The emptiness of virtual worlds
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 December 2012, 2:38 am
When comparing the recent comments on my blog about the problems of Wurm Online with my experience with MMORPG with player housing (UO, SWG, ATiTD, ...) it struck me that a big part of the problem is that virtual houses aren't much lived in. Most players only spend something like 10% of their day online, and even then most activity in most games with player housing takes place away from your house. Virtual worlds with player housing often feel rather empty, and that visual isolation stands in the way of community building. No wonder people in a sandbox game often do selfish things, if they don't feel part of a community for which self-restraint in favor of the greater good would look like a good idea.

The player housing I felt most at home with was in A Tale in the Desert. You would build your house not too far from the schools you needed for various purposes, so that villages formed automatically. And half of your time in the game was usually spent doing crafting around your house, as you would construct your crafting structures around your house. You could make some of those structures public, for example the pottery wheels which are hard to get for new players, and you'd even have a stream of visitors. And of course the ability to join several guilds helped, as besides your main guild you would often join a local guild for some community project.

Compared to that the houses in Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies were much less lived in. But they did have one other feature which made them look less abandoned: The ability to set up your own NPC vendors there. Thus even if you weren't online, if you were known as a master smith, people would seek out your house to buy stuff. Features like that add to the sense of place, making player cities appear somewhat more real. Games like Everquest 2 or Lord of the Rings Online, with their instanced housing, manage to hide the fact that most houses are empty most of the time. But then these don't really feel like houses in the first place. Nobody sees when you are home doing crafting, and there really is no reason to even visit another house.

A reader recently recommended to me to watch the anime series Sword Art Online, which is about players being trapped 24/7 in a virtual reality MMORPG. That technology fortunately doesn't exist. But the consequence of that is that allowing players to make permanent changes to virtual worlds they only inhabit for a fraction of their time is fraught with problems. I don't think it is impossible, but I do think a working virtual world game would have to be built very differently, putting social structures in the foreground before letting players lose to deforest the landscape.
Tobold's Blog

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