbreaker, they made all the mistakes, and every subsequent game has sought to improve on it. I watched in amazement as Everquest, which seemed to be some fantasy-themed fluff, zoomed in and dominated the industry. My senior year in college, a classmate's husband did much of the artwork for Planetside, a MMO FPS and an intriguing extension of the Massive philosophy.

The one game I was most tempted by never saw the light of day. In the late 90's, Sierra Online had the rights to develop a MMO based on Tolkien's Middle-earth. The team doing this work sounded incredible; they were true fans of Tolkien's work and wanted to create a game that was true to his vision, not just milk his name for extra cash.

One of the most controversial elements was handling death. Pretty much every MMORPG has a forgiving attitude towards death - you die, resurrect a short time later, and can retrieve stuff from your corpse. Tolkien's world has no allowances for such reanimation of dead tissue - when you're dead, you're dead. (The situation with elves is slightly more complex but essentially the same for game purposes.) And so they made the radical decision that, in Middle Earth Online, death would be permanent. When you're gone, you're gone.

Now, there are a couple of qualifiers to that - they basically had a system where, once your HP reaches 0, you are "knocked out". Animals and NPCs will leave you alone until you groggily recover. Other PCs have the option of actually killing you, at the cost of being branded as murderers (unless you are a criminal yourself, in which case they are doing good). While the press howled about this, I think it would have had a radical and compelling effect on the game. Death is far too lenient in gaming in general and MMORPGs in particular; MEO's system would have tied people to their characters, making them seem less disposable, and made people think more carefully before taking large risks with other players.

The whole issue became moot, though, when Sierra fired everybody on the project and brought in a completely new team to start over from scratch. I, along with other Tolkien-philes online (there are a lot of us), was outraged. In 2000, Sierra announced they were killing off the project altogether. My lament for Sierra will be yet another long and rambling post, but I view this announcement as the kiss of death for the once-amazing company. If they had kept with the original project, they would have launched in the heart of the frenzy over Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films, and might have saved the company from irrelevance.

Beyond MEO, though, I've never been tempted to even try another MMORPG; the bits I would read implied that the games were getting a lot more fun, but due to my inability to derive social satisfaction from them, they just didn't seem personally promising. I jumped back into the pool last month when some of my co-workers talked me into trying World of Warcraft.

(Actually, that isn't totally true: I did try another MMO for about 15 minutes, so I'm not sure if that counts. It was a really innovative free game called "A Tale in the Desert", and had absolutely no combat at all; you basically build up a society, literally, and seek to gain fame and reputation in ancient Egypt. Once again a fascinating idea whose innovation I applaud without personally finding it entertaining.)

I regularly read Penny Arcade, and knew how popular WoW was with them. That fact, combined with my regular desire to socialize with folks in the office, made me decide it was worth a try. I found out what server they played on, created a character, and started going.

As usual, I played a Rogue, this time a Gnome named Cirion. My officemates were great, shepherding me around with their much-higher-level characters for a while as I got used to the game.

Let's hit the positives first. The game is gorgeous, absolutely the best MMORPG I've seen. The interface is extremely clean and intuitive. There are keyboard shortcuts for everything. The quest management system is good. There's a good crafting system in place.

Now on to the problems. The biggest ones are with me, not the game: it was cool knowing other people playing the game, but I didn't know anyone at my peer level, and I wasn't going to ask anyone to start from scratch with me. I'd run around doing my quests and studiously ignore all the other newbies in the area.

My biggest issue with the game itself, though, was how combat-oriented everything is. Now, I'm told that this changes at higher levels, and since I only reached about level 10 I'll need to take their word for it. But in the game I was playing, nearly every quest was of the form "Kill seven X and take their hides!" There's a good crafting system, but even that was far too tied to combat, since all of your skins, cloth, etc. came from dead enemies.

And I hated the Rogue class. I'm used to rogues/thieves being interesting to play, stealth-based characters who avoid combat to reach their goals. WoW turns this on its head, making Rogues some of the most powerful characters. Oh, there are sops to traditional RPGs, like a "Stealth" and "Pickpocket" skill, but it's clear that all the creativity went into coming up with "combos" and "finishing moves" for one-on-one combat.

My favorite games are those with alternate paths to a goal. I fell in love with RPGs via Hero Quest/Quest for Glory, where you would take entirely different strategies depending on your character. In WoW, though, every strategy was the same: "Wander around until you find X. Kill it. Takes whatever it's carrying. Repeat if necessary."

So, that was that. To this day I'm still intrigued by the IDEA of MMORPGs, and as we see further specialization in this realm I grow more hopeful that I'll find a game I really like. When I do, though, I think it will be key to start the game with some people I know from real life, so we can explore the game together, have common experiences, and so on. Because going it alone just doesn't seem to cut it for me.

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