That’s Why We Call It A Zoo

At the basic level, a zoo is a theme park. We go to see the animals and exhibits. We don’t go to jump in the lion’s pen and see what happens or build penguin dens. Yet, there is a vast difference between a zoo and a conventional theme park because we’re not always sure what we will experience. In a theme park, the rides, show times, and games are all set, but at a zoo the tigers might be napping while the monkeys are doing it next door. Things are especially interesting if a zoo visitor happens upon feeding time.

From basic definitions a theme park MMO is one where players experience exactly what the developers intend for them to experience, and sandbox MMOs are more player driven. Yet, with Rift and the upcoming Guild Wars 2, developers aren’t exactly sure what players will experience. There is a little more excitement and chaos than the usual theme park in these MMO zoos.

This distinction is well known to first-person shooter PvP players. So many play the exact same map with the exact same weapons/classes/etc. time and time again. Yet even if the goal each time is to push the bomb to the factory, it feels different and exciting. This time I baked three spies at once. That time I axtinguished a Heavy’s face. The time I collected 12 heads and was able to catch up to Scouts. These are the moments that are missing in so many of the conventional theme park MMOs. When will I have my story to tell?

In Rift, I’ve had the great experience of riling up the animals, so to speak. I’ve had plenty of similar experiences along the way in live. I’ve helped win many invasions, and I’ve lost quite a few. There have been times when I’ve sunk to the lowest of bare quest deliveries. However, the most fun I have in Rift is where the whole zone feels alive with movement of the dynamic events.

The excitement comes from the unknown. Will I beat this rift with the one other rogue? Now another mage just showed up, how much will that change? Can we beat back this invasion even though our wardstones are getting crushed? How well will my team work with the opposing faction’s team? How much will I affect things if I change back to DPS?

Unfortunately this excitement is hard to share. Ever listen at a bar to a white-collar softball team talk after the game about how this time they caught the ball different? Yeah, it’d be like that. This time I closed the rift different than last time. The nuances will be lost in translation. A non-player will think it a simple theme park because the activities are all developer driven. It’s really more of a zoo, and it’s about time for Trion Worlds to let the animals go free.

Lock the visitors inside first.

–Ravious
unless it’s a farm

10 thoughts on “That’s Why We Call It A Zoo”

  1. My thoughts exactly. MMO developers always talk about making “worlds”, but the real world is far more erratic and emergent than the traditional MMO.

    With the introduction of “dynamic events” you can see how MMO developers are beginning to recognise that a lot of players are bored with the rigid quest structure and want the opportunity to experience something different every time they log on.

  2. The animals doing exciting things is good.

    The animals eating the visitors is bad.

    That’s always been the balancing act for an MMO dev, and the further you move towards the casual market, the higher your fence to prevent some idiot jumping in a cage.

    1. It’s not this so much as what happens when visitor X finds out that the animals were doing something exciting when visitor Y (who paid the same entrance fee) was around but are asleep when he gets there.

  3. The ironic thing about all this is it really isn’t doing much more than getting us back to where we were a decade ago. The main difference is that what was spontaneously generated by players or directly controlled by GMs back then is now automated and handled by the server.

    Before instances, PvE gameplay was wildly less predictable. I’ll take Everquest as my example, it being the game I know best. In the busy, even overpopulated world that Norrath was then, players constantly affected, impacted or disrupted each others’ gameplay. Someone might not just KS the mob you’d been camping for hours, but you might arrive to hand in a quest and find a druid kiting your questgiver up and down the road. You could be actually in the process of going through quest dialog only to have some passing Shadowknight snare, fear and kill the NPC you were talking to.

    Not only could an enchanter charm the mob you were fighting while you were fighting it and haul it off to do his bidding somewhere else but in certain circumstances you could find your own character charmed by an NPC, turned into an unwilling automaton and set onto another player to kill them. It happened to me once and all I was doing at the time was looking at the wares on a vendor.

    GMs could and did pop up anywhere, anytime to dump dragons on you. Guides ran much less violent events ad hoc. There were even server-run events of a semi-dynamic kind, like the Swarm Mother and the skeleton invasions.

    For the first five years I played MMOs, even on a pure PvE server, even in a zone you’d spent maybe hundreds of hours in before, you could *never* be absolutely certain what might happen next. Then came EQ2 and WoW, in both of which every possible attempt was made to design all of this chaos and unpredictability out of the game entirely.

    Players were increasingly packed in cotton wool, kept away from each other as much as possible and protected from harmful interaction of any kind when they did meet. No more kill stealing, camping, or training. No more kiting. Questgivers immune from any form of interruption. Everything the same today, tomorrow and the day after.

    Many babies were thrown out along with much bathwater and it’s taken another half a decade to come up with something like a plan to keep what was good about the old days without bringing back what was bad. I guess this is an evolutionary process. Maybe in another five years we’ll actually begin to get near to somewhere we’d like to be.

  4. Rift really is a hive of activity. There arent many just mellow settlements, but given the lore it makes sense. Suppose this is the best case for player housing (or at least guild housing) – someplace to just chill and get things sorted out. Maybe play some Sims style gameplay for a bit.

  5. “Many babies were thrown out along with much bathwater and it’s taken another half a decade to come up with something like a plan to keep what was good about the old days without bringing back what was bad. I guess this is an evolutionary process. Maybe in another five years we’ll actually begin to get near to somewhere we’d like to be.”

    Great post and great reply, sums up what I’ve been trying to express in the post-WoW’s-success MMO world but haven’t been able to really encapsulate for a long time. If there’s ever been a turn of phrase I’ve been searching for to describe WoW all these years, it’s been throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    There’s so much that I vividly recollect despising about EQ, but it was never the sense of being a self-motivated character cast out into a world that felt unscripted, wild, and unpredictable, despite being in truth probably less technologically advanced than most console games today.

    I think what Public Quests are bringing to the table is essentially the same sort of “I don’t have to think about making a group and can just hit a button and do something with other players” mentality that have made Battlegrounds/Warfronts so accessible.

    The result for the player seems to be that while you are still doing similarly pre-engineered content, you’re also getting the added unpredictable factor of community involvement. It’s a PvE Battleground, basically, which thankfully (and very importantly) doesn’t have to be instanced because balancing only has to be done vs NPCs instead of other players.

    Bhagpuss is right, this is not a new or fresh concept, it’s an engineered method of attempting to bring back what never should have been abandoned in the first place.

    I think what PQs have effectively grabbed on to is creating a real motivation for people in the open world of a MMO to get together like they always -had- to in order progress at -all- in older games, but has been missing since being able to progress your character completely alone has become an unwritten staple of MMO design.

    I’m not going to argue against being able to solo in MMOs, but I am going to argue that you can’t skirt the MM portion and expect things to stay compelling. What’s thankfully happening now though is that some developers have seen the light – and more importantly a large portion of the nebulous overarching MMO player community has seen been reminded of the light – that keeping MMOs fresh and vibrant requires players interacting in as many ways as possible.

  6. This article, and the comments that followed, should be mandatory reading for all MMO developers. Brilliant, simply brilliant.

    My personal thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts on this, and especially to Ravious for starting it so well.

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