MMORPGs – Acknowledging Our Existence

I like single player games but I don’t play them anywhere near as much as I do MMORPGs. A great single player game, like Mass Effect or Dead Space, might keep me interested for two weeks but even a bad MMO could easily keep me entertained for a month. I used to think it that was just because I enjoyed the classic fantasy RPG style of game so much and it wasn’t until I played Oblivion, regarded as one of the best offline RPGs available, last year that I realised my infatuation with MMORPGs and virtual worlds went a little beyond just liking the style of gameplay.

Whenever I played a single player game, I’m aways consumed by two basic emotions and thoughts. Firstly, they seem lonely and empty and, secondly, they just seem so utterly pointless. The first feeling is obvious enough. After playing with friends in a virtual world inhabited by thousands of people, it’s very hard to load up a game like Oblivion and not feel alone. It’s kinda like having one of those weird dreams where you go to school and you’re the only person there (OK, maybe I’m the only person who dreams of stuff like that…).

The feeling of pointlessness is slightly harder to explain. Single player games are fun, absolutely, and I get a certain measure of enjoyment out of them but the feeling is bittersweet to me because I know that my achievement is only temporary and can only be acknowledged as long as the saved game exists. As soon as the saved game is deleted, my experience is gone along with it and I have no one to share it with. It feels almost hollow and sad in many respects.

There was a fascinating interview with a Korean psychologist (I can’t remember his name) in the documentary about virtual worlds I watched a couple of weeks ago. He hypothesised that one of the reasons MMORPGs have such a hold over their players is because, unlike any other type of game, they acknowledge the existence of the player.

“If I give an item a certain value, it doesn’t mean much. But when others recognize it too, it becomes truly valuable. It doesn’t work if you’re the only person believing in it.”

(Thanks to Sharon for pulling out the quote :) )

This suddenly makes things so obvious. It’s not just about the cool settings, the classes, the exploration or even the gameplay. It’s about taking part in a parpetual world in which others can acknowledge our existence, our achievements, and give them meaning and value. If I take down a dragon in Final Fantasy, no one cares other than myself (and my wife who I will undoubtedly bug until she pretends to care) but if I take part in a raid in Everquest 2, slay a dragon and win some loot, quite a few – if not a lot of – people care and suddenly my achievement has merit and substance.

To me, that’s the true attraction of MMORPGs.

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  4. The Philosophy Of Friendship
  5. Freedom Without Direction – The Risk of Sandbox MMORPGs


  1. Beej says:

    That’s pretty much why I’ve never done side-quests in SPRPGs. There was never a point for me. Having the rarest items in the game meant nothing in terms of why I played the game; I played to advance the story from beginning to the end. If the side-quest advanced the story, then I would partake. If not, I would likely avoid it. I never went searching for treasure, and very few games ever received a 100% completion from me. But I sure absorbed the narrative in them.

    Now compare that to MMOs. I have a hard time with “completing” all of the content because of my RL schedule, and it hurts me from a goal-oriented perspective. Even if I were a player who liked to uncover all the secret areas and collect “ultimate” weapons or some such goal, I would not be able to complete it.

    In many ways, I feel that MMOs are more limiting than SPRPGs because they actually don’t garner any playstyle I care about. But the socialization and interaction where when I do happen to get some new item or kill a new boss with a few people matters.

    So apparently, my preferred gaming style is overridden by the achievement system in place in most MMOs. Maybe I just need to start caring about Xbox Live points or something to get me out of this rut. ;)

  2. Tesh says:

    I’m of a different mind (of course). I don’t play games to validate my existence or my achievements, I play them to have fun and see interesting mechanics or story elements. I don’t need other players for that. (OK, OK, sometimes mechanics need other players.)

    If I’m going to play with other people, I want to be telling my own story, having fun playing, not going through a story in an MMO that is almost always objectively weaker than a single player RPG.

    That’s an interesting observation from the psychiatrist, though, and it does make sense considering what I’ve seen of other players. The persistence of these MMO things also contributes to that feeling of “making a mark”. Of course, if an MMO were more of a dynamic, interesting virtual world where players had a lot of power, they would be able to leave an even bigger stamp. The theme park “everyone is super” mentality of most MMOs churns out cookie cutter “affirmations of existence”, which don’t appeal to me either.

  3. Jeremy S. says:

    I’m a bit of both. I really love most of what MMORPGs like WoW, Vanguard, or Runes of Magic has to offer.

    However I have to admit that I can fall into being an “attention seeker”.

  4. Sharon says:

    I agree with Professor Beej. Since spending so much time in MMOs, I have a tough time with single player RPGs, unless the story is really compelling.

    I also noticed a distinct hollowness in Oblivion, and for me, I think it’s because the main storyline just wasn’t that interesting and the lack of varied voice acting kept breaking my sense of immersion. I was constantly aware that I was the only real person in a world populated by NPCs. I quit after finishing the Dark Brotherhood quests, because having my husband act impressed wasn’t the same as achieving something in an MMO and having other people recognize the value of it.

    I suspect that’s also why a lot of soloers play MMOs. They may not want to group with others, but playing in parallel with others gives their gaming achievements more tangible value.

  5. JC says:

    When Morrowind came out, I absolutely loved it. I played it more or less exclusively for almost a year and a half. Never could understand all the whining on the various forums that it would be “even better” if it had multi-player.

    Then I got talked into playing SWG with some friends. It took me a while but I eventually got pretty into it. I did eventually burn out on it, friends stopped playing and it wasn’t as much fun without them, etc.

    I fired up Morrowind again, and. . . . it just wasn’t “doing it” for me anymore. I was excited about Oblivion, but when it came out I didn’t end up buying it. I think I’d like Fallout 3, but haven’t brought myself to buy it yet. The MMO bug has really caught me — I just dn’t seem to have much interest in any other style of game anymore.

  6. Longasc says:

    I still like to play single player RPGs like Fallout 3, or the “Knight Simulator” Mount & Blade. I also like to play King’s Bounty and the Heroes of Might and Magic series.

    But I do not play FPS games or RTS games that I played a lot when I was younger anymore. I am not sure if MMOs were the deciding factor in this, on the other hand.

    I want to agree to Tesh that a non-theme park game, more a virtual world, would actually enforce the “confirmation of your existance” thing that psychologist mentioned so much more.

    I think the “confirmation of your existence”, quite a nice way to describe it, turned already into an e-peen contest, even more so after achievement gaming has become the new hype.

  7. Eric says:

    I put more hours into WoW than I do Fallout 3, for example, but I find Fallout 3 to be very enjoyable.

    One thing Fallout 3 has that WoW doesn’t is that I can have an actual and lasting impact on the game world. The main storyline is all about that but aside from that, I’m just delighted by the simple fact that when I set an object down, that’s where it stays until forever unless I move it again, even when I zone out and come back to it weeks later. Corpses stay where they are. In a way, I can tell where I’ve been. I’ve made the world different.

    It’s a little thing, but it’s something that WoW will ever really give me: The ability for -me- to permanently affect the world in a tangible and immediate way.

  8. Gordon says:

    @Eric That’s a very good point and the biggest disadvantage to MMORPGs at the moment – we have no real way of changing the world we inhabit because everything get’s reset. I’m sure more sandbox orientated MMORPGs offer opportunties to conquer and control but games like WoW have pretty limited scope. Nothing an individual, or even a guild of individuals, can do can really effect the world.

  9. Gordon says:

    @Tesh Stories are definitely an advantage of single player games over MMORPGs. I really enjoyed the storyline in Mass Effect for instance and I haven’t experienced much like it in MMORPGs. That’s not to say that it can’t happen one – Tortage in AoC was a great example of good storytelling in MMOs – and I’m keen to see how SW:TOR turns out. Of course, when I finished Mass Effect I felt kinda sad because I had no one to share my experiences or achievement with.

  10. Wolfshead says:

    I too feel a sense of pointlessness and loneliness when I play single-player games. Nothing can compare to the immediacy and impact you get when you play a game with other people.

    However MMOs should be striving for more acknowledgment of the player. For example, who really cares if I slay a dragon in an instance compared to slaying a dragon that just burned down a village that had a lot of questgivers? Nobody will care.

    But if that dragon was causing food shortages and other problems? Suddenly killing that dragon will positively impact other players. Then you’d be a true hero!

    Focusing on the player is why I wrote a recent article about players being the focal point of an MMO — not the storyline:

    This is also why I’m a strong advocate of grouping and player interdependency. All of those things strengthen the idea that players should be able to impact and affect each other in a virtual world.

    The other component to all of this is the sense of “persistence”. The idea that the world persists, lives and grows even when you are not logged on. This allows players to create their own history and help shape the history of the world they play in. Without a robust sense of persistence in MMOs accomplishments are almost worthless and definitely cheapened.

    Sadly many MMOs have a very small persistence quotient. WoW’s is about 6 minutes which is the average respawn time of an NPC. But that’s another issue for another day.

  11. [...] lastly (since I have just been paged to GET TO WORK), Gordon at We Fly Spitfires writes about why single player RPGs can never give the same sense of satisfaction and accomplishment found in an … — accomplishments mean nothing if there’s nobody to share them with. I agree with every [...]

  12. Gordon says:

    @Wolfshead Starting to play EVE has giving me a renewed appreciation of sandbox games. The problem with them – or at least EVE and the original SW:G – is that I don’t have enough direction sometimes. I wish a MMORPG would come out that has all of the quests and ‘content’ of games like WoW but the complete freedom to do anything and actually change and affect the virtual world.

  13. [...] persistence we want, but persistent impact. As Wolfshead eloquently put it in a comment over at We Fly Spitfires: The other component to all of this is the sense of “persistence”. The idea that the world [...]

  14. Twan says:

    I’m going to quote you on a few things you said here for my blog if you don’t mind (giving proper credit of course!). My problem has always been that since none of my RL friends play MMORPGS I am constantly defending my waxing/waning addiction to WoW to them. I could never explain succinctly why I played them. I always just tossed out buzz words like “perpetual world” etc etc and watched them eye roll. This article sums up what I have been meaning to say in a concise manner, thanks!

  15. [...] head over & read this blog entry from WE FLY SPITFIRES.  As I teeter on the edge of leaving WoW and going back solely to single player console games [...]

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