October 3, 2008 8:00 AM |
['The Game Anthropologist' is Michael Walbridge's regular GameSetWatch column looking at gaming communities and subcultures. This week he speaks from the trenches about the developing community of EA/Mythic's new MMO, Warhammer Online.]
If you want the real dirt on Warhammer Online, the best reading comes from those who've played. Electronic Arts, Mythic, and the publications covering WAR can discuss features all they want, but that hasn't always kept those investigating satiated, which is why you'll see forums, comment threads, and sometimes published articles directed toward what it's like to play WAR with other people. There's playing a game by yourself, and there's playing a game with people, and when we have a rare challenger to World of Warcraft, we need to compare both parts.
So, what's the community like in WAR? Plenty of factors make this question a very personal one, but I'll attempt to answer it from these two simple viewpoints of trying it alone and trying it with someone else.
If you try WAR alone, it'll feel lonelier than some other MMOs. For starters, grouping requires less communication, which enhances play time but lessens bonding or memory of other players. I've not yet added a single person to my friends list because it simply doesn't enter into my mind.
Because WAR gives you multiple paths to level your characters, there's no urgency to find someone you can rely on for a specific task—if a task is difficult, it is not an opportunity you regret skipping. Continuing to explore or saying “you know, I'd rather do something else instead, I don't want to wait around” give the journey a different flavor.
The path to glory is still heavily shaped by the game design, but it makes players feel like they have more control due to the abundance of options and the ease with which a person rotates among those options. More control means less submission to imposed standards, which means less cohesive socialization.
I decided I wanted to join a guild early, and so I chose to join an official Penny Arcade guild, the Candymancers. This required me to switch servers, but it was a minor penalty since it was the first week of launch. The game changed for me a bit since I now had a guild forum, guild Ventrilo server, and guild chat to give me a group of people to work for and to help.
Still, were it not for those things I'd have felt alone, and to a degree I still do. The text in this game is non-intrusive and there are fewer breaks in the game. When I chat in a party or in the open, more than half the time a player won't say anything. Trips to the city, even to go to the bank, are less frequent and there is no need to eat food and drink water in-between fights.
The game never stops you; only you do. There aren't long flights or waits for boats to pick you up, either. The Auction House has few items, and there isn't very much to do in a city. Training for your abilities is located in almost any spot that has a cluster of NPCs. The crafting and economic system are minor and nothing close to the scale of those in EVE Online or WoW.
There simply isn't any reason to sit around and chat because of boredom, economics, or forced breaks due to game design. Except for the influence user-interface standards, WAR feels very little like WoW; the graphics and lore aren't the only things that have an opposite tone.
Still, a lot of people are playing it, both out of curiosity and because it has quite a few converts. Why are so many excited? Because it's new? That can't completely account for it; there are plenty of new games, and if they're bad, the novelty wears off quickly. I know of many players who plan on keeping their subscriptions.
Perhaps its audience is a product of the game's PVP system and how fun it is to actually play it. That must be part of it; yet an MMO feels like a place, and it has to be a place where everyone knows your name. The community side has to be there, the game mechanics don't bring people closer together, but there are reasons players have for playing together and sticking together.
In order to answer this question, I had to go back to the beginning. I was in beta, but I came in at the last week; my characters were to be deleted, and the server names changed again; I was busying myself exploring the game, but couldn't commit to the people. But there were people at the beginning of beta who got into beta guilds. I wondered what brought people together.
Before the beta for WAR launched, the Warhammer Alliance forums were designated as unofficial official forums for members of various factions, including developers and testers. And the discussion there is similar to the chatter during Beta, which is similar to the current discussion, which is all focused on game mechanics.
And that is why WAR's community feels like it's in a premature, yet post-larval stage—because the game is too. One example of a hot issue right now is whether accepting alternate characters in the guild halts the progress of a guild's rank (guilds have their own levels in order to make them more stable). This has caused many guilds to hold a one-character-per-person policy, at least until they hear contrary evidence from EA or Mythic.
Some followers of WAR have said that it's a more “intellectual” game compared to other MMOs; it surely feels that way. But it's not necessarily because WAR is a more intellectual game or one that is for smarter players; it's because it's a game that the players are partially helping to build. We haven't yet discovered the full scope or content of the game. We are still figuring out how the stats work and what some of the preferred combinations and strategies are.
The rules, quirks, and game design principles of the game aren't fully understood yet, so those of us playing WAR are not excited only by its newness and the fun that we've seen so far; we're also stimulated because we like to be the pioneers, the true scouts and explorers of an MMO world. Players speculate and engage in friendly debate about what the game will be like in a few months.
The race isn't just to discover the geography or even to level to rank 40; the race is to understanding the game, thus forming a complex, expanding, and digital community. Some players are almost like scientists; they do little experiments and spend plenty of time on analysis and math, then present their findings on the forums.
There's a reason so many of the reviews or features on WAR express some caution; as the game is right now, it cannot be fully understood or fully reviewed until a large number of players have reached the highest mountain and can view the valley and bellow to all below: “It's great up here, and it has been for a few months.”
Categories: Column: The Game Anthropologist