Alphabet Soup

Alphabet Soup
M is for Massive

Brendan Main | 13 Oct 2009 11:49
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From its outset, the idea of massive gaming has never seemed to entirely fit the reality. It began as a mythic chalice of game design, more hype than fact, spurred on by the promise of something truly colossal on the horizon. Servers creaked under the burden of Brave New Worlds, with Brave New Numbers to match. But today, increased connectivity has turned massive gaming into something of an inevitability. Massive games are now so pervasive that they face the opposite problem - there simply aren't enough players to populate the glut of similar games that have sprung up.

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Though the number of dedicated players of massive games is enormous - and by all accounts growing - it is also finite. Where massive games were once a novelty, there is now a plethora, a lone cluster of stars transformed into a multiverse. And here lies an irony of design: The spaces built to accommodate our gaming have grown so big as to be cavernous, swelled so full as to seem curiously vacant. In an unplayed MMORPG, the only thing that's massive is the silence.

There is something oddly melancholic about visiting these abandoned games. It's like walking through a ghost town - all around you stand enormous edifices, once hubs of life, now derelict. In the corners scamper a few stragglers who continue to nibble away at the game like vultures picking at the last bits of a carcass, but even those diehards are dwarfed by the empty space. In the midst of all this stark nothingness, a lone NPC stands, a solemn witness to a passing era. As if oblivious to the entropy surrounding him, he beckons you over.

He wants you to go kill some rats.

As pitiful as these failed games are, they serve to dispel a massive myth: that if you build it, they will come. If an empty game is massive in no sense of the word, it casts the meaning of the term even further in doubt. Is a game massive in premise or in execution? Are ideas of what makes a game massive simply hypothetical, or defined by actual function? It's at this point that questions of massiveness skirt from design to community and become practical considerations rather than simply market buzzwords.

Just as classically massive games have mushroomed, so too have other models of gaming expanded to include connectivity and persistence, smudging the definitions even more. How do we classify games like Nintendo's Animal Crossing, which couple chiefly solitary gameplay with the type of continuous gamespaces that were once a hallmark of massive play? Though this experience of continuity is largely an illusion - the game only appears to persist between play sessions - it raises questions concerning the riddle of virtual existence: If a weed grows in town, and there's nobody around to see it ...

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