Jonathan Steinhauer's MMO Column
Steinhauer's Opinion: To Be A Hero, Part 1

Jonathan Steinhauer | 17 Mar 2008 17:57
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"Oh thank you sir!" Mirlhosta said, clasping her hands. "I didn't think anyone would be able to recover my precious heirloom once those brigands stole it."
"It was nothing, good lady," Langern replied. "I'm only happy I could help."
"But I must reward you. I promised you my father's old sword if you would help me, and help me you have."
"You are most generous, Mirlhosta." Langern took the offered sword, bowed, and walked down the street.
He was barely a dozen paces away when he heard Mirlhosta cry out loudly, "Oh dear me, brigands have stolen my precious heirloom. Who, oh who, can help me recover it? Please, someone must."
"I'll help you," someone said.
"Thank you, sir! If you recover the heirloom, I'll give my father's old sword."
Langern spun around and looked at the lady, then down at his new sword, then back at the lady. "But I... but you... but this..." he stuttered. "How could you lose it again so quickly!"

Why do we play MMOs (or adventure style games of any sort)? Fundamentally, one would hope, because they are fun. Aside from that, there are a myriad of reasons, but a major one is that it gives us a chance to be heroic in a way we really can't in real life (and if we could, probably wouldn't want to given the massive death rate our avatars suffer). Games give us the chance to be "the hero." Yet how can we truly be the hero in a world where 100% of the world's population are hero-aspirants and each step down the road to renown is identical for everyone?

For classic pen-and-paper gaming, it was very easy to achieve (and believe) in heroism. There were no player-character rivals toward achieving this end (other than fellow gamers around the table). The ultimate control of the game, its history, its future, its other inhabitants and their actions lay in the capable (one would hope anyway) hands of the game master. This person ran the sessions, responding to our characters' whims and follies, bravery and cleverness, ultimately guiding our characters to fame, infamy, or an early grave. There was never any doubt that the adversaries we encountered were tailored to thwart us, stretch our skills, and upon our victory (should that occur) prove what heroes we have become.

The single player computer RPG derived from this concept. These games allowed us to see the fantastical world our characters walked through in vivid scenery and witness the epic battles on our screens rather than locked away only in the imagination of our minds (a blessing and a curse, some might argue). It also liberated us from dependence upon a game master or the need for a group of friends who all had to have the same time available in order to game. We could adventure on our own, but this came with a price. The guiding hand of the game master was removed in favor of quest sequences and canned NPC interactions. No longer could we simply let our whims carry us. We were bound by the size of the game map, limited by specific response sequences from NPCs, and bound by the avenues of action programmed into the plot. But it still maintained that sense that what our characters did mattered. We could still be heroes.

This was especially true in those strong character games like Baldur's Gate, Morrowind, and Knights of the Old Republic where the world truly revolved around us and we could see the results of particularly noble or treacherous actions. Other games generalized the action, either allowing us to build a party rather than focus on a single character, like Iceland Dale, or giving flexibility to design our own modules, like Neverwinter Nights. But this generalizing also reduced the sense that we were truly a part of the world and made us simply "Joe-Adventurer" off to do some good hunting.

Finally, we get to MMOs. These built on the computer RPG concept and expanded it to a persistent multi-user interface. But if a game has thousands upon thousands of users, how can each player truly feel epic? The answer is, they can't. Each quest has a singular response: do you succeed or fail. Your demeanor, your dialogue with the peoples of the towns you pass through, your methodology of gaining success, no longer matter. All that matters is if you complete the quest and get the reward or the bonus experience. Aside from playing the leveling game, there are few ways to rise above the mass of other players.