Alright, so there’s this awesome game I like to play. It’s called cRPG (no one knows what the “c” stands for), and it’s a mod for the medieval sandbox Mount & Blade: Warband. Warband is actually an expansion for the original Mount & Blade.
I just tell my friends that I’m playing “The horse game”, because there are horses in it. So, whenever they come to visit, only to find that my dorm room door is locked, and all they can hear from inside is pixy-like giggling interspersed with bursts of screamed profanity, they know that I’m playing “The horse game”. And then they leave, because I’m not leaving my room for a while.
It’s hard to explain what the mod actually does, but I suppose the website simplifies it nicely: “cRPG is one of the most popular modifications for Mount & Blade: Warband. It adds persistent multiplayer and an online campaign”.
It all began with the persistent multiplayer thing. You would create a character, like in any other RPG, spend skillpoints and what not, chose your weapon proficiencies, you know the drill. Then you would join a server and partake in a pleasantly realistic orgy of medieval violence that emphasized player skill while at the same time rewarded teamwork. Think Counter Strike, but medieval and with RPG elements. No magic, no bullshit. Awesome, right?
Then the game’s developers created the “online campaign” and made it more awesome. They blew up the single-player map from Mount & Blade: Warband and put all the characters on it, represented by little colored dots. Like a board game. These dots can join factions (clans) and work together to capture fiefs on the map (villages, castles, and cities) that belong to other factions. This is called “Strategus”. Strategus is a wonderland of player-driven, emergent gameplay. The players are given a few rules and tools and have at it. They make and break-up factions at will. They initiate battles when and where they want to. They make alliances and trade. It’s delicious, and allows for endless entertainment because the gameplay is dynamic. One day faction A might war with faction B, and, a week later, faction A is at war with faction B’s friend because they learned that faction B is being given soldiers and equipment from them!
Lots of drama. Lots of virtual politics. Lots of people having fun. It’s all quite competitive.
This “emergent gameplay” business is old news, and it’s one of those “buzz words” that developers like to throw around to describe a game that has as little scripting as possible and is driven by unplanned player interactions. Few games actually pull it off–usually there’s just too much shit planned out, or the rules are too many or too complicated to allow for flexibility. But cRPG does it very well, I think. Almost too well.
For example, when two dots meet on the map to fight, a field battle ensues. Each dot’s player hires other players, and a roster is filled up, with the bigger fights featuring 50 vs 50 people, with each person using up their team’s tickets/lives as they die. The players meet up at a given time to kill each other with swords and horses and crossbows and axes.
But, in order to fulfill their need to win (so competitive!), and in order to multiply a defensive advantage, the defenders often decide to create forts out of ladders. Players start tossing the things around, creating ugly, haphazard webs of wood that act more like portable ramps than actual ladders. They’re like the work of drunk spiders, and they really are useful as area-denial tools. Plus archers can shoot down upon their enemies from the ladders.
They also look like shit and, are far too easy to make, and they destroy verisimilitude (fancy word yeah buddy). Good-bye suspension of disbelieve, hello rage! The attackers hate it, the defenders say it’s not against the rules (it isn’t). Fixing the issue is complicated because of how ladders work.
When you give players so much freedom they’re going to push it. A game that relies so much on player-driven experiences needs to be monitored and updated to keep up with the players. There need to be some rules–some limitations–otherwise coherence is lost and people get pissed off because somebody decided to make a fort out of ladders and my god is there a horse in there?! No, Joe, stop shooting the catapult at our ladder fort–that’s not how you fix the problem. Steve, horses don’t belong on the castle walls! It’s just another battle in cRPG land.
Ultimately, games like cRPG (and M&B) are very different from story-driven games. Not better, or worse–but different. These games emphasizes the “game” part of it all, and don’t try so hard to dictate the player’s experience. Playing them is a lot like getting together with your friends and playing tag or capture the flag in you backyard. Limitations are agreed upon, competition ensues, and fun is had. Social interaction is a key component, and friendships and rivalries are formed. Players learn from interacting with (and competing against) each other; from finding creative solutions to dynamic problems and, occasionally, failing. I think that losing is an important part of learning, and these sorts of games let you lose plenty.
I like stories. I think they have so much to offer the audience. Story-driven games are awesome, and allow for some flexibility and moral “choices”. “Emergent” or “sandbox” games offer the player something different and important. Something like playing tag, but without having to go outside where (supposedly) the sun is. I haven’t seen it in a while, but my friends assure me, from the other side of my locked door, that yes indeed there is a sun and I should probably get some. My only reply is an angry-but-happy curse directed at the tower of ladders that my horse keeps crashing into. “Fuck! Steve, start building a catapult! We need to kill this fort thing!”