A tale in the telling
During my last blog post I made reference to the comparison between the ‘grief’ spectrum and the ‘freedom’ spectrum in EVE Online and MMOs in general. If you’ve not had the chance to read that the tl;dr version is quite straight forward.
I argue that essentially the more freedom you give to players (e.g to blow each other up, scam each other etc etc) so you increase the ‘grief’ present in a game. The more protection you give to players (no death penalty, concord etc etc) so the greater the constraints you place them under in the game universe as a whole. A basic diagram of the spectrum is like this:
So far so, well obvious really. The question you’re probably asking is why would any MMO not opt for as much freedom as possible? Sure some players might cry a bit on dying but they’d soon get over it right? I mean it is just a game – right?
Well the answer as to why we see more ‘care/constraints’ in MMORPGs can be found in their geneology and nomenclature – these are, by their very nature mmoRPGs. Now I’m not going to get bogged down into when someone’s “role playing” and when they’re not but the MMORPG has its history (its Grandparents if you will) waaaaay back in those early dice rolling games like D&D. And those RPGs are born of something even older still: stories.
The RPG was essentially born out of a form of ‘story telling’. The games master scripted, designed and ad libbed a story based upon a rough plan and the subsequent actions of the players. Rules using various combinations of pen, pencil, dice and a large quantity of graph paper created consistency and framed what was, and what was not possible for the players and their opponents to achieve.
Of course, the digital MMORPG carries across a mass of similar concepts, your ship in EVE does X amount of damage, flies at Y speed and so on and so forth. The interactions of ship vs ship, trader vs trader within those rules are the “game” – much like chess or backgammon.
But what the MMORPG also dragged with it is the idea of a ‘story’ and most importantly your story. Admittedly most MMOs have been rather restrictive in this interpretation – your story will be much the same as anyone elses as it runs along on the rails of “Complete Quest A, then B, then C etc etc”. And their in lies the nub of the issue. If you want players to experience a tale in the telling, with a beginning, middle and end, you need to keep them (roughly) on those rails. Its no good building a players expectation that they will personally save the Damsel in Distress if, when they arrive, she’s already been saved but “y’know thanks for coming”.
Hence why we have constraints hard wired into MMOs. They enable a degree of control by the designer as to what content (another term for ‘story’) the player gets to experience. It’s also why “carebears” enjoying said story can get so upset when those elements are broken. Its the equivalent of finding someone’s ripped the last pages from the great book you were reading.
MMOs are popular not least because they are “games” – but because they have a deep rooted link into the players personal storyline. If you strip out the story, the tale, you’re left with the equivalent (in RPG terms) of:
“There are 3 creatures in front of you, with swords and an armour rating of 7”
What are they? Why are they in front of me? Where am I? WHO am I?”
We don’t ask these questions when we play say chess, or counter strike because they’re not relevant or even necessary. Our personal experience of the “game” doesn’t need a storyline to provide a context, mainly because the game will be too short (relatively speaking) to need one.
During extended ‘games’ like a football league, or chess championship you may well notice how commentators fashion a narrative around the individual game;
“Of course Jeff, Stevens here recently moved from his last club under a cloud but for a big fee…”
In some cases the surrounding narrative becomes even more captivating, and important than the actual game itself. If you’re not convinced of that take a look at the last 3 or 4 pages of any newspaper.
Within EVE a similar picture emerges, drawn from the eddies and currents that swirl through Null Sec. The great fleet battles become important paragraphs and chapters in their own right, personalities significant, tales of great victories and devastating defeats.
But these all need a framework in which to exist and to play out. If EVE was utterly freeform you would be safe no where, and ‘death’ would be final. You’d dock up for the night, only to log on the next day to find your character erased forever and the station you were in nothing but smoldering pixels. That might be fun for the first few days but as every time your ‘story’ started it got its pages ripped up before you really got anywhere – well it would get old, really really fast.