Player Vs. Environment

Our particular neck of the woods is getting hit hard with snow; though, apparently, we haven’t had the worst of it nor will we get the worst of it. We’re currently caught in what’s being described as the winter storm for 2011, and the Midwest is already buried! Driving into work yesterday was an adventure as even our area, known for shrugging off massive snowfall, is struggling to keep up.

Luckily, I actually enjoy the snow; I prefer Northern weather over warmer climates (All Wheel Drive is a miracle of modern technology – give the inventor a prize!). My wife outright refuses to drive in serious snow, and while I take it very seriously, it doesn’t bother me all that much. What I generally don’t enjoy are all the other people who attempt to drive in the snow. In a college town filled with people from all areas of the planet, you see some very poor decisions being made. If it were just me on the roads, I wouldn’t even call snow an inconvenience – I’d call it a challenge. Sadly, it’s not just me.

While navigating the insanity of my commute, I got to thinking about MMOs (I know, shocking!) and how Player vs. Environment is really a misnomer.  The standard definition of “Player vs. Environment” gameplay doesn’t really pit the player against the environment of the game world. Yesterday in the real world was People vs. Environment. What we get in non-PvP gameplay is really Players vs. Non-Player Characters or Player vs. Mob.

But by labeling “Player vs. NPC” combat as Player vs. Environment the devs actually reveal something about their perspective on how we (the Players) should be interacting with our surroundings. It means that the devs don’t consider NPCs to really be any different than the rocks and trees and structures they’ve placed alongside them. The only difference is that we can fight and kill them; or, more accurately, that they can fight and kill us (in the case of games with destructible environments). Perhaps this is why we’re left with Boars and Brigands and Orcs that just stand around in one area, doing nothing of importance and just waiting for us to scoop them up and bop them on the head.

What if these games were designed, from the ground up, with NPCs that actually had goals and plans, which they would then implement? Something more than, “We’re going to occupy this space because we’re a quest objective!”. Pick up some apples or go fight some monsters…what’s the difference? A few more button presses? This is one of the reasons I’m so interested, and hopeful, about RIFT. Even though they’re not fully intelligent, or even truly dynamic, the Rifts and Invasions are an amazing opportunity for both the developers and the players to move the standard interactions beyond the realm of Little Bunny Foo Foo in which they’ve been mired for so long. NPCs have intent, and they act upon those intentions, and if the players lose access to something well then they better damn well do something about it!

But what I’d really love to see is a true Player vs. Environment mechanic, or even an entire game. Something that pits the players against their surroundings, not just the inhabitants that share them. A game that makes wandering into the world the challenge, not because you’ll get jumped by monsters, but because the world is actively trying to kill you. Give the players real incentive and reason to go out there, i.e. superlative crafting materials in the middle of a desert, but make it truly dangerous with sandstorms and quicksand and other environmental “traps”. A game that presents a world much like our own – one that can be amazingly beautiful but also very threatening at the same time.

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