August 17, 2011

NC Soft's "Wildstar" within the context of my virtual life

Every now and again a game comes along that changes the way we think about playing. The first real virtual playground was Ultima Online. It not only changed the way the world plays games, it gave us a whole new way of talking about them. Some of the words gamers commonly use (like "frag") entered the lexicon from the real world, while others (like "camping") were completely redefined. Players even created entirely new words (like "leet" or "PK") to describe what they experienced as their skills rose and they began competing against one another rather than just against the virtual world.

Ultima Online completely changed the culture of the modern world. It brought us closer together, and it also created sharp divisions between us. For the first time in history players found themselves in constant company with real people from all over the world. Friends were made across international boundaries, lifelong friends that depended on one another emotionally even though they never met in person. As this new virtual community evolved, distinct groups of people formed reflecting different priorities and different approaches to the virtual world. "Roleplayers" threw themselves into the world, memorizing fictional histories, celebrating virtual festival days, and developing a dialect loosely derived from fantasy literature. "PvPers", or "Player-vs.-Player" fans, tore through the world looking for other players willing to go head-to-head using the virtual fighting skills, weapons, and armor provided by the game. Friction between these groups developed very quickly and hybrid groups formed which emphasized both playstyles in varying degrees.

New games then arose based on marketing perceptions of what players "really" wanted. Hundreds, possibly thousands of titles failed as companies overemphasized roleplaying or PvP playstyles in an effort to create the perfect virtual balance between the two. My first venture into the virtual universe was through Lineage II which began life with a strong emphasis on roleplaying and gradually drifted into an entrenched PvP environment. When I left the game several years ago, players had become far more dangerous than the monsters built into the game by the designers. The possibility of another player coming over the hill and killing my character from a distance while I was engaged with one of the game world monsters had become so commonplace that for me, the game world felt more threatening than walking down a real world alleyway late at night carrying a bag of money. It stopped being fun.

My next virtual world was City of Heroes. This virtual world is designed in such a way that roleplaying and PvP play are completely and permanently separated. PvP zones are clearly marked and can only be entered through precise points. It is almost impossible to accidentally wind up in a position where one player is in danger of being attacked by another. But the aspect of City of Heroes that I learned to love most was the complete freedom in creating unique, aesthetically pleasing characters. When they added the ability to create unique missions my enjoyment of the game grew in leaps and bounds. Now I as a player had complete freedom to either enjoy the game as designed by the creators or to create my own mini-version of the game with a unique story, unique enemy group, and semi-unique environment.

I've been playing City of Heroes for over seven years now, and I've created hundreds of unique characters. The game only allows me to save three player-created missions, but I have used the "Mission Architect" tools to create and delete dozens of unique missions with (at least for me) fun, fascinating enemy groups and interesting stories. As a writer, the Mission Architect has become my favorite aspect of a game that I already enjoyed immensely. Participating in the virtual community has kept entertained for thousands of hours, time that I probably could have used more productively, but for me, that was not the point. Living in Japan I felt completely isolated from reality, as if the world around me was a virtual world where I only half-understood the rules and could never quite predict how any given character would react to me. My "real life" felt less real than my virtual one. In many ways, playing City of Heroes kept me sane.

But seven years is a long time in today's world. Over the past seven years America has become involved in two massive, very expensive wars and recently they added a third one. Against the wishes of my family (and to their complete bafflement) I returned to America three years ago and have spent far more time working to return my homeland to a Constitutional Republic of free people than I have playing any game, even City of Heroes. I have gone from six-hour game days to oftentimes less than five hours of gameplay in an entire month. My average number of blog posts per month has exploded and I have spent countless hours writing to politicians at all levels of our society about firearms legislation, the debt crisis, international relations, and so on. Over the past three years I have written more letters to the editor to more publications than in all the years of my entire previous life combined. Not a day goes by where I am not writing or calling someone, somewhere to either complain about a decision they made or compliment them on one. My real world has become very real indeed!

But that doesn't mean I've ignored the virtual universe. I still love playing games, after all. The past two weeks my focus has shifted from politics back to the game industry. Behind this shift is the sudden awakening of Carbine Studios from a prolonged hybernation into the public introduction of their very first game. Information is still sketchy, but the cinematic trailer above is very impressive. Interviews focusing on game mechanics at sites like "Rock, Paper, Shotgun" and "PC Gamer" have me completely enthralled. For the first time ever, I have even joined Twitter! I love science, science fiction, fantasy, and anime-inspired graphics. WildStar combines all the things I love about gaming and does so in a unique, colorful way. I don't know yet if it will support my creativity as well as City of Heroes, but if it does, then I might be moving my virtual life from its current home to a brand new one!

Update, August 20, 2011: Gameplay demo video!