Friday, April 26, 2013

The Shifting Demographic - Omnipresence

The journey is part of the gift. Or the product.

Back when World of Warcraft first launched, it attempted to become the best MMO ever made, complete with meaningful PvP objectives and a game world that required players to plan their movements through it. Shocking, but true. The following anecdote dates from the first few weeks after release.

I was an elf playing with my mainly human guild off in the eastern kingdoms, making my way through the wetlands north of the dwarf starting area back to the port town which connected the game world's two continents. At the docks, who should disembark but a fellow elf who ran up to me and asked me if i could tell him how to get to Westfall because he needed to meet up with his guildmates in order to enter the 'Deadmines' instance.
My answer, it would surprise anyone who's used to the way things are now done in WoW-clones, was not "just click that button on your UI and you'll be instantly teleported there". I told him he'd have to walk east along the road until it turns south past the graveyard, keep south through the two tunnels then take the right fork past the dwarf tower, keep going to Ironforge then take the subway to the human capital of Stormwind, then ask for directions from the locals.

During my time in Azeroth, i killed tens of thousands of mean-lookin' monsters. According to overall game marketing principles, dat's s'pose'ta be my only interest. No activity could ever rival the sheer instinctive joy of hurting something to make oneself feel like a big man. Oddly enough, little moments like giving someone directions did a lot more for me than killing a hundred zombie bears. I'm weird that way. In fact, there used to be a lot more of us weirdos around cyberspace. MMOs were created by and for us, for the ones who wanted an entire world in which to escape. Part of this escape was size.

I mentioned in a previous post that the most popular advertising gimmick of early MMOs was sheer size. This was sometimes presented in terms of land area or number of solar systems but more frequently customers were brought in by the promise of lengthty periods of walking. "It would take you this many hours to cross the game world" was a big selling point. We reveled in our ability to get nowhere fast. It meant being part of something huge. It meant we had entered the matrix, an infinite world of ideograms. We wanted the promise of carving out our own corner of something too big for us to ever control. We understood that slow progress is meaningful progress, that it was the perspective of proportion which gave meaning to our virtual selves. That was the MMO before the concept was undermined, while it was still a niche product.

When WoW managed to break into the mass market and investors suddenly saw a chance to sell many, many more copies than they'd dreamt of before, one of the first mass-market consumer complaints was that it took too long to get anywhere. World of Warcraft was derided as "World of Walkcraft" because the average moron saw the journey as an unforgivable break in his routine of hurting things to make himself feel big. One of the first ways in which MMO designers pandered to the small-minded masses was by making every one of us into a Kwisatz Haderach, by letting us be in many places at once, by making teleporting the chief method of travel. Azeroth and everything that came after it became homogenized into triviality.

Nothing shrinks a persistent world quite like teleporting. If you're never more than ten seconds' casting time and a two-minute jog from anywhere, then that's the size of the game world. If everything is within a few hundred steps of a teleport location, then the world is only a few hundred steps wide. The persistent world in itself becomes only a waste of processing power. Distance that's unused is nonexistent distance. Size is meaningless.

Yet MMO customers still pay for that size. The justification for the subscription marketing plan was the maintenance cost of that gigantic world which would take hours upon hours to cross, and the justification is still being used even while the product no longer offers that feature. There is a zone in LotRO called Forochel, largely uninhabited by players because of its remoteness and relative irrelevance in the level-grind, and because unlike most places in LotRO, it still requires the player to traverse large distances. It is the great Arctic waste of middle-earth.

The important point is that it's not being used. Players pay to keep it online. The maintenance costs for the processing power required to keep Forochel and its hordes of yeti and polar bears online are not shouldered by the developers, but by the customers. That's a crucial distinction between the old nerdy audience and the mass market. Today's customers are perfectly happy paying for something they don't use just so they can pretend they're playing something with all that distance they never use. As bad as the old overcompensating geeks were in their desperation for a surrogate for real-world self-worth, as stupid as all the griefing and cheating and exploiting of ten years ago was, at least they weren't begging to get ripped off.

I was taking it for granted, and perhaps i should not, that anyone could recognize the various form of teleporting. If you get on a horse in LotRO and instead of clippity-clopping your way across the fields the game just skips to the destination, you just teleported. If there are a dozen solar systems in a line in EVE-Online and you can warp from the first to the last, you just teleported past ten of them. If your character in any game "travels home" to a preset location instantly, you're teleporting. It's a feature that can and should be used very, very sparingly, and currently it's being abused to no end.

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