Jeremy Gaffney, executive producer for the upcoming MMORPG WildStar, believes MMO developers aren’t experimenting enough with the social possibilities of the genre. Socialization, he rightfully believes, is the only thing that MMORPGs undeniably do better than other genres. One of the minds behind Asheron’s Call’s allegiance system and City of Heroes’ sidekick system, Gaffney wants to revive some the social strengths of early EverQuest and early World of Warcraft and temper them with the emphasis on solo play so common in contemporary MMOs. Listening to him, I got the impression that he might just be able to pull it off.
That’s partially where WildStar’s Settler comes in, one of the two new “paths” I saw at the latest hands-on event for WildStar. Despite the prosaic name, it looks intriguing. During the preview, Gaffney showed us videos of settlers erecting temporary mount stations that acted like flightpaths, allowing players early access to motorcycle-type mounts. Moving on, he showed us how settlers could revive entire base camps that had fallen into disrepair, even to the point of unlocking quest givers and NPC guards that defend you once they were done. As a person who gets satisfaction out of merely putting down karma banners for other people to share in Guild Wars 2, this appealed to me.
Still, I wonder how the Settler’s dynamics will work at release. Take the Settler’s simple ability to build campfires that buff players who visit them, thus granting the Settlers themselves an XP boost to their path in return. The idea, Gaffney said, was to “bribe” players to find the most optimal points for their campfires to earn the optimal XP. “It’s a really good way to have a good social environment,” he said, especially if players prepare campfires or built outposts near tough content. But knowing MMO players, I argued that this setup could result in players finding a dozen or more campfires around prominent faction hubs, thus leaving it up to dumb luck if another player clicks on your campfire rather than the many others scattered around.
I wanted to love the Settler, but to be honest, my hands-on playthrough was less exciting than what I’d seen on screen, possibly due to the level 7 gameplay and my two hours of available gametime. I spent most of my time running around repairing light fixtures, although I once managed to gather enough supplies to start building a marketplace. (I never saw it finished.) Such activities appeal to my OCD tendencies, but I’m not sure the draw was strong enough to warrant skipping over the Explorer path, which looks destined to become the most popular path come launch. Indeed, Gaffney conceded that the Explorer was much more popular in the current beta build.
The new Scientist path looks more appealing. It caters to players who want to learn more about the world around them, and as such it brings with it more story content than the other three paths. At one point, a live demonstration showed a scientist scanning a plant only to find it was an antenna on a massive elite enemy that rumbled out of the ground. At another, we saw him guide us through a color-based puzzle quest that looked like it would have been at home in Myst. This captivated my attention about as much as The Secret World’s investigations missions, particularly since Gaffney added that the solution changes with every playthrough. So much for YouTube walkthroughs, I thought–and in this case that’s a good thing.
Yet as with the Settler, my actual experience with the Scientist was less engaging than what I’d seen on the screen. I spent most of my time scanning flowers, although I never saw the massive beasts I saw in the live preview on screen. I apparently never ventured far enough to find the puzzle quest Gaffney showed us, and the only excitement from my time with the Scientist sprang from a timed challenge to reach the top of a ridge using antigravity orbs – a quest that merely happened to be in the same neighborhood as a Scientist quest.
But WildStar will encourage social interaction in other ways as well. Gaffney places particular emphasis on WildStar’s system of “telegraphs,” which mark the area of effect of spells for both enemies and allies for all players to see. This, he believes, leads to automatic cooperation among players. WildStar will also include a group finder for dungeons, although you’ll have to find the dungeon entrances on your own. He’s less certain as to whether to include a “Looking for Raid” tool as World of Warcraft has.
Promising ideas all, but I worry that, at least in the open world, they’ll fall prey to some of the same social problems I found in Guild Wars 2. To this day, Guild Wars 2′ dynamic events result in scores of players coming together and technically playing together, but outside of a dungeon, they rarely have any need to actually speak with each other to overcome challenges. In some ways, it’s no more social than dropping a Blingtron 4000 for others players to use in World of Warcraft. I suspect the Settler’s creations will be the same way. I might be grateful for a player’s campfire or for the new quest giver he or she unlocked, but will I ever track down the guy who built it and try to make a buddy out of him? I doubt it.
Still, WildStar has one significant edge over Guild Wars 2–it places a much heavier emphasis on running dungeons and old-school 40-man raids (we’ve yet to see those). Combine those group activities with its long-awaited PvP housing and the generally passive interaction of WildStar’s paths, and the MMO has a surprising chance of living up to Gaffney’s social expectations.