Mediums and future possibilities

Recently on Corpnews I criticized the way Mythic was defining its latest expansion (Catacombs), not because they shouldn’t pimp their product in the best way, but because of the design approach behind it. This continued when Lum wrote on a comment on Sunsword’s blog that it is easy to build a new graphic engine for a game and deliver an up to date experience:

It’s actually fairly easy, as such things go, to deliver a new client engine for an existing MMO. Here’s an example from a certain other game. After all, the server is pretty agnostic about who’s talking to it.

Well, this is exactly the point where I have a different opinion. This is again the point of the discussion between Lum and Haemish (on F13) where Hameish didn’t accept to put on the same level graphical and textual games. And it’s Haemish to be right again. This isn’t a matter of a simple preference, looking at the graphic as a simple form representing something that works below (the game systems, interactions etc..) is extremely superficial. Superficial is both comparing a graphical world to a textual world and superficial is again considering DAoC’s expansion able to mantain the game up to date with the competition (as they stated: a new graphics engine that puts the game right up there or ahead of anything else on the market). The point is that in the case of graphic versus text we deal with completely different mediums. I’m sure that if we shift this argument to something more near to the standard culture everyone will understand my point: are we able to compare directly a program on the radio to a program on TV or a movie in a cinema?

The relationship between the radio and the TV isn’t different from the one between text and graphical games. I’m not directly pointing to the structural differences but I’m pointing to how the products are conceived and developed. We deal with different mediums and each is a new space to discover with its own rules and possibilities. If we think to the text and graphic as “interfaces” we’ll see that their possibilities are completely different. So it’s not a discussion about the content, but how the content is built to take advantage of the medium that we are going to use. I’m sure that everyone is able to understand that the medium we choose will make the difference. How we tell the story, the feelings we want to trigger, the elements that we focus about… Everything changes in the plan and development of a product that is going to fit in a medium. Now the “story” we want to tell may be the same but how we tell the story is completely different. We cannot simply “translate”. Something working effectively on a medium may be completely wrong for another, and again even if the “message” may still be the same.

To go back to the simplicity: the graphic part of a mmorpg isn’t an interface like any other that we can swap at any time with a better one or even transform it into a textual one. I know that this stuff is all “virtual” but it isn’t *that* virtual. There’s still a strong relevance between “content” and “container”. The container is built to be effective for that content and the content to fit the container. These relationships are strong and important, these relationships are the difference between something solid, with a value and something badly planned, out of place and not effective. The graphic is the game. I criticize how Mythic pimped Catacombs because it isn’t a graphic evolution, it is only a “lifting”. They stretched something with an identity (age) to make it seem up to date. But it is only if we really consider the graphic aspect as something superficial. And this is simply false.

In this case the face determines the identity. Because what’s on the face goes then below, it affects elements that aren’t just on the surface. “Graphic” isn’t just an image. It is a way to interact. It changes completely the perception of the world, even if the world is the same.

Now all this simply to express a desire of “what I’d like to see in the future”. My point is that till now the mmorpgs are really just a textual, virtual game plus a graphic interface. The strong potential that is in this medium is only partially tapped. We use the graphic to induce wonder and we are starting to use the graphic to create identity when we are able to build an avatar that looks really unique. Part of the success of games like SWG and CoH is exactly because of how much important is perceived the character creation. It is so important because it’s one rare occasion where we are tapping that potential exclusive of a graphical medium. We give some relevance to the body and its importance for us.

So how can we go deeper? How can we pull out the qualities specific of this medium and genre? From my point of view it’s about the interaction with the environment (linked here to another entry I wrote stating a similar point). Fun that I seem to agree with Richard Garriott (see when he talks about the use of physics). My idea is that here we have something in common that goes beyond a “genre”. What I’m saying is useful for different types of games where the focus is the immersion. It may work for Half-Life in the same way it may work for DAoC. The key is the interaction with the environment. The deeper the better (with an eye to the possible exploit in multiplayer games).

Without making things too complex, what I’d like to see can be applied even to the “simple” PvE. Till now we have seen monsters with linear behaviours. We see them changing shape and their statistics but they are all built generically, mostly because of the tight development time that this genres requires to deliver “too much content” (while the solution is to offer “better managed and planned content”. Read as: more efficient). On the other side we dream about artificial intelligence. I think that not only we don’t need to go there (because the AI adds zero to online games, but I won’t focus on this topic now), but there are better and more efficient compromises that I see as viable in the near future and that will also show a potential that is way greater than expected. And this is again about the interaction with the environment.

Recently, playing with Doom 3 I noticed how the monsters are able to path through a whole level to reach me and it seemed already a work well done. But I couldn’t avoid to notice how this “3D space” is still considered as complex as a “maze”. Rooms and corrodors. With the time we moved from the two dimensional maps rendered in 3D of Doom 1 and 2 to the real 3D engine of Quake and sequels but the logic of these spaces is still the same of a maze. So I was playing Doom 3 and an imp jumped at me from behind a dark corridor. I started to flee to gain some space till I was able to reach a “terrace”. There was another corridor below the one where I was and only a banister in between. So I jumped the banister and landed on the lower level. Here’s the key of what I’m saying: the imp could just start to pathfind me through the whole level because its logic based on the “maze” couldn’t conceive the “jump” I did between the two, supposedly unconnected, zones.

This is why I say we need more interaction with the space. The perception of the space is exactly one of those specific possibilities of a graphical medium that we are currently understimating/not considering enough. And this is one of the key to push the genre a bit forward on a real evolution. An evolution that isn’t just about “dressing” an avatar with a more detailed texture. It’s again about considering the graphic for what it is: an interface. And go to deliver the FULL POTENTIAL of that precise interface: something that a textual MUD will NEVER be able to do, and exactly the reason why Haemish doesn’t accept to “go back” at a MUD pretending to play the same type of thing and put it on the same level of a graphical game.

So I’m now wondering: when we will be able to see games offering some consistency to the graphical bodies? When I’ll see a monster pushing me back (so an *action* affecting me, not just swinging an immaterial sword) so that I go knock on a rock that was behind me and get hurt in the impact? When we’ll see monsters aware of the structure of the space, about the objects, about the z-dimension? When we’ll see a monster jumping in a room, clutching something on the ceiling and then rise itself to go inside an air duct that couldn’t be entered in another way? When we’ll see the monsters starting to cooperate, taking cover behind objects, hiding themselves to stalk players (as opposed to “fade in/out” in the middle of a desert) or blocking a player from behind while another monsters stabs it from the front?

Those are examples to give some “solidity” to the space. Both the personal space (the body) and what’s around you (the environment). I think it’s time to move further and forget players and mosters casting/shoting freely through the terrain or trees or other objects. I want the space to have a consistency, to become a gameplay element. I want the games to develop more the verticality and move away from the “maze” model that in mmorpgs is often translated as a “pretty” open space with no real (specific to space) quality.

Again as applied to the graphic/text paradigm: the “space” isn’t just a “void”. The space is a perception. It’s one of our strongest needs and if games want to be successful they need to give it some depth and relevance instead of making it more and more virtual and inconsistent. We need consistency. We need the perception of the touch. As opposed to games that continue to be immaterial, blurring the space, making avatars sit outside chairs, walking through tables and crates, walking at the same speed on a road and while climbing a mountain, shoothing through bulidings, trees and hills, jumping off mountains, sitting happily on a fireplace without getting hurt, keeping jumping in circles for hours without feeling dizzy and so on…

(about the last example: if i’ll even work for a mmorpg -in this or another life- that’s the first thing I’ll implement, I swear)

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