In case you can't tell, I've had games on the brain a lot lately. There are two major reasons for that:
1) Although I still enjoy playing Dungeons and Dragons with my old pals once a week, our games have started to lose some traction.
2) I have a new surplus of free time that used to be occupied by the ultimately unsatisfying World of Warcraft.
Dungeons and Dragons
After running a majority of the campaigns for my D&D group, I decided I needed a break from being the GM several months ago. To prevent the possibility of future GM burnout, two of my pals picked up the mantle and decided to trade weeks.
This was a good plan on paper, but graduate school has put an increased workload on one of them, meaning he hasn't been able to run (or even attend) the game with the consistency he'd like. This left an increased workload for the second fellow, who works longer hours than a lot of us at a hospital.
Add to that equation things like new kids and job requirements, and we've had a tough time keeping any sort of consistent flow going in our D&D games. This isn't anybody's fault, it's just one of those things that happens as we all get older and have more responsibilities. But it does make it very tough to keep that sense of continuity going that makes a game memorable.
What does this have to do with "Pac Man Online"? I'm getting there. But first:
World of Warcraft
Obviously, I've become far more interested in this game since I've cancelled my account and am able to look at it from the outside. I'm not capable of looking at it objectively because of how crushingly disappointed I still am about what this game turned into, but I think the explanation has something to do with the theory of how games work in general.
In your standard, single player game, it is easy to give the player a sense of control and influence on the game world. After all, THEY are the hero and the game is tailored to respond specifically to their input. From Pac Man all the way to the latest games like Oblivion, the player is in firm control of everything. In Pac Man, you have a direct influence on the game board by moving that yellow guy around and eating stuff. In Oblivion, you have a direct influence on the game through a variety of quests and environments, all of which change in tangible ways based on what you do.
For this reason, single player games are, by their nature, empowering. What separates Pac Man from Oblivion, however, is the sense of accomplishment. That sense in Pac Man is fleeting, because once you complete the objective (eat all the pellets), the board essentially resets.
Sound familiar, WoW players?
Enter the Boss
Later games like Super Mario Bros. started to use the concept of the "boss": an end goal that pretty much meant you had completed the game and reached the epitome of what it had to offer. For SMB, this was Bowser, that lovable spiky dinosaur thing that hopped up and down and shot fire at you.
As a relic of the Pac Man type of game design, once you beat Bowser the game started over again, but essentially you had won the game. Later iterations of SMB (as early as SMB 2) threw away this "continuous play" concept completely... you actually got a "You Win" type screen that basically meant the same thing as "Game Over". You had won, no more to do.
In the best games, ingenious titles like Chrono Trigger and the more recent Indigo Prophecy, there is still value is starting the game over again because you can impact the environment in different ways the next time. Multiple endings and plot threads make the game fun to play numerous times. Knights of the Old Republic, Baldur's Gate 2, and just about any other game you can think of by Bioware provide these kinds of experiences. The player gets a chance to be someone else AND his actions have real, tangible effects on the other characters and the game world.
Despite these advances in single player games, MMOs are trapped in two distinct models. The most obvious of these is the kill, level, repeat model. From Ultima Online all the way up to WoW, very little has been done to improve upon this model except update the graphics. WoW is fun while you are leveling because there is an end goal (level 60). Then you grasp for new end goals. How about killing the big boss in Molten Core? Well, you can do that, but it really doesn't matter because he comes back.
The second model is the player created content model. Games like Second Life and a Tale in the Desert follow this model... there is almost nothing to do in the game that isn't created by a player. In these games you gather resources to create content which allows you to gather new resources to create more new content, etc. Although these games DO allow you to impact the environment, they require a huge time investment to make anything substantial or unique because most of your time is going to be spent gathering the right pixels to make even better pixels.
Pac Man with Guilds
Essentially, despite all it's prettiness, after level 60 WoW becomes a really nice looking version of Pac Man. Seriously. Eating all the pellets OR killing all the bosses over and over and over again is not fun, and you can play Pac Man over a TeamSpeak server for free.
What keeps people playing WoW, as far as I can tell, are two things.
The first and most obvious is the social aspect. I think this is what keeps most MMOs, even the mediocre ones, alive. You can make friends on these games, and with things like TeamSpeak you can actually talk to them and get to know them. For a lot of people, these games are great social outlets... it's like a discount fraternity or sorority. Every month you pay your dues and get to play Pac Man together, perhaps swapping stories about Pac Man in the process.
The second is what I call "moving the carrot". As pointless as doing these bosses over and over again is, after a few months anything remotely tangible you may thought you had achieved (i.e. a piece of pixellated armor or a sword, for example), becomes obsolete in the next patch. By keeping a steady stream of minor content updates, these games keep "moving the carrot", creating the illusion of groundbreaking new content that everyone wants to be the first to try.
So no matter how you choose to look at it, the MMO model as it currently exists, especially in a game like WoW, is really just at its core the most expensive Pac Man sequel ever produced. For this reason, games like Civilization IV, Neverwinter Nights, and the previously mentioned Oblivion will continue to provide a far superior experience to a player like me who wants to feel like he's accomplishing something.
Tying it all Together
I promised I'd explain what this has to do with D&D, and I will now. A good D&D game shares a lot of the elements that those awesome single player games have. There is a building story arc of which your character is a major part, and things you do have tangible effects on the game universe. Plus, there is an end to the story.
I still don't know how the heck that experience could translate into the MMO model... I'm not entirely convinced that it can. People are social creatures, and for that reason MMOs are initially appealing, but nobody has figured out a way to keep that shared content compelling in a computer game. Single player games have an audience of one to satisfy, and so they are able to produce an experience that feels much more rewarding than an MMO.
In a way, World of Warcraft and MMOs like it represent a giant step BACKWARD in game design... we've returned to the time where nothing you do matters, the game never ends, and as such there is no way to tell a coherent story.
The closest anyone came to doing it right was Neverwinter Nights, but the implementation of the GM piece was confusing and unwieldy. Some people are still playing that game in its multiplayer mode with moderate success, but the tools provided kept this type of gameplay from reaching its full potential.
In fact, at this point the closest thing in town to the tabletop experience remains the MUSH. That's right, a bunch of text does a better job of delivering than WoW.
Perhaps most frustrating is I don't have any sort of answer whatsoever. I still have no clue how you can translate the D&D tabletop experience to a real, graphical video game, and all attempts to do so up to this point have been failures. It seems ironic to me that those that come closest are all single player games.