Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Digits & Dragons
  by Greg Allen
October 2005

Storytelling on a Massive Scale

WARNING: Massively Multiplayer Games can be Ridiculously Addicting

One of the biggest changes in the way we play games and interact with others online has been the explosion of massively multiplayer online games or MMOGs. It's easy to see why they have become so popular: the competition and teamwork created in these games are strong enough to keep you playing long after you would tire of a single player adventure.

As in the "real world," actions in MMOGs are both long-lasting and affect more than just the player alone. While the inability to simply reset the state of a game may keep some away, for many it brings a feeling of excitement and investment that makes these games extremely addictive.

And addictive they are! As a recovered Ultima Online addict I know just how immersive these games can be. These online worlds can be time-consuming not just because of the hours you spend attached to your chair, mouse in one hand and pizza in the other, but they also take mental time throughout your whole day. While you are in school, at work, at the beach, whatever, the world is always there, still changing, still calling to you.

It's been a couple of years since I broke the Ultima chain and haven't been too involved in MMOGs since. As I started getting back into these games, I was especially interested to see how story telling had developed in these games and if this aspect would keep players involved as much as the purely social or competitive factors.

Among the hundreds of MMOGs out there are a number that stand out for their popularity, uniqueness, or depth. We'll look at three of them this month and several more next month.

Anarchy Online

A chaotic clash of new ideas

Now THAT's a sword!
As much as I love fantasy role playing games, the magic, swords, and elves do get a little repetitive. Enter Anarchy Online. Breaking the mold of most MMOGs, Anarchy Online takes place 20-something thousand years in the future on a very foreign planet. On Rubi-Ka, I didn't find little dwarves running around with ale on their beards, but I did find plenty of guns, aliens, and a very fresh world to explore.

Anarchy Online has been around since 2001 and although I heard plenty about it, I didn't actually start playing till early this summer. The first thing I noticed is that this game is NOT anything like the other MMOGs on the market. The world created by Funcom is extremely complex; even after a few months of casual playing I felt I was only beginning to scratch its surface.

If pumpkin heads and big guns are your thing, this game is for you!
If you like character customization you should have fun here. I began the game by choosing one of four different "breeds" which determined some of my strengths and weaknesses. I chose to play the large but stupid and genderless Atrox and selected a fittingly brutish head and large stature. Then, after picking a profession and race, I was off to Rubi-Ka!

Quests and missions are done in a pretty unique way in Anarchy Online. Whenever you want, you or a team can stop by a machine that generates a mission: retrieve something, kill someone, or a variety of other goals. This is nice because you can feel as if you have accomplished something in a short time, but I was left feeling a little empty and disconnected by these very artificial tasks.

Graphics are obviously dated and action is a little slow, but the extremely customizable user interface and ridiculously-huge range of items and weapons make up for some of that. If you are looking for a simple quick reflex game, stick with Flash advertisements because AO probably isn't the best choice; this is a world that you could spend months exploring and still find new things to do. If nothing else, you can download and play Anarchy Online free until 2007!

Guild Wars

Bringing single player stories to a massive world.

Holy crap, this is an addicting game. It was a Friday night in September, my girlfriend was gone for the weekend and my roommate and I thought it would be a prime opportunity for a little bit of gaming. Well, after installing Guild Wars, that "little bit" turned into an 8 hour binge of butt-glued-to-chair multiplayer goodness. This game is so engrossing my roommate literally didn't leave his chair the entire session. He's not even a game freak, really! (Or so he says…) Guild Wars combines the best of the action RPG and MMO genres with its gigantic map, instanced dungeons, and fast combat.

Guild Wars reduces lag and frustration using a technique that is becoming more and more popular, instancing. Instancing involves creating a local or unique version of a dungeon for each player or party. I didn't know how much I would like Guild Wars' instanced dungeon and world system; after all, isn't the point of MMOGs supposed to be interaction with tons of other characters? Well, interaction is a big part of these games, and GW certainly has that part with common areas and arenas, but I really fell in love with instancing once I saw how lag-less and idiot-less life was in my own little world.

You're going to want a group when things start looking like this!
Guild Wars does an excellent job of catering to a diverse range of players. For the hardcore, there is plenty of PVP and difficult assignments, but for beginners and casual gamers, you still won't feel like a complete weakling and can join up in a group for added strength. Speaking of groups, this is another area in which Guild Wars shines. The ability to mix human and computer allies means you will always be having a party on the battlefield. Our adventuring group consisted of two humans and two computer controlled characters and the combat AI was good enough that battles were intense and entertaining.

The graphics are pretty impressive, and as good as the world looks from above, there is a lot more detail than you'll initially notice from a high point of view. Zoom in to the first person view and you'll see every tooth on the ugly gargoyles' faces.

If she's cold, she certainly isn't letting it slow her down!
With no monthly fee and a lot of life left, Guild Wars is a great online extension of the action-rpg genre. The quick pace and story-driven world made this game my top pick from the three this month.

Dark Age of Camelot

There's a war and everyone's invited!

By combining constructive teamwork and destructive competition, Dark Age of Camelot is trying to wedge a place for itself in the saturated online fantasy genre. What really sets DAoC apart from the many others is its Realm-vs.-Realm combat where players gain glory and bonuses for their region by taking strategic points from other regions.

Tons of options for your man or beast.
Character customization is awesome. With three different realms, a number of races, and specialization within races you will definitely not feel like you are playing a cookie-cutter character. Add a great assortment of armaments and items and you have a pretty well fleshed-out world. Despite the mundane nature of many of the tasks and adventures (deliver this dirt, kill this rat, collect these flowers…), quests weren't purely random. Adventures are given by and related to the characters in the game. Connections with characters, real or not, are what worlds need to be immersive.

When I first heard of this Realm-vs-Realm idea I was pretty excited. Here, finally, was a way for players to feel like they were part of the world and to have a direct impact on society as a whole. Does it work? Well, it seems to. Battles are constantly raging and the effects of these really do carry through to other players in the realm. Yet the game still seems to be lacking… something. Perhaps it lacked the fast pace of Guild Wars, or the extreme customizability of Ultima Online or Anarchy Online, but I just wasn't as hooked as I have been with other online games.

Looking to the Future

Online games either hook you for months or leave you cold after a few days. This is readily explained by the ongoing nature of these games. Your time in them is really an investment. Once you have put in a lot of hours, you are bound to continue making use of your investment and improving on it. I experienced just this with Ultima Online, which I'll talk about more next month. After days of frustration that would normally turn me off of a game, I pressed on because I had already invested so much time in the world.

Of the three, only Guild Wars really grabbed me, but thankfully there are people with different tastes than I who are supporting these other games. While none of these games can touch the success World of Warcraft is having right now, each of them has a standing with unique, appealing features. Next month we will look at a few lesser known games and discuss how developers are using these online communities to keep players hooked in their worlds.

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