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The Beatnik Box

Examining the concepts behind "meaningful play."

Author: Beatnik59

Dying Worse Doesn't Make Living Better

Posted by Beatnik59 Wednesday August 22 2007 at 3:14PM
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This is from a BBS post I made some time back.  It was in response to someone who felt that MMOs have gotten too squeamish about death penalties.  The thought was one that I hear a lot lately: the games are much too sanitized to be meaningful.  By making corpses subject to looting, or making death more "painful," we can reestablish the meaningfulness in the games like the games we used to know, like Ultima Online.

However, as much as we'd like to, we can't go home again.  I hear it a lot, and I too said to myself at one time, "if only someone had the guts to bring out the viceral game like Ultima Online, nobody would ever need another game."

We have a very romantic and idealized notion of that game, but we have to keep in mind that the culture of gaming was different back then.  In those times, many of us didn't even know what an MMO was.  We came to UO as individuals, and formed a community of individuals in the game.  Guilds were almost an afterthought, and fast internet connections were rare.  Chat was done longhand, using the game server as the facilitator of every important interaction between players.  Official forums were not around initially.  The secondary market and third party influences were not as prevalent.

In short, it was an MMO in its purest state, with little to nothing from outside Ultima Online influencing what went on within Ultima Online.

These days, players really have no need to create a community within a game.  They bring their community en masse with them in the form of their guild or clan, which is self-sustaining, self-reinforcing, and abides by its own standards of conduct.  People that they already know, already trust, and who look at the game as just another activity to play with each other within.  Interactions between the members are insular, meaning that it is privately facilitated through AIM, or more likely these days, voice chat, across many different games.

Unlike those days in Ultima Online, guilds are no longer a thing that the game facilitates.  It exists wholly independent of the game, with its own websites, and its own communications network, and its own notion of membership that is centered around the TeamSpeak server as the social hub, and not the game server.  Unlike those days in Ultima Online, gamers today do not band together spontaneously into guilds out of necessity.  Rather, they come to the games already guilded, and approach the game methodically to maximize the guild's presence in opposition to everyone else.

In a sense, the problem with the harsh and high stakes game many here in the forums argue for, is that it presumes that everything that influences the outcomes happen within the context of play, and that individuals play these games.  That was indeed true in terms of Ultima Online way back in the late '90s, because we didn't have the sort of gamer culture, and outside influences back then, like we do now.

Today, what determines in-game success or failure is only partly determined by what goes on in the game, and I would argue, the least important factor.  The ones who tend to do better in the "risk versus reward" scenario don't play as individuals, but a mass of accounts who log on as needed, heap up wealth in communal accounts, and do whatever it takes to maximize their combat prowress in a very calculative, methodical, and efficient manner, for the sake of producing tangible symbols of their superiority in all areas.

And I am not even saying that it is wrong to have ambition for these things.  The problem is though that most of the things that determine success or failure in the games these days have actually very little to do with the things that go on in the game, but rather, all of those things that influence the games from the outside, be it farming, professionalized guilds, teamspeak, forums, macros, etc.  Its the sort of stuff many think is the essence of being in an MMO, but what I would argue, cheapens the MMO.

What made Ultima Online so good, and so exciting, is that the only thing that influenced the game was playing the game itself, and not playing to all the outside factors that made some players better than others.  Each player saw himself as an individual, a hero, and a character.  Not some interchangeable and disposable commodity playing a position in what some have called "geek football," for the sake of some gamehopping, 200 member geek football club.

We say that we want a stiff death penalty for losers in PvP, so that it causes more realistic behavior on the part of players.  But it seems to me that when we argue that we want full looting, that the desire is not to create a death penalty, as much as it is to create a killing reward.  And what do we want to reward?  Specialized, PvP builds designed to "play a position," on a raid team with maximum statistical efficiency, membership in an established gaming community you can bring with you to your game, so you don't have to build relationships with outsiders (or even have to type, for that matter), and the ability to sacrifice any attempt at balance, realism, and depth for the sake of kill/loss ratios, and the transfering of wealth from the ones who are playing the game, to the twinks just gaming the game.

In a sense, it wasn't the harsh death penalties that made UO so great.  It was the beautifully naiive players and the purity of the experience that made harsh death penalties workable.  Bringing back the harsh death penalties today won't bring back that purity.  All it will do is push players away from the game, and toward the metagame, like in EVE Online, or The Sims Online.  The result is a game where conflict isn't fun anymore; it becomes personal, and something that no longer counts as recreation for many.

I wish we could go back to a time when we weren't so serious about these games, and played them like we did back in the late '90s with UO.  The problem is, somewhere along the line, we as players have forgotten how we used to play UO, and EQ, and I'll repeat something I told the Vanguard fans awhile back.

Back in the old days we didn't have "DKPs."  We didn't have the bandwith to logon to private clan coms.  We took people as they were, took chances, and roleplayed.  It was easy to find groups back then and have fun, because we didn't organize our games, our friends, and our time there as a whole like a business investor or a professional sports team would.  We never let the "business of playing" interfere with the play.

Times have changed though, and we have lost that ability to put the game in perspective.  Now we have "PUG bashing," and "voice freezeouts."  We have more excuses why we shouldn't group with this or that particular person, than why we should.  Our worlds, our friends, and our tolerance for wasted time (as if the whole point of an MMO isn't to waste time in the most enjoyable way possible), has become small.  Therefore, it is no wonder why the games have become small, and the death penalties have become small.  MMO gamers have become too stuffy, too judgemental, too clanish, and too obsessed with status to handle a game like UO these days.

And why?  Because back in the UO days, we treated it as a game.  Today however, with all the seriousness and clinical obsession with efficiency, it looks less like a jovial pasttime, and more like a boring lecture in statistics and management science.

Making death mean something is not going to bring back the passion, when there is nothing passionate anymore in how we choose to approach play.  That's why making designs resemble UO aren't going to bring back the spirit of UO, or the meaning UO held for us.