July 01, 2006

Divining the virtual future

The best virtual reality inspired online game. What is it? Is defining such a thing even possible? World of Warcraft has a couple million regular users now, and not just in Asia. Guild Wars is rapidly catching up. Like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars has garnered huge numbers of players from many different regions. Something in these two games crosses cultural boundaries in a way no other online game has yet to match. Personally, I would place my money on two simple areas: playability and socialization.

Both Guild Wars and World of Warcraft feature iconography traditionally associated with Medieval European fantasy. With the new "Factions" expansion, Guild Wars has added a generous helping of Asian iconography as well, but the traditional symbols, power sets, and character roles were what got it off the ground and running. World of Warcraft requires a monthly fee while Guild Wars does not. Guild Wars is more colorful and has finer detail while World of Warcraft leans strongly toward cartoonish. Both games combine story-centric roleplaying campaigns with more or less open PvP battlefields, and yet both games go to great extremes to keep the PvP and PvE gameplay separate. Guild Wars keeps them entirely separate, even allowing the creation of a max-level PvP character right from the first moment you log on.

Regardless of whether anyone happens to like the idea, facts and numbers do not lie. World of Warcraft and Guild Wars are the future of fantasy MMORPGs. Every title currently out there and every title that comes out will have to contend directly against these two giants, both of which grow substantially every single day.

But are they the sum total of virtual life? Do they really represent the limits of online virtual roleplaying? I think not.

Enter Spore. It's not a MMORPG like Lineage II or City of Heroes/City of Villains, nor is it a virtual world along the lines of Second Life or There. It's not even an RTS like Age of Empires or Civilization. Spore is something so entirely different critics wind up giving it awards in widely disparate categories because it falls into all of them and yet fits none.

Personally, I have been waiting for Spore for well over a decade. From the very first moment I loaded SimEarth onto my very first home PC I saw the potential for combining it with SimCity and creating an all encompassing game that could touch on every area of life from the moment of it's unexpected quickening to the final entropic conclusion. A couple years later SimLife came out. Back then, the internet was a very small place, so Will Wright and several other designers had their e-mail addresses in the back of the manual. After a couple days playing SimLife, I fired off an e-mail to Will Wright and encouraged him to find some way to blend these three titles together and completely change the way we play games.

His response was basically, "I'd love to! But who will write the millions and billions of lines of code necessary to make it work?"

It looks like he finally found someone.