Saturday, August 22, 2015

Take 'em to School

A quick look at A Tale in the Desert's game map reveals locations cryptically labelled UArch or SArt or SHarmony. Schools and Universities taught the various skills your character would use (Architecture, Art or Harmony skills, for instance) and learning a new skill was a task in itself, most often requiring lugging various prepared resources to that location as "tuition."

ATITD is an old game. This routine will all sound alien to those who have only experienced WoW-clone MMOs in which every task is merely a disparate minigame unto itself. When the MMO concept still existed as that of a persistent world, giving life to that world meant lending its various landscape features meaning and presence. The distance you travel to such a location, your motivation for doing so, the difficulties you encounter on the way all contribute to outlining this action's place in the greater web of player interaction, to giving your actions meaning in that context instead of simply turning "skilling up" into yet another one of tens of thousands of superficial pats on the head handed to you automatically by the game client at every press of a button.

Bring it back. Bring back schools and NPC trainers as concrete locations in the game world; better yet, integrate them into the clan or faction conflict of any MMO. If you want to learn the best techniques for cooking fish, you should have to travel to the famed Floundering Monks of Hali But. If you want to add another power level to your Firebawl spell you should have to visit an officially barbecued Shrine of Fire and make offerings to Agni. Various schools of dart-throwing technique should inhabit seedy pubs in the goblin, dwarf or wookie slums of various cities scattered throughout the game world.

The details of how such locations can be conquered and held, their abundance and distance from each other, whether they are destructible, whether they should be made a part of player-built structures, all depend on the particular game. However, we need to shift our expectations in general. Our default position as customers should be that switching or improving your character's skills is an active process requiring interaction with elements of the game world tying into other aspects of gameplay like travel, crafting or PvP, not merely a perfunctory click in your skill window. Skilling up should be a deliberate action, something you plan and carry out with some chance of frustration, delay or failure, not merely something handed to you to make you feel bigger about yourself.

Do you organize your clan around holding a few local schools of magic and charge other players admittance? Do you as an individual wait until you can sneak into a University of Head-Bashing or do you give up and grab a couple of skills at the Academy of Shin-Kicking which your faction happens to control? Is your clan powerful enough and can you travel quickly enough to hold all three Schools of Marshmallow Magic scattered in the game world, thereby giving you a monopoly in learning the deadly art of Combat S'mores? Do you want to invest in building a Shrine to Sauron in your new castle or do you just not think you'll find enough geckos to sacrifice to make it worth your while?

It's just one more way to bring a persistent world to life, to make you give half a rat's ass about what you're doing instead of mindlessly clicking away until the next "you win" message pops up.
Come on Camelot, Unchain this.

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