September 29, 2008

MMOGs are serious business

By: Daniel Kennelly

No doubt you’ve all had some exposure to massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft—even if only through the South Park parody or from reading some New York Times piece about the latest trend in outsourcing: Chinese gold-farmers. But unless you’re already a borderline MMO addict, you probably haven’t heard of Eve Online.

The short version: It’s an Internet spaceship game, full stop. The long version: It’s not so much a game as a massive social engineering project.

Whereas most MMOs (like World of Warcraft) are geared toward “player versus environment” combat (or PvE), most Eve-O players’ bread-and-butter is “player versus player” combat (or—you guessed it—PvP). This means you’re not just trying to figure out how to beat a repetitive, uncreative AI opponent; you have to outwit your 30-year-old, overweight, sweaty, basement-dwelling counterpart. Or you team up with him to grief some unsuspecting third nerd. The numbers keep growing, until you have alliances with thousands of members vying for control of assets and territory with other alliances of equivalent size.

The verisimilitude with real-life geopolitics approaches the uncanny. (Take, for example, this comparison of one Eve-O alliance to the French army circa 1940—a powerful force on paper, but quickly rolled up by a more tactically and strategically nimble German armored force using an innovative blitzkrieg strategy.) On top of virtual geopolitics, nearly every pixelated item in the game must be researched, mined, manufactured, and marketed before it’s ever ready to be taken out and blown up again by a player, giving rise to a true market-based economy (including a mutual fund market and, oddly enough, $700 billion banking collapses) that is studied full-time by at least one real-life economist. If you can run a successful business or alliance in Eve-O, chances are you can do it in real life, too (and many players already do).

So why would anyone, even a sweaty, basement-dwelling nerd, put so much time into a virtual game when the rewards of real-life work are so much more, well, tangible? Thinking about the answer to this made me recall a passage from Charles Stross’ Halting State, a book about a cop and an IT guy investigating a bank heist in an MMO. While logging into the game to begin the investigation, the IT guy has an epiphany:

The sky turns deep blue, the world freezes, and a progress bar marches slowly across it from horizon to horizon. Ethereal runes written in aurorae six hundred kilometers high scrawl across the heavens, UPDATING REALITY, and for a moment your skin crawls with superstitious dread. Someday we’re all going to get brain brain implants and experience this directly. Someday everyone is going to live their lives out in places like this, vacant bodies tended by machines of loving grace while their minds go on before us into strange spaces where the meat cannot follow. You can see it coming, slamming towards you out of the future, like the empty white static that is all anyone has ever heard from beyond the stars: a Final Solution to the Fermi paradox, lights on at home and all the windows tightly shuttered. Because it’s a thing of beauty, the ability to spin the cloth of reality, and you’re a sucker for it: Isn’t story-telling what being human is all about?

There it is: the MMO addict as solipsistic pioneer on the newest, and truly final, frontier. Discuss.

UPDATE: Or maybe it’s just a mind-numbingly boring game, as per the Escapist:

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