['MMOG Nation' is a regular bi-weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is about the "world vs. game" debate in Massive design, and how that applies to Star Wars Galaxies.]

Trials of Obi-Wan CombatA rose by any other name may not smell as sweet, but most Massively Multiplayer titles available right now are games, whether they like it or not. Spaces like Second Life aside, there are very few 'virtual worlds' out there that can legitimately claim the title. In my mind, that's a good thing; we refer to them as Massively Multiplayer Online Games, MMOGs, or MMORPGs, for a reason. The example I point to most often when discussing this topic is Sony Online's Star Wars Galaxies (SWG). I'm harsh on the game for many reasons, but at the root of the problem is the fundamental question of identity. Galaxies launched trying to be a world, when what all the people logging in were looking for was a game. Today I'm going to talk about how SWG launched differing from more game-oriented and successful MMOGs, how the recent changes to the game illustrate the need for 'gamey-ness' in a Massive space, and why the concept of a 'virtual world' is inherently flawed in the first place.

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Cue Titles, Cue Music ... Now What?

Galaxies launched in 2003 with a unique vision of what a Massively Multiplayer Game could be. Imaginative elements like fully-customizable player housing, non-combat dancing and crafting tasks, and the ability to create your character's own hybrid profession set it apart from the class-based MUD-derived games that had come before it. These elements were in many ways as successful as they were brilliant. The problem came from the context in which they were set: an attempt at a virtual world.

Players logging in within the first few months, especially those who hadn't been following the Beta testing process, were blown away by the experience. It seemed, in those heady first encounters, that almost anything was possible in the world crafted by SOE and LucasArts. Eventually, when it became apparent that reality did not meet those initial expectations, players became frustrated. The randomly generated missions were repetitive and meaningless. With no ships, mounts, or vehicles, travel was a chore. The world was beautiful, making your character exactly what you wanted was personally satisfying, but there just wasn't all that much to do.

The conflict between game concept and player expectation was a basic one: players thought they were logging on to play a game, while the designers had been busying themselves building a world. In the world we live in, no one crafts entertaining opportunities for our personal enjoyment or provides a tutorial mode. Likewise, Star Wars Galaxies at launch was a harsh experience. A title that had set out to pare down elements of grinding by design, had instead released with little more than meaningless grind to offer.

The realization of the problem was swift, though, and content immediately began flooding into the game. 'Dungeons', modes of travel, player cities, and eventually the space expansion stemmed the tide of customers leaving the game. The fundamental problem remained, though: the designers had built a world for a community that just wanted to play a game.

I've Outrun Imperial Ships, Not the Local Bulk Cruisers Mind You

Fighting in SpaaaaaaceThe changes wrought last year to 'correct' this fundamental flaw were far-reaching and unmistakable. SOE set out to unmake what they had made, and transform SWG from a niche world into a mainstream game. One of the core changes was the addition of traditional levels. Pre-existing characters were translated from the skill-based system used in the original game, and pigeonholed into one of a few formal classes. Tradesmen and dancers remained as playable options, stripped of any combat abilities they may have once had. Those that enjoyed crafting, though, saw the writing on the wall: this was a game now, and in Massively Multiplayer Games you kill stuff for XP.

These changes, for better or worse, are a clear message from Sony Online about the role of SWG in the marketplace. Galaxies, as a world, didn't work. The most recent changes speak to this increased focus. By making SWG a game, they've applied meaning to elements that previously had none. For example, 'Smuggler' was a profession you could aspire to, both in the original version of the game and after the more recent changes. With the 'world' approach in mind, though, Smuggler characters were inaptly named. In point of fact, they had nothing to smuggle. The most recent game update finally corrects this, by introducing a smuggling system complete with challenges and rewards. Smuggler characters can now earn faction with an Underworld group, obtain contraband which must be moved to other locations, and can be tracked both by NPC assailants and player Bounty Hunters.

The lesson here is that because Massive spaces don't work as worlds, applied meaning is key to understanding a character's role. Where a character could be in the Smuggler class, he didn't actually do anything that would indicate that he was a Smuggler. He didn't actually smuggle anything. The only thing setting a 'Smuggler' apart from other ranged combat classes was his ability to sell things from his inventory anywhere in the game. Looking at SWG through the lens of a game it's clear that to be a Smuggler a character needs to perform certain activities. It seems like a simple statement; in other games, it would seem ludicrous to call a class 'Warrior' if they had no facility for combat. In the 'world' mindset, though, the meaning of a character comes from the player and not the world.

As high-minded as that may be, it's just not a feasible requirement in a medium that is primarily a commercial form of entertainment. Players need direction, focus, and boundaries, new players especially. Forcing a player completely new to the world of Massively Multiplayer games to decide what a Smuggler does can only lead to confusion. They did, it did, and players left the game as a result.

An Aside

It may seem like I have been encouraged by the Smuggler changes, and that would be correct. It may then be surmised my attitude towards the New Game Experience is a positive one. This could not be further from the truth. By changing the game so rapidly and essentially without SWG community involvement, Sony has proven that it is willing to sacrifice goodwill and trust in order to make a quick buck. While the community they were fostering was certainly unhappy at times, it was a community. Small or large, for better or worse, Star Wars Galaxies was the game they were playing. If that community had been consulted before implementing the changes wrought by the NGE, the SOE folks may have found significant devotion to the gameplay they were considering heaving out with the bathwater.

By wrenching the title into a new shape, by discarding the edicts of the original gameplay experience, Sony was effectively saying that it didn't care for the community it had created. It wanted a new one, with a greater interest in twitch gaming, a more mainstream audience which would hopefully boost sales and subscription numbers.

It's 23:25, Do You Know Where Your Meat Body Is?

Old School CombatThis, in the end, is why the 'World vs. Game' argument is meaningless. Norrath, Azeroth, Tattoine, Paragon City: all have physicality only insofar as their data flows across networks and is rendered by graphical processors. There's no there there. What sets Everquest's Norrath apart from the beautiful enivrons of Oblivion's Tamriel is the community of people playing the game.

Despite some wide-eyed hopes and theories to the contrary, the term 'Virtual World' is inherently contradictory. A virtual space may indeed have definition, and substance. I'm even willing to believe that it has meaning, insofar as it's given meaning by the real people that interact with it. What a virtual space cannot be, however, is a world. 'World' is defined by dictionary.com a number of ways: 'a planet', 'a class of people', 'a sphere or domain'. What I think users of the term 'virtual world' are aiming for is 'any period, state, or sphere of existence'. The key word here is 'existence'. By definition, Massive spaces have no substance to them. They do not exist.

This is why Star Wars Galaxies and World of Warcraft, in the end, are no more worlds than the communal chat program Habbo Hotel. The 'world' of Azeroth ceases to exist every Tuesday for a few hours while Blizzard messes with the servers. The community that forms around the game, that exists outside of the boundaries of corporate control, that's the real world of the game. The countless forums, fansites, and machinima creations are the marks that Azeroth has left on reality, and those are the concrete elements we should point to when we talk about 'Virtual Worlds'.

Second Life, in fact, is probably one of the few online spaces that can truly claim to be a world, by virtue of the inherent meaning of the individual. Like in Galaxies at launch, Second Life doesn't make you try to have fun. There are no quests in SL, no classes, no xp bar. What sets Second Life apart from Galaxies is that you can make long-term changes to the environment. Making your mark on the space like this, leaving a legacy beyond your community involvement, is fundamental to the world concept.

Even then, Second Life only exists as long as the power is on. Ask the players of Earth and Beyond, Asheron's Call 2, or even the infant community that formed around Mythica. Massive Games are powerful experiences, and they should be enjoyed while they can. Thanks to the realities of business, the whims of players, and the pressures of an industry, Massive Games are fleeting and fluid; the castle in the air only lasts so long.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]