Bel made a comment on my Classic post, in that the feature set differences do a good job of delineating the difference between a virtual world (classic) and a video game (post Cata). While on the surface I agreed, the reason why was what interested me more.
Clearly the first step is figuring out the definition for each. So let’s invert that a bit.
Video games: something players can consume, alone or with groups, where the impacts of that play are limited to the players doing the consumption. By that I mean that in the broad sense, only the people doing the act have any results from the actions – dungeons are instanced, mobs respawn, loot is shared, grouping is automated. Not that it’s necessarily easier but that the social mesh doesn’t really exist. This applies to pretty much every game out there.. with exceptions to the survival genre (e.g. ARK).
Virtual worlds: something that players co-exit with, with both consumption and production, such that the world shared between all players. In that sense, players build/destroy the world in such a way that players that they don’t know are directly impacted by said actions. The game is predicated on a healthy social fabric. For a long time, this was only in the MMO space, since most of them were glorified chat boxes. Ultima Online is the one that immediately comes to mind for me. Also includes things like Second Life, the original EQ, and WoW Vanilla.
There’s a particular note that many early MMOs were virtual worlds – the golden age if you will. Why that is the case I think has more to do with the type of player/dev rather than the type of game. UO is a prime example of Garriott building a game that he wanted to play, and that was a crapshoot to make money. EQ and WoW are similar, in that they were longshots by dedicated developers. Given that internet access wasn’t all that popular in the late 90s early 00s, it bears to reason that people playing those games were of a similar cut.
When MMOs were proven to be popular, they attracted the eye of investors. MMOs came up every other day, though often developed by people who were not as passionate, didn’t have the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of early games, and focused on replication of popular games. Quality was really poor (think of the game crash of ’83) and the bottom fell out. MMOs need to maintain a LOT of players, for years, in order to keep running. That takes either a hell of a head start, or a heck of a back account to float.
All that to say that virtual worlds still have a fan base. But they are clearly not the only fish in the ocean, and competing for eyeballs means that they either double down on their model, or branch into video-game features. Or that nostalgia is enough, since in 10+ years gamer tastes have changed. There’s an entire book’s worth of comments on how society today is built for consumption rather than production… but I’ll leave that for later. Suffice to say that many people today get their sense of belonging / value from Twitter/IG/Facebook/YouTube, and that they don’t need games to address that gap.
Not saying that we won’t see another mega-hit virtual world, but more so that it’s not going to be primarily a video game… and instead be pushed through social media-like structures.
I was just posting about FFXIV in this respect. If you play it the way the developers want you to play it it’s a video game. If you ignore their structure, though, and just do as you like, it’s a virtual world. Granted, it lacks the effect on other players left by your actions, but other than that it fits the bill. Many modern MMORPGs can be played this way, so long as you don’t allow the developers to herd you, because many of them clearly started with artists and designers building a place, not a game.
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Right, just like D&D can either be played by the book rules or house rules. But that’s player agency rather than game design (e.g. why WoW can have functional RP servers). Certainly even more niche than games purposefully designed as virtual worlds.