This might sound like blasphemy, but hear me out. The Grand Theft Auto series, especially with its most recent incarnation, has quickly become the most brilliant example of care and detail in creating a world for a videogame. And it's high time that MMO developers took notice of some of the reasons this is true. You're free to disagree with me, but keep in mind I'm not saying that all MMOs need to add in prostitution, drugs, and set themselves in a modern day setting. All I'm really saying is that GTAV has more believability to its world in one city block than most MMOs do in however many square miles they're touting. Granted, GTA's massive success gave it a $250 million budget that most MMOs can only dream of, but the road to great online worlds is not an easy one and striving for better immersion and realism should be a priority. Read on and see if you agree.
For as much importance that gets heaped upon voice acting for quests in MMOs these days, you'd think the sound departments would give more love to really layer the full aural representation of the worlds the characters live in. When you walk through Los Santos, and I mean walk, pull the camera in close to your character and listen to the world around you. You'll hear radios on cars passing by, people on cellphones, cat calls, different kinds of engines, screeches of tires, the brush of wind, cop radios, and all layered into the game. You go into the wilds of Los Santos and you'll hear so many birds, so many different kinds of wildlife. Every footstep on different textures is applied brilliantly, mixes together when appropriate. Put this game on surround sound and give it a good listen. Then find your favorite MMO and compare. It'll be no contest, believe me. The aural immersion alone in GTA5 is second to none.
Sound goes right into this too, but specifically, I'm talking about the world's many layered little touches. Paper blowing on the ground, drops of water trickling off your character when it rains, trashmen making their routes, areas of the city divided by class. Construction work ongoing, muggers taking purses, drug deals going down... this is a city, more than any static MMO city you've ever seen. The sky goes on forever and you can take a plane through it. The water goes down leagus, and you can scuba. Sure MMOs do flight and underwater, but not like this. GW2 might be the closest in water, but no MMO does flight and freedom like GTA. In a world where we're supposed to be immersed into our characters, we spend more time imaging immersion than experiencing it. And it's the details you see in something like GTA that could really help.
The People Are People
People with many different walks, styles, and clothing, voices, and attitudes. You can stand close to one pedestrian, and they might strike up a conversation with you. Get to close to another, and they'll pick a fight with you. Some cars you take, the people won't put up a fight. Other folks will chase you down as long as they can. Same goes with accidents you get into. If you open fire with a bow and arrow in a town, if you're even allowed, no one reacts, no one runs. Maybe a guard chases you until you get too far... and then you can go right back in as though no one cared. In GTA, the people of the city are really people. Many maybe easily fooled, I'm not talking about them being overly smart here, but they're a damn sight more interesting than any MMO NPC I've ever seen.
No brainer, but something to strive for in all future MMOs: the missions in GTA are made for single players, but often have AI partners (groups). The online portion of GTA4 had great repeatable missions that were more interesting than most kill-ten rats encounters, and the online goals of GTA5 are incredible in scope, even if the player-count is limited to 16. It's not "massive", but I'm willing to bet you'll find more fun in Los Santos' multi-player than you do in a typical night in ye olden fantasy dungeon. Play single-player, try a jewelry heist, and tell me it's not more riveting and intense than most MMO experiences. I'd love a real Grand Theft Auto MMO, but I'd be much more happy with a traditional MMO world that tried a little harder to give us entertainment, and a tried a little less to keep us subscribed via timesinks.
The World Interaction
All of the above boils down into the number one issue in most MMOs: the world is just a stage you play on and most set-pieces can't be altered or touched in any way. There are plenty of buildings in GTA5 you can't enter, but you'd be hard-pressed to care when there are thousands of places to explore, things to see, and real nooks and crannies to find golden gaming moments in. The kind of stuff that happens, you capture it with video and share with thousands on Reddit because it's so remarkable to watch.
This article doesn't have to be just about Grand Theft Auto. It can be about Farcry 3, Skyrim, or many other single-player games of this sort of caliber. So why can't MMOs do this? What, aside from budget, keeps them from even trying it. EA's Richard Hilleman at the recent DICE Summit in Europe said it pretty accurately: "We are no longer in step function; we are in evolution," he said. "We are not changing every four years; we are in continuous change." The MMO is only beginning to experience this evolution, and it's not going to slow down. Hell, it's been damn near glacial as it is.
GTA5 may be misogynist and often over the top, but it's also a shining example of brilliant world design. And rest assured, that if our online worlds don't strive to become something more like the famed GTA's magnificent cities, we're already doomed.
Bill Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com and RTSGuru.com. He loves to write and talk about all things geek and gaming, and has been doing so professionally since 2002. He also thinks Trevor is one crazy and hilarious character to play in Rockstar's latest crime-a-lot. Be sure to follow him on twitter @TheBillMurphy.