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Virtually a World

Amongst the seemingly never-ending navel gazing prompted by any public mention of SWG (and especially the NGE), Steve “Moorgard” Danuser brings up a point that’s been rubbing me the wrong way for a while now:

Online games and virtual worlds are not the same thing. If you’re building an MMO, you better be sure which one you intend to make.

Funny. I thought virtual worlds WERE online games. I know, I know, the endless navel-gazing discussion of “game vs. world” that preoccupied myself and many of others for pretty much the first four years of UO’s conception, but that’s more political posturing than anything else (PvP! PK switch! Trammel noob!). What’s rubbing me the wrong way specifically, though, is that I think the waters are becoming very muddy as to what exactly makes “a virtual world”.

A lot of this, I think, is due to the current media fascination with Second Life. SL certainly isn’t a new type of game, but the media, eager for anything to hand their Winchell hat on for some good copy, consistently brings up SL as the next coming of the Holy Metaverse, a posture that is encouraged by its makers. (And why not? If you sell a game to just the subscribers of Wired magazine, you’re probably doing OK. Plus, you probably will only need servers on the West Coast!)  And the one thing constantly hammered home by SL’s analysts and avatars: it’s not a game. It’s a virtual world. Even the largest corporations are starting to get in on the act. And thanks to the constant drumbeat of this, I’ve seen more and more industry analysis that describes the differences between SL and its competitors and traditional MMOs as such:

The attention surrounding MMOs (massively multiplayer online worlds) has never been greater. But it’s not just role playing games along for the ride; non-game, avatar-driven virtual communities are just as popular, if not by more, and we’re not just talking Second Life here.

By that, GigaOM’s list (which is seriously flawed, by the way: Webkinz is listed and Neopets isn’t? Ooookay then.) is defining games such as Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin as SL-style virtual worlds. What does Habbo Hotel have in common with SWG? Anything at all?

Clearly, games like Second Life and Habbo Hotel and the like are social games. They exist primarily as chatrooms; some, like Club Penguin have game play, some, like Second Life, only have what the users bring with them. Are they virtual worlds, then?

What is a virtual world? Let’s roll back a bit and look at what comes to mind when people think of VWs like SWG and UO.

Open character development. Basically, you can make whatever character you can dream up.

Complex economy. Ideally players make, buy, and sell everything.

Few amusement parks. By that, I mean the guided gameplay familiar to MMO players. Amusingly, the few areas in SWG that tried to bring that kind of gameplay to the table were called “theme parks”. Ride the Sarlacc!

Players can harvest, make, and build. Crafting, in other words, and intimately tied to the complex economy. Most involve players building entire cities of their own design, as their online “home”.

Open player vs. player. Always a contentious topic, but advocates of Ultima Online especially point to its wild west atmosphere as a catalyst for community building.

And… that’s it? Did I leave anything out? We’ll come back to the list in a second, but most people would pick something from the above when describing why they like VW-style MMOs.

So, let’s look at a few games out today. Start with Eve Online. Open character development? Check. Complex economy? Oh lord, yes.  Players can harvest/make/build? Yep. Open PVP? The game’s main selling point. Most people agree that Eve is a VW-style MMO.

Next: Everquest (the first one.) Few amusement parks? Uh… the whole game’s an amusement park. Open PVP? Nope.

But it starts to get fuzzy after that. Players can harvest/make/build? Well… kind of, yes. Not the quickest path to the cheese, but you certainly can.  Complex economy? There’s a whole zone full of player-run shopkeeper bots. Open character development? At first glance, no. You’re a 20th level paladin. But at second glance? There’s a lot of post-max character development that’s been bolted on over the years. It might be an arguable point.

Let’s get even more heretical. World of Warcraft? Pretty much the same arguments I made for EQ, since it’s a direct descendant. The economy’s fairly shallow, but it’s certainly active. Player crafting is the most simplified ever seen in an MMO to date — yet that simplification encourages everyone to dabble in it. There’s no open PvP UO/Eve style, but factional and arena PvP certainly exists. Character development’s fairly closed… but try asking people about their talent builds sometime. Would someone actually argue the case that World of Warcraft was a virtual world?

So what the hell is a virtual world? Has the term been bandied about so much as a political punching bag that it’s now devoid of all meaning?

I’d argue that one primary feature of a virtual world is context. Simply put, everything has a reason for being there. Monsters aren’t in an area simply because it’s the level 20 to 30 zone, they’re present because something *pushed* them there. Players, or migratory fluxes, or whatever – some context has been added.  The game (and yes, they are still games, at least the type that we’re discussing) spends an inordinate time of not explaining how, but also why. And ideally, the players themselves start explaining the why.

And that brings us to the other primary feature of a virtual world: player ownership.  The players are the territory, to bastardize Marshall McLuhan. The collective creative mind of the player base can bring forth more compelling interaction than any non-VW MMO can ever hope to match. VWs have been – many times rightfully so – dinged for taking the carefree philosophy of “build it and they will come – and they’ll build it, so don’t build that much”. But it’s true. The best VW experiences haven’t been scripted gameplay, but gameplay frameworks. Toolkits for players to drive their own experiences, which often wildly diverge from what the game designer even conceived of.

Anyway, I’m sure almost everyone reading this disagrees. The passion that drives VW discussions tends to do that to you.