Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Best MMO Settings (That Aren’t Fantasy)

As we’ve discussed before, fantasy MMOs heavily dominate the genre. Even if you’re a fantasy fan, it can start to feel a bit stale after a while. Maybe you want to try something else for a change.

Though they are a minority, there are some solid non-fantasy MMORPGs out there. These are a few of your better options for an MMO with a different sort of setting.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

The Dyson Sphere Iokath in Star Wars: The Old Republic

I almost didn’t include SWTOR on the grounds that it is still pretty much fantasy. Little if any of the technology in the Star Wars universe has any connection to real science, and the Force is simply magic by another name.

But it is at least a slightly different flavor of fantasy, even if it’s just a different skin on the same tropes. Sometimes that’s all it takes to change people’s feelings; I’ve known sci-fi fans who love Star Wars while decrying the fantasy genre. So while it may not make rational sense, SWTOR may still feel refreshing to those bored of traditional high fantasy.

WildStar

A space scene in WildStar

WildStar is another game that incorporates a lot of fantasy elements into its sci-fi, alongside a certain Western feel and a strong dose of humor. The end result is an eclectic setting that exists somewhere between World of Warcraft, Firefly, and Bugs Bunny.

If you really want to leave the world of magic and mystery behind, it might not be enough to satisfy you, but it’s definitely not your standard high fantasy, at least, and you can’t deny it has a very unique character. One thing WildStar has never lacked for is personality.

Star Trek Online

A Romulan starship crew in Star Trek Online

Another MMORPG based on a popular science fiction IP, but this one hews much closer to traditional science fiction than does Star Wars. Obviously, if you’re a Star Trek fan, STO is worth a look, but even if you’re not familiar with the source material, it may be worth a try as a welcome departure from the tired fantasy formula used by so many other MMOs.

STO is particularly appealing in this regard because the difference in setting is also reflected in the game mechanics. Whereas SWTOR plays like any other fantasy MMO, Star Trek Online has space combat that feels quite different from anything else in the MMO genre and captures the feel of the shows and movies very well.

Fallen Earth

A promotional screenshot from the post-apocalyptic MMORPG Fallen Earth

But maybe space ships aren’t your thing, either. Perhaps the gritty texture of a post-apocalyptic setting is more your speed. There aren’t as many options on this front as there should be, but one possibility you can consider is the sandbox Fallen Earth.

It’s an older game with a small following, but it can definitely provide a breath of fresh (if radioactive) air for those seeking relief from the endless parade of sword and sorcery.

Destiny/Destiny 2

A promotional image for the MMO shooter Destiny 2

Another strong contender on the sci-fi front are Bungie’s Destiny games, depicting a far future where humanity clings to existence amidst the ruins of Earth’s solar system. It’s got a larger than life feel similar to Star Wars, but hews a bit closer to traditional sci-fi.

They’re also another option for breaking away from traditional MMO gameplay as well as traditional settings. Both versions of Destiny take the form of first person shooters (with some RPG elements) rather than the standard action bar set-up of most MMORPGs.

DC Universe Online

A villain broods over Gotham City in DC Universe Online

It always amazes me that superhero games don’t make up a larger share of the MMO market. Given the power fantasy nature of the genre and the popularity of superheroes in general, it seems like a perfect fit.

Nonetheless, superhero MMORPGs are for some reason a rarity, despite providing arguably the best fit for an MMO of any non-fantasy genre. One of your few good options on this front is DC Universe Online. It captures the comic book feel pretty well, it boasts fantastic combat, and it has maintained a steady level of popularity for many years now, with significant updates still coming on the regular.

Whether you’re a big superhero fan or just want something far away from the realm of Elves and wizards, DCUO is one of the better options.

EVE Online

Exploring deep space in EVE Online

The notoriously convoluted game mechanics and ruthless community of EVE Online are the sort of thing you either love or hate, but one thing it definitely does deserve credit for is being one of the longest running and most successful MMORPGs that isn’t leaning on the crutch of high fantasy.

And unlike many other entries on this list, EVE is also not based on popular IP from elsewhere in the media. Its sci-fi setting of New Eden is entirely original, a wild frontier where aspiring starship pilots can find fame and fortune… or death and ruin.

Secret World Legends

The tutorial sequence from the horror MMO Secret World Legends

Surely one of the most inventive settings ever seen in the world of MMORPGs is that of the bizarre and terrifying Secret World, a torch now carried by its rebooted successor, Secret World Legends.

Combining elements of countless real world mythologies and conspiracy theories, Legends is best described as a horror game, but it also draws elements from many other genres, including sci-fi and, yes, fantasy. But even the fantasy elements have a completely different feel from the traditional Tolkien-clone MMO settings.

Unfortunately, Legends carries a lot of baggage related to its messy transition from its predecessor, The Secret World. There was a lot of dishonesty on the part of the developers and a lot of hurt feelings among fans, and so it’s difficult for me to give an unequivocal recommendation to the game as I might have in the past.

Nevertheless, if we’re judging the caliber of settings, neither incarnation of the Secret World can be beat. If it’s not something you’ve experienced before, you have no idea what you’re missing. The originality, the ambiance, and the depth are without equal.


Nine Upcoming Games Like XCOM

EDIT: I reached out to the developers of all of the below games for comments and corrections. I will update this article as I receive responses. So far the teams for Fort Triumph, Forged of Blood, Phantom Brigade, and Zodiac Legion have added their own quotes.

You may not be aware of this, but I love XCOM. The tactical choices, the randomized characters I grow attached to, the progression, the feeling of triumph, and the despair of defeat. For someone that enjoys with high replayability, strategy games, tactical RPGs, and atmosphere, it’s simply fantastic. It’s not massively multiplayer but sometimes we can enjoy MMORPGs by playing non-MMORPGs. Now that XCOM is it’s own genre I dug around to see what titles were coming to it in 2018/19. In my opinion, the four defining factors for the XCOM genre are:

Permadeath

Characters can and will die. Players can lose a campaign, either through an official “Game Over” moment or an unwinnable state.

Tactical, Turn Based Combat

No real-time nor twitch based elements. Players in XCOM games control a small squad of units in instanced missions.

Strategic Layer

Outside of combat, there must be options for expanding one’s base/army. These draw inspiration from the 4x genre, but are not limited by it. Traditionally, this has included research, building structures, and creating items.

RPG-like advancement

Characters need progression mechanics. Their growth over the course of several missions/quests is imperative to the emotional attachment XCOM games create when paired with permadeath. Additionally, this makes for interesting long term strategic choices in how to build an army.

Jake Soloman, creative director for XCOM 2, agrees on three of these at least. The only XCOM trait of his that I didn’t include was the need to play as humans. That’s fair enough for XCOM proper but the human vs. alien fight is certainly not a genre requirement. Otherwise, we wouldn’t see so many people asking for a fantasy XCOM game. Like Souls games, this burgeoning subgenre is not beholden to the setting from which it originated. Other features such as cover or reactive attacks like overwatch influence a similarity score but don’t negate any games from their rightful place on this list.

Alright, so what are these 9 upcoming games XCOM-like games? And how many can you name? I’ll put the over/under at 2.5.

Phoenix Point

phoenix point game like xcom

So many strategic options in Phoenix Point

Phoenix Point is the brainchild of original X-COM progenitor, Julian Gollop. (For those unfamiliar with the series, X-COM refers to the 1990s games and XCOM to the 2010s games.) Like XCOM, players will be tasked with eradicating an alien threat against Earth. Their fig.co campaign raised $765k towards their $500k goal. Players can expect core gameplay with a mixture of both old X-COM and new XCOM. A good example of this is its hybrid 2-action system where soldiers will halt their movement upon spotting xenos with the option to continue forward. Squad sizes can also reach 16 soldiers, but that seems like it might be a rarity with injuries and death.

Unique features include boss battles, mutating aliens based on player tactics, Lovecraftian enemies, vehicles, and multiple human factions to interact. Phoenix Point’s factions will demand even more juggling and input from the player than War of the Chosen’s system. The strategic geoscape pushes the genre forward with more impactful choices of where to explore and expand.  The Cthulian style enemies look downright scary. I think this game will end up most appealing to XCOM players who want more balance between strategy and tactical combat, but every XCOM fan should keep their eyes peeled on this.

Release Date: Q4 2018

XCOM Similarity: 90%

Price: $30, you can pre-order Phoenix Point here.

Xenonauts 2

xenonauts 2 game like xcom

The first Xenonauts is closer to original X-COM than XCOM. There’s less overall character to the game and fewer RPG elements. It feels more like a board game when playing. The Xenonauts overworld map encourages more proactive responses whereas XCOM feels more reactive. The biggest difference between these two though is in the tactical combat. XCOM uses a simple 2 action system with turns ending on almost any attack action. Xenonauts uses time units so there’s a lot more flexibility for planning. Whether or not this flexibility is worth a slower pace is up to you. Xenonauts 2 will be more evolution than revolution and plans to improve on the core elements of Xenonauts with new features such as psionics, deeper air combat, a deeper research tree, and a bigger emphasis on plot.

Release Date: 2018

XCOM Similarity: 85%

Purchase: Unknown. Currently unavailable for pre-order.

Fort Triumph

fort triumph games like xcom

I’m pretty excited about Fort Triumph. Their feature list reads like “Fantasy XCOM + Divinity: Original Sin”. As in Original Sin, there’s a big tactical emphasis on using the environment to gain advantages, with possibilities like burning a tree to topple it onto an enemy. Characters come with their own personality traits and look like they’ll be fairly unique. The visuals are certainly more cartoony than XCOM. I’m sure it’ll turn off some but the quality of the art style is definitely high. Despite a more family friendly look, Fort Triumph isn’t straying from stressful gameplay or permadeath that makes it an XCOM like game. The campaign itself challenges players to overcome a dynamic series of events and quests that change each playthrough based on randomness and player action. The depth of long term strategic options Fort Triumph remain unclear but exploration is poised to play a big role.

Developer Quote: “These are exciting times to be a turn based tactics lover, for sure. Looks like we’ll have a double challenge in 2018 – developing on schedule AND playing all of these great titles.

As for Fort Triumph – all adventurers are welcome to try a fresh tactical demo (0.6.3) going live later today on Steam and give us your feedback and suggestions!”

Release Date: Q4 2018

XCOM Similarity: 80%

Price: $20, you can pre-order Fort Triumph here.

Zodiac Legion

zodiac legion like xcom

Repel invading enemies until you can take the fight to them. Use small parties of soldiers to infiltrate, scout, explore, and sabotage the enemy. Deploy covert op squads alongside primary military forces. Research magical powers and technologies to equip your parties with the strongest of weapons. Does this all sound familiar? Zodiac Legion feels the most conceptually similar to XCOM of the fantasy games. The only thing it’s really lacking is a cover system. However, the game makes up for that on the customization side with artifacts imbued with the power of the zodiac. I expect conquering these sites of power to act as a late game challenge necessary to felling the opposition. Legendary equipment is something I miss in base XCOM (though Grimy’s Loot Mod adds it to XCOM 2) so these artifacts an exciting prospect. Unfortunately, the developer has only tweeted out a handful of times since the last blog post in May. I wouldn’t expect this until 2019 at the earliest. It’d be better late than never though.

Developer Quote: “We definitely want the strategic layer to have the organic feel of the older X-COM, where aliens would launch missions according to an agenda that the player had to adapt to. X-COM also made setbacks more common, but much easier to recover from. Still, we also think that the abilities and varied objectives of the recent XCOM add a lot of variety and tactical nuances to the formula.

The combat system itself is also inspired by games such as Mordheim, Heroquest, and Descent: Journeys in the Dark.”

Release Date: 2019

Similarity: 80%

Price: Unknown. Currently unavailable for pre-order.

Kingsmen

kingsmen game like xcom

You could probably tell from the screenshot, but Kingsmen is not related to the movie franchise. Assuming the game actually gets released, they really should really consider a name change. It’s been in development for 4 years now, which initially had me worried. Luckily, when I reached out the developers, they were quick to answer that development is moving on schedule. Kingsmen revolves around ruling a medieval kingdom and sending out patrols to keep your citizens safe as you expand into untamed regions. In addition to expansion, diplomacy with nearby kingdoms will play a critical role in succeeding. This game will be much more grounded in reality than any of the other games like XCOM listed thus far. No psi ops or magic here. Combat will make use of cover, elevation, positioning, and buildings. Some features will read too much like a 4x for an XCOM game, but the developers keyed in on X-COM as a primary influence early on. Now we wait to see if they’ll release a finished product.

Release Date: Q4 2018

Similarity: 75%

Price: Unknown. Currently unavailable for pre-order.

Forged of Blood

forged of blood like xcom

One thing you’ll notice the fantasy XCOM-like games aim to accomplish is including more story impacting choices. The plot of XCOM always plays out the same, but the strategic and tactical options offer such a level of variation that there’s a ton of replay on the gameplay level. Forged of Blood is no different, with a three-axis personality plot measuring moral choices. If this game (or another on this list) can actually merge gameplay variance with story variance then that’s really going to eat into my MMO time. Players in Forged of Blood start as the son of a murdered king. The goal is to reclaim the kingdom’s stolen territories. Players must contend with monsters and rival nations equally, choosing where to send their limited parties. In tactical combat, expect magic and positioning to play a large role in snatching victory. Like in XCOM, it will be difficult to have success in one area without the other.

Developer Quote: “Forged of Blood is a game that favors complexity and mechanical mastery. The depth of mechanics we’ve developed is one that thrusts decisions onto the player at every layer of the game. From the grand strategic layer all the way down to just how much power to add to the spells they want to use, and even the personality shifts that come from their actions, Forged of Blood is a game of choice and consequence.”

Release Date: Mid 2018

Similarity: 75%

 

Phantom Brigade

phantom brigade mechs like xcom

The designer describes the campaign as “XCOM” style so that’s a good start, right? In the strategic layer you’ll be presented with a number of missions, each with different rewards. In missions themselves, you’ll command a small squad of mechs with a variety of potential objectives. Phantom Brigade adds even more decisions when it comes to permadeath. Pilots can be ejected at any time to save their lives, but you may opt to continue fighting in their mech until the potential bitter end. You can even turn this against the opposition by forcing enemy pilots to eject and commandeering their mechs. A nemesis system like Shadow of Mordor/War and XCOM 2’s War of the Chosen add flair both to your own pilots and to your enemies’. Another appreciated XCOM feature is destructible buildings. Nothing says battle like turning a city into rubble. Finally, the best reason to support Phantom Brigade is that it’s built to be very mod friendly. Mods have been huge for XCOM 2, and this is a big plus for any XCOM like game.

Developer Quote: “In regards to our inspiration, we’re aiming for something more along the lines of classical X-Com, and games like the Front Mission Series.”

Release Date: Q3 2018

Similarity: 75%

Price: Unknown. Currently unavailable for pre-order.

Iron Oath

iron oath fantasy like xcom

Iron Oath promises players the ability to oversee a medieval fantasy guild’s finances, alliances, and members in a world filled with over 50 cities. Permadeath is so ingrained in Iron Oath that guild members can even die of old age. Perhaps the most compelling feature is that each randomly generated character comes with their own backstory, alignment, beliefs, and traits that legitimately impact your choices. For instance, stealing will negatively impact your more honorable guild members.

The turn-based combat is a deviation from the other XCOM-like games on this list. Battles take place on a relatively small 2D grid. There are no alien pods to alert with a wrong move. Instead, you’ll run through the areas in a manner similar to Darkest Dungeon and then engage opponents on a Heroes of Might and Magic type battlefield. Resource management will play a critical role in defeating missions/dungeons. I’d describe Iron Oath as as fantasy XCOM meets Darkest Dungeon resource management with more potential personality than either of them.

Release Date: March 2019

Similarity: 70%

Price: $15. You can pre-order Iron Oath here.

BATTLETECH

battletech like xcom

Oh, my. Another mech game? Yes, that’s right and one based on a very popular franchise made by a studio who successfully adapted another tabletop game in Shadowrun. The initial funding didn’t call for any sort of strategic overlay, but their $2+ million on Kickstarter enabled BATTLETECH to qualify for this prestigious list. I think the strategic overlay will still pale compared to most other titles on this list, but the tactical combat and unit advancement options are potentially copious. Not only do pilots level up and learn new abilities but mechs can be customized six ways to Sunday. Still, BATTLETECH is first and foremost about operating a mercenary troupe. How the overworld changes isn’t as big of a concern to success or failure like the other games on this list.

Release Date: 2018

Similarity: 65%

Price: $35. You can pre-order BATTLETECH here.

 

 

Which Game Like XCOM Will Be Best?

XCOM walks a fine line when it comes to balance. Despite four difficulty levels, I’m not sure it’s ever gotten it quite right. It’s very snowbally so players will typically lose by the mid game or roll through the end game. That said, there’s always a good deal of challenge in overcoming an XCOM campaign.


Can MMOs Provide Satisfying Endings?

I’ve been thinking about endings lately. About how and if MMOs can end. I’m not talking about when games shut down — or at least not entirely — but about the stories within MMOs, and whether they can ever be given satisfying conclusions.

The ending of The Secret World's Whispering Tide event

This is a complex topic, so let me explain.

The Rock and the Hard Place

Although MMORPGs are not often thought of as a particularly narrative-driven genre, story is nonetheless a fairly essential part of the MMO experience — or at least the themepark MMO experience, anyway. It’s what steers the direction of the game and gives what we do a sense of purpose.

Even if you’re not the sort of person to delve deeply into lore, most would agree that it’s more interesting to fight the traitor Arthas Menethil atop the Frozen Throne than it is to fight Raid Boss #3.3.12 in a gray box.

So story is important, but MMOs are unusual in that they are meant to be continuous. There isn’t the same beginning, middle, and end structure. That persistence is a large part of what makes MMOs appealing, but it’s a double-edged sword, because it cuts out something terribly important to any good story: the end.

To see how important endings are, look at Mass Effect 3. This is a game almost universally reviled, and that’s purely on the basis of its ending. I vehemently disagree with the criticism of ME3’s ending, actually, but that’s a discussion for elsewhere, and either way it illustrates how much an ending colors people’s perceptions of a story.

The trouble with MMOs is that their entire point is to not end, so the story just forges ahead endlessly. This usually results in one of two things, and neither is desirable.

The first is the game sunsets and shuts down entirely. Since no one plans to lose their job, the developers will be unprepared for this, and the story will either end unfinished or be given an ending that’s far too rushed.

A paladin class story in World of Warcraft

The other is that a game just keeps going on and on, and inevitably, this is going to take a toll on its story-telling. I’m sure we can all think of one or two TV shows that ran for too long and stretched the story past its breaking point. This is no different. A story you love going on forever is one of those things that sounds great until you achieve it, and then you realize that no story can remain compelling forever.

But what can be done? Can MMOs ever truly achieve satisfactory endings?

Saying Goodbye Is Hard

MMOs are, in the end, businesses, and while I do think many developers also care about the artistic side of things, the fact remains that choosing to end a profitable game based purely on artistic integrity is going to be a hard sell, to put it mildly.

Perhaps it is then up to the players to choose their own ending, to simply stop playing whenever they reach what they feel could be a satisfying conclusion to the story. You’d be surprised how many people stopped playing World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King simply because the Lich King’s story was what they cared about, and with it done, they no longer had any investment.

That’s not an ideal solution, though. It can be hard to judge when the right moment to leave is. I know a lot of those people who quit after Wrath missed out on some of WoW’s best story-telling by not playing expansions like Legion and Mists of Pandaria. And it can be hard to make a clean break, especially if you still have friends in the game.

There are some examples of developers delivering true endings to their MMO’s story, but they’re few and far between. The original Guild Wars comes to mind, but it ceased new development largely to make way for its sequel, so I’m not sure that’s really an ending per se.

The Iron Marches zone in Guild Wars 2

One other example is Final Fantasy XI, which as I understand it did try to deliver a conclusion to its story before entering maintenance mode. Unfortunately I’ve never played that game, and as an old title with a small community, it’s hard to find a lot of information about it, so I’m not sure exactly how that panned out. Did it wrap up every loose end, or was it simply an end to content updates rather than a true conclusion of the story?

That’s a rare case, too. Square Enix is a very successful company with another popular MMO under its belt. Few have the resources to give a proper send-off to an aging game like that.

The one other option I see is to wrap up the big storyline of a game, then continue with smaller, more minor story quests for so long as the game persists.

There is actually a recent example of this. Lord of the Rings Online was a game whose story had a clear conclusion: the destruction of the One Ring. I honestly thought they’d keep procrastinating about getting to that forever, but now with the recent Mordor expansion, the Ring’s journey has finally ended, yet the game persists, now forging new ground as it deals with the aftermath of the War of the Ring.

This seems like an excellent idea to me, but again I do not play LotRO, so I can’t speak with authority on how well it’s worked out. I like the idea, at least.

I’m not sure this would work for every game, though. World of Warcraft defines itself by being as bombastic and epic as possible. Abandoning major threats for smaller stories of character and culture just wouldn’t quite work there. It may instead be doomed to continue on until it becomes totally ridiculous (some might argue it’s already there).

This is another situation that lacks an easy solution.

How would you give closure to MMO stories, and do you have any examples of it being done well?


Gender Perception in MMOs

“I myself merely play female characters sometimes, and many times when I’m on those characters, people assume that I am a woman in real life,” he wrote. I blinked. It was a casual comment in an article that was about something else entirely, but it sparked a thought. You see, Larry Everett’s experience is very different from my own.

“That’s awesome!” I found myself thinking. “Seriously, you are playing a female character and you’re actually addressed as a woman?! People should realize how special this is.” I also thought (because I’m an imperfect human being, like everyone else): “Ha! Now you know what it feels like!”

All my characters are female. However, when typing to strangers in MMOs, 9 out of 10 times they (incorrectly) assume I am male. Now I’m not having sleepless nights over this (which is a good thing, or I’d have developed insomnia), but it does get old pretty fast. I asked other female gamers I know and they reported the same phenomenon.

Player avatars hanging out in the central hub in Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR)

It is striking that Everett’s experience and mine are so different  – especially considering we play the same MMO, Star Wars: the Old Republic (SWTOR). It could be that this is partly due to our perception: we are more likely to remember instances in which other players guessed it wrong than in which they guessed it right. But perhaps there’s more to this.

Game scientists have conducted research on the perception of gender in virtual environments. Although there is no data on how often we address others with a certain gender, there is evidence that certain factors affect how we perceive others.

What we do affects who we appear to be

It is possible that gender perception varies depending on our choice of activities in-game. A study from 2010 shows that game genre influences our perception of other players’ gender (Eden et al. 2010). We are more likely to perceive players as male when they’re playing games that are competitive and aggressive (such as shooters) – traditionally masculine associated traits. On the other hand, players are more likely assumed to be female when playing games that are social in nature. It is interesting to note that no relationship between skill level and perceived gender was found.

Although this research focused on gamers playing different game genres, you could extrapolate that the same goes for in-game activities. Perhaps players are more likely to expect male players when taking part in competitive and more aggressive environments such as PvP MMOs and raiding endgames, while they are more likely to expect female players when taking part in social activities, such as role-play. If this is true, it would explain why I’m often assumed to be male – I spend the majority of my time in-game playing endgame.

What we look like affects who we appear to be

Another study found that the degree of masculinity or femininity of an avatar significantly influences perceptions of avatars (Nowak & Rauh 2005). While this study deals with web avatars rather than avatars within multiplayer games, I don’t think it’s unlikely that the same goes for the latter. Judging by his article, Larry Everett spends a lot of time role-playing on his characters (some of which are female) on the fleet, the central player hub in SWTOR. This could explain why he does get addressed as female from time to time. After all, when role-playing, people will be more attentive to character appearances than when you are rushing through hordes of mobs with a pug. In instances where little to no attention to character looks is given, we might be inclined to go with the male default instead.

A boarding party during a mission in Star Trek: Online

The nature of gameplay may affect assumed player gender. Screenshot from Star Trek Online (STO)

What we expect affects who we appear to be

Historically, gaming has been the realm of men. Indeed, gaming as a pastime is still associated with boys, violence and masculinity (Bryce & Rutter 2002). You could argue that the tendency to address all players as male is a relic of past times, wherein the vast majority of gamers were male. However, speaking from personal experience, most players seem aware that the MMO populace is more varied nowadays. (A heads up: recent research by Quantic Foundry (2017) found that 16-36% of MMO players are female – varying on the MMO’s setting.) When ten years ago I logged into an MMO and strangers found out I was a woman playing endgame, they were flabbergasted. Now it’s more like “Oh, okay.”

So if most MMO players are aware that both genders play, why do we tend to address strangers with “he”? My guess is that it has to do with the persisting perception of the male gender as the default in modern western culture. Let me explain with an example outside of the realm of gaming.

A couple of years ago, I took part in a university course. At one point, a classmate of mine took the stage and gave a fifteen minute presentation about a paper we had read. During, she constantly referred to the author as “he”. This was awkward, because I knew the author was, in fact, female. She had an foreign first name that I did not recognize, so I had googled her the evening before to check. When the student was done, our teacher asked how she would feel if she had published an article in a well known magazine and a reviewer wouldn’t even have looked up who she was.

The incident showed me how disrespectful it is to regard everyone as male, because it radiates disinterest. I realized it could just as well have been me making that mistake if I would not have taken the extra time to research the evening before. For me, this moment was an eye opener and I decided to never assume a gender when addressing someone I don’t know.

Female avatar in Guild Wars 2

Character appearances may influence the assumed gender of players. Screenshot from Guild Wars 2 (GW2).

Referring to strangers in MMOs

What about MMOs, though, where you can’t simply google a player’s gender? The only way to find out (apart from voice chat) would be asking. And asking can be intrusive because not everyone likes sharing their gender for various reasons (Fortim & De Moura Grando 2013).

Ever since the awkward class room experience, I’ve been more aware of prejudices regarding gender perception. Sometimes I notice I assume someone to have a certain gender because of the way they talk or behave in game. But then I remember my decision. When I write a blog post in reaction to somebody else’s and their blog doesn’t state their gender, I refer to them as “they”. And the same goes for MMOs, really. Chances are that when I use “they” when talking about someone else, somebody will correct me and then I know how to address them. And if they don’t and want to keep their gender private, that’s fine, too.

Some dislike the use of “they”. For them (har har), going by the character’s gender is a great alternative. It will mean that they’ll get it wrong from time to time, but hey, it might prompt gamers think about gender perception in MMOs for a bit.

Do other players generally assume you’re male or female in MMOs? How do you address strangers online yourself?

 

References

Bryce, J. and J. Rutter, 2002: Killing Like a Girl: Gendered Gaming and Girl Gamers’ Visibility, in F. Mäyrä (ed.): Proceedings of Computer Games and Digital Cultures Conference, 243-255.

Eden, A., E. Malony and N. D. Bowman, 2010: Gender Attribution in Online Video Games, in: Journal of Media Psychology 22, 114-1124.

Fortim, I. and C. de Moura Grando, 2013: Attention whore! Perception of female players who identify themselves as women in the communities of MMOs. Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) conference publication.

Williams, D., M. Consalvo, S. Caplan and N. Yee, 2009: Looking for Gender: Gender Roles and Behaviors Among Online Gamers, in: Journal of Communication 59, 700–725.

Yee, N., 2017: Beyond 50/50: Breaking Down The Percentage of Female Gamers by Genre, on Quantic Foundry website (https://quanticfoundry.com/2017/01/19/female-gamers-by-genre on 3 November 2017).


Longevity of Gaming

Longevity is a funny thing. It’s feels great to dive into a game and really get your money’s worth. MMORPGs are certainly at the top of the heap when it comes to replayability and longevity. Not only is there a wealth of content for one character, but unique classes/races/factions can play quite differently. Is it a good thing though?

In an absolute sense, sure. Value is great. Who hates value? Not me. But there is a point of diminishing returns, and MMO games typically hit them faster than other genres. The loop of “level up, get new items, see new place” gets old quick, especially for genre vets. Now that’s not exclusive to MMOs. Other multiplayer genres like FPS, MOBAs, and RTS also offer a high quantity of repetitious gameplay for one price (excluding loot boxes I suppose). I’d argue only MOBAs really break that mold because different combinations of characters really throw each game on their head.

elder scrolls online new content

Clockwork City, new content from Elder Scrolls Online

Of course, unlike these other games, MMORPGs are in a situation where they can provide a lot of different types of content to alleviate potential boredom. One day you raid, the next you quest, then you craft, and finally you wander into some worldwide PvP. There’s still the benefit of familiarity but with less repetition. This adds longevity and provides players with a warm, comfy feeling to dive into after a long day.

The flip side of longevity is radically unique content that’s one and done. A good example is Pony Island. I promise it’s not what you think, and it’s a wholly interesting experience for 2 hours. The game is fantastic, but I can’t imagine playing it much longer than I did. There’s no longevity, and now I’m back seeking another unique experience. Unless I’m in the specific mood to compete, cooperate, or socialize, unique single player games provide pound for pound more fun than their multiplayer counterparts.  The problem is that after beating Pony Island, now I have to spend valuable time determining what to play next. My backlog scrolls down pretty far, but a lot of those titles turn out to be poor matches. And that’s where the worth lies in a familiar game.

If I decide to boot up Elder Scrolls Online, Neverwinter, or League of Legends I know more or less what I’m getting into. When I boot up a new single player game, I’m just not sure. I might know that I’m playing an FPS like Dishonored or a tactical RPG like XCOM, but I don’t know the intricacies. I have to learn – which can be a lot of fun. But it can also be tiring, frustrating, and ultimately not worth my time if I don’t enjoy it.

I think longevity in games comes down to risk vs. reward. MMOs, other multiplayer games, and some single player games (like Civilization) carry with them a certain sense of contentment. I won’t expect anything too crazy, but I’m also not going to be let down. The risk is low and the reward is moderate. When I load up a brand new game, I might find something that will blow my mind for 5 to 40+ hours (Witcher 3 comes to mind). Then I’m done. Sure, I might replay The Witcher 3 but then I’m just falling into that comfortable routine. Repeating anything will never match your first experience. Games are no different.

So how do you balance the allure of comfortable longevity vs. the desire to experience something new and fresh?