For this blogpost I decided to return to a couple earlier games from my younger years, explore how these “MMO Precursors” compared to behaviors found in current iterations of the MMORPG/Virtual World, and write using the personal pronoun. I do not find “Massively Singleplayer” to be quite enjoyable (and particularly co-op play with people who are not physically present), I decided to explore two multiplayer browser based games, Utopia and Kingdom of Loathing, as another example to look at as building blocks and precursors to popular MMO’s besides Habitat and MUDs.
I’ll begin with Utopia, a browser based online game that has existed since 1999 and is run by Swirve Games. The game most resembles a massively multiplayer online turn-based strategy game, where you assume the role of a ruler of a province within a kingdom. The game is completely text-based, with no graphics and only numbers to represent the size of your province, the might of your military, and so forth. Within that kingdom, there are other player run provinces and one province voted as “Monarch”, who helps organize the rest of the players. Monarchs have power to declare wars with each other, where provinces within a kingdom must cooperate to aid, attack, and communicate with one another. It falls on the responsibility of the King to help everyone in the war, but players are also free to aggress other provinces with troops, spells, and thieves outside of wars (but at reduced effectiveness). Players log on at different times, issue orders for attacks, construction, spells, etc, then when they log off construction, mana regeneration, resource collection, and other such tasks occur in real time. Hence, the game is designed to be played in short intervals constantly, requiring a log in every day or so to check on the status of the kingdom, issue commands, then letting it run again on automatic. Every kingdom gets an in-game forum to discuss strategy, ask for assistance, etc. outside of the social forums that occur off-site. In my personal experience, this forum is not used at all for social purposes, and revolves around status updates the king gives and people pointing out various weak provinces that are open to attack.
What is most interesting about Utopia is that the game itself is very socially restricted because it only focuses on one type of social interaction: competition. There is no room outside of the basic commands that relate to building up one’s kingdom and attacking others besides perhaps sending aid to an ally. In comparison to MUDs and MMORPGs like Everquest, identity is almost non-existent outside of the numbers that represent your statistics. MUDs afford a level of “self-presentation” where one can “establish the details of a persona or role they wish to play in the virtual reality” (Curtis). In Pavel Curtis’s example of the fairly long player description he follows up to describe how “a large proportion of player descriptions contain a degree of wish fulfillment; I cannot count the number of ‘mysterious but unmistakably powerful’ figures I have seen wandering around in LambdaMOO” (Curtis). Identities in such MUDs are as flexible as language itself. Utopia seems to exist on the complete opposite end. There’s no room to roleplay as any sort of character, rather one’s interactions with those outside your kingdom solely rely on whether you attacked them, cast a mean spell on them, or sent your thieves to sabotage them. Determining race and personality merely reflects on your character through certain statistical bonuses: for example as a Dark Elf Mystic, I get access to a certain set of spells and a bonus to my spell casting abilities. Between these two extremes mainstream games such as Everquest seem to exist; Taylor describes that “each race has its own starting point in the lands of EQ and comes with a particular advantages and disadvantages” (Taylor, Multiple Pleasures, 23), where deciding on one’s identity determines various gameplay styles and elements. However, as Taylor later points out, “MMORPGs give the user (in varying degrees) an opportunity to engage in various identity performances and corresponding forms of play. Both because of the explicit nature of the space (role play) and the engagement with avatars, users can construct identities which may or may not correlate to their offline persona” (Taylor, Multiple Pleasures, 26). To an extend the body is prefabricated and determined by the system, such that certain clothes requires the possession of certain items which require certain stats, but within games such as WoW and EQ there is room to play within the confines of the presented identity. In this way, Utopia can almost be recognized as an MMO game with these avatar elements stripped away; the differences in choosing a race and class is preserved by giving you certain statistical bonuses, but because the game lacks visual representation and a “role playing” aspect those choices are merely just that: stat bonuses.
Kingdom of Loathing (KoL), another highly popular browser game, is a more humorous and lighthearted game based off of silly pop culture references and poking fun of various social tropes (both geeky and mainstream). The game has you playing the role of an adventurer who must defeat the Naughty Sorceress (for some reason). Every day the player is assigned 40 adventures, and may use them to adventure to various locations such as the Palindome, the Mispelled Cemetary, the Orc Chasm, the Penultimate Fantasy Airship, and other silly places. Adventures can be acquired past the usual 40 by eating food and drinking booze, and although players run across booze and food in the kingdom through adventuring, the best food and drink must be cooked or shaken together by combining various components. Unlike Utopia, gameplay can be done completely solitary, but also unlike Utopia player interactions are encouraged through various gameplay mechanisms. The main player to player interactions exist in several forms: trade, PvP fighting, chat, and clans. Although engaging in any of these is purely optional (and in fact, playing on various “harcore” modes disable many of these benefits), they provide extreme benefits to the player: chat allows newbies to get advice from more seasoned players, people who set up stores in the mall provide high quality items to players in return for meat (the game’s currency is meat, not gold: precious gems in the kingdom are porquise, hamethyst, and baconstone), player vs player resembles a kind of simplified version of the competitive Utopia gameplay (except losing a fight causes small so “griefing” via PvP is nearly impossible, and PvP is entirely optional and not a normally defaulted option), and clans are groups of players who can do certain collaborative adventures and pool money to buy up clan benefits such as a gym, meat tree, and calendar. The PvP system is interesting especially because it comes the closest to one player’s ability to set back another player within the game. Upon winning a PvP fight one can steal meat, items, stats, or something else if they win. However, this contrasts very heavily from the Habitat approach to weapons. With Habitat when one died “he or she is teleported back home, head in hands (literally), pockets empty, and any object in hand at the time dropped on the ground at the scene of the crime” (Morningstar & Farmer). Although violence was only possible outside city limits, “many people thought that such crimes ought to be prevented or at least punished somehow, but they had no idea how to do so. They were used to a world in which law and justice were always things provided by somebody else.” (Morningstar & Farmer). In KoL, you may only run the risk of losing anything from PvP if you choose to engage in PvP in the first place (an entirely reversible option), plus attacks are limited both on the giving and receiving end. The focus of PvP, like all the other mechanisms in the game, is good sport, and hence only those who choose to be competitors themselves can compete with others on that arena.
KoL’s chat is extremely interesting, mostly because it resembles MUD culture the most. From my own personal experience, there seems to be about an estimated 50-50 split of males and females, most gravitating between teens and 20’s, although there are a number of older players too. Like MUDs there are whisper, emote, and gagging functions, and omnipotent moderators. Curtis describes the reduced inhibitions of people talking to each other within LamdbaMOO:
For example, many players report that they are much more willing to strike up conversations with strangers they encounter in the MUD than in real life. One obvious factor is that MUD visitors are implicitly assumed to be interested in conversing, unlike in most real world contexts. Another deeper reason, though, is that players do not feel that very much is at risk. At worst, if they feel they’ve made an utter fool of themselves, they can always abandon the character and create a new one, losing on the name and effort invested in socially establishing the old one. (Curtis)
This kind of dynamic is the same ones found in the chat channels, that could be described as different rooms within a MUD. /newbie is the most popular, where people are extremely silly and friendly, reflecting the humor of the game and offering help to lost and confused players. Most chat rooms have their regulars where when they announce their presence they are greeted with many familiar “hi!”s and hugs from other veterans. /haiku is also another personal favorite, requiring all chat to be typed in haiku form (also only accessible after finishing a certain quest). But what’s most interesting is how chat lacks various aspects of MUD identity play and politics. While Mnookin talks about the Wizards in LambaMOO as impartial “gods”, KoL’s moderators within chatrooms are involved, despotic in power, and more traditionally all powerful moderators. Mnookin describes how Wizards in LambdaMOO are self-described as “mere implementers of the popular will” where “the wizards’ functions, with regard to the petitions process, might be analogized to a cross between an administrative agency and a higher court” (Mnookin). This leaves the MUD community to arrange its own set of laws and moderate itself, such that “LambdaMoo is a hybrid. It is a fantasy space in a double sense, both a utopian space of possibility and an adolescent playground. It is a social club and a village and a country and a role-playing game”. In contrast, KoL’s chatroom is a chatroom centered around the game, where although all the participants have the game in common, there is no line drawn between the role one plays in the game and the role one plays in chatroom (which is distinct from the real life person’s role). And unlike LambdaMOO, mistreatment is dealt with harshly by moderators; part of the reason begging, trolling, and griefing (classified as “jackassery”) are not issues is because it gets stamped out by moderators quickly within chat.
What KoL does is offer various options of gameplay and socialization through its various gameplay modes. Although the game can be played with minimal socialization, part of the game’s benefits arise out of being social, and then chooses to offer options to turn such benefits off for certain playthroughs (Hardcore disabling the ability to take gifts and buffs from other players, and Bad Moon starting you from square 1 entirely with no support allowed at all). For many the game becomes about running the biggest store, or for others handing out free meat and buffs to starting charcters to give them a leg up, to achieve a large record of accomplishments, or simply to mill around chat and have fun.
Phew! 8 readings is still way too much!
Taylor, T.L. (2003). "Multiple Pleasures: Women and Online Gaming," Convergence, Vol. 9, No.1, 21-46, Spring 2003. http://lcc.gatech.edu/~cpearce3/CourseReadings/TaylorMultiplePleasures.pdf
Taylor, T.L. (2003). "Intentional Bodies: Virtual Environments and the Designers Who Shape Them." International Journal of Engineering Education 19, no. 1. www.itu.dk/~tltaylor/papers/Taylor-Designers.pdf
Curtis, P. "Mudding: Social Phenomena in Text-Based Virtual Realities." http://www.eff.org/Net_culture/MOO_MUD_IRC/curtis_mudding.article
Mnookin, J. (1996) Virtual(ly) "Law: The Emergence of Law in LambdaMOO." Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication: Volume 2, Number 1: Part 1 of a Special Issue, June, 1996. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol2/issue1/lambda.html
Farmer, R. & Morningstar, C. (1990/1991)
"The Lessons of LucasArts Habitat." http://www.fudco.com/chip/lessons.html