Steinhauer’s Opinion: To Be A Hero, Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two part series on this topic. Part one is available here.

Last time we looked at the evolution of adventure gaming from pen-and-paper to single-player to MMOs and how this change reduced the ability of players to become “the Hero.” With the elimination of a face-to-face game master and the introduction of a massive player base, it is not possible to attain the epic character story that could be achieved with paper and a handful of dice or even that of a single player computer RPG.

Though it isn’t feasible for an individual player to be the hero of the world in an MMO, there are avenues to allow gamers to stand out, parade their achievements, and feel like their contributions matter. The possible solutions are bound only by the creativity of game designers (and in some cases, the players). First, we’ll look at a few innovations that various games have introduced, and then well step outside the box and stretch those ideas further.

Achievement can be broken into two basic categories: fame and influence. As I considered the former, my time playing AC jumped quickly to mind. In the early days of AC, they introduced top ten lists. These were published about once a month and showed who had the highest rating in a particular stat by server. This had the benefit of instant recognition for those who were the most skilled in the world. Of course, the downside is that the achievement didn’t necessarily speak to actual player ability. Gaining skill proficiency, like gaining levels, doesn’t prove noteworthy competency. The advantage often goes to those who started playing the game sooner or those who’ve had more time to spend in game rather than those who truly are expert in a particular field.

Another method of achievement is through the use of competitions. Asheron’s Call had a story writing contest that generated over a thousand submissions and the top nine were placed in game as actual books players could purchase from vendors. Various games have introduced a wide variety of other contests with such topics as screenshots and cloak designs.

But recognition isn’t the sole property of game designers. Many guilds host contests, with the most popular being PvP matches. But that is only scratching the surface. For example, back when I played AC, my guild organized its own rank structure (outside the standard patron-vassal trees) which encouraged members to leading and participate in quests. The prize for advancement was the awarding of different colored robes for each rank. Admittedly, player-based fame, such as this, has the tendency to be more localized, but it does give the opportunity for increased prominence among the fellow gamers that you know the best.

As long as we’re speaking of guilds, reputation isn’t only for individuals. Most games don’t have easy ways for guilds to gain reputation among their peers, but a few guilds will inevitably rise to the top (or sink to the bottom). Fame is particularly easy to achieve when PvP is involved. The notoriety of KoC Blood on AC’s Darktide, for example, was so widespread that it had a high level of name recognition even on carebear servers.

Aside from fame, games also provide opportunities for gaining influence. By influence, I mean reputation with NPCs as opposed to among other players. This is done predominantly through factions such as those incorporated in WoW. The drawback of most reputation systems is that they are only glorified quest trees. The techniques of gaining reputation generally devolve to completing quests you were going to do anyway, or redundant farming of specific monsters for reputation based items.

Fortunately, some companies are pushing outside of this by allowing player actions to more tangibly affect the world. A prime example is Pirates of the Burning Sea’s merging of PvE with PvP. Gamers who don’t like head-to-head combat can still use their PvE gaming to unlock new PvE quests and these ultimately form new battlegrounds for those who enjoy PvP. While this doesn’t generate specific player influence or fame, it does mean a player’s actions have a direct outcome on the world.

So where can we go from here? As I said above, there are countless possibilities, but here are several. First, my allusion to guilds brings up a large void in the gaming world. There are very few avenues for guilds to game fame in MMOs except through player word of mouth. Wouldn’t it make sense to have quests for guilds, much like there are normal quests and group quests? Except in this case, the rewards wouldn’t be for the individual, but for the guild. Completion would yield rewards that provide the whole organization with fame or influence.

A second idea would be a melding of the two quest concepts introduced last article. Rather than having canned quests that everyone follows or having “dial-a-quest,” these techniques could be combined. The basic format would follow the canned quest method, but the exact goals and possible rewards could be different for each player as well. That way, every gamer isn’t completing exactly the same quest and ending up with exactly the same choices for equipment rewards. To use the opening story from Part I as an example, perhaps the lost item isn’t always an heirloom. It could be jewelry, a cloak, a weapon and so on. The player might have to kill a number of brigands for it, or search a brigand’s cart, or defeat a brigand leader. When completed one player chooses between a sword, a shield, and magic bracelet for their reward while another player has the choice of an axe, a pair of gauntlets, or a magic necklace. As long as the difficulty and reward values are equitable, a new level of uniqueness is attained. This concept wouldn’t improve fame, of course, but enhance the illusion that not everyone is doing the same quest over and over.

My last concept is inspired in large part by the Baldur’s Gate. One of the most intriguing aspects of that game was the special abilities that the character gained as they increased in level. Granted, many of these abilities were minor and largely insignificant, but they achieved one thing that MMOs struggle to reach: the feeling that your character stood out from the masses. The way to do this would be by imparting special and unpredictable bonuses to player characters. These would widely vary from character to character and occur with little or no player controlled input. The intent of this idea is not to impart fame or influence, but rather to give each character a sense of uniqueness. This would be somewhat different from WoW’s trait concept. Traits allow gamers to specialize their characters, but are selectable and thus popular trends are widely used. Unpredictable bonuses serve less to specialize than to emphasize individuality.

Just about everyone who plays a game wants the opportunity to stand out from his fellows. While it is clear that the heroic concept available in pen-and-paper and single-player computer games aren’t achievable in MMOs, there are mechanisms available to allow gamers to achieve uniqueness, fame, and the sense that what they do within the game matters to that world.

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