The Future of Virtual Worlds: Absent Players?

There has been a disturbing trend in the MMOG industry in the last few years: the developers of virtual worlds have created a crippled population of players. These crippled players are learning to rely on their avatars more and more, while they see their own importance in the virtual world diminish.

What is happening? Developers are taking content previously designed for players, and turning it into content deemed fit to be touched only by the lowly avatars: Exploration, Crafts, Skills, Selling. These aspects of virtual worlds are now often automated. A player finds that virtual worlds expect him to be less and less competent when it comes to anything that doesn’t involve combat. In other words, developers are packaging avatars with more abilities and more knowledge, with the goal of allowing players to get by without these. Let’s look at the abilities and knowledge that avatars possess in some of the recent MMOGs.

EverQuest 2 has golden trails that lead the player around, saving him the hassle of paying attention to much of the 3D environment. SOE might choose to inform us that our avatar “knows” his way to the target location, and so we simply act out the knowledge that our avatar possesses.

EQ2 and World of Warcraft both have a map that incorporates what is essentially an in-game GPS system, since a dot labeled “You are here” is constantly updated on the map, revealing the avatar’s current location. SOE and Blizzard might choose to inform us that our avatar “knows” where he is relative to the other points of interest on the map.

WoW also includes an automated travel system, where players buy a ticket for a gryphon ride that will take their avatar across the lands safely and automatically. Players are free to watch their avatar expertly ride the animal, although most will choose to alt-tab or go AFK while their avatar shows off his riding skills.

In World of Warcraft, a player who decides to make poisons can buy dozens of empty vials and substances, and then click a button that does all the crafting automatically. There is a timer on each vial creation (pun alert), so the player will generally alt-tab or go AFK while his avatar makes some poisons. This type of automation is present in some of the other craft systems in WoW as well, such as mining. Surely our avatar, having a crafting skill of 210, can produce a few items without some “tedious” player input?

In EVE Online, a player chooses a skill that he would like to learn, and then, over time, his avatar learns the new skill. While a player is offline, his avatar is learning whatever skills he’s been assigned.

One of SOE’s major offensives against the integrity of EverQuest 1 was the introduction of the Bazaar zone. In this zone, a player could set prices for items he wanted to sell while he was AFK. It was his avatar that would go through the motions of actually selling the items to other players.

As we can see, players are losing content to avatars. In past games, content was delegated to the avatar mainly when it was too difficult to design it to be player-accessible. For example, one’s avatar usually possesses a weapon-wielding skill, since MMOG combat that involves player-twitch can be quite difficult to implement. Even a game like Neocron, which has an FPS-esque combat system, still gives the player’s avatar a weapon-wielding skill that can be raised through experience gain. What is worthy of note, and quite unfortunate, is the fact that MMOGs are actually taking steps backwards when it comes to making content player-accessible. While older MMOGs tended to place things like exploration in the hands of the player, the newer games are giving these skills and others to the avatar. Players will use whatever helps them get by in a virtual world, and when they have the option of letting their avatar do something for them, they will. Whether that means avatars traveling on mounts or selling items — if the virtual world offers it, the player will take it. The player cannot be expected to act differently, but the virtual world can be expected to have less content-removing automation.

Today’s MMOG developers feel that they are removing tedium from the player experience and shifting it to the avatar. Unfortunately, what they are actually doing is labeling some parts of the virtual world tedious, and then making them the responsibility of the avatar (exploration, crafting, etc.). What’s worse is that developers have the tendency to make a certain aspect of the game tedious, and then leave the player the option of going AFK while his avatar takes care of business. This is a dangerous situation, as the developers allow the line to get blurred between those features of virtual worlds they have labeled as tedious, and those features that they have made tedious.

Players are steadily losing their place in virtual worlds as avatars take on more and more content. Will virtual worlds eventually be populated only by avatars who have become so intelligent that they don’t require a player’s input? Hopefully not, but this seems to be the absurd end that the MMOG genre is heading towards. The automation of many types of content in MMOGs leaves the player with fewer and fewer things to do, and if this sort of streamlining continues, the player will soon be absent from the virtual world.

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