Category Archives: Philosophized

About Life, MMOs and the Good Old, Bad Times

It is one of the never-ending discussions among MMO veterans: the golden days of MMOing. The glory days of our youth when MMOs were green and so were we. When treasure was rare and special and punishment plentiful and quick. Today, we miss the hardship of the unknown, the unexplored mystery, the dependence on other people. Fond memories of our beginnings and the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia keep the past locked firmly in our mind like a place of legend.


…minus the wardrobe, maybe

If only we could recreate the past. And why can’t we – are we the problem? The games? Our missing fellows? I have once concluded on this blog that the fairest answer to this question is probably “a bit of everything” but also, that there are only so many times that we can fully invest in a new MMO and commit to a new world and community. Witty strips such as “A decade of love and hate” by DLC or Arcade Rage’s “Gamer problems: Then and Now” make painfully obvious that MMOs haven’t objectively gotten worse; they’ve changed in some ways but also really stayed the same and they have certainly become more varied and accessible overall. None of this can explain our personal discontent. No, the answer lies elsewhere.

Chasing that which cannot be preserved

How many times over can you build a virtual life from scratch until it feels like a deja-vu and grind and the fatigue kicks in? How many social bonds can you possibly establish and maintain? I say no more than you could do in real life; there may be one big love for you during your life’s journey, or two or three. For most of us, that is the limit of our capabilities and time too only allows for so many iterations. It is the same with circles of friends or careers – the boldest among us will recreate themselves and their world a few times over during the course of their life but time and energy remain limiting factors.

It is our misconception that MMOs should somehow follow a different rule set. That something as profound and time consuming as virtual life, and WoW was that for many (just to name one possible MMO), should be repeatable over and over and never wane in its glory and impact. But how could that be? The best of things and the most meaningful must all eventually bow to finality.


Looking back, I can say that I’ve had three serious and longterm MMO experiences or “relationships” in my life between age 20 and 35. Maybe five titles altogether have really managed to consume me for a time and make me care about people I met. However every time, it got a bit more difficult; every time I’ve felt my energy resources, my ability to care and my patience for things like ingame appointments and wait times, deplete faster.

“I have done this before – I have been here. Yet it is not the same.”

We cannot recreate our MMO youth any more than we can go back to our teenage years or our twenties. With every decade added to our life, we become more experienced which means we become more critical and picky. The roads become downtrodden and the mysteries familiar. And we have limited resources both internally (energy) as well as externally (time). The games haven’t gotten worse or better, they’ve become different – but we are different, too. And longing for the good old, bad times is merely a product of our bewilderment that life, real and virtual, is constant progress and contradiction: some things change but they also largely stay the same.

That’s why we can love and hate the past all at once, feel relief over progress made but also miss our friends and treasure our memories. (MMO) Life is complex like that.

All the best Things have Campfires

The other night when staring into our fireplace at home, a feature I’ve come to appreciate a great deal since moving house in 2015, it dawned on me how many of the best things I’ve enjoyed over the years included campfire scenes. That is books and games more specifically, my favorite, most formative titles then and now came with special campfire moments that I remember always –


The Dragonlance companions, by Larry Elmore

ct camping

The heroes camping in Chrono Trigger, the Green Dream


The Witcher 3, first chapter


Recently, myself hanging in Eorzea

Campfires are obviously the romantic locality of choice to gather your heroes in fantasy tales or listen to the minstrel play; fire is a most enigmatic and evocative force that will also transport to the screen, be it in live action or otherwise. Video games come very close these days in emulating the real thing and the atmosphere it inspires. Fire stirs us on a deeper level.

I cannot pass campfires in MMOs without standing still and gazing into the flames. Wherever it is I am headed, I will take a solemn moment and join whatever company has gathered, be it players or NPCs. There’s an irresistible draw for me that’s hard to explain; as if I was touching something timeless and with it, a realization that the fire before me is all fires. There lies a gateway within the flames to all the other moments that there were in so many tales of beauty and peril, a gateway to all the memories of happiness stored away inside of me. Fire is the thread.

Fire is escapism.

We are Explorers [#Blaugust 19]

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” [T.S. Elliot]

One of the very first tags I ever introduced for this here blog was “explorer’s league”. Over the years, the topic of exploration in MMOs and the psychology behind the explorer mindset have been the driving force of many an article. What moves explorers? What lies at the bottom of their heart’s desire? Where do they find ultimate ingame satisfaction? Asking those questions, I came across some of the answers for myself and as a big extra, I’ve come to know kindred souls – bloggers with the same passionate interest in exploration as myself.

What has all of this taught me?

Explorers like you and me, seek out the journey. They seek out the winding path that smells of roses and dust.

Explorers like you and me want neither endings nor completion. Their maps remain unfinished as their wisdom.

Explorers like you and me care for secrets over riches. Their currency is wonder, their virtue is patience.

Explorers like you and me know no achievement beyond their own. They crave mystery.

Explorers like you and me look back and forward. Their worlds rise and fall with diversity.

And whither then?

And what happens after we have come full circle, when we see the old with new eyes? Maybe our world really is limited after all and bound to repeat itself; the experiences we make in life real and virtual follow the same circle. We grow only in perception; it is the lessons and wisdom we take with us that second, third and fourth time that make the difference. And when we pass through the same doors and challenges in games and elsewhere, we may behave differently next time and see different things, new options that were always there but hidden. It took us a journey across the world and back to reach a deeper understanding. How many more MMOs must come and go before we realize there are no new worlds unless we make them?

No purpose, no nothing

No purpose, no nothing – that short but poignant conclusion to so many things, coming to me once more while writing Monday’s post and then Kadomi said it again, literally, in the comments:

I don’t enjoy not having a purpose. What good is all that freedom if it leaves me feeling empty after a while?

“Who may be allowed to linger that is fulfilled by purpose?” I’ve asked that before, in slightly different context but no less relevant to this cause. A purpose is an end (hence the double meaning) and in many ways, endings bring a certain degree of linearity or at least progression to life real and virtual. Yet, purpose is also what fulfills that life lest in not be literally point-less. There is a cosmic balance here, a trade-off and even our favorite genre in video games, MMORPGs must struggle for it – that balance between the sandbox and themepark, between too much freedom and too little, too much endgame and not enough satisfaction.


To what end?

No purpose equals nothing, in virtual worlds too.

No purpose, no point for guilds.

No purpose, no point for housing.

No purpose, no point for gear.

Take GW2’s gear grind – so futile, so unfulfilling because it is not required, does not prepare you for any kind of endgame that exists. And what is endgame, by now such an unpopular term, but not a purpose or “life after”? Take LOTRO’s homesteads – beautiful but empty, forever instanced away from the world of men, not serving any purpose really. Take any other MMO you can think of that allows you to solo self-sufficiently, obtain everything on your own and then wonder why people don’t play in guilds. Having co-founded two lasting, successful raidguilds in WoW, I am very pragmatic: guilds are common ventures first, uniting people with the same purpose for that purpose. More often than not, that purpose is what keeps the best guilds alive. So what?

I made some wonderful friendships in MMOs founded on a common goal; common goals glue people together. Maybe they are the only thing that truly does. Common goals on the horizon add purpose to our stride, infuse our dreams, inspire our achievements social or otherwise.

To clarify, that’s not to say that there’s no such thing as individual purpose defined on an individual level in every game and for virtually anything (even jumping puzzles! eww) – there absolutely is and it matters too. However, in isolation this doesn’t tend to create the same value on a cooperative level and not the same longterm appeal, either. Not in my experience anyway.

Give me purpose, give me endings

No purpose -> no point -> no end -> no meaning. If things can only have meaning if they also end, let’s have ends and lots of them. Let’s have many purposes.

MMOs and not just Landmark, need a ‘hard’ purpose for the features they implement. It sounds simple and yet it’s a glaring oversight in so many games, yes sandboxes and themeparks alike, and it always backfires in the mid- and longterm and affects the community most strongly.

Oh sure, a game’s early flame burns brightly like a bonfire in the night and by all means, warm yourself at that fire. Enjoy it while it lasts. In the long run however, you’ll want some meat on the bone to roast on that fire and sustain you. In the long run, you will need that.

Day/Night Cycles for a Chance of Sunset

So Wildstar has a day-night cycle as was inquired about by John in yesterday’s topic here. I’m not sure that there’s one for all the zones of the Nexus but given that I’ve experienced it several times over this past beta weekend in Celestion, Whitevale and Thayd even, I don’t see why the mechanic wouldn’t be applied across the board unless we are looking at different planets and solar systems in the future. Or non-solar systems respectively.

While elaborating on day and night cycles is hardly ever a priority on any devspeak’s list, players tend to care a lot about the question of changing light and different times of the day for new MMOs. How many phases are there and for how long? Is it a 24-hour cycle? How dark is the night? Where can I find the timer on my UI?

I am a passionate supporter of this feature for “authenticity’s sake”, wherever there’s a fitting context to be found which is the case for most fantasy MMO settings. Whenever a day/night cycle is missing I am the sadder for it, yes even in open world RPGs that often tend to disregard them. Without changing light even a virtual life feels oddly stagnant. It feels like a missed opportunity too for developers and designers to install different events and time-relevant encounters in the game.


Rainbow over Oatbarton /

There is an extraordinary creative power to light, no matter real light or fictional, that we can all recognize be we students of quantum physics or mere observers of all the indirect effects and cosmetic wonders that light bestows on our senses. There is such painterly glory in dynamic light changes to a point where even the more ordinary and literally lack-luster is elevated to a state of brilliance.

Dawn’s just a heartbeat away
Hope’s just a sunrise away
[Fear not this Night – GW2]

The night becomes frightening and mysterious for darkness’ sake, that absence of light. A morning heralds a better day, a day of possibility and things to come. Light is the great revealer of our reality but it is also constant interpretation and therefore it is poetry. There may be nothing new under the sun but neither is there ever the same.

24-hour cycles or multiple mini-days

One of the biggest concerns for MMO players has always been server-time versus artificial days or WoW’s 24-hour cycle versus all games that will allow a full run multiple times during a real-world day. There are many who dislike the classic WoW mechanic for understandable reasons:

I played an MMO where it followed the 24 hour cycle and I was kinda bummed because I’d always play at the same time every day, and it was ALWAYS night time on the server. The world was always dark and I rarely got to ever see daylight.

If the day/night cycles could be offset by a few hours, it would ensure that everyone will experience all the different times of the day since most people tend to play at the same time everyday. [source]

I remember the times in vanilla WoW when I was questing in Westfall and only ever experienced sunset, beautiful sunset, and then moonrise. While Westfall is a zone that has much to gain from the night’s black ink, I was taken aback when I visited during noon time for once several weeks later. So different was the atmosphere, so much more unnerving the shrill yellow all around. For other zones however, the night becomes an obstacle and players weary of hunting and questing for hidden objects that time of the day. They’ll take prolonged coffee breaks or re-schedule their ingame agenda entirely if they can.


Light on a stick, I haz it.

I’m not sure personally which cycle I prefer the most. There’s a good argument pro multiple mini-days, at the same time I dislike MMOs that rush their cycles and rush transition phases especially. I am fine with several hours of night if only I get a properly long and developed sunrise phase in return. I am weirded out when there’s a new nighttime every hour, a schedule that exhausted me quickly in Minecraft’s unmodded version. What day is too long and which night long enough? It’s a tricky balance and yet a discussion worth having. Light is ultimately a very important factor to our overall gametime and gameplay experience as well as greater immersion (for us explorers and suckers of the second home). I’ll happily take tricky, prolonged nights over none at all and bear a toxic afternoon sun for a chance of sunset.

Thanks John for inspiring this post today. It was the waning light outside my window that told me it was time to publish and get on my way home.

MMO Dragons through the Ages – Fantastic Creatures, Formidable Foes


D&D cover by L. Elmore

Dragons. Formidable beasts of fantasy and wonder. The stuff of nightmare in many a heroic story of folklore, mythology and children’s tales. Most beloved foe of the high fantasy genre be it in movies, books or video games. Where would our MMOs be without dragons? Who doesn’t love dragons?

From an early age I was fascinated with draco, also known as dragon, drake, sometimes wyvern or lindworm. I was a child of fairy tales and the big bad wolf aside, which mostly just scared me, dragons were the most fascinating and exotic creatures that would inspire my wild dreams like none other. I remember a particular story in my vast audio&textbook collection about a green dragon and a knight; the pictures of the ferocious beast gave me such nightmares that my mother glued a blank opaque paper over the pages so I could follow the story without seeing the dragon. Bless our early beginnings.

Remember with your heart. Go back, go back and go back. The skies of this world were always meant to have dragons. When they are not here, humans miss them. Some never think of them, of course. But some children, from the time they are small, they look up at the blue summer sky and watch for something that never comes. Because they know. Something that was supposed to be there faded and vanished. Something that we must bring back, you and I. (Robin Hobb, Golden Fool)

White Dragon Sleet(Elm)

Dragons of Winter Night by L. Elmore

Later I discovered the dragons of D&D and in particular, the Dragonlance; that’s when I irrevocably fell for this genre, absorbed in pages full of colorful illustrations by Elmore, Parkinson, Caldwell and Easley. My first artbook was a Larry Elmore limited edition which me and my best friend ordered on that novelty called the internet. I remember sending Larry a short thank-you email for the exclusive sketch he had done in each of our books, adding this well-wish: “may there always be dragons soaring across your sky”. I imagine he can see them whenever he closes his eyes or how could he possibly illustrate them in such stunning detail?

…the Dragon is the Patron Saint of all storytellers and artists and his likeness has adorned canvases and stone and has been forged in every precious metal. (Guillermo del Toro)

The Dragonlance Chronicles also opened a new, more modern perspective on dragons for me: dragons that are more than mere alien beasts and forces of nature. Dragons that have a face, that are scheming and cunning creatures of magic (sometimes shapeshifters like Silvara whose name I’ve adopted). Dragons that can choose different allegiances – good or neutral as much as evil. I love when dragons get to be real characters in stories and not just the ultimate yet dumb antagonist for the glorious dragon slayer. When a dragon ends up being little more than a T-Rex, that’s what I like to call narrative mistreatment, a lost opportunity. As far as morphology goes, it is interesting to note that historically there’s a distinction between European and Asian dragon tradition, with European dragon imagery being the predominant representation still in our western culture (with legs, wings or the ability to breathe fire) as opposed to the more snake-like Asian dragon (also naga).

MMO Dragons through the Ages

With the amount of dragon imagery and tradition out there, it’s no surprise that fantasy MMORPGs too capitalize frequently on our fascination with the winged, fire-breathing reptiles. I’ll come forth and say that I never ever tire of dragon encounters in MMOs; give me Blackwing Lair, Onyxia and the Dragon Aspects any day of the week! My favorite boss encounter of all time will probably always be Lord Victor Nefarius aka Nefarian which in my humble opinion, was a way more fascinating figure than Deathwing.

WoW is a game that loves to flaunt its dragons and “dragonkin” as foes but also mounts or pets. GW2 features the most breathtaking dragons for me as far as sheer size and dramatic entries go, so while ANet failed to make Zhaitan and Co. a particularly interesting bunch, the Shatterer or Claw of Jormag encounters will always hold a special place in my heart. Who would not feel awe and terror facing this? –


Descent of the Shatterer (

Musing on dragon history and my favorite encounters in MMOs, lead me to a full-scale investigation of MMORPG dragons of the past, present and future. As far as popular mainstream titles go, there’s not a single game that didn’t feature draconic foes at some point or other – or is there? Anyway, let’s look at my quick and selective chronology of MMO dragons (you can find the full-size wallpaper of the image here):


While we’ve come such a long way graphically since the dragons of UO and Everquest, today’s MMO dragons have the same effect on players and still follow the same narrow design template. AION probably holds the trophy for the most beautiful and lavish dragon design. If I had to try and tackle the beast, put into words what still makes dragons so appealing to lovers of the genre, I’d call it a mixture – the fear of the unknown and supernatural as much as a fascination with the majesty, power and wisdom of a sentient being that shares traits with familiar animals. More than any other fantastic creature, dragons embody the virtues of a magical world beyond our wardrobe and maybe our longing thereof. Or as this article concludes beautifully, quoting a Tolkien essay:

Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded… The dragon had the trade-mark of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire… the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril. [JRR Tolkien, On Fairy Stories]

That is the gift of dragon-sight; the purpose of the dragon quest. Dragons embody the beauty and the peril of an “other world” that is “richer and more beautiful” and full of strange and marvelous things.

I look forward to meeting more MMO dragons in the future. I’m not sure about Wildstar but it’s probably safe to say we’ll see more of them in Everquest Next, Elder Scrolls Online and certainly WoW. What are your favorite dragons in MMOs? And is there anyone who’s tired of all the dragons? I can’t imagine my virtual worlds without them.

New to this World – Musings on MMO Tourism

When Kleps described a particular type of MMO tourist the other day, something about that label stuck with me even though I couldn’t feel further apart from such tourist mindset. Be it in MMOs or in general, I immensely enjoy new experiences and I’m a sucker for exploring strange lands and cultures which is no doubt partly due to very mixed heritage. I’m a traveler in real life as much as virtual worlds with quite a long list of countries that I’ve visited in my backpack (more to be added!). Had I been bestowed with substantial wealth from birth, I would probably have become a full time gipsy, releasing travel diaries or guides and shit…for free. The road is ever calling to me and those five weeks of annual holidays I get nowadays are sacred. Next summer’s trip is already greatly anticipated!

I’m a strong believer in that traveling is one of the most beneficial and eye-opening things we can do as human beings, something that will shape and educate your understanding (and hence respect) for other, different places and people more than any theory in a book or well-polished political speech ever could. It is humbling to be a guest in a strange country and be treated as a friend; to break bread with people who have no reason to offer you hospitality but share the little they have; to discover first-hand just how similar we all are despite all hyped cultural differences and outward appearances. To realize how much wealth and beauty is out there that the daily news never talk about. But this we can only learn by actually leaving our own doorsteps – you cannot smell the roses by reading about it in a book.

Yet, for all my personal inclinations, my love for travel, languages and cultures, I am still feeling a bit like a tourist in GW2 right now. Not the willfully ignorant tourist described further up, but a tourist in the sense that while GW2 is a truly immersive MMO with the most amazing world, there are moments when I feel more like a guest or even intruder, rather than somebody setting up his own home. I happen to know exactly why that is too.

So close and yet so far

I never played GW(1). I mentioned briefly once why I didn’t and I’m currently in very good company when it comes to people who skipped GW but are now invested in GW2. It’s not just the timing but the fact that the two MMOs are very different in many essential ways. GW2 is not exactly a “sequel” and yet, ANet have obviously conserved much of the world that was old Tyria for their faithful player base – the lore, characters, setting and atmosphere first and foremost.

That’s where my misgivings, which are completely self-fabricated (just to clear that up) come in though; it might sound bizarre but a part of me feels like I have no right to be here. I’m the newbie in Tyria and not just that, I am the player who didn’t support the first game, now showing up for its shinier, more mass-market successor. YIKES!

While the olde GW community is taking a sad goodbye from a game they called home for years, I get to enjoy the moment without any ambivalence felt. It’s great articles like that one or like Jeromai’s that remind me just how little I know about this world; how much there has been before and how I am unable to draw connections the way longtime GW players can. It’s also hearing a new ingame acquaintance (met during anonymous questing zomg!) talk about how she’s waited on GW2 for five years (I waited two to be fair) while being an avid GW player, and how disappointed she is in many respects because “GW2 is not like GW” (and where the fuck did the monk class go…). Which I can actually empathize with when seen from that perspective.

(She also mentioned that “coming from WoW or Rift, everything must seem really great of course”….I know there is an insult there somewhere!)

It just bothers me that I am likely missing a lot of details and hidden meaning while playing, even if much will get clearer in time. It bothers me too, that I simply cannot fully connect or give comfort to some players that are now in my own world but still feel strangely apart. They’ve been longer in Tyria than myself and I feel like they have much more right to it. Does that even make sense?? Ah well.
“Hi, I’m new! Hope it’s alright if I join you guys!”

Sometimes I wonder how all the new, heightened attention for GW2 must feel to GW veterans right now – other bloggers like Hunter for example who have been dedicated to that game forever. What a bunch of enthusiastic party crashers we must look to them….

I am probably exaggerating at this point and frankly I wonder if I managed to explain my feelings very well. It’s all extremely silly in many respects, first and foremost because ANet surely want more players to enjoy GW2 than played GW, after having put seven(?) years into its development. I know that, trust me! Also, I’ve no resentment whatsoever towards GW veterans in case there’s any doubts – quite the contrary – and I don’t even know if they truly see the likes of me coming from other MMOs as party crashers or greenhorns or whatever (although I could understand if they did). It’s just….now that I’m immersing myself in Tyria with every intention not to stay a tourist for long, I’m a little sad that I missed its “past” – the history of that world others were there for. I’m clearly not used to not being “there from the start” for MMOs I consider a big deal, even if paradoxically I was there for bloody head-start (of doom).

There’s an intangible generation gap and a little bit of self-cringe for blundering into a world with such wide-eyed ignorance that other players are already familiar with. Gawd…I hope we are welcome here and don’t make too big fools out of ourselves in zone and party chats! Sigh.

On (Im-)perfection

When discussing the effects and burden of self-imposed perfectionism recently with a fellow blogger, that crippling mindset many of us writers are no stranger to, I remembered two beautiful pieces of wisdom I had come across some time ago and that are very much worth sharing.

So today, this post is dedicated to all you fellow creative minds: afflicted by nagging self-doubts, ever battling in front of their PC, staring at articles way too long before daring to publish, worrying over details of no consequence. And yet doing it again and again, overcoming their misgivings, taking heart putting their thoughts out there each week.

A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of the work they produced. All those on the right would be graded solely on their works’ quality.

His procedure was simple: On the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the quantity group; 50 pound of pots rated an A, 40 pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on quality, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an A.

At grading time, the works with the highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

It seems that while the quantity group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the quality group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of clay.

Think about this in your own life, even if you’re not using clay. The more you practice, the better you’ll get. But you can’t practice if you think only of perfection. Practice is about making mistakes; perfection comes from imperfection.” [source]


I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes.

Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.
So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life.
Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it.
Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” [source]


A wonderful weekend to all of you out there – the imperfect and those still learning to be.

The Four Travellers (and Bartle)

Art by GC Myers

In the middle of all things there is a secret place. A place of comings and goings, where all roads meet up eventually before parting again for distant and strange lands. And in the very middle of that crossroad stands an oaken table, an ancient work of formidable craftsmanship inviting the weary traveller and offering him a place to rest for a while. There is a tin cup too, filled with the sweetest water to cool the thirsty and wash the journey’s dust from their throats. So potent is its effect that some say it holds magical powers.

It so happened that one day, against all odds, four travellers from the four corners of the world would reach the mighty crossroad of all things together. Each grabbing a wooden chair, they eyed one another suspiciously as they took a seat at the massive, round table. Almost simultaneously they realized that there was only water there for one. Their moods darkening, the four men started measuring each other up more closely. Each man looked curiously exotic to the next: different complexions, different hair, different eyes. They wore different colors and clothes, their bags carried different treasures. A different weapon dangled from each traveller’s side.

The man of the North was the first to speak, nervously drumming his fingers on the polished wood. “I should get to drink the water. I have a long way to go still and no mount to carry me there fast”, he said. At this, the man of the East sitting beside him, replied: “I need the water to deliver it in the next town where a young maiden is lying sick with pox fever!” But the man of the South had already raised his voice, “The king of my country is paying every man his weight in gold who will bring him proof of this strange crossroad. I cannot return from my journey without this!” To which the man of the West was only shaking his head, “No. The water belongs to me. I arrived here first and I might as well kill my horse without any water to refresh him and ease his mind.”
And so a great argument arose among the four about who had more claim to the water and whose were the best reasons. As their quarrel dragged on, the sun began the second part of her day’s journey while the cup on the table remained untouched. All the while, quietly and unnoticed, the water within started fading away.

It was near dusk when the shriek of a strange night bird woke the four travellers to their surroundings. Only then they realized with a shock and gasp that the water had evaporated completely from their midst. The man of the North rose furiously from his seat, eyeing the three others with seeming disgust – “Now I will have to shorten my road and miss half of my journey!”. – “I should have left the water to you three. A great deal of good has this fighting done me”, the man of the East murmured gravely. The man of the South was already on his feet, “Wish I had grabbed the cup quickly while you were quarrelling and ridden fast for my homeland!”. Only after a longer silence did the man of the West add with the darkest stare: “I should have slit your throats. That way, one of us would have some water”, he hissed before leaving the table.

And with that the four travellers turned their backs on each other, leaving the great crossroad behind. Each was bound for his own destination, following down a different road, in his own pace. Soon their dark silhouettes were lost on the horizon, fading into the distant lands beyond, towards a different life, a different future.

On crossroads and gamer blood types

There is a strange quality to the atmosphere of crossroads. For a moment it seems as if we were indeed stood at the middle of the world, the middle of all things – and that everything is possible from there. Life is holding its breath as we consider the options before us. We can almost hear the distant rolling of our destiny. There is magic here, in allegory if not always in reality.

In online worlds more than ever, the player becomes the traveller. We are drawn towards the unknown that’s waiting at each bend of the road. We are the master of our steps. Every now and then, we chance upon another adventurer, sometimes to share a part of our journey, sometimes to part ways soon enough. Most of the time, we don’t get to know who the other person is, where he is from and where he’s going.

I’ve always been fascinated by gamer archetypes. No doubt most MMO players have heard and maybe taken the famous Bartle Test based on Richard Bartle, in search of a basic attempt to categorize their own playstyle in comparison to others. And while there is a lot more to be said about such categories and there are many more, complex aspects and variables factoring into a personal gamer profile, it is not a bad way to define four larger groups of players and player motivations. Most of all, there is a basic truth to be found here that we easily forget when we discuss our wishes and preferences. A truth that we might not even consider to be a reason for more fundamental disagreements between ourselves and other players; be it that we loathe skipping parts of a dungeon in a party, be it that we come to entirely different conclusions on our blogs sometime. We are different; and this reaches a lot further than just the mere subject of subjectivity, or things like demographic and external factors. We come from a different place and we are headed into a different direction. Everything we discover on the way, we look at with different eyes. We might simply not share the same gamer “blood type”.

It is an intriguing thought that more than anything else, it is fundamentally diverging intrinsics that present MMO developers with their greatest design challenges. While many aspects of game design can be discussed objectively and only leave room for few or even one best solution, different gamer blood types are an inevitable fact, an undeniable reality to deal with.

When I took the Bartle Test for the first time, I was surprised at the accuracy of my result. Sure, the questionnaire is rather straightforward and predictable in places – that’s not really the point though. I never attempted to profile myself or my gaming buddies in such a way before. We always knew there were discrepancies in our playstyles here and there, but we never thought to try and pin them down in such fashion, evaluating basic mindsets and outlook. The test was a good laugh too, and a lot got clearer as each of us received a spot on analyzis. I can say for myself that my outcome couldn’t be truer, especially in terms of percentage spread.

The test never gets old. Now that we see so many interesting, basic discussions on MMO design while an increasing part of the audience is turning away from WoW, I feel it has regained some significance. If you’ve never taken it, I suggest you have a go sometime out of curiosity if nothing else. It’s not too long and a fun thing to do on a boring Monday morning. Maybe it will sharpen your sense for other people you play with in MMOs a little, be it a guild mate or simply random acquaintance, and remind you that while the water on the table cannot be denied, we all want it for different reasons and to do different things.

As for the achiever, killer, socializer and explorer in my little tale – I leave it to you to spot them.

On the subject of subjectivity

Several weeks ago I discussed the ending and entire first season of A Game of Thrones, the adapted TV series from George R. Martin’s fantasy classic, with two of my best friends. One of them has been a big fan of the author’s for many years; the other was mostly curious and in for the ride. As for myself, I watch pretty much anything that comes with a high fantasy label on it and promises an above-average production quality and cast.

As we drew our final conclusions, we didn’t necessarily agree on what we liked/hated the most about the series. I for one, felt that it had had a very slow start, picking up on pace and depth only after the 3rd or so episode. I also found the script somewhat lacking in places. However, I absolutely loved the setting, the care that had gone into authenticity and atmosphere – that alone justified keeping watching for me, and then there was the character of Tyrion, so brilliantly depicted by its actor, a joy to observe. Unlike me, my book-savvy mate loved the pilot and first few episodes the most. His overall praise was all on how the film makers had respected the original material and how well a lot of it has been put onto screen. I’ve no way to judge this because while I did read the books a long time ago, I frankly didn’t enjoy them at the time (don’t tell him) and so I’ve forgotten most. As for my other friend, he did apparently not notice the dialogues, nor does he care for nice settings in general; he loved the gore and naked skin and that “Sean Bean lost his head in the end!” Right…

Subjectivity can be a beautiful thing. Despite the fact that we all enjoyed different aspects of the series, we arrived at the conclusion that we definitely want to watch the second season when it comes out. We had fun with the first and never did it come to our mind to try battle each other over which one of us had truly found “the correct or better reason” to enjoy the series. How pointless and silly would that be?

For the film makers, the outcome couldn’t have been more successful; instead of only appealing to the book nerd, or the fantasy geek or Conan, they managed to get all three types for an audience. Had they focused on just one of us instead (not to call this a realistic option in this context, but anyway), they’d have cut down their success by 66% and might never afford that announced sequel. As for us – we would’ve had a lot less to talk about together and missed out on the chance to share an experience. I don’t believe I would prefer to watch the series all by myself.

Why we gravitate towards absolute truths (and think we have them)

It’s human nature to assume that our own needs and values are essential and absolute. That’s how we start out in life and got by for a very long time, on a more primal level where survival is a struggle and everyone needs to push through his own needs first. While resources are limited, everyone else is the enemy.

Today, we are a lot more cultivated than that. For one, we don’t live in caves anymore and we enjoy the luxury of having our food carried over for us from across the planet. We still have slaves, but we call them “third world” people, as we enjoy our first-world after-work cocktail at 5AM in the afternoon. We can afford to relax about social pecking orders, a little, and we can dare to switch perspectives – as long as we’re on the safe side and it’s halfway agreeable (there be dragons). Oh yes, a lot more cultivated.

For all our displayed culture and intellectualism, we’re not so far away from our cavemen ancestors. We’re still the most important person in the world and have to be, and we’re still kinda right when others are wrong. Most of all we are still subjects and as such subjective. It’s harder to disagree with yourself than with others, objectively speaking.

Why we don’t want absolute truths (even when we think we do)

When we’re discussing video games, design aspects and what developer teams “should and shouldn’t do” (for us) in our future MMOs, we can only ever hold our stance from a very individual point of view. We’re convinced of what we call fun or challenging or meaningful because it’s fun and challenging and meaningful for us. We play the same MMO, but we do not necessarily play the same game, so our strong opinions easily clash with others. However, it’s exactly this diversity that makes MMOs such a great experience. Yes, I actually believe that.

MMOs are vast worlds, by nature appealing to more than one type of player. And while I am pretty sure I know what I want from them, I’m not sure I’d like things always designed completely in my favor. Frankly, if I was to determine the “3 top focuses” of the next game in development, I wonder if that would really make for a lasting experience. Would I feel entertained enough to play it for months on end?

I myself am no gamer “stereotype”: some days I’m a raider, a theory crafter, a guild leader. On other days I’m a PVPer, utterly uninterested in PVE. I am an explorer always, looking for the next ingame secret, special landmark or beautiful tune. And then I am happy enough to spend a few hours on wardrobe as I chitchat away with friends in guildchat. Those friends again have different priorities than me but they’re an essential part to my gaming experiences – I want friends to be there with me.

So, how am I supposed to find one definition for viable gameplay motivations? Even for myself?
Absolute truths don’t necessarily make for fun games. They certainly don’t make for diverse games and p(l)ayer bases, or even for a game you would enjoy long-term no matter how clearly you perceive your own factors of enjoyment (this moment in time). Maybe you want to eat a Filet Mignon today, but do you also know how to prepare the best one possible? And would you like to eat it ever day, all by yourself?

MMOs have room; they have room for a multitude of playstyles and different players – players with different moods, preferences and priorities. That diversity is part of their selling point, letting us enjoy many facets and thus find something to do for years. It keeps our servers populated too, because it offers room for change and choices. Our disagreements encourage developers to maintain diversity and choices in their games. Did you ever think about it that way?

We can’t define what should be enjoyable to every type of MMO player. We shouldn’t even try and define it too much for ourselves, in an all-exclusive kind of way. This is why we cannot agree on fundamental aspects like “fun”, “challenge” or “meaning” in discussions either; the only thing we can agree on is that “having fun” means that a person is enjoying himself in some shape or form; that he’s having a good time and that this personal, positive outcome justifies his choices for him. Choices which are just as good as ours. Whether we’re watching movies together, playing games or ordering from the breakfast menu, we have valid preferences and motivations that govern our personal choices. If you love mushrooms with your Full English and I don’t, that doesn’t make me any “better” than you. It doesn’t mean mushrooms are lacking nutrition either, just because I happen not to care for them.

MMO players who find fun and meaning where I cannot, are not my opponents. While we might enjoy different things, there’s one thing all of us have in common: we want to enjoy ourselves in online games. We want online games to become the best they can be – and that is something that should unite us.
Now, if some of our wishes seem diametrically opposed, well that’s when I turn to developers: to create games that make room for everybody. For choices, for variety, for alternative, yet equally valid roads we can only benefit from.

In “A Beautiful Mind”, the biographic tale of John Nash’s life and his discovery of the governing dynamics theory, the ideal outcome of a game is being redefined in this not-so-serious analogy; the bottom line being that when looking for summary success (rather than a mutually exclusive approach), players should strive for solutions that are the best for as many as possible, rather than best for one individual. Transferring this philosophy to MMO game design, it means that we all benefit from games that appeal to a variety of players, rather than just one or two. It means that there can be subcultures and niches, all equally satisfied by the same game allowing its player base to define fun and meaning for themselves.

One of the biggest, monumental achievements of World of Warcraft 1.0. was uniting countless gamer types under one banner like no other MMO ever had before; there was something here for everybody! Not everything for everybody maybe, but something for all of us. Sadly, as is often the case, things started to change when WoW became so obviously successful. Today, it doesn’t feel as if the game still means to appeal to the same big crowd – in fact, it’s become rather clear that when Blizzard say “we want to make the game fun for the most players”, what they’re actually saying is “we want to make the game most fun to a group of players”. Apparently they have found the definition for fun in WoW? And so they take choices away from the audience, ultimately losing many of them (losing more and more of them still). There’s no room any more for all of us in Azeroth.

Their entire reasoning is of course a fallacy; they have not in fact achieved to appeal to “the most players”, current quantitative evidence speaks against that. Instead, they’ve reduced the room to co-exist in WoW, they’ve chosen to focus everything on somebody. From a financial viewpoint that makes hardly any sense either: there’s no such thing as making your audience pay for more than one subscription per month. If you want to increase profits, you need to create space for many, equally happy people.

Why my house is still your house

We are not competitors. None of us are in a race for the exclusive formula for fun, challenge or meaning. We don’t make MMOs worlds any more enjoyable by dismissing a variety of playstyles – and we shouldn’t have to. Developers are in charge of how much room their virtual worlds can offer to the audience, of just how wide they want to open the floodgates. They’re the ones responsible to prioritize and balance content – let them fight over how to achieve this. Easy or not, one thing is for certain: we get better games and more colorful communities if they manage this balancing act. If they succeed to create an MMO that defines as much as necessary, as little as possible. Where the player base can be more than mere consumers and all add to the world instead.

I want to live in a bazaar, rather than a cathedral. I prefer the house with different windows and paints, with arches and funny corners, secret tunnels and weird trees. Not a house built after a harmonized plan on paper, finalized a long time ago. I want to explore a garden where wild things keep growing and the next bend in the road is ever unexpected. I want my MMOs to be mazes and bottomless pits.

May be you are an avid RPer, taking joy from things like player housing and cosmetic items. May be you’re a raider who gets kicks out of optimizing his stats and gear. Or maybe you’re a PVPer, looking to gank both the RPer and the raider for equal reasons. Either way, we should be able to live in the same place – even if just to meet someday at a crossroad, to exchange a fleeting glance as we pass down the way.

If the house gets too small, it’s not the people in the room who are the problem.
I will see you there, I hope.