The Dynamic World: MMORPG 2.0

Posted by archiveDNA on Tuesday Mar 27, 2007.

Aaron Smith goes by the handle "Lindorn" and started his MMORPG career with a brief stint in Dark Age of Camelot before moving to his first full-time game, Shadowbane. He has since developed an indepth philosophy on game design. Lindorn embraces player versus player combat and dynamic strategic elements as the central elements behind his enjoyment of MMORPGs. He is the active guild leader of the Dark Carnival gaming community since 2004 and is currently studying film at Brooks Institute of Photography in Southern California.

The Dynamic World:MMORPG 2.0 by Aaron

With World of Warcraft smashing its way onto the MMORPG scene in 2004, the massively multiplayer online world carved itself a place in mainstream entertainment for a long time to come. In January ’07 Blizzard reported 8 million subscribers for World of Warcraft, and new gamers continue to subscribe every month. A large number of game developers are continuing to enter the market, but few of them offer anything different, and are therefore unlikely to capture a part of a market that now claims over 15 million total subscribers.

Our greatest stories can be traced long ago to a tribal campfire. It wasn’t Homer, Shakespeare or Steven Spielberg that created the heart of these stories—it was all of us.

With Web 2.0 changing the way we think about social communities and online interaction, many a developer’s blog or gaming community forum has touched on the subject of the dynamic world and the future of MMOGs. What is a dynamic world? It builds upon the idea of the persistence of a game such as World of Warcraft, but adds the idea of an evolving environment: they are games that change and can be changed. For many the dynamic game world seems the next logical step in RPG’s. This article will capture the spirit of the dynamic world and give examples of MMORPGs that have followed this path in the past and have enjoyed the most fanatically loyal player bases of any games. It will also explore the pieces of the dynamic world puzzle in all of their digital and social forms, including their ties to human nature. The dynamic world concept holds incredible potential for both gamers and developers alike, carrying with it the promise of immersing players in a long-term and interactive setting by allowing them to both experience and create the content of the game world.

There are varying definitions of the phrase "dynamic world", but it is widely accepted that a dynamic world is a world that changes over time. Even this definition is a little sketchy though, as an instanced dungeon changes over time as well and could be considered part of its respective game world. For this article we will take a dynamic world to mean a persistent, changing game world that all players share simultaneously and continuously. We will address many intricate aspects of dynamic worlds, specifically player interaction and the viability of such interaction from a design standpoint.

The most simplest aspects of a dynamic world are those built into the world itself. A changing weather system (snow, rain, hail, fog, etc), seasons, and constellations and planetary movements are prime examples. Migrating monster spawns or camps also fall into this category. These things and more are examples of dynamism in a virtual world from an environmental standpoint (created by the developers). However, these are entirely the result of developer guidance, rather than player-driven change

We can classify player driven change in a game world in two categories: constructive (the creation of new cities, items and places) and destructive (the overthrow of a city, elimination of a threat, etc.). There have been several MMOG’s in the past that have implemented some of these ideas into their game worlds, and many more that have claimed to have a dynamic world simply to attract more attention. Some examples of virtual worlds with dynamic elements are seen below. Many of the listed games have received a comparatively minor amount of player and developer attention in the past.

Virtual worlds with some dynamic elements:

Ultima Online (Origin) — Allowed players to purchase houses or fortifications (such as towers, forts and castles) and place them on flat land in the game world. Players could create the equivalent of crude towns by placing these structures close together. This effectively created a dynamic element during game play. However players could not destroy the assets of another player, removing any possible "destructive change".

Shadowbane (Wolfpack) — Players could construct their own cities around a "spawn" point called a "tree of life". Cities could be placed nearly anywhere on the map and would be recorded onto a dynamic map of the world that would display information about the cities sphere of influence, population, etc. The tree of life protected the buildings around it from outside destruction, effectively making them immune to attack except during a declared siege. Sieges were initiated with a "bane stone" that would negate the tree of life’s power at a time of the defenders choosing. Players could also place siege engines and wall defenses. Later in Shadowbane’s development a resource system was implemented that placed many mines all over the world that could be controlled by players to collect resources for crafting. A territory control system was also implemented that allowed players to claim pieces of the map under the banner of their guild for certain distinct bonuses and titles.

Star Wars Galaxies (SOE) — The developers introduced player owned cities into the game that contained a function that allowed them to police their own territory, although the implementation changed schizophrenically over time. Initially, a /citywarning command was present that forced outside players to leave the premises under pain of attack. After complaints that these city functions were helping certain factions "choke" vital content areas, the /citywarning aspect was removed, effectively making player cities free ground for all. Instead, SWG relies on its implementation of the factional (Empire vs. Rebel) system. Most Star Wars Galaxies buildings are unassailable (such as player housing, cantinas and the like), but SWG also features factional fortifications such as turrets and bases which will defend against the opposite faction and may also be raided and destroyed by the enemy.

Eve Online (CCP Games) — In Eve online players can claim realms of space as their respective territory and construct player run space stations within the area. Players can also mine resources from asteroids to later use during starship construction.

Second Life (Linden Labs) — The application drew major attention in 2006. Although some claim it does not classify as game due to the lack of any sort of point system, win/loss factor, or "end game" it has attracted a large group of subscription based users. The world is as close to dynamic as a mainstream online application has reached up until this point. Users can add content into the game and even maintain intellectual property rights over it. They can also design and place buildings and develop art through other avenues within the program.

It must be noted that the trend in MMORPG’s has been toward instanced game worlds in recent years, as it solves a number of design snags that developers have had on their plates in previous games. Since the goal of most mainstream MMORPGs has been primarily to focus on in-depth environmental content such as intriguing storylines or epic monster encounters, the idea of a PvE based monolithic (one piece) environment has been discarded. Gaming enthusiast Mike Rozak explains the reason for this:

A monolithic reality doesn’t work well for virtual worlds (in my opinion). The problem was noticed from the very beginning of text MUDs, since in a monolithic reality, if one player changes the world, it remains changed for all players. This means that if a player kills the evil overlord, then for all players thereafter the evil overlord is dead, which is a bit of a bummer for all the other players who wanted their chance at defeating the evil overlord.[1]

It is here that the reasoning behind the current developer trend toward instancing becomes apparent. It is logical and convenient to fracture the game world in a way that gives all players a shot at immersing themselves in the environmental content of the game. Yet gamers everywhere are crying out for something more; something that they can change and influence. Why hasn’t this been done already? In a game based solely or mostly on built-in environmental content is it possible to have a player driven dynamic from a development standpoint? Cultural historian Timothy Burke touches on the feelings regarding the purely environmental (PvE) aspect of dynamic worlds:

When I’ve ventured out before on this topic, I’ve found a reasonable degree of consensus on this point among scholars, developers and players, that dynamic, changing, responsive synthetic worlds are what we need. I’ve also heard on many occasions that they simply are not technically possible at the present time. [2]

Hits like World of Warcraft, Everquest 2, Guild Wars, and Anarchy Online have focused on providing content that appeal to gamers with the use of instancing. Very little of it is player driven content. Why is this? Why haven’t players already been given the ability to manipulate a dynamic world around them and create their own stories? What about player driven politics, economics, and social interaction? The answer lies in the individual psychological and social concepts that surround these ideas. Player driven social dynamics can only exist in certain environments. Some are interdependent concepts that cannot exist in worlds such as those proposed in games like World of Warcraft or Everquest 2 because certain variables are not present. For instance; gamers in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft create social groups or guilds in order to achieve higher rewards and challenges from the environmental "end-game" content Blizzard has implemented with the game. There is no inherent social necessity for players to group together, as the social dynamic within a guild does not affect the game world.

By the elimination of certain "virtual confinements" that inhibit constructive and destructive change in mainstream MMORPG’s, players can create their own content that can have a dramatically different effect on game play. These dynamic implementations create an immersive aspect as well that is different than many mainstream MMORPG’s. If players are granted a degree of authority over their environment, their virtues and vices will create conflict as they come in contact with one another. Whether this be a political, military, or social dynamic; players will experience a psychological immersion within the game because they have invested their own emotions and labors into the environment that they play in. This is an important concept for developers and gamers alike. Mathew Mihaly, president of game-developer Achaea LLC, has stated:

Politics allow you to provide players with two very important, positive feelings: a sense of attainment, and a sense of ownership and control over their environment. By giving players methods by which to advance in a political hierarchy, provided there are rewards attached, you give players the important feeling of achievement as they climb the ladder of success. Further, as players gain power in your world, they begin the transformation from guest to owner (at least in their minds, and that is what is important).[3]

This illustrates a primary reason that dynamic worlds are so immersive and compelling. Players become committed to these designs because of the ownership they have in the game world. The concept of player ownership may seem fleeting in some regard, but it is an emotional investment by the player that has long lasting implications. It is important to understand as well that player ownership and politics in a dynamic world go hand in hand with economics. You can’t have a sense of attainment, ownership, or control without something that players can attain, own, or control. Whether it be currency, territory, fame, glory, respect, or items; the economic concept of scarcity will be the driving force behind player action in a virtual world. There will never be enough material or emotional satisfaction to go around, which will bring people together socially in order to better accomplish their goals. Clay Shirky; an adjunct professor in NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program states it simply:

How to build a Nomic [realistic] world? Start with economics.[4]

One could argue that a socio-political dynamic exists in mainstream MMORPGs simply because within the individual guild there is a form of economic scarcity. The guild itself and its political qualities exist for the cooperative acquisition of materials and completion of activities that require a group. The guild provides access to these materials in return for a player’s participation. However, from an "extra-guild" perspective, social politics do not really exist on a community-wide level in such a world for one simple reason: the absence of scarcity on a worldwide basis. While scarcity of resources (items, respect, material) may exist within each guild, each guild has unlimited access to the resources of that world.

If any guild can enter an instance and kill an epic monster, then from an overall standpoint economic scarcity has ceased to have an impact on the social dynamic between separate guilds. Since scarcity is going to be the driving force in social interaction between individuals and guilds, there must be an overall factor of economic scarcity in order to have a dynamic and immersive political system that affects everyone within a game world. Now some might argue that material scarcity is not the only motivating social factor on this subject, but it must be noted that scarcity can exist in the form of things like glory and respect as well. Regardless, it is an easily seen fact that a large portion of the lasting appeal of most mainstream MMORPG’s lies in the acquisition of virtual materials and proverbial "tokens of achievement". Colleen Malone of Peace Magazine references the research of Dr. Homer Dixon, one of the leading authorities in the field of modern economics:

The research shows that renewable resource scarcities can produce civil conflict, instability, large and destabilizing population movements, aggravated racial, ethnic, or religious tensions, and debilitated political and social institutions. According to Homer-Dixon, the role of environmental scarcity in contributing causally to conflict is often downplayed or ignored entirely.[5]

What does all of this babble about economics and politics really mean for our dynamic world? In order for a player-driven social dynamic to have an impact on the game world, there needs to be a persistent world with no instancing. These concepts create a kind of intrigue that is not present in MMORPG’s in the mainstream. With players having ownership over pieces of their virtual world, they will have a psychological interest in maintaining those assets. But that isn’t the only variable that creates immersion in these types of games.

In order for players to willfully interact with each other politically, diplomatically, or otherwise on a "global" scale, some form of competition will have to be present. Take two real world countries for example; you have a world population existing on scarce resources that has created a social network of international politics in order to exist in a mutually beneficial environment. When they cannot do so, war ensues. This is where we have to use a dirty phrase. That’s right… player versus player. PvP isn’t the only way to create competition in our dynamic world, but it’s the easiest. Creating a PvE world with the possibility of competition among players is possible, but requires a massive amount of content on the development end such as NPCs that can organize attacks and adapt to player politics.

Enabling an environment in which players can freely kill each other has been done to different degrees in the past. Games like Shadowbane and Lineage II both had what could be considered "open PvP" systems. However, Lineage II had tight rules on PvP that would flag a player with harsh penalties in certain situations if they got "out of hand" whereas Shadowbane had none of these restrictions. Both worlds had strong points, but it must be noted that the player versus player aspect added to these games forced the gamers to take their personal and guild politics seriously. This added meaningfulness that led to greater interest and immersion in the game world.

Along with the economic and social motivations discussed earlier, there lies another immersion factor: the threat of violence (PvP). Without the threat of violence the dynamic world’s politics and economics will seem pointless in many respects. The threat of PvP combat will cause organizations to form, people to cooperate, and player guilds to take each other seriously so that politics and economics will maintain realism. This spice causes players to want to log on every day just as the hope of attaining wealth and property within the game world will do the same on the other side of the "hedonistic spectrum" Player ownership is more important if there is a chance of loss. This doesn’t necessarily mean loss of assets or items. It can mean loss of face, loss of prestige or honor as well. This conflict creates an intriguing storyline and gives meaning to what the players do in our world. However, our dynamic world is still meant to please the player. And while many players are willing to risk their ownership in the dynamic world in exchange for more political and economic immersion, other players see the gaming world from a different perspective. Some gamers desire a world in which there is no true loss. Even if an attempt against monsters in an epic PvE encounter is lost, the players will walk away with everything they own still in tact and they’ll just have to try again later. For many players gaming is an escape from the risk that accompanies any action in real life and they would like their work in the game to be preserved indefinitely whether it be assets or items.

Past RPG Developers have often used items of great power as the main drive or attraction within their games. The removal of items as a major force in these games might draw more people to a fully dynamic world that contains an open PvP environment. "Loot" needs to be a powerful and important factor in games like World of Warcraft because it is so valuable that players will strive for long periods of time to attain it, constantly developing their avatars and keeping them interested in the game’s content—but in a player-driven dynamic world, the emphasis shifts to the evolution of the drama around the characters and organizations within the game’s story. In such a game, there is no longer need for loot of incredible value. One approach is to implement a "full-loot system". A full loot system is something rather contrary to most games on the market today. While many players would be repulsed by the sheer thought, such a system could take the focus off of the constant struggle for new items and place it on more immersive environmental and player content. In a world of governments, kingdoms, militaries, alliances, betrayals, stealth, and intrigue there is no necessity in powerful items that drastically alter the course of conflict. Many players after having experienced MMORPGs are looking to developers to usher in this new kind of content and depart from the traditional item or experience "grind" that is so common in today’s games.

The dynamic world embodies the concepts that will become the future of MMORPGs. As the Internet and gaming communities continue to grow, gamers are taking an increasing interest in plugging the community itself into the game world in such a way that everyone can experience a world that follows one rule: what you do means something. Meaning is what everyone searches for in everything they do and is exactly where the spirit of all these details becomes apparent. Meaning enthralls and grabs us. It holds us to our seats and doesn’t let go. For thousands of years mankind has used the ideas of conflict and emotional attachment in stories to move us and compel us. In more recent years, radio, movies, and television have done the same on a global scale.

The gaming industry has an advantage other venues do not: interaction. The most interesting worlds that lay before us will be the ones that respond to everything the player does and that all players and guilds can build in their own image. Our greatest stories can be traced long ago to a tribal campfire. It wasn’t Homer, Shakespeare or Steven Spielberg that created the heart of these stories—it was all of us.


[1] Mike Rozak. "Fractured Reality." Sept. 13, 2005

[2] Timothy Burke. "World Persistence: One In A Series of Queries." Terra Nova Feb-02 2006

[3] Matthew Mihaly. "Constructive Politics in a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game." Gamasutra March 2000

[4] Clay Shirky. "Nomic World: By the players, for the players"

[5] Colleen Malone, "Scarcity and Conflict: Homer-Dixon’s Findings." Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1996: p. 13

Posted in the categories: Gaming Industry, Market Trends


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