Understanding Video Games text-book
Cry Freedom

Date posted: May 14, 2002
Updated: Jan 1, 2007

By Jonas Heide Smith (smith@game-research.com)

For designers of online role-playing games, free choice seems to be all about choosing a character class. Their worlds are static and narrative shallowness is all around. It’s a shame, really.

Standing outside Audliten, on a frightfully stormy night, I realized that I was bored. Not, perhaps, bored in the existential suburban-shopping-mall sense but still I found my mind straying from the virtual road in front of me. But why? It was, after all, a rather nice-looking road. Through wonderfully detailed trees I could see the ominous moon rising, showering the mysterious land in the glory of digital eerieness. No, it wasn’t the land at all, the land was fine. My boredom ran deeper.

camelot.jpg
Pretty sights, but rather static: Dark Age of Camelot (Mythic, 2001).

It had all begun a few days before. Having made my way into a massively multiplayer online role-playing game I was utterly thrilled with the possibilities of virtual worldmaking. The concept of MMORPGs, after all, is one to blow your mind: An entire fictitious world populated with sentient beings (some more than others) and with the prospect of narrative interactivity the likes of which the world has arguably never seen.

Boring? Well, not to begin with. Gender-bending, the phenomenon that has caused such a stir among a certain breed of researchers, was kind of fun. My female rogue was treated altogether gallantly by noble knights and indeed endowed with riches that were the envy of many a fellow male traveler. Yup, virtual life was good and I soon found myself at the ninth level of experience having slain my share of vile monsters and other things that go aargh in the night. And then it dawned on me. Well, actually I had to be told to really get it.

“She spawns around midnight”, a particularly weirdly dressed but impressively spell-wielding gnome informed me, referring to a nasty monster that reputedly plagued the countryside. What it means? It means that it is all a scam. It means, if I may put it slightly pretentiously, that my freedom within the game was first and foremost an illusion.

Exit consequences. On the night before another adventurer (or probably several) had been given the exact same please-brave-traveller-only-you-can-save-our-town speech by the same desperate villager. The monster would ‘respawn’ every night and an endless stream of rewards would be given. I could do whatever I wanted, and the world would remain the same. My choices were - in a very important sense - without consequences. I could never leave my mark on the beautifully rendered 3D world. And so, I quit.

My point, of course, is this. What cowardly impulse can make game designers and investors, standing at the brink of revolutionary meaningful interactivity, shy away and come up with worlds that reset every night? Is it not a teethgrindingly absurd decision to basically eliminate all that is interesting about such a place - the emerging social structures, the possibility for a spontaneous economic system, the very basis for self-organising epic narrative? My answer would be yes with a vengeance.

So, why do they do it? I suggest that there are three major reasons with some degree of overlap:

* Control: You are a designer and you want to create an experience for people. Much money has been spent so you cannot allow for failure - you must be in control. You never know how players would act if they really were granted control over anything important.

* Conservatism: You don’t want to be revolutionary. You want to be rich - or more idealistically, just to make a game which is an improvement on the competition.

* Cowardice: You don’t know what would happen. Perhaps you’re afraid (perhaps rightly so) that not all players would have an agreeable experience in a world where balance was bound to get out of hand.

To avoid displeasing some, the freedom of many is taken away. It may make commercial sense, but it also makes for an altogether inconsequential experience.

So, how do I feel about having left my rogue standing in the drenching rain on that moonlit road? Not angry, really. Perhaps even relieved to have challenged the allegedly addictive MMORPGs and lived to tell the tale. But I am disappointed that mind-numbing design opportunities are so blatantly ignored.

Give me freedom or give me good old-fashioned shooters I can trust.

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