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The Quest To Live Digitally Vicariously

Like it or not, as the Earth groans under the weight of the most human beings ever, we are living in very interesting times.  Even if you don't live hand to mouth in a contested demilitarized zone, you still will have to deal with overwhelming wealth inequality or global warming.  More likely, the smaller things that are in your immediate life, like familial concerns or making ends meet.

The point is, escapism tempts us all.
Defined as "the avoidance of reality by absorption of the mind in entertainment or in an imaginative situation, activity, etc" I think it's fair to say that escapism can be found in computer games as well as books and movies.  These are some of the healthiest ways to escape the painful realities of life, deliberately directing the brain towards dwelling on better ideas, without any of the maladaptive long term damage of substance abuse.  (Except, perhaps, for all the time you spend indoors instead of out in the world advancing your agendas, i.e. breeding.)

The interesting thing about computer games is that they have become increasingly advanced in just a short time.  By being integrated with the Internet, we now have the means for literally millions of players to meet in an online environment.  Life in the world is suffering?  No problem!  We're in the process of perfecting a simulation of a world in which it is not.  I propose that this is the subconscious draw of the open world sandbox genre, to be the ultimate vehicle for escapism, and making it massively multiplayer just ups the ante.

Lately, I've been talking a bit about WildStar, and have allowed myself to become immersed in the game because it was not only a fantastic example of a well-wrought online environment, it was also actually fun to play, and it's rather depressing how few MMORPGs are!  However, I now return to where I was when I first tried to get into the game, almost three months ago.  I knew, even then, that WildStar is a theme park game, not a true sandbox.  Your avatar is no hero here, they are tourists going from attraction to attraction, and this is reinforced everywhere you go in the game.  Ergo, its overall escapism potential is low, no better than going to an actual theme park.

Recently, I talked about how I was hoping FireFall would raise the bar of escapism, and have given it a rigorous play lately.  I can attest it is slightly more of a sandbox than WildStar thanks to its dynamic events and weaker dependance on quest hubs, but it ultimately fell short of the mark by leaning heavily on job boards (which are basically quest hubs) and instancing (splitting the world into copies of itself, which weakens immersion).  This, too, would be a poor vehicle for escapism.

When I talk about the game I want to play, it's definitely a game that is a better form of escapism than any that came before it.  If this is going to be a better world I can escape to in order to find release from the harsh realities of life, surely it should do a far better job of affording me the freedoms that life does.  This is why I end up talking about the wonders of emergent gameplay, the thing where a game actually behaves realistically to the player in order to enhance the immersion further.  Enhanced immersion translates to enhanced escapism.

This Wednesday, I will be playing in the ArcheAge open beta.  It looks to have some interesting potential along these lines:
  • Open world zones are huge and have no instancing, although castle sieges and dungeons are instanced.
  • Player housing is back in the open world, along with the ability to develop the land around them (farms, ranches, and so forth).  Guilds can even create tremendous castles to lock down land.  Ultima Online was the first did graphical MMORPG that did this, and a few other examples can be found in Shadowbane and Star Wars Galaxies.  However, ArcheAge is certainly the latest and greatest implementation of this.
  • Open-world PvP that is zone controlled as to what kind of PvP can be initiated, with (of course) the greatest rewards reserved for taking the greatest risks.  In this case, there is jail time for ganking players of the same faction, and I guess players from rival factions have to travel a long way to cause trouble, so it should be reasonably well regulated.  Much better than the unbearable darkness of Ultima Online in its heyday.
  • A full player-driven economy where everybody has a pool of "labor points" to invest in their endeavors that regenerate over time, so players who do not play all day can actually compete relatively fairly on the crafting market against those that do.
On the downside, the gameplay itself has taken a step back from games like WildStar or TERA.

From the looks of things, it will be a slightly less complicated version of Rift at heart.  I will definitely miss WildStar's telegraphing system, but the ability to mix and match three classes worth of abilities is something I missed from Rift, and that is here in ArcheAge; if you are going to fall back on the tired old gameplay of World of Warcraft, you could do far worse than Rift's innovations to the formula.
The quest hubs with the NPCs with the giant exclamation points hovering over their heads are here in full force.  You take quests from them to go kill x number of mobs or collect x items, and other generic MMORPG staples.  Very lame; that's bad news.  However, the good news is that you technically don't need to have anything to do with them, and you can (and probably will) just wander off and do whatever you like.

The final bit of bad news is that this game is being made in South Korea by the former Lineage head designer's company, and merely localized by Trion Worlds.  Now, I don't have anything against the country, in fact I wish I was born in such a wired place!  However, I have played a great many South Korean MMORPGs and I can tell you that they have a different core philosophy to their games that emphasize large group activities over the enjoyment of individuals, and this leads to a reduced focus on the smaller things such as world geography and core gameplay.

Overall, I am slightly less than cautiously optimistic that ArcheAge is going to finally deliver on forwarding MMORPGs as vehicles for escapism.  However, I am perhaps a little more optimistic that games like this are being made, and the success of this game and EVE Online may result in a shift in future MMORPG development away from the tired theme park model and back where they should have gone to begin with.
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