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Editorials By Aaron Roxby on August 15, 2006

DING! Or why I killed several thousand innocent goblins and rats

Editorial by Aaron Roxby

DING! For anyone who has spent any amount of time in a virtual world, those four letters carry great significance. Even typing them into MS Word gives a bit of a tingle, a slight sense of accomplishment. In fact, I am going to type it again. DING! That feels good. In this context, there is little meaning behind it. In an online game, however those four letters mean that you just leveled and that is, of course, why we play online games. To level. To press a series of buttons that make a little bar fill up, which in turn will usually make a satisfying little sound (or in EverQuest, a nerve-scraping clang) and a little number will go up by one. Truly exciting stuff, and well worth the massive amounts of time and money that it can take to get there. I can’t help myself… DING!

Of course, not all words are so electrifying to type. Here, I’ll show you: Grind. That was no fun to type at all. Typing “Grind” fills me a sense of impending frustration, a sense that I might just be wasting my time. Let’s try another: Treadmill. No, that’s no good. That one gives a sense of futility, a sense of expending energy but getting nowhere. Excuse me a moment… DING! There, that’s better.

The concept of leveling is yet another holdover from the grand-pappy of modern geekery. I am, of course referring to the mad nerd Gary Gygax’s Dungeon’s & Dragons. The thinking behind leveling is sound. Most people become better at most things with just a little bit of practice. A bit of experience, if you will. If you had been swinging a long sword at Kobolds for a few decades, you would be significantly better at it than say; I would (my real life experience lies primarily in battling Gryphons with a mace). It seems to me that in D&D, the experience was a product of the journey. The adventure was what was important and as you became naturally stronger in your travels you would require more difficult obstacles. To put it another way, Luke didn’t leave Tatooine because he wanted to be a badass Jedi. He left Tatooine to rescue a princess and became a badass Jedi as a result.

This brings us to MMORPGs and the concept of leveling within them. Let’s say that I just created a brand new Lineage II character. After marveling at the truly beautiful graphics, the enchanting score and what, exactly Koreans think “armor” means on a female character, I charge out, prepared to start living a new life in the harsh and mysterious land of Aden. A new life that consists of… Well, attacking wild animals. A lot. For a very, very long time. Why am I doing this? Well, because you need to level so that you can participate in the actually fun parts of the game, like castle sieges. This is sort of like buying a copy of Unreal Tournament and being told that you can only participate in a death match once you have shot the same re-spawning bot for eighteen to twenty hours.

There is a philosophy in online gaming, that you need to earn the right to access the really cool stuff. As a capitalist, I take absolutely no issue with this. I do, however take issue with the criteria it is generally based on. With few exceptions, the characters that have the most time spent on them will be more powerful. I know that every single person reading this has grouped with a player who, despite a high level and uber gear had absolutely no business operating a computer, let alone playing video games with other people. Here is another place, where I believe the long shadow of Dungeons & Dragons is possibly holding the art form back. A pen and paper RPG is a completely mental affair. You need something to track your progress, something tangible to tell you if you have become better at casting spells. In a video game, that is not required. Video games are a physical activity and you can get better at them through actual, real-world experience. To put it another way, the very first time that I jumped into an online game of Unreal Tournament, I was killed seven consecutive times by “o0UnreapeR0o” before I even had a chance to pick up a decent gun. It was no different than being PKed by a level 60 on your first day in Lineage II. The difference was, there were no levels involved. He was actually better at playing this game than I was, because he was actually experienced.

As the technology behind games and in particular virtual worlds becomes better, the division between fantasy and reality is only going to blur even further. I believe this is something to be embraced. If we compare pen and paper RPGs to theater and role-playing video games to the cinema, we have barely entered the silent film era. While some films, such as Nosferatu, were trying to push the boundaries of this new medium, most were simply plays filmed with a camera, new technology being used to deliver the same old thing.

There is of course, the question of latency. We all know how lag can effect an online game and MMO servers do not necessarily have a reputation for unwavering stability. It is never fun to be killed as the result of an error on the server, ISP or client-side and many games incur stiff penalties for any mistake. While this is of concern, games like Guild Wars and WoW have shown that faster, more action-oriented game play can work in an MMO environment.

About a year ago, I was working for a very well known MMO publisher. At that time, a game called Progress Quest was making its way around the office. Progress Quest is, for those who have not “played” it, an MMORPG that has been stripped of anything resembling actual game play. There are no graphics and no interface to speak of at all. You create a character, hit start and enjoy text messages updating you with your character’s progress. You can minimize it to your desktop, then do something else and level, without any of the bother of actually playing a game. I installed this piece of software, looked at for about ten minutes, chuckled to myself, closed the application and went back to work. Then, something unsettling occurred. I started hearing people talking about their characters. In the hallways, people would be comparing levels and actually gloating if theirs was higher. People would leave their machines on over night; so that they could make sure they had the highest number. It was, frankly astounding. Just yesterday, I mentioned to some of these same folks that I was planning on mentioning Progress Quest in this editorial. This launched them into an honest to god twenty minutes of reminiscence about the “game”. So, obviously, what I am saying here may not apply to everyone. Some folks just need to have that higher number, regardless of what it signifies.

The thinking and technology behind MMORPGs has the potential to be the most fantastic tool for entertainment imaginable. We are closer to creating living, breathing worlds and honest-to-god alternate realities than we may think. Things like stats and levels will always have a home in pen and paper RPGs. Like the theater they have endured and will continue to endure, because they offer something unique. I think it is time that we give our computer games the same opportunity. In the mean time, I need to go level up my Barbarian on the EQ Progress server. DING!

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