The Vision is Dead, Long Live the New Vision

The long foretold and overdue demise of Sigil has started to give the MMO community something to think about for The World After Sigil™.  Though many may say The Vision™ is alive and well as manifested in Vanguard and other games, or would have been, but for Sigil and Brad McQuaid’s failure to execute, others are reading Sigil’s failure as simply a failure of The Vision, a set of ideas overtaken by events in the MMO world.

Tobold has a good post on this topic that raises a number of great points.  A lot of this topic has been visited in a series of threads that started in response to Brent at Virgin Worlds’ thoughts about “next-gen” MMOs which rippled out across the MMOGosphere around the time Vanguard was released (and I’m sure before as well).  Many of those ideas are particularly resonant here and now with Sigil’s complete implosion.

A couple of items leap out at me from Tobold’s post and echo a few of my own ideas (none of which are particularly my own, but I’ve adopted them):

There are still lots of challenges to overcome, things to achieve, but these aren’t so linear from easiest to hardest any more. There is no more defined “top” to reach, no more “end-game”, but instead there are many different and equally valid tops to reach in different categories, plus lots of goals that players set themselves. There are many stories to experience, and gameplay is more story-driven. … And most importantly by [not] having everything strictly level-based, there should be more opportunities for players to play together. Not because the game forces them to, but because the game doesn’t stop them from playing together just because they don’t spent the same amount of time in the game.

What many of the pro-Vision comments focus on is group-centricity as the sine qua non of the MMO experience.  In their view, that’s what the two M’s are for.  The new crop of successful games (in which I’d include games like WoW, EQ2-post-EoF, LotRO, etc.) teaches us is that group oriented content and gameplay is an option, not a requirement.

The quintessential characteristic of today’s successful games is persistence of identity.  Read all the MMOG Blogs.  People are writing about their characters—their experiences, their achievements, their setbacks and yes, their interactions with groups of players.  They are in effect creating a narrative with themselves in the central role.  It’s a narrative is a group setting, but an individual narrative nonetheless.  This is the oft overlooked little “r” in RPG.  The supremacy and relevance to the player of the individual experience is what has made these “successful” games successful and “soloability” a key “feature”.

People like overcoming challenges sure, especially ones which they couldn’t individually, but what they really like is creating an individual identity for their characters and developing it over time.  All character development is solo be it levels, skills, loot, whatever.  I haven’t seen a game yet where by being a member of a group, and solely because of belonging to that group, my character has a fundamentally different identity.  Witness the so-called success of Second Life which is tantamount to playing paper dolls in a red light district or the success of other “venues of virtual identity” like MySpace, etc.

Tobold’s point about story-driven gameplay is important.  The best quest lines in EQ2, WoW and LotRO are story driven.  Characters play a central role in them and the lore embraces them.  Stories are linear, and linearity gives a framework and context for characters to create their own narrative.  Too much linearity and you don’t have a virtual world, you have a puzzle which once unlocked offers little by way of immersion or replayability.  Too little linearity and you have “no point” to the game—just a series of disconnected challenges to surmount without meaning or context.

Multiple story lines of character progression is IMHO the key to breaking the level-to-endgame trap.  Assume, for example, a game has 5 “epic” story lines in which players can participate each with 5 phases to progress through.  With the level-based advancement model, once a character has mastered one of these, his experience level is such that the first 4 phases of the other 4 stories is trivialized because they’re already past the point where there is any challenge to them. 

After my character has spent months becoming a veteran of the Orc wars, why would arcane pursuits come any easier to him?  Or to Tobold’s last point (and one of my constant points of frustration) why should phase 1 of “The Pursuit of Arcane Knowledge” be any more or less difficult for a player who plays a great deal versus one who plays little assuming neither has any proficiency or prior experience in this area?  Why shouldn’t they be able to participate in the same content with the same degree of challenge?

Experience as we now know it (as a proxy for meaningful character development), is the evil at the core of today’s games.  It just doesn’t make sense that if I simply killed 1 million foozles that I’m now somehow fit to be an Uber Woozle slayer.  I don’t recall any amount of boar slaying lore that I applied to our group’s fight against Archaedas in the bowels of Uldaman.  Now if I was going up against Agathelos, then I assume I would have been well prepared.  Not so with a mere XP-based system.  Like they say in golf, the little ones count as much as the big ones.  1 XP from a foozle or 1XP from Onyxia is still 1XP.  That just doesn’t make sense.

Without experience, then how to provide an increasingly difficult challenges without trivializing all content below the challenge level?  That is indeed the question.  Doesn’t a skill based system have the potential to do the same, albeit in a more limited capacity? (i.e., Once a Master Orc-slayer, aren’t all Orcs trivialized?  Or if they’re not, what good is being a Master Orc-slayer?).  If implemented properly, I don’t think so.  I could envision several skill based developmental progression models that are complemented by other-world challenges in which specialized skills may be useful, but not necessarily required, in concert.  What a different place it would be.

The take away, if you’ve made it this far, is that Sigil and Vanguard, even with their fundamental internal flaws, were, IMHO, pursuing the wrong Vision.  If the story of Sigil and Vanguard teach us nothing else, it time to get serious about The New Vision and bring the genre into the next generation.

One thought on “The Vision is Dead, Long Live the New Vision”

  1. Excellent post. Experience-based systems that are at the core of almost all MMO today definitely need to be challenged. However, I am not sure that they should be removed completely because they, somehow, allow players to have some freedom in their advancement and ignore some zones, mobs, … without being too penalized for that.
    Skill based systems might be a solution but from I have seen of them so far, they end up too frequently in boring grinding of each skills and even more repetitive actions that killing orcs.
    What I would see as a very good solution to enhance current MMO would be to add a parallel system of advancement based on achievements rather than on xp. This would not mean to drop xp systems completely but simply to allow players to have a “xp-based” level and an “adventuring-based” level that would reflect its accomplishment (quests, exploration, …)

    This is an easy way to reward players for making use of in-game contents and group/raid quests. Today whether you get to max level by killing wolves (gray wolves, then rabid wolves, then very mean rabid wolves, …) or by exploring the world and doing quests does not matter though it should. And it would also help to give more meaning to the end-game item grinding; max (xp) level player still have some clear in-game objective to

    Non MMO RGP have sometimes tried the concept like the % scenario completion in FF X-2, even if they was no specific reward for that. This is still a way to drive players and give them a sense of accomplishment instead of “great 50 more pink orcs to the next level and then I will switch to 100 death spiders for the next one – and I don’t bother to do quest with other morons because they will only slow my uber-progression schedule”

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