A View From the Road: MMOdern Warfare

A View From the Road: MMOdern Warfare

Can events in an MMOG be genuinely emotionally affecting?

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World of Warcraft had the chance and, in my opinion, missed it.

The Culling of Stratholme could have been a lot more harrowing than it was (although the fact I'd be surrounded by Gnomes screaming "LOL!!! We haxxord dat noob vilager!" at me would have diminished the experience) - Arthas didn't just fight zombies, he killed humans before they turned. If they'd added that in, your characters would have been responsible for killing human peasants that had no real idea what was going on.

The reward for killing civilians? Time doesn't implode. Or a nice piece of Paladin gear. Because that's all Mal'Ganis ever dropped when I ran him with my Warlock.

I think WoW kinda touched on this with the Wrath Gate, or at least if you played Horde. When you play Horde you actually help collect, text and deliver the new plagued that is used by Putress at the Wrath Gate which kills Bolvar and many Alliance and Horde soldiers alike.

Not actually innocent civilians, but kinda close.

Well in EVE, everyday, I consign thousands of soul's to the void of space just running mission's, blowing up ship's, or station's. I bell toll's within my soul for each of them.

As a result, I have a very active bell.

Can an MMO make a scene as affecting as that scene, no. Unless you want to run that same scene over and over and over again, and then you'd lose the shock factor.

As far as realism being important, I don't believe it is. If a Disney movie can pull you in, you don't need realism in a video game either. The difficulty lies in the artistry required for conveying emotional situations with the palette your given. In fact, the more realistic the graphics, the more difficult it is to elicit empathy from the player; everything is scrutinized even more and it doesn't require much to take a player out of the moment. Most players and developers think realism helps achieve believability and genuine emotion... and I think that is a huge mistake.

One thing I noticed was a common aspect in RPGs: you kill some innocent NPCs and your character becomes "evil". Whether you find that a consequence or not, in MW2 you don't grow Fable-esque devil horns during No Russian. You can't even speak (something capable in MMOGs, assuming the other players are humans and not NPCs). The only thing that changes is the reflection you cast to yourself: what was my reaction when I was playing the level? I don't have horns on my head. I didn't get any loot, in fact no one judged me in any way. So what's the negative aspect? These are some real questions, and I'm glad that gaming has progressed as a mediuem to allow this kind of thinking.

OT, I think the mixture of many of MMOG's aspects: bunch o' players + anonimity + lack of realism, would create an enviroment where it is hard to challenge the player's ethics.

WoW example, #3: There's a quest in the chain with Arthas' heart, the one where Matthias Lenher leads you on amerry romp through Icecrown. In this quest, you take the role of Prince Arthas Menethil(Death Knight edition), and you have to kill and raise 100 of your own, loyal soldiers as mindless ghouls. I actually enjoyed that part, since I've always been intrigued by what it would be like to play as the Scourge(DK intro notwithstanding). But it's about as close to what you described as MMOGs can get.

Of course it's possible, you just have to do it the right way. And you don't have to remove a reward, you just have to make the reward suitable.

Say you copy-paste that scenario into an MMO. The reward is, you get to start a new questline, and join a new group. The terrorists. You get to earn their trust, and work your way up. Since it's an MMO, you should get more of a choice, so you might even do it because you agree with the terrorist group.

If you put a decision like this into a game, at all, especially one that is less linear than a movie (ie more than a single outcome to every scenario, including battles, that have a persistent effect on the world, or you character, unlike, oh, just about every game released), it should be very thought through. You should be able to examine it from the terrorists side, you should be given the oppurtunity to understand why they do it, and wether you agree or not, you should be able to act on it.

So, let's put it in an example. We have a new, shiny MMO. It depicts a battle between the two warring groups known as the, say, Siblings of Joy and the Family of Happiness, because they really like their own people, and their own values, and really dislike each other.

They live on a space station each, because they're in the future (and this way, we only have two locations we need to care about). Since this is a war we're depicting, and we want to make sure it feels like one, we make some changes to normal MMOs. If someone dies, they die, for real, but you can transfer your consciousness into a new body. This comes with major losses though, of all worn gear, and lots of skill degradation, death isn't cheap, after all, but we don't want to remove all of the fun (you can choose to start a new character instead, of course). Both sides also have a limited number of people on each side, after a while you're going to run out of respawns, one side is going to win, and the server restarts (or moves on to the next stage/station/whatever).

Now we make some guilds, or smaller factions. You can join them to start a certain profession, get a series of quests, improve your standing. We have warriors, we have medics, we have diplomats, we have spaceship builders. We want the player to have a real choice. And we have more hidden groups. We have resistance fighters, who like the other side better (living in Station Joy and liking Family Happy, for example), and we have the aforementioned terrorists.

The players can join the terrorists, they can initiate a series of quests that takes them on this very mission, they sneak aboard the opposing station, and they capture the hangar. Everyone who was there, wether npc or player is stuck. Even if they disconnect. We copy the scene from Modern warfare. Now comes the hard part. We need to build up the tension, and we need to do it without having players break character, or start screaming lol, or try bunnyhopping, or whatever. So, we take away their power. A lot of it. We've already made sure people don't want to die, and if they have to really concentrate to stay alive, they're going to focus (hopefully). We need to make it tense for both sides, both sides need to be able to fail, and we need to do it without the invaders just shooting everyone. So we say they need hostages. They don't know how many, but if the hostages get too low, they get stormed from outside. We also give them options to defend themselves. The defenders will have to hope someone comes along and saves them, or that they can find a way to defend themselves.

The motivation for the player will still be a bit of similar, you get a reward, and that's a problem, at least for the invading side. We have to make them care about the war first, like WoW players with Horde and Alliance. The defending side is already putting their lives at stake. If we have people taking on the role of the guy in Modern Warfare, they're already set. They have the same motivation as that guy, but this time, they're not killing off civilians, they're killing off their friends.

It wouldn't have exactly the same effect as Modern Warfare. Those terrorists are designed to be bad guys, and nothing else. Here, you'd have to make them more believable, easier to sympathize with, but the results would be the same. People would still die, and that's what you're going to have to stick with. It's a horrible act, but it might be the thing that wins the war. Is it still worth it?

I could go on, add more details, and such, but I've droned on long enough already, and this is already a bit jumbled, since I jumped between different issues while writing it (I think I sorted them out though, so they're at least collected, jumbled thoughts). I think I at least touched on all the points in the article.

MMOs have always intrigued me, they should be a very good tool for storytelling, for immersion, since it's other people around, but that's also the problem. A single idiot can screw up your amazing game, all tension, all atomsphere. A single habit, bunny hopping, strafing, whatever, can instantly single out a player, and tell you that you're in a game, every time. Despite this, I think it should be explored, as MMOs have a unique position to explore moral issues in games. In other games you kill a bunch of pixels, in an MMO you kill an avatar, you steal from an avatar, and a plot for revenge doesn't have to be scripted in advance, it's a player chasing you down.

Anyway, I'll just leave it at this, for now.

I don't know about MMOs, primarily due to the problem the writer mentioned - as soon as some prepubescent powergamer cracks a "lol," any immersion is shattered.
But it can certainly work in any multiplayer game where the players are willing to roleplay. Playing hostage rescue on Rainbow Six: Vegas, any tabletop RPG, even CS:S - if the players are willing to suspend the idea that they are playing a game, then almost any emotion can be invoked. In single player RPGs, the players often find themselves genuinely caring about the characters and plot - compassion, courage, even stronger emotions like love and hate can come into a well-written game.

Part of the reason this tends to work better with single-player RPGs is that rewards are less tangible than MMOs, and the same applies for The Airport Scene. In singleplayer MW2, I don't know if you get experience or points for kills (I have yet to play it), but I guarantee the game doesn't reward you for scoring a headshot on an unarmed commuter. So for such a scene to work in an MMO, rewards would have to be equally intangible / nonexistent.

To continue with Silver's example, there would have to be no reward for the terrorists' mission, at least not directly - no loot, no experience, not even an arbitary score to compare with other terrorist parties - the only reward would be the slow advance of the faction's goals.

Anyhow, I am now also rambling, so I'll leave it at that.

What does and does not create an emotionally effecting experience is very hard to define. An interactive cinematic like the airport scene from modern warfare is one way to do it. But there are other ways some more suited for a MMO. For example a key quest giver could be removed permanently from the servers due to community actions or inactions. For example: due to the lack of volunteers for the defense of Village X it has fallen to the enemy. What could be more dramatic is if displaced refugees started clogging up other towns and asking the player "why didn't you protect us?"

Of course I don't play MMO's so this is pure speculation.

If a quest-giver offered me a green item for gunning down civies at the airport, I could easily see skipping that quest for being in bad taste. But if the quest-giver offered me a purple or even a good blue, which saves me hours of honor farming or raid politics, oh hell yeah, they are just toons after all.

This point is relevant... as I think it is important to differentiate interactive movies from games. MW2 singleplayer is an interactive movie. MMOs are games. In interactive movies, there is only one way it plays out, you closely follow a script, and the "gameplay" solely consists of using the right controls and hitting the right buttons to move you forth in the movie. In a game you are presented with a challenge, and you use strategy and skill to solve that challenge. You have freedom to play as you see fit, and skillful efficient play distinguishes you from poor play. In MMOs the game is to empower yourself. Your score is your gear. There are many many ways to go about it.

In an interactive movie, like a regular movie, you can be handed situations that generate a sense of horror. You are powerless over the story, except in this particular case, to opt out of it. In MMOs you write your own story.

MMOs are possibly the most emotionally affecting genre out there. The thrill of the high roll on that epic you always wanted, or selling an item in the auction house for several hundred gold, or telling your teammates what to do in a close game in Alterac Valley, and they listen and do it, and your leadership carries that game from a loss to a win. These are a few of the greatest joys I've had in gaming. Likewise I've met with nearly equal amounts of aggravation. Fear? Meh, it's kind of hard to be afraid sitting in front of your computer screen. Horror? Meh, you write in guild chat: "OMFG I can't believe this quest! Can you believe what they want me to do?!?"... and people who have already done it joke about it, and you get some support from your m8's, and it's all good.

Ah geez, long post, but big question. But I agree the answer is "no." There is too much friendly support and too much choice in an MMO to really be affected by such a thing.

This was a nice article. It was talking about the whole airport scene as something passing, neither for nor against it, but with a whole new discussion topic.

I did find the scene rather effective in its purpose, tho I'm a sucker for emotionally driven stories =}

Silent but Violent:
To continue with Silver's example, there would have to be no reward for the terrorists' mission, at least not directly - no loot, no experience, not even an arbitary score to compare with other terrorist parties - the only reward would be the slow advance of the faction's goals.

Anyhow, I am now also rambling, so I'll leave it at that.

If pulled off correctly though, you should be able to shower the players in rewards, they can steal every single ship in the hangar, the money of all the civilians, all the weapons in the armoury, and when they returned home they'd be showered in even more gifts, but the scene itself would be so powerful, so emotional, any player would want to turn them down.

Of course, that's purely in the realm of fantasy. I can dream that that might happen, as a developer, but I can't trust it to, at least not in an MMO.

Fearzone:
This point is relevant... as I think it is important to differentiate interactive movies from games. MW2 singleplayer is an interactive movie. MMOs are games. In interactive movies, there is only one way it plays out, you closely follow a script, and the "gameplay" solely consists of using the right controls and hitting the right buttons to move you forth in the movie. In a game you are presented with a challenge, and you use strategy and skill to solve that challenge. You have freedom to play as you see fit, and skillful efficient play distinguishes you from poor play. In MMOs the game is to empower yourself. Your score is your gear. There are many many ways to go about it.

Another VERY important difference is that you'd be given a choice. In MW2 you can do nothing different, not a single thing changes the outcome. In an MMO you can see the quest, and just walk away.

To really suceed, you have to succesfully talk the player into doing it, first, against their morals, or convince them it's the right thing to do, and put them in the shoes of real terrorists (who aren't cartoon characters, but real people who believe they're right), and still make them suffer for it, not because of some karmic penalty, but because they'll know, and feel, for themselves, how wrong what they're doing is.

That's also in the fancy dreams cathegory though.

Not only is it possible, it's been done.

Seer Marino Arc in City of Villains. Captain Aeon in City of Heroes. The Sundering in Guild Wars. The first time you go up against Bertoxxulous or the Sleeper in Everquest. Hell, the first time you step out of the Vault in Fallout 3.

Graphics and animation simply don't venture into this as a good game takes you way past anything that the current wave can produce.

The people who played 3D Monster Maze back on the ZX81 had black dots to be scared of.
Watch people wince as the shields scream on the way into the Corolius Space Station on Elite, despite it only being wire-frames.
Watch them turn into the corners on Outrun, cry when Aeris dies, or shudder in anticipation against Wolfgang Krauser on Fatal Fury 2.

As long as you can keep the belief suspended, you can be taken to any height or depth.

And it's not just deep emotions, try doing the Kelethin Treetop run while drunk.

When you're limping towards the safe room in L4D and you suddenly hear heavy breathing, does your heart jump to your mouth for a moment? There's your emotion. It's just about caring enough for the character; and MMOs do that wonderfully.

Silver:
MMOs have always intrigued me, they should be a very good tool for storytelling, for immersion, since it's other people around, but that's also the problem. A single idiot can screw up your amazing game, all tension, all atomsphere. A single habit, bunny hopping, strafing, whatever, can instantly single out a player, and tell you that you're in a game, every time. Despite this, I think it should be explored, as MMOs have a unique position to explore moral issues in games. In other games you kill a bunch of pixels, in an MMO you kill an avatar, you steal from an avatar, and a plot for revenge doesn't have to be scripted in advance, it's a player chasing you down.

This is something I'm exploring at the moment, and it's an interesting question;

Would you feel better, worse, or the same if the civilians you were gunning down in that airport were other people playing characters? The people who enjoy "pwning low level noobs" are twats the minority - most people just want to leave people to play their own game.

Also, on an even more simple route, what if the quest had you going to the enemy starting area to gun down starting players? You run the risk of revenge attacks on your side, a city or two being raided and all trade being halted for anything up to half an hour (a long time when you're paying a subscription...). Maybe a major quest hub or two gets wiped out for the same ammount of time, possibly even longer if the high levels on your side are too arrogant to help? Maybe even your side's starting areas being attacked in retaliation.

What if the quest sent you to your own starting area? While some people might shrug, respawn and try to avoid you until your little rampage was over, you run the risk of pissing off some people so much that they quit your side entirely - that's less fighters on your side (and potentially more on the enemy's...) if it's a PvP game, and is that worth it if it helps you progress in the ranks of the enemy organisation to infiltrate them more on the understanding that you might be able to do more damage to them later?

Ahhh I love this concept - people are so much more fun than AI.

I don't think attacking starting players would result in anything more than frustration, and people not bothering to get into the game. The start needs to be really fun, and getting caught in a hostage situation, and seeing the consequences, and excitement of it could be great, but it should be something you enter into, wether you stumble into it, or voluntarily seek it out, but it should be something you encounter, not something that's waiting for you when you start the game.

Transportation is a good thing. What if you arrive to the new town on an airship (or whatever you travel on in WoW, or whatever) and find yourself trapped? Or you want to leave your current location and find the airport is under hostile control?

Being able to switch sides, and infiltrate the enemy are things I really like. Having the quest to seek out the traitor on your side, whoever is feeding the enemy information could be really exciting. I think more quests should involve player interaction, stealing from an npc is no fun, and has no consequences, breaking into the vault of the enemy, and running off with their cash... The consequences, and follow-up quests write themselves. You add a new quest for the victims, so they have to find whoever did it, and so on.

By having a lot of quests like that building animosity between the two sides, and cooperation on the own side bringing them closer together (what if someone on your side got the mission to track down the thief, and returned your items to you?), a terror attack like the one described would have a much greater impact. If you time it correctly, you'll know the people there. You'll have outsiders on both sides, hearing about the situation on the news, knowing the people there. Wanting to get in on the action, to get over there, and save their friends. Yeah, I think it can be done.

If you want even more of an emotional impact, limit people to one server, and boot them to another one when their character dies. Maybe with a time limit (a day?), maybe not. Do it correctly and you can cycle players through your servers. Sure, it's a bit cruel, sort of. But it drives the point in. If someone dies, they're gone. A terrorist attack like that is going to kill a lot of people, and the people who are dead, they're going to be gone. People you've played with for days, weeks, months, gone.

Maybe that's too much, maybe as a hardcore mode? I don't know. But it would certainly have an impact.

Chipperz:

Also, on an even more simple route, what if the quest had you going to the enemy starting area to gun down starting players? You run the risk of revenge attacks on your side, a city or two being raided and all trade being halted for anything up to half an hour (a long time when you're paying a subscription...).

Not too engaging a concept here; in MMOG's, death is merely a setback. Its not much fun in starter areas in the first place; being forced into severely mismatched PvP would be an early straw that breaks the camel's back. For this to have any empathetic impact, death would have to either instill a permanent effect, or one that is far displaced from the normal gaming experience. MMOG's are linear in the manner that you can only act and grow while alive; death is, at most only a setback to your abilities or time.

Running with your idea of higher leveled players attacking lower leveled players at some point in time, 99% of the time the results are, with the given conditions, many newbs dead, and few to no pros dead. But if newbs have to die, they need a good reason to continue playing the game; being forced to start over because of another player's whim over is unfairly arduous. Death could bring about a new world to continue from; (in line with a fantasy world) New skills, different mechanics, etc. would be available to players now in this world of 'death'. Since you've been in the world of 'life' previously, a method to return would most likely have to also be in order. I would even gander that the newbs who manage to survive the onslaught have some positive reward for survival.

Edit: Its been touched on before, but a main factor that has MMOG's up to this time have been unable to deliver an 'emotional' impacting aspect like MW2 can is player exploitation. From spoilers to farming methods, when people get together, the game changes (ESRB knows this, you should too).

SWTOR migth be able to pull it off with those flashpoints if they really tried (and maybe gave the game a graphics upgrade to make it more realistic).
For those who don't know what flashpoints are, there you go.
http://www.swtor.com/media/trailers/developer-walkthrough
The part on flashpoints starts at round 9:45

Even if i didn't find the airport scene from COD6 was that traumatic and physically intense some things from wow wore sort of disturbing. Like the death knights starting quest. Kill 10 civilians and 10 farmers.
While they wore screaming at me things like
"NO, please i have a family"
and
"Please don't want to die!"
I sort of felt satisfied with myself and proud of my accomplishment even if a had killed 20 year old girls.
I found that scene extremely sickening and i did not think i would be able to think in that way.

Good points all around. I agree sir, I agree!

p.s. nice to see i'm not alone in "not having MW2 yet." Im close to folding. where as i know the PC version is gimped (too many "its so laggy" testimonials) Getting it for me PS3 mite not be a bad idea XD grr but i want a mouse for shooting T.T

There was mention of EVE here, and I think that's the best example.
Heck, they even did a study on the spread of viruses in MMOs that turned out well. It's a lot of people in a game world, and things can change rapidly. But as has been said, the thing that's missing is consequence. I shot an RPG at my feet once just so I could laugh at the outcome. There's no easy way to get a feeling of fear or hatred in a game that has no script whatsoever, such as EVE.
Wonder if it might be interesting for CCP to put together an enormous evil AI fleet, attacking stations and everything, and have them stampede through EVE's systems in an attempt to get everyone to gang up on them.

ill pull the trigger on anything. i have no problem with that mission. i also have no problem executing people in MP who arent paying attention.

Thank you, Mr. Funk, for not just bowing down before the almighty MMO and saying, "Of course an MMO can portray this type of scene, MMO's can do anything that any other medium can." I still disagree with you on whether they can tell an effective story, but I agree with almost every point you made in this article.

WNxSajuukCor:
I think WoW kinda touched on this with the Wrath Gate, or at least if you played Horde. When you play Horde you actually help collect, text and deliver the new plagued that is used by Putress at the Wrath Gate which kills Bolvar and many Alliance and Horde soldiers alike.

Not actually innocent civilians, but kinda close.

The forsaken at Venomspite have you go out to the scarlet enclave base because they had captured some forsaken civilians, but you don't go to rescue them. They want those forsaken dead so that they can't be used by the enemy.

Let me recap this, there are perfectly healthy forsaken in cages at the scarlet enclave base and they want you to kill them.

its already been done in MMO's there are a couple of examples i can think.
Caverns of time: Stratholme in world of warcraft has you aid a young prince by the name of arthas in saving a village from a disease that creates undead. the issue is that the young prince goes around and kills every human being around him to prevent them from contacting the disease.

the conversation goes something like:
civilian: "Hooray the prince is here, the prince will save us!"
prince: *kills civilian*

and you HAVE to help him. you cant turn around, and kill him, and protect the innocent. you HAVE to help him, if you dont and he dies, the universe collapses and all that jazz.

the instance really left a bad taste in my mouth that hasnt gone away to this day, altho i have a feeling that coming 3.3 when i actually get to kill arthas ill feel better about it.

another example is Drak'Tharon Keep and the Drakuru questline.

so you have this troll that asks you for help getting back his homeland. you say yes, get 4 friends with you go in, and for some reason you see trolls running away from the keep which is kinda like "wtf they're not even attacking me" but you move past them, enter the instance, kill everyone in the instance, summon the troll who's "homeland" it was just to find out that he was actually one of the bad guys agents, and you just killed a lot of innocent trolls just to give the castle to the bad guy.

 

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