You CAN Make a Difference in MMOs

Fellow MMOGames writer Karl de Mare’s recent article on players’ inability to really make a difference in MMOs brought up a few ideas myself and at least one other reader noted. For example, how could being the mayor of a city in Star Wars Galaxies not count as making a difference in an MMO? Why don’t Landmark players, who can literally build mountains or apparent holes to hell, count as making a difference either? At least to me, as both a former guild leader and solo player, these examples seemed to only work based on fairly restrictive definitions of making a difference. I can understand the feeling that what you do isn’t enough, but perhaps this perspective is limited to the short term impact by single individuals. I’d like to add some counter points to this discussion, namely by focusing on the one thing that divides MMOs from other game genres: community. Ultimately to show that yes, you can make a difference in MMOs.

The World and Housing

Star Wars Galaxies
Let’s start with being a city mayor in SWG. Unlike a lot of MMO writers, I actively avoided SWG at release and didn’t touch the game until long after the internet proclaimed it’s demise. I played for several months, quitting about a year before the game would be shut down. There weren’t a lot of players, but their towns and (due to item decay being removed) items were still in the game world. Their loot and many of their supplies remained. These ranged from cool custom trench coats to entire space ships, things that would have taken me months to build had I tried to make them myself. Left over player towns not only provided me with convenient crafting locations, but access to lost seasonal items, creative housing decoration tips, and the remains of a drying up community that seemed to have outgrown the developer created towns. I don’t remember anything of SWG‘s official lore, which seemed like a joke, and couldn’t care less about the PvE, or even the PvP. What I remember was the remains of an active player base and, as a new player, inheriting both their joys of the game and the sorrow of its abandoned state.
I’m sure Landmark will certainly have some similarities, especially since so much of the game is only player built content. Though I mostly played in alpha, seeing the world change on a daily basis was exciting. How can anyone forget seeing hollowed out mountains and glittering castles knowing the were created by their fellow players in a world that began as an empty field? While the developers can add player-made schematics, knowing that I can contribute in such a way (and get paid for it!) not only makes me excited about the game’s possibilities, but its future connections with EverQuest Next, which is incorporating these community projects into their gameworld. Given the current situation that Landmark is basically just what players are making, it’s hard to think that players aren’t making an impact.

Story vs. Community

This is another area that puzzles me. The death of Lord British in Ultima Online might not be in-game lore, but it’s MMO history, while Asheron’s Call’s Shard of the Herald event became official lore, and was based on a previous event that was also considered official lore. The developers can make their own story, but when players can subvert it or become an official part of it, well, doesn’t that prove we can make a difference?
EVE Online is a great example of this, as it has it’s own lore, but its heists and wars are big enough news that they’re covered by BBC. To say that we players can’t make a difference in MMOs ignores some fairly fundamental foundations of the genre that, admittedly, are only recently being reintroduced into the mainstream genre since World of Warcraft pushed us towards a nearly pure hamster-wheel content grind for loot.
Take for example PvP servers and games. From Darkfall to even World of Warcraft, player guilds and alliances can take control of certain locations. Entire land masses were controlled by alliances in DF, making hunting in those areas as even a neutral party beyond dangerous, as death meant not only having to run back to your location, but loss of all the items you were carrying at the time. World of Warcraft may be the ultimate theme park, but even two years after I’ve left, my old server still had complaints about faction imbalance. Being alliance meant not being able to get certain quests done without tremendous effort, and some dailies were out of the question, not for lore reasons, but because the other faction so greatly outnumbered us. In fact, my a former guildy recently brought this up to me as a reason that he’s playing a character less. It may not make it to the official lore, but PvP especially impacts games worlds, helping to show that the basis of our community can define our gaming experience. It’s these situations that are what people will talk about most when they leave the game.

Character Appearance vs. Development

While certain ascetic options (such as the best gear in the game) may limit your physical customization, there are other ways to stand out, such as your name. There are millions of Drizzts and Legolases, but I met a player by the name of “Crags” in both Asheron’s Call 2 and WoW. We both recognized each other from entirely different games, even though our only interaction in AC2 was a 15 minute cat-and-mouse chase in the PvP area. We may all end up looking the same, but a good name and memorable personality can fix the clone syndrome. Guilds and clans who gain a reputation in one game can carry that over with them to another, inspiring love or hate based on their past actions.
However, development can be tricky. While you may find a lot of visual and stat/build clones in your games these days, that’s not always the case, nor should it matter. In World of Warcraft, I used a Death Knight build that looked like a PvE tanking build in PvP all the time at the end of the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. While people at first taunted my choice, they realized that the real beauty of my build wasn’t to kill, but to annoy. Being able to interrupt and snatch casters frequently while absorbing a lot of damage made my character difficult to ignore, allowing my allies to tear through our enemies. In one-on-one fights, I was difficult to kill, allowing me to guard PvP objectives in battlegrounds better than most players. People outside my guild started to recognize the strength of my chosen tactic, and while I won’t say I’m the person that made that play style popular, I know I contributed to it.

Plagues and Bugs

This is another area that, while devs can fix or undo it, doesn’t necessarily make it invalid. WoW‘s plagues are especially memorable, and it’s something that, although physically unseen when they’re over, is still a part of digital history, again being something that hits mainstream media. It may not be something the game developers always intended, but the results have been enjoyable enough that even newer MMOs like The Old Republic have added them.
Bugs, however, live on for other reasons as well: they can lead to bans. ArcheAge is recently seeing this, with a bug allowing an “undefeated” mob to finally die. We’ve seen the same happen in the WoW raiding seen, and it often leads to bans, allowing other guilds to get the spotlight, in addition to removing several people the community itself may have disliked. It becomes an act of god, with some people cheering and others questioning the fairness of it all. No one cares how many times a dragon is killed, but people will often remember the first one to kill it, or even who got banned over it. As someone who’s earned a few server firsts (sadly, in days long before achievement systems), I can tell you that the bragging rights alone can help you get additional recognition in the community, and that comes with lots of benefits: access to quality guilds, easier access to guild/clan leadership ranks, developer recognition, even paid writing opportunities. We may not always make the game physically look different, but we impact it in ways that can outlast out our virtual worlds.

We Can Make a Difference in MMOs

MMOs aren’t like other game genres. Forcing developer stories into games is rarely memorable on its own. We’re not about finding out who died this patch and who lived, and often, it rarely affects us players. Often, in the long run, plots are only remembered by the industry at large when they allow the players to make a difference. That’s why we can change MMOs as members of the community. Which guild is progressing the fastest, which faction controls the best castle, who developed the coolest jacket in the game’s store, what game is currently experiencing a server-breaking war? When you leave an MMO, do you talk about your character’s tier 4 helmet, or do you talk about that one guild everyone hated? When a game shuts down, do you lament not having done one more quest, or the loss of the clan ship you all spent months building? MMOs impact both the gaming industry and the outside world with the strength of our communities. Maybe by yourself you can’t change the game, but along with other players, you are.
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