I was reading this thread on the WoW forums and it reminded me of an article I wrote for IRE a few months back. Rehashing it and adding a bit…

Anyone who’s played an MMO has a sense of the vast scale of the internet. Millions of players game online, with dozens of identical servers hosting similar iterations of the same world. Standing out in this vast community is nearly impossible – sure, there are a few famous players well known among the crowd of their particular game, but for the most part, the game world is a persistent place, rather untouched by those who live in it.

But that idea is shattered by MUDs. By their very design, MUDs are much smaller realms, and part of what makes them so appealing is the level of impact individual characters can have on the game world. In IRE games, for example, players lead houses, guilds and cities, with the process to learn class skills based entirely on interaction with other residents of the game. This makes for a very rich, player-driven system – people within the game, rather than game  mechanics, lay out the foundations for progression and this creates an intricate system of politics and interpersonal interactions.

To advance in your city or guild, you earn favors from the organization’s leaders and high ranking residents. Essentially every organization has set tasks you can complete, with additional perks and rewards often given for members who demonstrate that they are valuable and hard working. This setup makes for a vibrant, interactive world that draws people in – you aren’t just grinding away to get to some abstract level or earn x amount of coin; instead, you are also working to prove yourself to your organization’s leadership.

The concept unfolds in engaging ways: if you are a promising novice, it is quickly noticed. If you demonstrate aptitude for combat, you often find that you are recruited to assist with city- or guild-based conflicts. And the recognition extends both ways – those in power are known throughout the land. Guild or city leaders become household names, and their characters often find themselves in the spotlights of the land’s activity.

Beyond this, events are sometimes held where the land itself is changed….due to the result of player actions. For example, in Aetolia, a giant sea monster threatened the entire world. Not only was his emergence a result of a magical ritual cast by the Magi guild, his eventual defeat came about through the efforts of many players. In game lore, posts, scrolls and stories documented the roles various characters played in his defeat and many players have found that their characters are now part of the game’s canon mythology and ongoing story as a result of their participation in this event.

In short, to become known in a MUD is not only possible, it’s a rite of passage. The communities are smaller and more tight-knit, and players thrive on interactions. Individuals can make an impact on the world in impressive ways you rarely see in today’s MMO, be that for their leadership style, their roleplay of a certain race, or their frightening ability for combat. Fame is not only possible, it is, arguably, one of the reasons why we play our characters!

One oddly particular quirk of WoW players is looking back at “vanilla” (ie, the original) WoW with rose-tinted glasses, claiming it was better. I’m not going to get into that (very LONG) debate here, but I will bring up the idea of a server community. Vanilla WoW didn’t have the immense resources that we have today. There weren’t sites you could just google to find out about an elusive quest or the best DPS rotation. Upcoming content wasn’t datamined months before it became live. The developers themselves didn’t communicate with the players like they do now – changes were magical new things handed down by the Blizzardy gods. Sidestepping the idea of dev-player relations (which I’ll probably explore in another post), the end result is that things were just a heck of a lot more mystical and hand-wavingly mysterious….and that meant you had to rely on your fellow players a lot more to learn things and get stuff done.

Nowadays in WoW, we have automated battlegrounds and dungeons, and cross-server zone functionality, where zones will merge across servers if their current population is low. But back in vanilla, it was just you and your server, and you had to get out there and talk to people to form up groups. I absolutely agree that this antiquated system made people stand out. Every person I remember from my early WoW days was someone random I met via questing or grouping up to tackle content or even through PvPing.

But is that equivalent to the type of fame you can achieve in a MUD? I can login to a handful of MUDs right now and people I’ve never met – people who didn’t even start playing until after I quit – will send me whispers along the lines of, “Ooh, it’s you!” Granted, that sort of notoriety goes both ways (sometimes I get “*groan* It’s YOU.”), but the very fact that you can leave a legacy like that is a heady one. There is something about fame that is alluring. We are drawn to leave our mark.

In a way, I think MMOs will always have a bit of a standoffish feel to their immersion for me, until they find a way to incorporate this feeling: instead of just playing a game, I want to help shape what happens. WoW skimmed the surface of this type of gameplay with the gates of AQ event, where each server worked together to complete gruelling requirements and eventually unlock a new raid. However, the end result was the same, no matter what happened. The gates opened and, sure, a few people got special titles out of it, but it wasn’t really something the players themselves shaped. Imagine, instead, if the event had been open ended – players could choose how they respond to the crazy bug stuff. Propose a treaty, declare a war, hold a ritual, etc, all could have spun off in different directions.

Obviously the logistics of that won’t work in a huge game like WoW. There are just too many players and servers to allow for open-ended and evolving events. The closest we get is roleplay storylines on roleplay servers. However, games like the new MUD Lithmeria make me think that maybe some awesome-crazy-awesome integration of player-based direction could find its way into MMOs. In Lithmeria, for example, hardcoded mechanics exist to let players do things like found their own religions or complete unique, one-time quests. Clear mechanics for player contributions combined with random response generation keeps the process feeling organic, while not requiring constant admin oversight. It’s a rather elegant idea, and I’d love to see something like this translated to MMOs. Let the players do the creative work, with mechanics in place to both facilitate this process and channel it along certain avenues (such as city elections).

In any case, I’ve been rambling, so I’ll stop now.

So, how do you view it? Does your server have any standouts? Is your character renowned/hated/revered/loved? If you could be famous for anything in your game of choice, what would it be?