Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Carebear confessions: Thrills, heartache await online tournament players

Think of a world before the Internet; when you had to leave the house or make a phone call to put someone in a state of incoherent rage.

In the old days you had to cause an accident, steal a parking space or cut somebody off on the freeway to make them want to kill you. These days, you can inspire outrage and thoughts of murder without even leaving your chair.

The Internet is a nested collection of new frontiers, and each new activity offers a new way to ruin someone’s day.

It’s easy to find a dance partner if you’re willing to fight about politics or religion. Just find an online forum and let your inner child loose.

Forums are enough for most of us, but if you really want to provoke people you can go for extra credit in the world of online games. There’s nothing quite like the thrill, or the level of anger that can be achieved, in player vs. player combat.

In the old days, arcade games pitted you against the machine. But even the best computer opponent can eventually be conquered by a human player.

Human opponents are much harder to deal with, and now that we have the Internet, they are much easier to find. The purest form of player vs. player combat can be found in games like “Doom,” “Quake,” “Counter-Strike” and “Half Life.”

You can customize your avatar and select equipment to match your style, but each player starts with the same basic chance of success. Games like this are a true test of skill. You might get frustrated when opponents gang up on you or use cheap tactics to win, but those losses don’t really cost you anything.

Just hit the reset button and start again.

But what if you couldn’t? What if your equipment didn’t respawn out of thin air every time you got killed? What if every simulated “death” cost you hours of tedious work?

That was the world of online role playing in 1997. The first graphical MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) was “Ultima Online,” created by Origin.

I bought “Ultima Online” immediately after launch and experienced all the early bugs. But the worst aspects of the game weren’t bugs. They were put there on purpose by a team of programmers who (I can only assume) enjoyed beating up geeks in high school and fed like vampires off the power of human suffering.

“Ultima Online” was a uniquely “realistic” simulation of a fantasy world. The early game allowed you to take up hunting, farming, tailoring, cooking, leatherworking and a host of other professions using objects that looked like real world tools.

Here’s how most characters started life in “Ultima Online.” First, you pick a template based on characters from high fantasy. You could be a warrior, a wizard, a thief or pick from a dozen other fantasy stereotypes.

You’d pick your starting skills, get familiar with your newbie equipment and hit the road, ready to tame the wilderness with steel and magic. You’d emerge from the safety of a major city …

… and immediately get jumped by a pack of bandits controlled by other players. The bandits would hit you with four or five precisely timed spells, drain your life to zero and stand over your cartoon corpse. Then they would laugh at you and take your stuff, leaving you naked, cold and dead.

You’d run back to town for a free resurrection and realize you had no money, no equipment and no way to earn anything.

So you delete that character and start again. But this time you decide to play it smart. You start with a crafting profession and earn some money before venturing into the big bad world.

You start a brand new tailor/swordsman, buy a bolt of cloth with your newbie gold and spend the next four hours making cartoon hats. You make 20 hats, sell them to the vendor and earn enough to make 20 more. The cycle continues, your skill increases and after four or five hours of tedious clicking, you finally have enough to buy a suit of armor.

You buy the best equipment you can and head for the wilderness … where you are jumped by the same five bandits who killed you the first time. They hit you with five simultaneous spells and you’re dead again. If you’re playing on dialup, you were probably dead before you had time to react.

The bandits say, “Hey, this guy actually had stuff!” and you get to watch while they strip your corpse and distribute your armor between them.

In 1997 this was called “entertainment” and companies could actually make money doing it to people.

Origin ended up fixing most of these problems by 2000, but in the early days, “Ultima Online” was like an interactive “Lord of the Flies.” These days, player vs. player combat is planned and consensual and losing doesn’t really cost you anything.

Players who lose a fight in “World of Warcraft” don’t lose money or equipment and it’s relatively hard to die by accident. PvP combat is restricted to special servers and to people who deliberately make themselves eligible for it.

But there’s one popular game that still does things the old-fashioned way. It’s called “Eve Online,” a sprawling space simulation that allows players to buy spaceships and forge realistic careers as miners, warriors and captains of industry.

“Eve Online” lets you start your career in protected zones, but the real money (and the real fun) are waiting in no man’s land – waiting in areas controlled by pirates and mercenary corporations.

“Eve Online” believes in real challenge, real combat and real loss. Just like in the early days of “Ultima Online” you build up your starting money in the safe zones and take your chances in the shark tank.

Successful “Eve” players have to band together to achieve any kind of success, selling their souls (or at least their play time) to player controlled corporations that provide starting money and rudimentary protection for new players.

This element of real world cooperation makes “Eve” more challenging, and more rewarding, than other games of this kind. Once a year these player organizations meet on the field of battle to compete in a grand tournament, and unlike most video game events, the losses suffered in this tournament represent real investments of time and energy.

It costs a tremendous amount of in-game money to finance participation in these tournaments and if your fleet is destroyed, there’s no friendly Game Master waiting to give it back.

That means a tournament victory is as much a testament to financial management and organizational skill as it is a measure of real combat prowess.

This element of real world risk adds a level of drama to “Eve” that no mere dungeon raid can match. The monetary units may be fictional, but the time invested is very real. The ships lost in tournaments can represent hundreds of hours of collective play time.

So remember “Eve” and “Ultima” next time somebody ganks you in “World of Warcraft” or gets the drop on you in “Call of Duty.” This play style is not for everybody, but I’ve seen enough PvP to respect it. I may be a “carebear” who spends his time running missions in safe zones but the latest round of tournament videos were so cool, I’m considering a walk on the wild side.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 3, 2009 at 18:27

Posted in Columns, Games

2 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. […] Read the original post: Carebear confessions: Thrills, heartache await online tournament … | […]

  2. “Successful “Eve” players have to band together to achieve any kind of success, selling their souls (or at least their play time) to player controlled corporations…”

    Really? Eff that. I already do this everyday in real life. It’s called “work”. I think I’ll pass this one by.


    October 20, 2009 at 07:09

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: