When you step into a virtual world these days, whether that be an actual simulated world like Second Life or your run of the mill game like World of Warcraft, you’re playing as what most computer type people would call an avatar. A virtual representation of either yourself, an alter ego or the character themselves. Games over the past decade have become increasingly more detailed and as a result many of them allow a user to customise their appearance in game. This can range from simple choices like tall or short all the way through to the little details like eye colour or the amount of stubble on your character’s face. There are now many games which have the ability to manipulate almost all features of an avatar, allowing you to recreate yourself in the game.
I’d never really played around with the in depth character customisations like that of Oblivion and the like, I just wanted to play the game. However that all changed when I got Mass Effect, and I wanted to recreate myself so I could literally play through the game. Queue about 10 minutes worth of me fumbling with the controls and an awkward picture of myself taken on my digital camera to try and get all the features right. I didn’t do too well and my fiancée and one of my female friends decided they could do a much better job, and I became their model for the next 30 mins. We eventually got pretty close, most of the major features were correct but it was still a little way off from being exactly me. It was at this point we realised that there were just some things you couldn’t do and left it at that. He did bear an uncanny resemblance to me however and I must say this did make me empathise just that little bit more with the character, as whenever the camera switched to him speak it was like looking through some futuristic space mirror image of myself.
I’ll be honest and say that I find that the fairer gender seems to enjoy the customisation a lot more than us typical blokes. Whilst at least 50% of my creations in customisation wizards are hilarious uses of the extreme levels offered (sure you can have a nose half the size of your face!) I’ve found any game I’ll give to my fiancée that allows her to customise the character she will spend a good 30 minutes creating either herself or what she considers the most pretty avatar. She always does well with this (damn her creativity!) and I think this is where most of the joy is for her. I’ve also noticed quite a lot of my fairer World of Warcraft players keeping vast wardrobes of pretty things to dress up their characters with. Although I must admit I keep a lot of junk just for the novelty value as well.
Ever since then I’ve noticed the tendency whenever I’m playing a game to naturally gravitate towards either recreating myself in either appearance or play style. Whilst I did enjoy my second play through of Mass Effect being a right evil bastard I didn’t do it with the character that looked like me, and I think I would’ve had a tough time doing it if I did. I guess I empathise pretty deeply with my characters and customising them to be closer to me only serves to deepen that. Although I do see the other side of the coin though, and sometimes its great to abstract yourself away from the norm and do things that you normally wouldn’t do, that’s why the Grand Theft Auto series is so popular.
Customisation is one of those meta aspects of gaming that traditionally you don’t take much notice of. With the advent of games like the Sims the focus shifted heavily and now many games feature in depth customisation which draws you even further into the game. Whilst I found myself none to bothered with it initially I’ve grown accustomed to recreating my virtual self and it never ceases to take add about 30 minutes worth of game time (depending on the editor). It’s a little bit of extra value that I’m starting to look for in any future game.
Or maybe it’s that repressed creative child in me trying to escape after being imprisoned by the cold adult engineer, who knows!
I’m an avid gamer and have been ever since my Dad sat me down at a computer at the tender age of 4 and showed me an old classic, Captain Comic. I spent many hours playing through that game and never getting too far into it, only to have my Dad’s friend show up and beat the game for me. I remember being awe struck as a child watching someone play through it so perfectly, when I had struggled for hours and only got half as far.
Fast forward 20 years and gaming has become a huge multi-billion dollar industry. So many games are released every year that no matter what kind of genre or play-style you fit into you’re bound to find something that you enjoy. Hollywood blockbuster budgets are thrown at impressive game titles and production values have skyrocketed, which has allowed game designers to become analogous to movie producers. Thus Cinematic Gaming was born, bringing the choices of a choose your own adventure book together with the immersion of modern interactive games.
My first real introduction into this blend of movie and game was Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Whilst this is no where near the first foray into this genre it is a great example of what it is capable of. The emphasis is strictly on the characters and their interaction with each other. Every time I sat down to play it I felt drawn into the game and empathised with all of the characters, something which was made even stronger by the fact I could make their decisions for them. The ending left my heart aching, something which I had never experienced with a game before.
After finishing Dreamfall and sharing my experiences with some of my friends I was put onto Fahrenheit by Quantic Dream. This was a much earlier attempt at Cinematic Gaming and whilst the graphics were a tad rough, even for the time of its release, the emphasis again was on the plot and immersion. I quickly got drawn into the interaction between characters, and the use of game mechanics really makes you feel like the character is supposed to. Throw in a dash of naughty sex scenes and you’re onto a winner.
Probably one of the biggest jumps forward in this genre would have to be Mass Effect by Bioware, who are renowned for their games with intricate dialogues and over-arching plot lines. The conversation system implemented in Mass Effect is really second to none. Your responses are displayed just before the other person finishes their part of the conversation, allowing you to choose what you want to say before there’s an awkward pause. Once you’ve figured out which options are where (a “Paragon” response is typically at the top, “Renegade” is at the bottom) you can usually judge how you want to respond to someone before the options even come up. This makes the dialogue very fluid, and doesn’t have the same immersion break like many similar games do when you’re interacting with non-player characters.
So how does the future look for this type of game? Well Quantic Dream is busy working on Heavy Rain which is looking to take the next step in immersion with realistic facial expressions. They put an emphasis on the fact that their characters will show real tears, which is something that is sure to tug on heart strings. Here’s a great trailer:
I’m definitely looking forward to this, and I’ll be sure to give a review of it once I’ve played it through. Don’t expect it to be out quickly though, I like to take my time with things like this 😉
I initially wrote this as a response to a forum post and after spending an hour on writing it up I thought I’d share it here.
So what does it take to make a successful MMORPG these days?
Taking a look at some of the biggest MMOs gives us an idea of what makes a MMO successful. Just because there’s not really a better figure than active accounts to judge this we’ll have a look at the biggest ones by this number:
So what does each of these games provide that attracts so many people to it? Well I’ve had experience with all of these so I’ll give you an overview of why they are so popular.
Runescape is free to play and only requires that you have a web browser to play it. When I used to work in childcare many of the kids there would play it, since they could all play with each other for nothing. The idea of being able to try something out for free with your mates without even having to install something is a powerful marketing tool, and it’s obviously working extremely well. It’s this extrodinary mix of portability, availability and socializing that has made RuneScape what it is.
Second Life provides a massive sandbox for you to share with many other people. It takes online chat that one step further, allowing people to alter their persona and appearance online and then communicate with others. Linden Labs has made headways in marketing the base client for free whilst giving people the oppotunity to buy land or items from each other for linden dollars which can be exchanged freely with real US cash. This idea has attracted several different niche players, some who wish to free themselves from the real world and those looking to turn a profit from virtual goods. Its this combination of sandboxing and real world value that brings people to Second Llife and keeps them there.
WoW has become the benchmark for all new MMOs due to its popularity and dedication in development from Blizzard. Starting out with the phenomenal IP that is the Warcraft universe Blizzard kept on its track record of releasing highly polished games with specifications so that nearly anyone could play it. After keep it in beta for well over a year the hype was definitely ramping up and the launched, whilst riddled with problems on high population servers, showed that Blizzard had the infrastructure ready to handle a massive playerbase and continued to improve their services over the coming years.
Initially WoW focused directly on the crowd that all MMOs traditionally marketed to; the hardcore MMO crowd that would play new content until it was beaten and then eagerly await the next big challenge. This was easily demonstrated by the first few big content patches that released big dungeons such as BWL, AQ and later Naxxramas. Whilst they tried to cater to the smaller groups with things like Zul’Gurrub there was a definite disparity between hardcore players and casuals, leaving many casuals behind in terms of both PVP and PVE content.
The BC set out to address these issues and made large headways in doing so. Blizzard gave up the idea of trying to make horde and alliance balanced, but different and gave Shamans and Pallies to their respective opposing sides. Whilst this initially met with friction it broke down many walls that kep Blizzard from improving gameplay in other ways. Additionally the introduction of Arenas, Dailies and two-tier dungeons (Normal/Heroic) allowed casual users to get a look in at the content whilst giving the hardcores something to shoot for.
Now we come to WotLK and the focus has shifted directly towards the casuals. Why did they do this? Well I can tell you it is the same reason that Nintendo designed the Wii, to convert non-gamers into players. WoW has consistently grown its userbase by targetting the largest untapped market of MMO players, the ones not playing it. With things like Recruit a friend its no wonder people are constantly drawn to this epic MMO.
In short, WoW is targeting non-gamers and as such has a larger target audience then the traditional MMOs. Should they continue down this path they will start to lose the super-hardcore players to other MMOs, but this does not bother them. Their bread and butter is the mum and dads with their 2 kids playing together whenever they have a spare couple hours. They are the ones who will spend $15 a month to play for only a fraction of the time of the hardcore people, thereby increasing their profit dramatically. This lets them develop more content driving up their interest even further.
Each of these popular online games provide a dramatically different experience and as such targets a different niche of the market. The trouble with many new MMOs is they try to replicate one or more parts of these already succesful business models and don’t try to bring something new to the table. Whilst many of them will succeed in obtaining a loyal userbase (which by all accounts is success) none of them will make it “big” until they bring in a paradigm shift as all of these MMOs did.