Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Paging ELIZA... ELIZA, White Courtesy Phone, Please....

I was going to write about something else, but the Boston Marathon bombing happened, and I pretty much threw my paragraphs into the bit bucket.

I'm not going to comment on the bombing itself or speculate on who the perpetrators were --not that I haven't been doing it on my own time as it is-- but because this isn't the forum for it.  But while I had been turning over things related to the bombing, I sat down at the computer and played around on some MMOs to clear my mind a bit.

For a change, I found them vaguely unsatisfying.

At first I wasn't sure why, but the more I played the more certain I became that the source of my discontent had more to do with the nature of MMOs and PvE content.

When you play an MMO, you're following a specific storyline.  Or you're performing a set of tasks.  While the story itself might be new to you, it is the same story for everyone.  The Wrathgate still unfolds the same way.  The Desolator story in TOR will follow the same pattern.  Sure, small things change in the TOR questlines --after all, that's what Bioware does-- but the big pattern stays the same.

The theme park MMO, for all of its popularity, is not oriented toward spontaneity.  Random bolts out of the blue simply have no place in the game.  If there is something random that pops up, just wait a bit and you'll see that it comes back after a set amount of time.  The truly random elements in a game like WoW or TOR or the others are what the players make for themselves.

While it does sound like that is how things ought to be, the problem with the concept of the players making their own spontaneity are twofold:  there are far more NPCs on an average MMO server than there are actual players, and you have to have buy-in from other players to make such spontaneous actions occur.


In case you haven't noticed, the Fruit Vendor in Shattrath City doesn't talk back to you beyond a few basic set phrases.  While the recycled interplay between the Fruit Vendor and her grumpy neighbors is amusing, you never get a chance to insert yourself into the conversation.  Likewise, there have been times when I've been tempted to chat up the Cheese Vendor and her "woe is me" routine in Falconwing Square, but I can't.  The most a toon can do is buy something from her, or if you're the opposite faction, kill her.

Not exactly a lot of interaction there.

Even when there is an "event", such as the All Hallow's Eve Headless Horseman event, did you notice that the vendor (or other) NPCs just kind of stand around and do nothing?  No interaction with the world at all.

In TOR, about half of the background characters in an area aren't clickable at all; they're there just to fill up the scene.

While you can make a successful argument that world interaction would be more effectively done on an RP server, what about the person going questing in Felwood?  If a region is empty, about the best you can do is strike up one sided conversations with various NPCs.

While I was bored in Arathi one day, waiting for the BG queue to pop, I did just that.  It lasted about two or three sentences until somebody landed at the Alliance flightpoint, saw the bubble still hanging in the air, and said "L2P noob; they don't talk back!"  He then took off on a twilight drake.

I kind of just rolled my eyes and waited for the BG in silence.

At the very least, something like the old Eliza program* would be nice to give you the impression that you're conversing with an NPC.


Okay, NPCs aside, when was the last time something completely unexpected and unplanned --and not connected to a quest either-- happened in an MMO that came out of the PvE environment?

The only thing I can think of the past year or so was the Rakghoul event on Tatooine in TOR.  WoW draws a complete blank, because even the pre-launch events (of which there were none for Pandaria) are completely scripted.  Hell, they're often completely analyzed and dissected online prior to the event actually happening.  And the other MMOs I play... Well, they take their cues from WoW.  'Nuff said.

In a sense, I get the feeling that a totally random event would not be welcome by a certain portion of the MMO populace.  After all, look at how people approach the game:  analyzing gear, where to get it, what instances to run, what dailies to do, what mats to farm, and analyzing all of the boss fights, all in the pursuit of being completely ready for anything.

Hey everybody!  I'm raid ready!

If you think people like the unexpected, try saying "So, what's this raid about?  Are there any interesting boss mechanics?" in LFR.

On the flip side, I remember reading about the reactions when the Rakghoul event dropped:  completely and totally unexpected by the general populace, and there was no advance warning in the blogosphere.  Just "BLAM!" and it was there.

Zombies.  In Star Wars.

The Walking Dead Goes to Tatooine.  Deal with it, toons!

Why can't that sort of thing happen more often in MMOs?

Is it the fear of widespread apathy from the gamer populace?  The dreaded "Oh, this thing only drops iL483 gear" dismissal?  Or is it a "we play to our strengths, and plotting the unexpected doesn't fit into that?"

Whatever the reason, breaking out of the same-old same-old can provide memorable moments in MMOs that prefer the tried and true.

*Surely I can't be the only person who remembers ELIZA, can I?  (And don't you DARE call me Shirley!)


  1. Yeah, I'm that old, too. I even remember trying to program an ELIZA-like, in... Pascal of all things, for the exercise. You might want to check out, which is a kind of crowdsourced ELIZA. I still prefer the original.

    Anyway, I think you might be too pessimistic about people's receptiveness to spontaneous things... as long as those things are more or less progression-neutral. There will always be people who look at MMOs through the cold lens of min-maxing, including min-maxing their use of time in the game. Those people will know within hours of even an unannounced event dropping whether they care or not. However, if events offer lore, cosmetic gear, interesting visuals, interesting enemies, most regular players will be happy.

    Why doesn't it happen? Probably your second reason: cost-benefit calculations by the devs. Brief, spontaneous content does not monetise well, and does nothing for monthly sub numbers, so it's hard to justify.

    1. My intro to ELIZA was on the old TRS-80, using their own BASIC language. Geez, I feel old saying that.

      I'm afraid you're right about the cost (or better yet, risk/reward) for spontaneous content in WoW. However, it seems silly to at least not try every so often.

  2. There were a couple of incidents in WoW that were unexpected, or that had unexpected outcomes or consequences: the Corrupted Blood incident of 2005, the Highlord Kruul Unleashed tour of 2007, the Great Zombie Plague of 2008 (the idea for which may have come from the Corrupted Blood incident). Most players reacted negatively to these incidents. A large minority loved them, and did their best to change Azeroth, if only for a few days.

    1. True, although the first one was unexpected even by the Devs.

      The tragedy of these is that you still hear from people who remember these events fondly. Sure, it sucked logging into raid night and having your toon die of the Corrupted Blood bug, but it was one of those events that made WoW memorable.

      Contrasting the Zombie Plague/Scourge Invasion with later expac pre-launch events, it seems clear that those events hit a peak with Wrath. Cata was kind of a meh bust, and Mists didn't have one at all. It's as if Blizz gave up on the "events" and decided to coast instead.

      The problem with those later events is that Blizz failed to capitalize on the randomness that made the other events so memorable. When you script everything, you lose that human element that can cause so much chaos.

  3. I so loved the Zombie Event so I was surprised by the uproar of anger it created. People were upset that they couldn't use the AH. I like spontaneity but apparently I'm in the minority. I can't remember how many times I've been alone in some zone and just wished some THING that was not documented somewhere would walk through. It could even kill me, I'd be fine with that but I'm probably never going to get my wish.

    1. That's what makes me shake my head, Tome. Something amazing happens, and all some people can think of is that it disrupts their daily routine.

      If extraterrestrials did come down and land on Earth, I'm sure there'd be people complaining "Hey, I wanted to watch the Yankees tonight, and these damn aliens had to come along!"