Massively Overthinking: Being Uncle Owen in MMORPGs
Ever since the tone-deaf SOE proclamation that nobody wanted to play Uncle Owen in an MMORPG, contrary me has consciously fought that very stupid idea. A whole lot of people wanted to play Uncle Owen, then and now, there and elsewhere. Star Wars Galaxies was a game half full of Uncle Owens. I spent a lot of time literally becoming a moisture farmer as my own form of rebellion. And yet, as I realized while debating with my husband a few weeks ago, the person I really wanted to be was freakin’ Lando. And most MMORPGs don’t allow that either — it’s Luke or GTFO.
Such is the argument made by a recent PC Gamer article, which in its own precious mainstream way argues that “MMOs need to let you be an average Joe” to get out of the clear “creative slump” they’re in.
“With their scale and permanence, MMOs give us the chance to be citizens in a make-believe world we create with the help of our fellow players. When it’s left up to us what kind of role we want to fill in that world, everybody’s immersion benefits from being surrounded by all types of characters with vastly different stories.”
For this week’s Overthinking, I asked the staff to chime in on the concept of Uncle Owen in MMORPGs. Do you play this way? Do you wish you could? And is it the way forward?
Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): *Sigh* Bree and her moisture farming stories. How boring! SWG was all about chemicals, minerals, and gases, especially documenting their locations on the old SWG Craft site. Nothing like discovering new and exciting minerals to inspire crafters to part with credits in their pursuit of creating the best stuff in the galaxy!
Joking aside, yes, I do prefer playing non-hero, non-killer types. While most people assume PvPers are ruthless gankers, I was more of a politician in Asheron’s Call 2 and World of Warcraft, a gatherer ambassador in Darkfall, and an “illegal borrower”/explorer in ArcheAge. Combat can be fun, but if that’s all I want, I can just play Overwatch or Monster Hunter, often getting a much tighter experience than MMOs are capable of offering.
MMOs are worlds, and worlds aren’t filled with heroes and villains. They’ve got people, with day jobs, and sometimes families (more of this please, devs!), and we need that to be reinforced more. Yes, some “jobs” like Bounty Hunter sound cool on paper, but few work well (and bounty systems in particular feel easy to exploit). Smuggling, thieving, animal breeding, custom ship creation (a la Worlds Adrift), even crafting efficient manure seem far more interesting to persistent worlds than yet another game where, to be a hero, I can fight over mostly dead territories for gameplay I could access easier (and of a higher quality) from single player games. Oh, or do a combat dance for fat loot, but again, smaller scale games often do this better. Don’t set up players just to fight each other, but to improve each other’s different play styles.
For example, I remember being a cook and a mason in Horizons/Istaria). I remember crafting and combat were very separate (and time intensive!) investments. If you were out fighting all the time, you didn’t know the crafting markets as well, and crafters were making all the cash. Not just good, but basic gear had to be crafted. Crafters, obvious, spent a lot of time in and around town and weak critters so we weren’t really good at defending ourselves. Needing warriors to clear out towns or gathering spots so people could access their homes or high-quality mines helped people of different playstyles play together and feel appreciated. It was even cooler when world events to unlock new player races required similar tactics. It’s something I was hoping to see more of in EverQuest Next.
In short, yes. Please. More “Uncle Owen,” and not just in galaxies far, far away.
Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): You guys already know where I stand on Uncle Owen, so let me use my extra space to talk about why. The PC Gamer writer nailed that part. I don’t want everyone to be Uncle Owen. I want the people who want to be Uncle Owen, Lando, Cassian, Dex, Rey, Wilhuff, Leia, Jango, Oola, Wedge, Death Sticks Guy, Stormtrooper #3277, and Detective Obi-Wan to all be able to do that and have a place in that world, the same world, all interconnected with a compelling reason to be there, and not just to be content for the “real” gamers being funneled into Han or Jyn roles. Even if you are just Young Luke dopily lightsabering through the quests in a world and playing the themepark inside the sandbox, the variety of other people in your world helps sell it, in-game and out. Immersion goes up. Breadth of gameplay goes up. Game stickiness and longevity and investment go up. The quality of the community goes up.
This genre can be so much more than it is right now, and even most of the up-and-coming sandboxes aren’t getting it quite right because they are convinced the magic of the classic sandbox was in the competition it fostered and only that. They are wrong. And so we wait.
Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): The funny thing about that infamous Smedley quote is that I think there’s a huge gap between what he actually said (which was demonstrably wrong) and what I assume he meant, which is actually defensible. What he said, point-blank, was that players do not want to play the version of the game which they are currently playing; obviously, if they’re playing it now, they want to be. What he meant, though, was that there’s a reason why A New Hope basically ignores Uncle Owen until he gets gunned down by Stormtroopers, and it’s not just because Lucas hated the actor playing him. (It’s possible he did, I don’t know.)
There’s a reason the franchise is called Star Wars and not Star Moisture Farmers. You go there, you expect to see certain things going on, and there are certain expectations for what the game should be about. But there’s a world of difference between “players should be important” and “everyone should be Luke Skywalker.”
Getting back to the central question, the reality is that a good MMO shouldn’t be full of Uncle Owens or Luke Skywalkers. It should be full of Lando Calrissians, full of Cassian Andors, full of Poe Damerons and Jyn Ersos and Wedges and so forth. The whole trend of MMOs to swing toward the player as the Most Important Chosen One started as a response to having characters be nameless citizens, but seeing it as an either-or prospect is inherently limiting.
Player characters, by virtue of their very existence, shouldn’t be dispoable. If the player characters are no more interesting than the NPCs, what’s the point? We deal with being largely invisible on a daily basis, there’s no reason to make that the reality in a game too. But at the same time, players should have the option and a setting wherein they have options other than just being a titan of everything. As much as I enjoy the setting of Star Wars: The Old Republic, you kind of have to ignore the class stories in roleplaying simply because these events can only happen to one person.
By contrast, Final Fantasy XIV and Final Fantasy XI both make you important… but not overwhelming. You have influence, but you’re not the uniquely powerful savior of the world. You may choose to ignore storyline stuff saying that you’ve fought Titan, but there’s every reason in the world to justify having been there if it first your character. There’s space for you to be important without having to be The One And Only. You weren’t pulled from the underworld to fulfill a prophecy a la The Elder Scrolls Online, you just existed in a space and possessed certain skills.
Perhaps not surprisingly, pretty much all of the people I meet for roleplaying in that game play their characters as occupying that middle space. There’s a cast of characters with diverse skills and abilities, ranging from merchants to musicians, spies to shokeepers, gladiators to gardeners.
There’s a lot to sum up here, but I think the bottom line is simply that MMOs shouldn’t be pushing our characters to be average but should give us more angles of play and more places to be relevant without being the greatest of all time. As cool as the idea of artifacts was in World of Warcraft, it cements the idea that the player character must be at the nexus of everything because all of these artifacts are supposed to be unique. Far more reasonable would be players forging their own artifacts, creating a new legacy, making something that didn’t exist beforehand.
It’s boring if everyone is Uncle Owen, but it’s just as boring if everyone is Luke Skywalker.
Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): Yes, yes, and yes again. Listen, I have no problem with thrilling heroics and going on exciting adventures. It’s certainly what’s kept me interested in MMOs for so long. But beating on the same one note of “World Saving Hero” in game narrative grew stale years ago. It feels patronizing to hear game devs say things like, “Well OUR game makes you feel like the hero you really want to be!” Wait, what? How do you know what kind of hero I want to be? There are many kinds of heroes aside from the ones that take up a 50-pound sword and stab the planet-eating giant in the eye with it.
A single role makes a mockery of what an RPG really should be, in my opinion. It should be about choice, about letting you create and explore and define your own character, not to have the game and surrounding events do it for you. It should be mundane and intimate as much as it might be explodey and raidy. My character should have faults and flaws and the freedom to find his or her own path. Maybe I do want to be a hero. Maybe I just want to start a cheese shop or be an archaeologist or design the first generation of submarines for gnomes.
Devs don’t even seem to question this rut that we’ve gotten into with MMOs, and boy is that a shame. Why not? Are they so married to the combat system that they feel every problem needs to be solved with an arrow to the face or a fireball? Maybe we should be making MMOs that combat is simply a part of a large tapestry of options instead of the center core.
Yeah, I know it sounds like I’m bucking for more sandbox features, and I guess I am, although I think that theme parks could embrace this ethos too. I’ve written several articles on how Lord of the Rings Online gives a much more well-rounded approach to being a hero than simply being all stabby all of the time, and it’s helped connect me with the game world in a much more meaningful way because of it.
Larry Everett (@Shaddoe, blog): For this particular question, it’s especially hard to explain my personal views without coming across as someone who hates MMOs. Clearly, I like MMOs. But the problem is that the market does not seem to be ripe for those people interested in games that do not make them out to be the hero. However, open-world single-player games are a dominate force… The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age Inquisition. But in both of those games, you are the hero of your story, even if there are enough choices to make your story unique from other people. Despite their missteps, Final Fantasy XIV, Star Wars the Old Republic, and Elder Scrolls Online are popular MMORPGs. Those games at their peak surpassed EVE Online at its peak (though I’d argue EVE’s business model is more sustainable).
I like both kinds of games, but the reason I jumped into MMORPGs in the first place was because I lived the living world aspect of the genre. The closer it comes to a world-simulator, the more I enjoy it. But I am also a graphics snob, so the animations and aesthetics of the game have to be a little more than decent in order for me to play it.
So if there is a perfect storm of good graphics and mechanics that promote a living world, then I will likely play that, but very few will buy it and even fewer will stick with it.
MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Hogwash and poppycock! That’s what I say to the notion that people don’t want to play Uncle Owens or Aunt Berus. That is precisely what I want to play. Well, with the exception that I don’t want to be a farmer but an Innkeep running a local tavern. And I know I am not alone, as many of my friends are of the same mind. They want to be just fishermen or farmers or merchants or crafters or mercenaries. Sure, some people aspire to be kings and rulers, but not everyone. Everyone can’t be a king, else who would be the subjects? I want to be someone in a dynamic world filled with dynamic people, each with their own story. I don’t want to be surrounded by thousands of ultimate heroes/chosen ones/saviors who are the only one who can save the day… just like everyone else. Homogeneity sucks. Why does everyone have to be THE special snowflake? They don’t, and they shouldn’t. Worlds are infinitely richer with variety.
I love how Lord of the Rings Online lets players be a part of the world, and even be there for some important moments, but the heroes of the story and the world remain the Fellowship, not players. The players are just inhabitants of the world that have moments where their stories intersect the special narrative. I also like how The Secret World approaches it. Sure, as a bee-blessed, you are special compared to regular folks, but you are still just one cog in a bigger machine within your organization. You aren’t some messiah — you just do your job. And you are at times reminded of this fact and your place by your superiors.
What PC Gamer describes is a virtual world sandbox — the exact thing I’ve been begging for a return to for oh-so-long. Create a diverse world with many roles to fill and people will fill those roles, people with their own stories. If there is only one story, then once you hear it it’s done. With variety, you can keep learning more stories and more stories and still never hear them all. And in a dynamic world, you can change roles as suits your feelings, your play style, etc. In a set one-shot chosen-one narrative you are stuck in that role regardless.
MOP Patron Archebius: Whenever I start a new game of Skyrim, I use a mod called “Alternate Start – Live Another Life.” Sure, having your execution get interrupted by a dragon with a flair for the dramatic is a great way to start a game – but sometimes, I want to be a trader who loses everything to bandits, or an immigrant just arriving on Skyrim’s snowy shores, or a prisoner of ghosts who have long since forgotten anything but being wardens of a decaying dungeon. And often, when I’m just starting out, I don’t run off for a ruin and begin wailing on draugr. I start exploring, and I go from there. Sometimes I work at a lumber mill to earn enough money to buy my first set of equipment. Sometimes I happen across someone who needs help, and boldly fight the giant rats that have infested their basement. Sometimes a highwayman tries to kill me, and in the wilderness of Skyrim, I kill him, take his gear, and leave his body for the wolves. Every character plays out differently; they all start in different places, meet different people, and have different priorities.
Now, eventually, they’re all going to be among the strongest fighters, mages, bowmen, and assassins in Skyrim. I can’t say that I’ve devoted characters, even in games that allow it, to performing non-combat roles (though I certainly enjoy crafting, exploring, and farming). But I think the impulse is the same – I might not want to be Uncle Owen per se, but I want to have the ability to own some land and plant some crops. I don’t always want to be the hero that saves the day and changes the entire course of the Old Republic. Sometimes I just want to a gunner, or a pilot. Sometimes I want to be part of a team. Sometimes, just maybe, I’d like to sit in a port somewhere and unload ships for a while, scraping together enough money to buy my first set of armor and a space-worthy shuttle. And even if I start out as a heavy gunner wearing bulky armor and carrying a big gun, I like to know that the world around me is a place where cargo handlers and moisture farmers and dancers exist. I like knowing that it has depth to it.
Honestly, I wouldn’t even mind being Luke – the kid who grew up on a moisture farm with dreams of being a pilot, went running off to rescue a princess, joined up with the Rebellion, made a last desperate run at a Death Star and blew it up, then spent a couple years helping the Rebellion stay alive, piloting snow speeders and trying to save his friends, until he decided to save his father from the dark side, instead of participating in the final battle against the Empire. The problem is that most games don’t even let us have that kind of freedom or make those kinds of decisions. We are HEROES right out of the gate, world-changing, one-of-a-kind – if we’re in a squad, we’re in a special forces squad; if we’re force sensitive, we’re learning to master our gifts faster than anyone else. There is no depth to the world, only a mosaic of heroes, for some reason caught in the tedium of grinding for armor while trying to prevent world-destroying horrors from manifesting.
The PC Gamer article mentions the hardcore ARMA scene, and the people who want to be helicopter pilots, spending hours flying squads into and out of combat. There are people that legitimately enjoyed being cantina dancers. In a pen and paper RPG I’m running, the players are with Imperial Intelligence, using subversion and secrecy to keep a sector from spiraling out of control into chaos and piracy. In Destiny, I knew a kid who loved to just drive his Sparrow around. If you give people options, they will find their own fun – they will roleplay, they will mod, they will sell their services to pirate corporations. They will build, they will destroy, they will make friends and form a community. But you have to give them the tools to do so. You have to make a world they can find themselves in.
And if you do, players will surprise you. Every time.