Digits & Dragons
Don't Be Alone for the Holidays
For most of us, the approach of the holidays means more time for gaming. With so many great
games out this year there is no excuse for spending precious gaming time on something lame like
cleaning your room or eating, much less on a game you don't enjoy! The dynamic nature of
massively multiplayer games ensures that once you find a game you are happy with, you aren't
likely to get sick of it quickly. In fact, the entire financial basis of these games is not just to get
you to buy the game off the shelf, but to keep you happy (and paying!) as long as possible.
Ultima Online, EVE Online and World of Warcraft are three such games that aim to keep you
playing far longer than your holiday break.
The Mother of All Space Games
When I played the Wing Commander series I always wished I could move beyond the borders of
the defined maps and explore the far off planets and stars. As much as I loved the dogfighting,
the appeal of space is primarily the chance to explore. When I first heard of EVE Online, I hoped
it would give me the opportunity to do just that. I certainly did find a game with great
exploration possibilities, but EVE also encourages a lot of human relationships which, while they
can be warm and inviting at times, often turn cold as space. As I soon discovered, EVE will
either hook you for a long time or quickly leave you void of interest.
A player's reaction to EVE will really depend on how much time he can commit to the game. If
you like games that will let you get in some instant action when you have some free moments,
EVE is probably not for you. Right now, that probably includes me; I simply don't have the long
periods of time online that really are required to do much in EVE. For example, most of your
adventures require you to travel many solar systems away. In the time it would take me to travel
to my next destination I would fix something to eat, respond to an email, and answer a few phone
calls. It's hard to stay mentally involved with games that have so much dead time.
Over 60 beautifully rendered ships are available.
These massive travel times are explained by the enormous universe in which EVE takes place. I
was awed when I first saw the star map showing all the places I could go. No mountains to
climb over, no oceans to walk around, just wide open space. If you have ever wondered what it
is like in space, I can sum up my experience of space travel in EVE: beautiful and often boring.
No wonder they always put deep-space astronauts to sleep in the movies.
Despite the dull moments, space has never looked so beautiful, and you will have plenty of time
to enjoy it as you spend a LOT of time just traveling. I was surprised to see such refined graphics
from a smaller developer; CCP Games of Iceland has really done a great job on the visuals.
Maybe there's something about living close to the Arctic Circle that inspires creative thinking
about the final frontier.
When you aren't warping through the universe on errands, you can work your way into a
corporation, which is the coolest and most unique part of the game. These corporations are a lot
like guilds from other games, but while they do give you a group of players to socialize with and
fight alongside, they go a lot further. Corporations seek to imitate the "real" business world by
giving you the option to buy shares, vote on propositions, and rise within the ranks of leadership.
For those living the Dilbert life, I know this type of organization is exactly what some players
seek to run away from when they come online, but I find it fascinating. Interacting with other
people, gaining ranks, helping out the team--this is what keeps me playing multiplayer games.
Why more games haven't emphasized this surprises me; when players feel needed, they continue
to play. And for MMOs, that means players continue to pay.
A great example of EVE's flexibility and the social dynamics that occur in the world came in a
massive heist earlier this year. The corporate structure of the game allows for a lot of fun and
profit, but it also allows for the darker side of humanity to play a major role in relationships. In
other words, it's a lot like being in a real corporation.
In what has become a famous story to online gamers, a group of mercenaries known as the
Guided Hand Social Club spent nearly a year infiltrating a large corporation and gaining
positions of trust. The Guided Hand had been contracted to assassinate the leader of this
corporation, but their execution of this contract went far beyond the original terms. When all of
The Guided Hand's operatives were in place, they initiated a massive assault that not only
fulfilled their assignment but resulted in damages to the corporation on an unprecedented scale.
Such blatantly evil in-game acts have certainly caused a lot of players to quit playing, but despite
this loss, EVE's open-ended environment has attracted many players looking for a new and
socially complex game.
Not many games can compare to EVE Online's social and economic flexibility, but these options
come at the price of quick action. If this trade-off is worth it for you, I would definitely
recommend trying this futuristic society simulator.
A Return to Britannia
Ultima has been a major part of my gaming psyche since I first played Ultima 6 in 1992.
Looking back, it was probably my first experience with any sort of role playing game and the
flexibility I found in this new world engrossed me. Just as Ultima 6 was the gateway to my love
of RPGs, Ultima Online went on to become the gateway for many to persistent online RPGs.
Ultima Online was one of the first massive online games and it shows. Despite a number of
excellent updates, the graphics are obviously dated and even the so called "3-d interface" is
nothing like the 3-d environments you'll find in modern games like Guild Wars and World of
Warcraft. Still, UO has shown remarkable tenacity and despite player numbers dropping, there
is still enough of an interest to keep expansions coming out and the world surviving.
Thanks to a rich history preceding UO and something like seven expansions, there is a ridiculous
number of monsters and items. Add in the expansive skill set and huge world and you have a
game that you won't get bored with anytime soon. One of my favorite additions from these
expansions is the ability to design and build custom homes. Your home becomes a large part of
the game as you seek to fill it with all the latest treasures you acquire. Just like reality, showing
off stuff in your home gives you a feeling of accomplishment and justification for the countless
hours you spend in mundane tasks!
This house is an example of one of Brittania's better homes and gardens!
Another major improvement implemented through the expansions has been creating a better
new-user experience. There is now a safe little starting area where you can get used to the
interface before you go out into the "real world." This is a nice addition but there is still only
one way to really get a feel for the world, and that is to set out exploring. Hopefully you will
fare better than I did on my early days exploring. Upon first playing the game, my computer was
so slow and the lag so bad, I wouldn't even see dragons before they killed me. Getting killed by
something is bad enough, but without seeing it? Yet for some reason I played on.
The appeal Ultima Online has for me comes in large part from the long Ultima legacy the world
is based on. After playing many of the games in the Ultima series, I practically have the world
map memorized and the cities and dungeons feel almost like home. This love of the Ultima
world, Britannia, helped me and many other Ultima Online players get over the initial issues of
lag, exploits, and annoying players.
While establishing an alternate reality complete with history, culture, and rules is difficult, it has
proven to be worth the investment in creating successful games. Ultima Online did this very
well as did the current online superpower, World of Warcraft.
The Winner of the Online War
As cool as all of these other games are, if you are playing a MMO right now, chances are it is
World of Warcraft. And you're not alone; 4.5 million others are visitors to Azeroth, the fantasy
world created 10 years ago with the original Warcraft. WoW has truly been a blockbuster title,
making hundreds of millions and bringing MMOs to the mainstream.
Why has World of Warcraft been so ridiculously successful? Well, you can just about look at the
game as a model for how to succeed in the online game industry. Among the many new MMOs
that have been released and forgotten, World of Warcraft quickly dominated the market and is
continuing to make huge profits.
For the millions like me who enjoyed the original Warcraft: Orcs and Humans or its sequels,
World of Warcraft feels very familiar. I'm sure I wasn't the first to be delighted when, upon
clicking lazy peons, I got the familiar response, "Something need doing?" The world Blizzard
has created is replete with references to previous games as well as to pop culture. Building on a
rich and familiar atmosphere has allowed Blizzard to focus more on overcoming the unique
problems of multiplayer worlds.
Being a latecomer to the MMO market has been a tremendous advantage to World of Warcraft.
As cool as the game is, a lot of what it has done right has been just what other online games have
done right. After all, why test out new features on a market if you can simply improve the
features that other games have found effective?
Ultima Online was the first multiplayer game I played that let me create my own weapons and
armor. Like many players, I loved it and I now expect it to be in the multiplayer games I play.
Blizzard recognizes this and crafting is a small, but cool part of their world. Instancing is
another example of a technique not unique to Blizzard, but perfected by them. By unabashedly
picking the best features from already developed games, and then giving them a Blizzard touch
up, World of Warcraft was a guaranteed success.
It is a pretty simple fact in gaming: the bigger your player market, the greater your chance for
profit. As much fun as I've had playing EVE Online or Anarchy Online, these complicated
games just aren't going to appeal to new or casual gamers. Further, games like Ultima Online
and Everquest have become too stagnant for hardcore players to keep playing.
One of the many ingredients in World of Warcraft's success has been the game's accessibility.
The game can be a fun and simple dungeon crawl for casual players, or, for the hardcore, there
are plenty of player vs. player opportunities or advanced and challenging dungeons. There is
even a Macintosh version to appeal to that small but vocal group of Apple gamers.
World of Warcraft is certainly the king of online gaming right now and doesn't look to be
loosening its orcish grip on the title any time soon. It is sad to see many smaller companies
shutting down because their players have all moved to WoW, but I think in the long run, Blizzard
has raised the bar for massive online games and has certainly increased the number of gamers
Massively multiplayer online games are a lot of fun and the excitement that comes from playing
with others can be addicting. Still, single player games have certainly not lost their place and
continue to be the best way to experience an immersive and emotive story. Oh, and don't think
single games can't be massive either. If you want a game for the holidays you won't be finished
with soon, try Civilization IV or Bethesda's Morrowind. They'll both keep you gaming till long
after the fire burns out.