In the beginning – the Styrofoam filled, diet pill popping 1970s — there was Dungeons & Dragons, a modified war game turned persistent adventure game. Small groups of friends would gather in dusty basements, around kitchen tables and occasionally in the odd garage to cooperatively explore exotic fantasy realms. Each player took on the role of an individualized character, typically composed of a race and class paring, e.g. Elven Thief, Human Fighter etc. Before any of you rust covered veterans start complaining, I’d like to remind you that you’re old and no, the kids don’t know about this. But I digress.
These characters were kept on sheets of pressed tree pulp called paper and their mathematical statistics were managed with a pencil (a material derived from graphite).
OK, I’m being a jerk.
The biggest difference between D&D and its war gaming ancestors was the persistence and progression of the paper character. This is where the concept of leveling up comes from and you already know how that works. However, more importantly and to my point, players who adventured for long periods of time together forge real bonds. It’s no different really than the dynamic that emerges through the routine participation of any group activity (Band, dojo, knitting circle etc). Admittedly some players are already friends before they engage in an activity like Table Top Gaming. But this doesn’t change my point.
So why is it that in this age of hyper-connectivity we have yet to see a meaningful RPG experience crafted to support a group dynamic? Having grown up playing table top, it’s safe to say that online guilds and multiplayer FPS games don’t offer the same intimacy.
Day Z (hardcore zombie survival simulator) has a lot of game designers talking and rightly so. Arma II & Operation Arrowhead sales have gone through the roof and its designer Rocket has been flung into overnight stardom. This experiment illustrates a number of helpful parallels regarding intimacy and gaming. I was a little skeptical of what a 60 person server could offer in the way of community. Of course, I quickly realized that was irrelevant. Online guilds exist on a communal-layer that supersedes the actual game being played.
Unfortunately for Day Z the moment a formidable group of players assembles, the game’s difficulty mountain inverts. Why? Because once the path of least resistance is discovered and Risk VS Reward properly assessed the sandbox is essentially beaten. In Day Z terms, this means you’re never more than 20 minutes away from an AK-47, Alice pack and a tent and you can reliably get to them nine times out of ten. Congratulations you’ve won.
When I first discovered Day Z none of my friends were playing and I was definitely having the experience Rocket had intended. The game-play even held up after my little brother joined in on the action. There we were, two idiots running through the dark, hiding from zombies and having a lot of fun. This lasted a few blissful weeks.
Thanks to Facebook I noticed that a number of my old work pals were playing too. So I hooked up with them expecting to have a great time. And, for a few more weeks, Day Z was all I could think about. It all started to go sideways when I realized everyone in this group was cheating; they were turning up the gamma (poor man’s night vision) to see in the dark, item duping tents inside other tents, inside other tents, not to mention ammunition – ad infinitum. I admit I cheated too (mostly ammo). But even if we weren’t a bunch of cheating @$$&*|#$ we were still running out of things to do in Day Z. We weren’t survivors we were a bunch of munchkins! But that wasn’t the only problem.
I found myself longing for some form of progression in my experience beyond getting the next gun. It started to feel as if the game needed more content. Yes I understand that the game is in alpha and it’s a sandbox experience. When I say content I’m not suggesting Rocket fills the villages with barking NPCs who incessantly request your help in finding their lost cats, gold or wolf pelts. Instead, imagine the Chernarus Map is only one of three environments of scaling difficulty. Map two is composed of sprawling Russian suburbs (a chunk of Moscow perhaps) and a third map where the survivors experience crescendos by making it all the way to X. Players would need to complete a difficult task or series of lesser tasks in order to progress to the following map. I also propose that you could accomplish this without using one silly NPC. For example: assembling the car might be a task required to progress from Chernarus to Map two.
Ultimately I played for as long as I did because my Day Z group had bonded in much the same way my D&D group once did. Character compositions were now made up of play-styles and weapon load outs instead of race and class parings. Our individual personalities had flavored our characters and we actually felt bad when someone died. When such an event transpired we built a tent grave for the fallen where we’d stow as much of their gear as we could. While this ritual was really just a fast way to pass on gear to a character’s new incarnation, it had a somewhat sentimental value. The pledge “Don’t worry man, we’ve got your night vision goggles” carried a bit of RP weight. I can only imagine what a hand-crafted action/RPG experience would offer a small group of players.
This sort of brings me back to my original subject.
Where’s our five-player Skyrim already?
Originally appeared on ryanverniere.blogspot.com