In 2001 when I was still for the most part playing console games, I became enamored with a so-called social simulation game called Animal Crossing on Nintendo’s Gamecube. It was the first of its kind for me and slightly ahead of a time of many more social sim, build-your-house farmville-whatnot type of games to come – even if not necessarily on console. AC was offline and it was mostly a game about building your own little animal town and community, planting different types of plants, collecting bugs and butterflies and digging up fossils for your personal museum. It was typical in triggering collector’s drive but rather evolutionary and unique on several other accounts which kept me playing with a passion. I am not one for pure Sims games; I love decorating my house in Skyrim as much as the next person but I won’t spend weeks doing that same thing in any game.
What AC did in remarkable ways however was introducing a sense of real time to a classic console audience grown with offline and limited session gameplay. Not just that, AC had unqiue (!) events, impact and a sense of punishment that was completely unknown in that time and space continuum. It blew my mind at the time with its merciless “internal clock”. Just few examples of what would regularly happen to you in AC:
- Numerous seasonal events to be celebrated with the town folk. The events were announced in advance, either on the town board or by gossip you needed to overhear. The events were entirely restricted to a specific date and time frame synched to your console’s system clock.
- Unpredictable one-time (or very rare) offers of certain NPCs such as the mayor, to re-arrange roads or bridges for you. Appointments where you were ordered to be “at the beach at 5pm next Tuesday evening”.
- When neglected for too long, your town would be overtaken by wild plant life, your house needed cleaning from vermin and the townspeople would move away for good (sending you angry goodbye letters or rant at you for having been away and never call). AC’s NPCs had the uncanniest AI in general; they would build different types of relationships with you depending on what you did, how you spoke to them or what “you ONCE promised me!”.
- If trying to trick “game progress” by resetting the console without saving your game, you would be visited by “Mr. Resetti” at your doorstep. While this angry mole would let you off with a very long speech about integrity and morals the first time around, punishment for such behaviour would increase drastically with every consecutive reset. (He actually once repainted my house in puke green!)
…While this might sound trivial by today’s standards, it was absolutely HUGE in 2001, given its platform. I actually put down a note in my school agenda back then so I wouldn’t miss meeting erm, “my town mayor at the beach next Tuesday evening”. Within two weeks I had my room mates thoroughly hooked to AC (and how glad I was the town had room for four player houses).
Today, I think back very fondly on this particular sim title. It introduced a sense of time and impact in a way that only few games did with such limited means. And that gets me to the core of this slowly unfolding argument, on why things like unpredictable or rare events are exciting in games and why MMO players keep talking about missing impact or punishment all the time. The common denominator behind all these features – impact, consequence, punishment, you-name-it – is time. It’s a sense of time passing and progressing. It is what gives things meaning, not just in games but actually in our short-span lives too. All these different features are mere consequences and side-effects of a notion of time flowing; “impact and punishment” are always after-effects. They cannot exist without introducing progressive time in an MMO. They cannot exist in limbo.
Time adds meaning to things because it creates a before and after. This is fundamental for any game world that is designed to simulate, feel alive and authentic. A world where randomness, consequence and lasting effect exist. A world where memorable stuff happens, events happen.
|The amazing Mr. Resetti|
On the Lost Shores event
I’ll not bore my regular readers by pointing out again how much I applaud ArenaNet for daring to be different and sticking to one-time events after this Halloween. Apparently the outcry after last night has been significant once more but it’s my very personal hope that three time’s going to be a charm and these loud players will have given up after Christmas, moving on to other MMOs catering to their every wish and personal real-life agenda. One more thing I love about a subscription-less MMOs in that context: not feeling the same pressure to constantly “appease the irritated”, turning game design and direction into loudest-whiner-whack-a-mole.
On to the Lost Shores, I was actually there for the full thing. Mixed is a very mild way of calling an experience that I would otherwise describe as two thirds horribly boring, repetitive grind and one third epic encounter. Now, I don’t know how many players ANet had in mind when they designed their one-time scenario, but I happened to be on an overflow with about 40 more players in that same spot. And for a good 2.5 hours it was painful drudgery, as we slowly escorted Mother Karka across a map swarming with the same bunch of normal, veteran and champion bugs coming at us over and over, wave after wave after wave, while the world’s slowest progress bar mocked us in the right-hand corner of our screens. 50% of the time players were ressing each other, which is one of the remarkable things that keep happening without fail in GW2 – players paying attention to one another. Other than that though, there was wayyy too much of the same…and after two hours it started showing. The “raid” lost focus and got increasingly chaotic. Some players quit, no doubt finding a good night’s sleep (Sunday night too) more appealing than another wave of one hundred karka. I have to admit I was tempted to leave myself but stubbornness to see this through got the better of me (hardcore raider remnant, no doubt).
Silithus – I did not ever wish to see thee again! The Lost Shores came awfully close to those bug nightmares of yore. While I cannot complain about lag like some other players did, I am once more marveling at some of the design choices ANet made in preparation for this event. How many players out there would seriously find several hours of more or less the same bug-slaying remotely appealing or at least epic? Was the event actually designed with smaller groups in mind, banned to overflow servers? Could there not have been (better) ways to address group size and pacing issues?
Like with GW2’s dungeons (on which I have my personal observations to share soon), I am cringing at the discrepancy that is “a good idea vs. execution” in some of ANet’s gameplay and design choices. I am starting to wonder if this company actually still believes in the old fashioned virtue of suffering? Already the badly designed Clock Tower event for Halloween showed this ambiguity between what constitutes difficulty in games vs. what is actually just bad, lazy or broken design (even if it results in some particularly torture-proof players feeling horribly challenged and thus rewarded after attempt 501).
And I get it: mass events and zergs can be lots of fun and certainly feel epic in scale. I’ve no issue with such events in GW2, in fact I find them quite enjoyable. I could’ve lived with one part of the Lost Shores event being a zerg against the same few bugs, but there was nothing epic in that as the night stretched before me and all I could think of was to “get this done with”. Maybe I just put my expectations too high?
On the bright side (yeah there was some of that) our little troupe of the persistent found back to a hysterical sense of humor in zone chat, which is always one of the nicer social side-effects in MMOs – that “bonding through pain” effect when things look dire or simply beyond reason. There were some great laughs later into the night although I doubt the developers would’ve shared any of it. There were also some parts of the battle that were more challenging and fun (such as the veteran karka “steamroll”) and for those who actually made it past the final battle there was – wait for it – some nice loot! I couldn’t believe my eyes when the chest dropped several exotic armor pieces, a 20-slot bag and exotic accessory upgrade!
This must have been the first time in GW2 when I actually got a useful reward for doing something special – especially hard or long or painful. So just maybe ANet are learning their lessons step by step as we go along and sooner or later we’ll not only get to see epic scale, one-time events with good loot, but also enjoyable combat with great stories to tell on top? As long as things are going somewhere, one can always hope!