The MMO Road Less Traveled: The Actor and the Adventurer

The past paradoxically becomes clearer as time passes. Trends are very hard to pinpoint and define while they are incubating and growing. When you are personally experiencing a cultural movement you don’t have the time or inclination to understand the implications of what you are doing. You are there and it feels right.

We humans love to jump on bandwagons. We are prone to getting caught up in the moment. We see this with political candidates, the latest technology and we see this with video games and MMOs. During those periods of reckless abandon rarely do we ever stop to consider the implications of our actions. We live for the moment.

I believe enough time has passed since 1998 that it’s time to take stock of what MMOs have become and how their design has affected what we have become as players. There’s a saying “You are what you eat”. I believe this is also true of MMOs, you are what you play. What you do and where you travel has a profound effect on who you become. This explains why most of us who came to fantasy worlds to answer the call of adventure ended up being actors.

Inconvenient Questions

I have a history of being a thorn in the side of the MMO establishment. A famous person once said: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” Anyone that challenges the status quo has an uphill battle.

Lately, I’ve started to notice that many players and commentators are finally starting to come around and are agreeing with things I’ve been saying for years regarding the woeful state of affairs with the MMO industry. I smile when I read top commentators and MMO celebrities coming to the same conclusions I made years ago. Vindication is a dish best served cold.

So, I’d like to start by asking some rather inconvenient, uncomfortable and existential questions about the MMO genre, the people who play them and the people who make them:

Given the repetitive nature of MMOs and the apparent lack of choice and innovation, why do people continue to be drawn to MMOs as a leisure time activity?

Do developers and player even care about the concept of player freedom and self-determination or is experiencing “fun” by any means possible the ultimate goal of this genre?

Do people still want to be part of virtual worlds or are they more interested in playing an online game?

Have we as players lost the will and courage to embark on adventures that might require exploring the vast reaches of the geographic unknown?

Or have we become creatures of convenience, comfort and safety deathly afraid of our own virtual shadows and loathe to risk even the slightest ounce of our energy and time?

The Road Not Taken

As I struggled with these questions, I remembered an insightful poem I had heard in my teen years by Robert Frost: The Road Not Taken.

I have a certain affection for this poem. Growing up I was a shy awkward overweight kid, I really didn’t fit in with any group. Nerds and gamers didn’t exist as social groups back then. We were all alone.

I had few friends and I submerged myself and retreated into music, fantasy literature, pulp horror magazines and even the writings of Ayn Rand. All I had was my identity as an individual. So art and poems that promoted individualism like The Road Not Taken, really resonated with me.

While writing this article, it struck me that this poem is the perfect analogy that might help explain what has happened to this once noble genre and why two roads have emerged from a single path.

The Road Not Taken

By Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Could it be that we MMO players are that traveler in the poem? Will we someday regret we didn’t take the road less traveled?

The Fork in the Road

We play MMOs for various reasons: escapism, relaxation, challenge, achievement, hanging out with our friends — all in the name of adventure — at least that is how fantasy worlds are marketed. The once rare opportunity to be a part of a living and breathing fantasy world together with people from all around the world used to be an irresistible proposal.

The problem is when you get there, more often that not, the hype does not match the user experience and like a person that books a hotel from an internet website they often feel let down. From Azeroth to Middle-earth to the next big MMO this feeling of disappointment almost always comes back to haunt us. Once the lofty virtual world promises are forgotten and forgiven we seem resigned to being herded like cattle into theme parks.

An Unlikely Pair of Travelers: Actors and Adventurers

One day, it finally dawned on my that the MMO experience can distilled into two main categories and they are mirrored by two real life examples: actors and adventurers.

Each of these categories are easy to understand metaphors for how players experience and interact within the virtual worlds that have been created for them. But more importantly, each represents a different path: one a road well traveled and the other a road less traveled.

The MMO Actor

Consider the actor. In the real world, an actor is someone who plays a part created by someone else. While the actor can reinterpret someone’s script and occasionally improvise, he is ultimately subservient to story/play/film that is created by the author/playwright/director. The actor is on the Orient Express train with fellow actors; there can be no leaving the tracks and only one destination — the end of the story.

Sound familiar?

Actors and Adventurers MMO Style

In the MMO world dominated by quest-centric game play and story-driven narratives the player has become a stage actor playing a part that is created by a game designer. There is very little room for deviation. In order to advance the story you must enter the castle and rescue the princess in order to be proclaimed the hero. Although the player can refuse to complete a quest — very few actually do — completing all available quests is how the MMO game is intended to be played. So we do as we are told.

So the MMO player is really just an actor going through the motions, reading the script, performing all required tasks on cue. This is not to be confused with role-playing where the person actually creates and invents role and actively nurtures and develops a persona and interacts with other role-players using the virtual world as contextual and situational backdrop.

What is the Benefit of Being an Actor?

What is the payoff for the player that decides to be an MMO actor? This is indeed a fundamental question because surely the player knows that thousands of players before him and after him will play the exact same role.

Why then do players willingly suspend their disbelief and participate in this simplistic and repetitive song and dance?

There is nothing special or exclusive about playing a typical MMO these days. Maybe this explains why people dress up in various real life uniforms like goths, emo kids, hip hop, nerds, jocks and whatever the latest fad happens to be. Being a unique individual takes courage and guts. Maybe this explains why MMOs are so popular: players don’t have to think or display any creativity — they just follow the yellow exclamation mark signposts on the yellow brick road like everyone else.

Perhaps the answer is this: most people are just too lazy to be creative and to forge their own adventures. In an age of short attention spans, players want their hero experience handed to them like grabbing a plate of sushi from a conveyor belt.

Even more puzzling considering how much the game element of MMOs have taken over as a design sensibility and given the inherent limitations of the MMO actor, there is no incentive nor opportunity to play the part well. Going through the motions produces a bland form of victory. The only way to be a better questor is to complete them faster hence the current “DPS” meta game that so many players have been seduced by (and a common pitfall that many novice MMO bloggers fall into).

The Real World Actor

To get some additional perspective on this issue, maybe it’s useful to look at actors in the real world. Why do actors in real life pursue careers as actors? What kind of person finds fulfillment in being somebody else?

Perhaps acting allows actors to escape from their true personae free from the drudgery and responsibilities of everyday life.  They can say and do things that they might not be free to do in the real world such as playing villains or heroes. And it’s all make believe; a game of pretend that is over after the curtain falls.

The MMO Actor

The MMO player shares a similar reality in that they can log off at anytime and resume their  lives of comfort and safety back in the real world.

Another thing worth considering is that actors don’t have to think about what they are going to say — all that is done for them by the writers. As far as MMO players, they don’t have to say anything. They just press accept or decline but the story progresses along despite the lack or surplus of eloquence.

So let’s sum up, what it means to be a MMO actor:

  1. You have no real freedom and enjoy limited autonomy as you are playing a part and must follow a script written by a quest designer
  2. You must complete the quest or lose out on character progression and the revelation of the storyline
  3. There is no reward for being a good actor nor penalty for being a bad actor — just show up!
  4. Your moral alignment is fixed as you are always the hero (or villain) because the quest designer says so
  5. You must have an endless capacity to be able to suspend your disbelief knowing that thousands if not millions of fellow actors will have played and be playing the same role
  6. Predictability
  7. When the scripts dry up, you have nothing to do and feel a lack of purpose and direction

Still want to be an MMO actor?

The MMO Adventurer

In the real world there are a few equivalents to the MMO adventurer; they are those that join the military and mercenary organizations and others that love to explore the wilderness such as hikers and campers. In both cases, the unexpected is to be expected.

The ability to think quickly, adapt and process whatever challenges comes one’s way is paramount for survival. This helps to explain the oft used phrase “the thrill of adventure”. This goes for Navy Seals and mountain climbers alike . Both have objectives but there are elements of chance and variability that are far removed from the actor that plies her craft on stage or in a virtual world.

The Virtual Sandbox

The MMO adventurer best thrives in what is called a “sandbox”. In the real world, a child’s sandbox is a place where children can explore and create their own fun. No instruction manual is needed. Have you ever noticed toddlers on Christmas morning playing with worthless balls of tin foil or wrapping paper instead of playing with the expensive toys inside?

The sandbox a useful metaphor for the player that like to create his own self-directed experience. He doesn’t need a script. He doesn’t need a map.  He doesn’t need yellow exclamation marks that act as breadcrumbs guiding his every virtual step. In a properly designed sandbox virtual world, every experience is fresh and unique.

Learn Your Lines, Rehearse the Script and Win

But the problem is that those MMOs aren’t being made anymore by any AAA development studio. So the hapless MMO adventurer has no choice but to be trapped in a MMO that is akin to the movie Groundhog Day and is subject to repetitive insanity where everything is scripted and nothing changes. Learn your lines (read: learn NPC and boss A.I.) you will be rewarded.

Eventually MMO adventurers become frustrated because they can’t fulfill their virtual aspirations and they leave. What is left is a self-fulfilling prophecy of virtual worlds dominated by well trained MMO actors.

So let’s sum up what it means to be a MMO adventurer:

  1. You act and think for yourself and develop independence and autonomy — there are no lines or quests telling you where to go and what you must do
  2. You develop and nurture a survival mindset that rewards quick thinking, self-reliance, resourcefulness and cooperation — you become a better player
  3. Unpredictability
  4. Every day has the potential for new and endless challenges because what you experience is not finite like scripted content

In Defense of the Adventurer

If you haven’t already guessed, I greatly favor the MMO adventurer over the MMO actor. When I got involved with MMOs in 1998, I was lured by fantastic, exotic worlds of mystery and danger. I enlisted in the MMO genre because I craved adventure and danger — yes all from the comfort of my home — that was the lure and magic of virtual worlds. I didn’t sign up to be an actor reading someone else’s script.

For me J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary explanation of the seductive power of wanderlust from the Lord of the Rings is apt:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to.”

Bilbo’s wise words sum up what it means to be an adventurer. It’s a pity that that spirit of adventure has vanished from virtual worlds and a lost generation of MMO players will never taste its sweet fruits.


So what happened?

I truly believe that MMO design has become perverted and misguided since the rise of MMOs like World of Warcraft. The once good and noble soul of MMOs has been possessed by a spirit of sloth, gluttony and greed  — we’ve been bewitched by game design elements that appeal to the worst traits in humanity. The MMO genre has lost its way and the current Blizzard design zeitgeist has ensnared millions of players in its foul web.

I believe good intentioned MMO developers have taken far too many liberties and in the process the adventure player has become all but extinct. These days the MMO adventurer has precious few places she can call home and battlefields where she can prove her valor. The sole responsibility of MMO designers is to create the backdrop and the setting for adventure to explore and conquer. Nothing less and nothing more. Instead they continue to meddle in your virtual life and seek to control every aspect of your online experience.

I have an alternative vision: MMOs should be proving grounds where players can distinguish themselves by testing their mettle against the environment and other players. Instead MMOs are created in sausage factories and are nothing more than amusement park rides with long lines waiting to be entertained by the courage and bravery of NPCs supported by hollow words uttered by voice over actors in cut-scenes.

The real question is: why can’t we have MMOs that appeal to both kinds of players? Where are the viable choices out there?  The reality is that to survive, businesses need to make money. So they must mitigate investor risk and the result is that MMO development companies are playing it safe. Combine that with the exorbitant $50-$100 million dollar cost and you have the reason the MMO industry is currently besieged with WoW clones and cleverly disguised replicas with different skins —  Lord of the Rings Online and RIFT come to mind.

When the consumer has little to no choice they are at the mercy of a financial and creative hegemony. What you want as a MMO consumer has little to do with your actual wants and needs. There are very few games in town and if you want to play it must be by their rules. You are in their world now.

I originally wanted to close this article with this question: Do you want to be: an actor or adventurer? It then dawned on me that that choice really doesn’t exist anymore. At least in the poem by Robert Frost, the traveler has an real choice in front of him. Unfortunately we don’t have the luxury of that choice anymore. The road less traveled has vanished into the mists of MMO history and all that remains is a super highway that leads to the mundane and mediocre.


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