Morrowind: Learning from a cRPG
The Elder Scrolls series: Elder Scrolls, Daggerfall, Morrowind, Oblivion, these single-player cRPG (Computer Role-Playing Game) VR Gameworlds have so much to teach persistent worlds.
Let's be honest here, the 'bar' is set low. Too many years of catering to the lowest common denominator to attract the greatest possible market share has resulted in worlds which cater to all, but please none - shallow, and bereft of content.
Being fair, not all worlds are 'shallow'. However, even those that are not about "kill X, get treasure Y, repeat until grind-skill reward Z" have much to learn.
The Elder Scrolls series of role-play games have always been several leagues above the bar in terms or world-mechanism if not in role-play. Well, after all, it is very difficult to role-play effectively when yours is the only mind involved in the world.
For the purposes of this comparison, we will look at Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Whilst many of the things we discuss were also present in Elder Scrolls, and Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, Morrowind is that much more advanced, whilst also being fresher in the mind to many. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, has, at time of writing, recently been released. However, it has not been around long enough for it to be deeply understood and analysed properly.
Entrenching the Player
Morrowind opens with a rich back story. It even attempts to explain where the character you play might have come from. This is something common to most offline worlds, yet usually missing in online worlds. Online, players are often left to make up any backstory themselves, with little or no help from the world. This does not seem a problem at first glance, until you realise in order to have a world, and cut down on the number of people treating it like a game with no consequences, you have to immerse your playerbase within the world; give them attachment to some degree.
Most players, left to their own devices, simply do not bother to create a backstory, preferring instead, to dive straight in, killing things at random, talking about what they watched on TV that day, demanding help to 'level up' etc. To enforce a sense of belonging, a care about the world, players have to feel some sense of attachment, some sense of continuity, to their characters. More experienced players experience this as they have been playing long enough to build up a sense of momentum, but there are ways to build up at least some momentum a little faster.
Thus, the first lesson to be learned, is to offer simple backstory entrances to the world. Morrowind has players arriving, shackled on a prison barge, unable to move off until they are released, and gently explained the control system as they can move about, a little more at a time, chains and manacles slowly stripped away. They gain a sense of having come from somewhere - they are criminals, lowest of the low, and initially looked down on by everybody, for that reason.
It would be very easy to go one step further than this, and provide multiple entryways into the world. Player characters could enter from the prison barge, or perhaps as a lowly attaché on a diplomatic mission; crew from a travelling skyship which moors at one of the cities on a regular trading route, paid to sail one-way trip. Each would offer the player a feeling of continuity, like they have not actually just landed in the world out of the blue. They have been provided lots of little details to give them an initial leg up, a feeling of the sort of person they are, a feeling that they have lived in this world before, to help guide them for what they will become. Not enough to prevent those who can, from forging their own backstory, nor enough to stop those who could not care less from disrupting, but maybe enough to allow the majority between to feel stuck into the world, their new home.
The Written Word
As with Daggerfall before it, Morrowind is full of books. Several hundred different titles, strewn all across the world. Private collections, public collections, rare titles, common titles owned by almost everyone, specialist subjects, hymn books, books of poetry, novels, a cornucopia of knowledge. Some give bonuses to skills for reading them, whilst others do not. For example, reading a historical account of how a near-impossible battle was won in blow by blow detail, thanks to a young lieutenant and a natty new spear technique, improves the reader's own spear knowledge a small amount. This skill bonus encourages the feeling that reading books is beneficial, whilst the sheer variety of books to read gives a feeling of a living, vibrant world. Indeed, with books giving titbits of backstory about the world, humourous tales, sad tales, whole novellas about events that have taken place in the world, it opens the possibilities for some players to use their characters exclusively for hunting books out, immersing in the stories and creating their own . Incorporate a printing press in the world, and you have a means of quality control, for only the good books will then be purchased, so more will be produced.
Do not have to be the Hero
This is perhaps the single greatest lesson an Elder Scrolls world can impart to others: The player does not have to be the hero.
In most cRPGs, the player is the saviour of the world, the great hero who risks all to destroy the big baddie and save the planet. In the Elder Scrolls series, this is a possible ending, but it does not have to be the ending. In fact, in Morrowind, it is deliberately doable to not be the big hero, to carve your own path, and the world will go on around you. Be a book trader, be a herbalist, a cranky old hermit who survives by yourself on an island far from the rest of the world, be a lord of a small town, these are the possibilities it offers in a single-player, offline world.
Why then, do we have so much trouble implementing this online, in an environment where, by default, every single player cannot be the great hero? The common answer to this is shards; split the world into 110,000 identical copies, where in each, the same events play over and over, and small groups each get a turn at being the hero although nothing ever really changes.
Looking at the shards solution, it is hard not to feel that shards have completely missed the point. Instead of trying to make every player be the big hero, strive for a world which allows every player to live up to their potential. Not everyone is going to be a big warrior - being a big warrior is harder than just learning skills. Allow, think about, permit other trails. Expand trading to be more than just player shows. In Morrowind the terrain was different in different areas, so different goods were available cheaply. Expand this, and allow traders to use carts, haul goods around, stop focussing on killing, and focus on using the environment. You will find people want to be barkeeps, want to be armourers, tailors, seamstresses, authors, playwrights, sermon-speakers, lone hunters, yes, even hermits.
Allow customisation, allow experimentation. In Morrowind, the spell system was fully customisable: players could make their own spells, research the components, work out how to cast them, name the new spells, and trade the knowledge on to others. Allow this in a multi-participant persistent world and watch the spellcrafter's trade flourish over time, as an ever greater variety of spells is formed - many doing the exact same thing, under different names, requiring that new spellcasters take advice, and guidance as they grow. This leads easily into player created guilds that exist for more than just 'team making' but actually contribute to their members, guiding and helping them grow with good advice, and more importantly, open ended debates as to which path is right.
Fundamentally, this is what worlds need, more than one great hero, more than endless discussions on stats and "W00t! I hav 100 str" that so pervades the online worlds. They require a dose of uncertainty, the knowledge that there may be no one right answer, and each side has merits, they require a dose of diversity, and a dose of realism. Then, and only then, will they truly be worlds.
Learn from a cRPG, and create persistent worlds, not persistent games.