What next for online gaming?

I’m getting back into gaming a little bit, having pretty much dropped it for a few years. These things seem to go in cycles - Aldo’s Adventure, Kings Quest… the NES… Sim City 2000, Lucasarts adventure games… Metal Gear Solid, GTA…

Now. Shadow of the Colossus (flash site) is a Playstation game, and it’s very nice.

The philosophy of the game is pure wabi-sabi, the very definition of simplicity. It’s interesting to note that the (very little) dialogue in the game has not been translated from it’s original Japanese, the lingua franca of all things beautifully simple.

The first thing that strikes you is how bare everything in the game is – simple, stripped down. As pretty much the solitary living being in the world, you feel isolated and in control at once. I’ve never played a game that evokes such a strong sense of space. It’s completely uncluttered, without buildings, characters, enemies, coins, weapons, power-ups. There is no need for a map in the game; the landscape is the map.

In traditional character-based games, the avatar is presented as the centre of the world, with the environment revolving around him. When I command my character to turn to the right, he doesn’t actually move to the right on screen: the whole world moves to the left. A rather medieval view of things.

Anyway, Colossus feels different. The main character moves through the world. The aim of the game is simple and singular, to defeat sixteen giant monsters, or colossi. The scale, both of the environment and the colossi, is phenomenal. And it’s a different sort of phenomenal to the dense, detailed mass of Grand Theft Auto, in the same way that standing in the centre of a towering city inspires a different type of awe than standing on the edge of a cliff.

For a console game, it’s pretty innovative in it’s treatment of space and openness. Online gaming would seem to be the key to opening this type of innovation up even further, but to me games like World of Warcraft seem rather stuck in a self-imposed genre lockin with restrictive rules in all the wrong places. Rather than expand upon the sense of freedom hinted at in single-player games like Shadow of the Colossus and GTA, online gameplay still mostly deals with artificial concepts like points and levels to indicate progression and missions to structure activity.

Shadow of the Colossus and a worn goalmouth

The comments on this post (incidentally the most worthwhile comment thread I think I’ve ever read) suggest where the future of online multiplayer gaming might go from here:

I’m going to guess that WoW is as big as the current style of grind-until-you-level, static, old school MMOG play can get. … Given the popularity of the high fantasy game setting it seems to me that a logical continuation is actually implementing something like Lord of the Rings. Perhaps one side could take and hold cities, eventually even winning the war (and the game) on that particular server. … I’m looking forward to a game experience where your actions and contributions as a character have lasting meaning beyond a stats rat race. … Dynamically changing worlds in which players can have a real impact on the entire world will be the way games are evolving in the future. … Once a player is gone, there’s little to distinguish them from all the others who have been. Impermanence, rather than stifling, endless congruity, is the watchword. … I think the next big step should be a collection of missions that are designed to help an overall war effort. I am a big fan of WOW but I have to say that no matter how many missions you complete or fail, it makes no difference in the game as a whole. Nothing Changes.

There are also some ruminations on why MMO gaming is mired in the fantasy genre, and whether fantasy has the legs to sustain growth or has only a finite appeal. No word yet on the chances of any other literary genres at success. Why not a sci-fi or noir crime game, or more to the point, an illegal immigrant drama game or postmodern Japanese fiction game? A top-down developer-designed game like this probably isn’t going to be released any time soon, simply because (as with console games, Hollywood movies and any other expensive to produce media) the smart money in online gaming is with the established genre; the free market stifles innovation. All the same, changes are inevitable.

Here’s a table of how freedom to effect change on in-game environment has evolved as I see it:

Text-based 2D 3D

Linear Text Adventures King’s Quest Myst

Participatory MUDs Ultima Online WoW

Emergent MOOs [none?] Second Life

It’s interesting to note that each column progressed from top to bottom before moving onto the next row, with King’s Quest coming out around the same time as MOOs, and Myst appearing just after Ultima Online. This trend would seem to indicate that multiplayer gaming is ready to enter a new column, a new medium (location based gaming and distributed social presences would be contenders).

However, on not much more than a hunch and what the above commenters have to say, I’m guessing a new horizontal row in the table will be created next.

What will this new game look like?

Some guesses. It will be more flexible that WoW, but more mediated than Second Life. It might be more like TV than a computer game, or at least like TV in the loose participatory sense that the media surrounding Lost is like TV. there will certainly be more cross-pollination between the game and the web, and between your activities in-game and your activities on the web. Just like your real life bleeds into your online life via your blog and your Flickr account, that reflected online persona will in turn become drawn into your gaming persona. Gaming will probably become a pretty poor label for what eventually emerges (as it becomes less about play and more about interaction and creation), but the name will stick, just like “talkies” never really caught on over “movies” in the cinema. Virtual space will feel more like an actual space (it might even be actual space), more like something you inhabit than somewhere you pass through. You’ll leave traces of where you’ve been behind you, and you’ll return after a break to see the traces of others that were there in the interim, and this sense of effect and permanence will infuse the entire game and encourage continued interaction, just as the gradual accumulation of an archive of blog posts rewards the ongoing effort of writing.

I’m sure it will all come in drips, as online games, TV, the web, consoles and all the other bits and bobs of interactive media iterate and undulate, attracting and repelling each other, crawling along like the proverbial emergent slime mold. You might see an element of it in every piece of innovative interactive media of the next couple of years.

[image credit: football pitch on flickr]

— 09 Jul 2006