Are MMO’s supposed to be boring? It sounds like a foolish question. We naturally assume being boring is a bad thing. I have seen a number of comments by people who have pointed out aspects of Dual Universe that they consider boring. Whether is it the length of time space travel takes, the need to mine resources manually or the limit on the weapons one person can operate, they all stress that unless these sources of boredom are eliminated, no one will want to play the game. Perhaps they are right, but it might also be that in a certain sense, MMO’s should be boring.
One of the most significant statements about MMO’s was made by Nancy MacIntyre, Senior Director for Star Wars Galaxies at LucasArts. Many people are familiar with her remarks, but since it is relevant to my ideas, I would like to quote the complete statement.
“We really just needed to make the game a lot more accessible to a much broader player base. There was lots of reading, much too much, in the game. There was a lot of wandering around learning about different abilities. We really needed to give people the experience of being Han Solo or Luke Skywalker rather than being Uncle Owen, the moisture farmer. We wanted more instant gratification: kill, get treasure, repeat. We needed to give people more of an opportunity to be a part of what they have seen in the movies rather than something they had created themselves.”
The attitude behind this statement has been a guiding principle for most MMO’s that followed. In my opinion, it has led them in the wrong direction. Fortunately, everything I know about Dual Universe makes it apparent it will be one of the few that reject this ill-conceived notion.
The statement about SWG could be summarised as the game was boring and had to be changed. Reading it made me wonder why being Uncle Owen would be considered more boring than being Luke Skywalker. The game did not actually offer the occupation of moisture farmer, but if it had, it probably would have been similar to the other forms of resource gathering that did exist. These involved searching for the resources by following different concentrations of them to a rich location, building the equipment for extraction and periodically picking up the resources the equipment had collected. Eventually, the resources in one location would be depleted and the process started over. This required going into areas where the player risked attacks by NPC’s and, if they were flagged for it, other players. It was not a mindless, repetitious activity, so why was it seen as boring?
It might be that the importance we associate with an action affects how we experience it. Maybe believing something is inconsequential makes it seem boring, regardless of what is actually required to do it. This would be consistent with preferring to be Luke Skywalker over Uncle Owen. Being the hero who saves the world and changes history is definitely more important than being a moisture farmer.
The big problem is that MMO’s are not really suited to making people heroes. Heroes are important because they accomplish what ordinary people can not. In a single or small party game, this is easy because everyone else is an NPC. The game can be programmed so the whole world responds to the players’ actions. In an MMO, there is typically a huge number of other players doing the same heroic actions, so the MMO is designed to either disguise or ignore what those other players are doing. Ironically, to create the illusion every player is important, they actually make everything players do insignificant.
Of course, we may have been wrong to consider moisture farmers unimportant. Individually they may not matter, but a large number of them could turn a dry, lifeless planet into a thriving world. There does not even need to be some powerful organisation managing this. The transformation of the planet could be the result of a multitude of moisture farmers each trying to make a profit on their own. Having large numbers of people to accomplish things is an advantage all MMO’s have over other kinds of games, but most of them waste it.
In an MMO that uses that advantage, the kind of MMO I expect Dual Universe to be, amazing things can happen, things the developers did not plan and the players did not expect. However, the small actions that combine to let them happen may seem insignificant and boring by themselves. To me, the solution is adopt a point of view that appreciates the vast scope an MMO should have and not to sacrifice the collective power of players for the illusion of excitement.
Playing SWG did become more like being in a movie, but instead of saving it, many people consider that change the principle reason it failed. Why was it assumed an MMO should be like a movie? Star Wars began with a movie, but basing a work in one medium on something that originated in another always requires some adaptation. No one would take the script from a movie and sell it as a novel. However, what was seen as missing in SWG was not a characteristic that was unique to movies.
Another way of looking at the change in SWG is that it made the player feel like the protagonist. Having a protagonist, a main character, is considered a requirement not just for movies, but for all forms of fiction. It seems reasonable to assume MMO’s should also have a protagonist, but it is not possible without a lot of trickery that undermines the purpose of being an MMO.
Perhaps it is more appropriate to compare MMO’s to works of non-fiction, like histories, than to other forms of fiction. While it may identify some individuals as more significant, good historical writing does not have protagonists. It does not favor one person’s point of view, but tries to capture the collective activity of everyone who lived in a period, whether they were considered important or not. Ideally, playing an MMO should create a fictional history.
If you are tempted to request changing some feature of Dual Universe to make it less boring, ask yourself what you want to do in the game. Will you be satisfied to act out someone else’s story or do you want to make history yourself?