A Taste of Immortality: The Modern Fantasy of MMO’s

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While systems may change, the underlying appeal of Massive Multiplayer Online games is one of immortality. Immortality as an idea (and a fantasy) is as old as a man its self, and one woven into the fabric of modern MMO’s from Warhammer to Eve Online. It is an idea that cuts across genres because these games appeal to basic drives and represent a genre of games in themselves. There are certainly the exception to these “rules”, but most successful MMO’s use these basic tenets to appeal to their audience.

The real fantasy is one of immortality, and not just any type of immortality. Immortality in a “perfect world” where all a person’s dreams might come true. Note these basic similarities and see how close they are to your favorite MMO.

Eternal Youth with Constantly Growing Strength

Players aren’t just paying to fight monsters or one another. They are paying for a taste of eternal life, youth and adventure. Part of this adventure is the idea of a character that looks how they want them to look, and does not age in any significant way. Time spent in the game does not represent a ticking clock (unless they look up from the screen into the real world) where every choice you make means dozens of choices left behind. Time in games is fluid. There is more than enough time to do everything they would ever want to do, and with the fantasy of never growing old or growing weaker, more time in the game simply means more accomplishments. Most significant achievements in the game are not ones that can be lost. They are, like the player, immortal and unchangeable. The player themselves can give them up, if they choose. But for the most part, playing an MMO over a long period of time means growing in strength, never having to grow weaker, and only improving one’s slate of options and abilities

Everything you want to achieve is clear-cut and laid out for you.

Want to advance in your chosen profession? It’s not hard to figure out. What about advancing your skills, impressing kings, gaining favor with various communities? They are all laid out for you. As part of modern MMO design, most tasks are presented to you with a fairly simple rules set. Well written quests give you all in the information you want to know to complete them. NPC’s often will flat out tell you what you need to do. Moral victories are usually even outlined in detail. Want to destroy an evil kingdom? It’s usually a few quests away. Kill a few of their spies, search for a few hidden documents etc. It’s all laid out for you.

Simple Economics

Want to be rich? It’s easy. With a little hard “work” (adventuring) and a bit of research anyone can be rich. Treasures are laid out before you to take and use or sell to never-sleeping merchants. How much more could you want? If you are like most players, the slow but sure approach isn’t always fast enough – especially with time and money “sinks” constantly costing your hard earned gold and precious time on every step of your hero’s journey. The real path to riches is in finding out what your fellow adventurers want and selling it to them. Auction systems make many games relatively easy to “win”.  Buying low and selling high can be fraught with economic pitfalls, but nothing serious. Getting into a position of being able to “farm the auction house” can be as simple as downloading a mod or reading a few websites. People have been known to spend great amounts of real life cash to actually buy gold, or buy guides to learn how to build an imaginary fortune to fund their adventuring.

Black and White Morality

Most MMO’s tell fairly simple moral stories. In the fantasy, the world is full of terrible and unmistakable dangers that must be destroyed without hesitation or mercy. No matter what type of character you have, you will most likely face dangers and challenges that are clearly spelled out, if not right in your face. No one has to explain to you the morality of survival when a ravenous wolf is trying to rip out your spleen. No one is knocking on your door to talk to you about the necessity of strength. No one is writing on a blackboard to explain the “rightness” of hating an enemy who’s destruction your race has sought for untold generations. Most moral questions are either pushed aside or seen speeding past us at 1000 mph since the story is on rails.

Failure means delay of pleasure, not loss.

Death is not permanent, and neither is failure. To fail is to lose a single opportunity. Nothing more. Dieing and completely failing in every way possible just means a slowdown in the work/reward treadmill. All the things we want are not only laid out for us to earn in fairly simple-to-understand terms, if we screw up they are still there. They “reset” to a default position and allow us another shot at them.

Control of one’s body

Age never withers or steals strength, but it also never steals beauty. Whatever we find beautiful, or desirable, we can keep. No one can change what we look like without our permission. Time and advancement only bring more opportunities to change for the better. We can be as simple as we wish or as flashy as we wish, and we will never change, sicken, grow older, or less attractive. Death may be one reality we wish to tune out in these games, as is old age. Whatever standard we set for our appearance, that standard does not have to be violated over time. The standard can be as high on our final day as it is on our first, and we have the power to enforce it.

Everything Has Its Opposite

So we can see some of the underlying human ideas and fantasies being played out in some of the most popular games in the genre. I have no problems with any of these ideas as long as they are seen in the context of the game and how that game fits into our real lives. But, I wonder what a game might be like if these ideas were turned on their head. Could a designer make a successful game that bucks all of these trends? It would have to be one hell of a game, and I’m not sure I’d want to play it. But just as an exercise in opposites, let’s see what we can put together.

Characters grow older, weaken and die

Player begin young and full of energy. As time passes, they gain opportunities for new experiences, but they also reach a peak. At the top of that peak, more things are doable with less effort. As things begin to slip from that peak, more things become difficult to do. A player’s achievements will be held up and called “great”, but each day will bring them closer and closer to the end of their run. In such a game the necessity to create a legacy, perhaps through another generation, might become a very important factor in the player’s overall success as one after another of their characters naturally die over time. Perhaps the ability to create another character would be based on working with others to create that legacy. Failure to work with the community would limit people’s chances to be a parent, and thus limit a person’s chances to continue in the game. Though as with all things, I suspect, commerce would enter into it and fill the void.

Sandbox

Achievements become far more abstract. Goals become self-created and managed. Rewards become self-defined. The openness of the world could allow for great creations and great achievements that were not designed into the game initially. Players could alter initial conditions and alter how their fellow players interface with the game from that point on. Players could well become designers of their own experiences, and of the game. As more power passed from the hands of the designers, more would fall into the hands of the player/designers. Where the game went would become a matter of popularity and less of strict initial design philosophy.

Complex economics

More realistic economic models make economic achievement more complex and time-consuming. Some goals (being “rich”) become elusive and difficult to master except for an elite few. This more realistic model might draw some and repulse others. This model might have to be driven by some very powerful incentives to try and “beat the system”. From a design perspective, we might have to take a step back and look at real-world business models. Do we design a game with the possibility of some type of real-world reward? Do we design the game to make up for in-game failures with real-life cash? If we don’t do something, it seems like this part of the model may make the game too difficult for people to play. The fantasy of prosperity is a very strong one.

You determine the story and what it means

Morality is not what the designers want, so much as what you want. What does going out into the wilderness to kill animals mean? When it is no longer a matter of clear-cut survival, then why are you doing it? Commerce? Experience? Frustration? Do any of these things matter to you? If so, why? You determine the questions as well as supply your own answers. Players who find it difficult to be motivated in the real world might have the same problem in the virtual world. Peer pressure and wanting to keep up with the crowd can make a difference here, but if the crowd isn’t so sure why they are doing things then the individual won’t as well. Narratives about heroism, rags-to-riches, idealism… all of these are still possible, but since these stories arise from the players as opposed to being created by the designers they fall out of the purview of the initial creators. Perhaps we should take a movement to create a bit of jargon for this “game” –  The Initial Creators that design the start of the game and the Participant Creators who play. Some of them might be the same people.

One Shot at Everything

Failure means loss of opportunity. There may or may not be more opportunities, but failure means loss. How the individual deals with that loss is up to them, but they must return to the game with a renewed sense of purpose, a new idea or approach or risk falling behind and never recovering. If the game is designed without a “built-in narrative” then failure’s price may not be predetermined. If players can decide for themselves what their stories are and what they mean then it stands to reason that they determine what failure means to them. Just as in real life failure can mean an end or the beginning of the next opportunity to do better.

Random avatar generation

Rather than imbue your avatar with your physical attributes, or ones you would like to imagine having, your body is determined by chance. You’ve no idea what you will look like or sound like. You’ve no idea how tall, attractive, short, or ugly you will be. Whatever comes up, you will have to make the best of it. Perhaps some of these things could be changed over time. The question is… Are the experience and potential rewards strong enough to induce someone to work to achieve these changes?

Conclusions

As we play with these contrary ideas, you may have noticed that there are games actually doing some of the proposed things above. I’ll leave it as an “assignment for the class” to determine which games do this and to what degree.

In the end, any games we play with so much of our hearts and minds are like life. Their outcomes are determined by simple things like an understanding of how we manage our time/tasks, a strong sense of personally based motivation, and having people skills.

In the end, we know intellectually that we have only a limited time in this world. What we do with that time… who’s lives we touch and help change… what we give our attention to… who we are in our own hearts and who we are to the world at large… we have to determine these things ourselves. And we have to judge anyone else’s answers by our own criteria.

But we would do well, I think, to remember the rules of our own game. We would do well to learn to see our limited time, and our inevitable “endgame” as part of the overall experience, not just as in intellectual certainty, but an emotional one as well. I think that can make all the difference in the world.

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