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. There is no underlying story that would motivate you to do anything.
Minecraft has no underlying story as well, but it has a night-day-cycle, and in the night, the monsters creep out of their holes, and you have to protect yourself: so yes, there is a need to build a house or a cave. Why?
Because there is an agent at work that is beyond the player’s control, and the player is forced to react to it – and in the best case, prevent some of its consequences. With that simple game mechanic, a story starts to create itself, and it is entirely the player’s own.
Imagine a world where your actions generate reactions: a world where building a house and clearing the wood for it provokes a mudslide. Where some players are visited by a god, that answers to their questions and sends them onto a spiritual quest?
Yes, such things require more than just simple scripting. Cory Doctorow’s introduction of mechanical turks in his novel For the Win in order to react individually to a player’s action does not seem so far-fetched now.
Yet it could lead to more varied and clearly more surprising game play.