Sometimes, as a game designer, you tend to forget how well versed you are in your medium. You tend to think that all people are able to plunge into a virtual world and stroll around. You could not be more wrong.
This weekend, Oli, Käde and me had our parents over for a lengthy Easter brunch. And since recently Portal 2 was released, we figured that we showed them the first Portal as an example of a really well done and funny game. I am not really sure how our parents received the game. In fact, I doubt that they realised much of it, since they were mostly occupied figuring out the controls.
This was the perfect illustration for the generational gap. While modern games tend to write "Use WASD to move around" and leave it at that, assuming that the player will know what to do, because he has used that control scheme so many times before, this was clearly not enough for our parents.
At first, they tended to alternate between intently staring at the mouse and then slowly turning it and swooping over the keyboard with the index finger, trying to find the correct key to ... well, do something.
While working on an assignement for our current module on collaborative virtual worlds, I think I started to understand what bugs me in both MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and sandbox games like Second Life. There are (as for now) two points:
A Feeling of Agency
Nothing is more frustrating in World of Warcraft than successfully finishing a quest by bringing the needed herbs to an NPC, being thanked by him and reassured that his sick daughter will now get well, and as soon as you turn your back, you hear him complain to the next player that his daughter is sick and is in dire need of certain herbs ...
What is missing here is the feeling of agency – the feeling that your actions as a player have an effect on the world and change it, for the better or the worse. After all, any of these games give you the feeling that you are a hero and part of something big, and not just another name- and faceless warrior in a confusing war (even though that picture would often be more accurate).
To be fair, it has to be said that World of Warcraft has its moments there – like when the players had to gather ressources in order to open up a portal. But those moments are few.
An Agent Beyond Your Control
Second Life has quite another problem. Yes, you can change the world – a bit, by building something on a tiny speck of land, but then again, why should you? Nothing is forcing you, there is no actual need, there is nothing out of your control.