What makes a Virtual World “Worldy”?

I’ve seen three posts over the last day, none of which are directly on the same subject, but all of which seem to touch into one question – what makes a virtual world feel solid and real? What makes people believe in a world and work with it, or separate from that world and work against it and the developers?

This is an unusual post for the Pot, in that we’re not really rounding up three posts on the same subject – but all of them have such strong ties to the same point that I felt they deserved to be talked about in comparison to each other. So, here goes – let me know what you think!

First up, Spinks discusses the recent scandal in the kids’ MMO game Habbo Hotel, where user-generated sexual content seems likely to damage or even close the enormously popular game down in one fell swoop

“The only game I can think of that was as sex dominated as this sounds was Second Life, and even there it sounded relatively easy to get away from the cybering. So maybe there’s something about ungamified virtual worlds that just descends to the lowest common denominator.

Sad but true. I think any future ventures along these lines will have to require real names or allow private servers where the groups running the game can impose their own gatekeeping.

Or maybe there is something about gamers and gaming MMOs that focusses interactions in other directions. Maybe gamers are generally more interested in progression than what’s in your pants iRL.”

This is an interesting development for MMOs in general – and has been a huge problem for non-genre, non-conflict-centered sandbox games before – Sims Online shut down amidst talk of in-game brothels, and Second Life is infamous for its, erm, adult culture, which I can personally attest is hard to avoid in the open world. I’m not sure I’d call either Sims Online or Habbo Hotel “ungamified”, since they have/had game mechanics in them. And yet other games don’t have anywhere near as much of a sexuality overrun – in WoW it’s pretty much restricted to one tavern, for example. Why?

As Spinks mentions, gaming culture in general may foster a less sexualised atmosphere – although the well-known issues with gamer culture would argue against that. Maybe it’s just that worlds like Sims Online and Second Life aren’t actually worlds, or at least not convincingly different worlds, and so there’s neither a pressing goal nor an expectation of behaviour?

And here’s where we come to the second blog post in this roundup – Pewter’s discussion of what does and doesn’t make an MMO world feel like it has a soul

“What is ‘soul’ again?

I seem to have defined it here as ‘having an emotional centre’, but that is a very ambiguous phrase. Does a game have soul if it was crafted and created with love and passion, or because the designers created a stage suitable for the enactment of ritual, friendship, and emotional highs and lows? I suspect it’s a little of both. There is a tendency to see large companies as faceless entities, with games created by committee with revenue models in mind, and to forget about the passionate individuals that want to create games they want to play. Yet the biggest MMO of all probably has more soul in it, invested by millions of players and thousands of developers and contributors, than the smaller game that is attempting to evolve the MMO genre.

Hence the magic of social features. Rift remains quietly successful and has fabulous social features and connectivity, and many MMO bloggers continue to praise Trion, and I suspect I would find the game a much more emotionally charged experience if I were to start playing it again now. At the moment the personal story in Guild Wars 2 leaves much to be desired, and the emotional connection for me comes from discovering a more motion-based combat style, and hearing of the struggles of Charr females and Norn women. I have no clue if that will persist for me once the game goes live, or if I will find the launch day game lacking in emotional centre. Whether a game is Soulless or not is certainly not an objective thing, in my opinion. ”

This is interesting, related stuff – not directly related to the above post, but once again discussing the “catch” of a game. Are you drawn into its world? Do you perceive its quests as quests, or as important things to do? All the MMOs that ended up sex-dominated above lack a coherent virtual world at all, and end up with decidedly non-game behaviour – but is another non-game behaviour simply failing to buy into the fiction and quitting?

All of this funnels neatly into a discussion of a game that doesn’t rely on its fictional world, per se, or its storyline at all, except the meta-storyline of the players. EVE is a fascinating bridge between these two posts – it’s not a game with a fiction-based emotional center at all, really, and player behaviour in-game is highly emergent, but not at all in the usual “let’s just cyber” direction. And 9 years (!) after launch, it’s still as vibrant and as unpredictable as ever.

That’s why I’m closing this roundup off with a look at the latest shenanigans in EVE – in-game political maneuverings that might be seen as exploiting game mechanics, but that somehow fit perfectly into EVE’s half-real, half-virtual culture and gameplay. In this case, the infamous Goonswarm appear to have temporarily bitten off more than they can chew

“I myself found it quite amusing. The ally system was built for this exact circumstance: allow a lesser-powered entity to defend itself against a more powerful aggressor. This is what those that have been asking for balance in war-decs have been asking for for years: a means to defend themselves when they are not as strong as the corp war-dec’ing them. If a 9000-man alliance declares war on a 100-man alliance, what is the smaller entity supposed to do other than recruit thousands of allies of their own? Try to fight on their own? Ha.

What CCP clearly didn’t plan on was someone literally chaining themselves to such a war-dec and then selling the ability to shoot the aggressor as a service!(1) A couple of people had this idea before Jade, but Jade was the first person to put it into actual practice, and to get results with it. Hundreds — maybe even thousands — of EVE players moved to ally themselves with The Star Fraction lured by the promise of Goon kill reports and the ability to laugh at the Goons en masse. Initially, Jade was open to Goon surrender… for five billion ISK per ally he recruited. Once it was clear how successful this was going to be, though, Jade declared that the mutual war and the free ally membership for anyone who wanted in on it would go on… forever.

In the first 48 hours of this unexpectedly massive “foreverwar”, the Goons started losing ships at a hysterical rate. Suddenly realizing that they had a tiger by the tail and finding that they couldn’t cast off the mutual war chains linking them to The Star Fraction without using the new surrender mechanics, the Goons did something rather un-Goon-like. They panicked. Some, in fact, would say that they whined. In a game that historically has consequences — most of them bad — they tried to make the case that this was a consequence that CCP did not intend. Consequences are bad, right?”

I’m increasingly starting to believe that there’s a strong argument for EVE, not WoW, as the most successful – and certainly the most unique – MMO ever. Just what is its secret sauce?

What does make a virtual world an immersable world?