When the Fire Burns Low: A Case for Unattended Gaming

Darniaq posted an introspective on the personal extinction of intense gaming.

“Taking these games serious[ly] is the realm of others in either different stages of their life, or simply with different lives. I peaked in my need for immersion with SWG, and it took a personal toll […] Games aren’t feeding us through feeding tubes, so there’s only so much of that real world anyone can afford to give up.”

This is a sentiment that I can commiserate with. I’ve gone through two periods of heavy gaming and twice made a conscious decision to back off. Every wise adventurer must eventually decide when to let the campfire burn low and get some rest (or earn money for more firewood).

And yet I dearly miss some aspects of playing. Over the years MMORPGs have given me real enjoyment. The only problem is that the games that include the deep experience I crave also require a real time commitment.

I don’t think I’m the only smouldering MMO player out there, looking to re-ignite the fun with a casual and less time consuming game.

Unattended Play

As a lark, some friends and I have started “playing” ProgressQuest.

For the rare individual out there that might not know … one doesn’t play ProgressQuest: one simply runs it. All by itself, the ProgressQuest client retrieves quests, kills mobs, levels-up, collects loot, sells the loot, and buys progressively better gear. All of this is laced with obtuse humor (example “Porn Elementals” and their loot drop, “Lube”).

ProgressQuest is a parody of the grinding and loot whoring at the core of most Diku MMO’s. But there’s a serious note also. People do “play” it. Occasionally, people talk about it. Some remember their character’s name and level. Players form guilds and “compete” for the highest level.

In some small sense, some of the basic motivator powering grind-style play in MMO’s survives the parody of ProgressQuest. It’s weak, but it cannot be dismissed.

ProgressQuest isn’t the only example of a player choosing unattended play.  Many players engage in RMT rather than play the game: buying levels or loot. Some games support extensive macroing and even AFK play.

Unattended play in Classic SWG was common place. One could write macros using in-game utilities to level almost all professions. I’ll admit to doing my fair share of this.

SWG’s crafting profession was a particularly good fit for the AFK player.  As a former crafter, I’d pop in to plant harvesters (automated resource extraction), load up a factory (mass production of items for sales) or stock a vendor (unattended sales). It might take me an hour to perform my various tasks and then I would log out. Contrast this with combat play sessions that might consume three to five hours (or more) an evening.

SWG’s in-game email system provided an asynchronous method of interaction with my guild mates and fellow player-city citizens. SWG’s shallow class system (and various tricks for quick leveling) made it possible to quickly master professions and keep pace with friends.

I was able to participate in the SWG universe on a regular basis without being forced to be available for play at specific times, without exhaustingly long play sessions and without giving up my involvement with real life. I will admit my guild did nag at times.

A Market for Unattended Play?

Game developers and at least the vocal majority of players seem to dislike macro players and RMT. The fact that these practices occur indicates that there is a population looking for this style of play in a MMORPG. Darniaq wrote:

“No matter what innovations [upcoming MMORPG’s] will have, if they require consecutive hours of play with no chance of AFKing and choosing not to log in at all sometimes, then I won’t be there.”

Could it be that game developers are missing out on the opportunity to service the casual, burnt-out, and real-world-occupied market segment?

A Game for AFK Players

Imagine a game that had the essential elements of MMO (social, multiplayer, persistent) and yet permitted (even encouraged) both unattended and attended play. 

Imagine a game that allowed players to choose the timing and duration of their play sessions: a game where you can show up for the second half of that dungeon raid (after putting your kids to bed) or play only once weekly (yet still hang with your friends who would otherwise level well beyond you during arduous nightly sessions). 

Without re-iterating some of what made SWG (especially crafting) appropriate for unattended play, here are some other broad feature concepts in support of unattended play.

Contracts for Unattended Group Play

When creating a group, players may specify how many of the group must be in attendance for the group to play (the minimum would be one).  Groups would persist across multiple gaming sessions. If enough of the group is available for attended play, the whole group plays. Grouped AFK players follow the group, acting according to preset behaviors or as ‘pets’ that accepts commands from live players.

Such a system would allow the casual player to keep up with their guild mates, gaining experience and loot and staying close by for the moment the AFK player is ready to resume control of the character again.

Simple Scripting for Unattended Solo Play

Include a system of commands, or a simple scripting system, allowing solo players to direct their character to perform preset activities or seek preset goals. Examples might include: running missions; travel; mining; surveying for resources; crafting; arbitrage (buying and selling specific items within a preset prices); or guarding an area.

Alternate Interfaces

Permit players to catch up with their character’s progress and current status using alternate interfaces such as text messages, IM applications, or a simplified cell phone interface.

While taking the subway to work, perhaps a player could get a text report on their character’s progress towards preset goals and current status on a cell phone. At lunch that player could update the character’s goals via IM.

In the evening, while the majority of a group runs a major dungeon, several players are busy with their family, eating dinner or reading the nightly story. The characters of AFK players continue on auto-pilot, following the group and accepting commands from the live players. When ready, these AFK players resume control of their characters half way through the mission.

Conclusion

If you’ve actually read this far, you’re probably scoffing at the idea.  Why would anyone play a game that doesn’t require their involvement?

Have you played a strategy game (real time or turn based)? In a strategy game, you don’t actually mash buttons to conduct combat: you simply give the directive “take out that unit.”  Typically you don’t hold down a key to move from one place to another: you click or otherwise indicate your end-point and your unit travels there according to the prescribed rules.

The grind has been largely abstracted out of strategy games. Unfortunately, so has the concept of the individual avatar. Typically, strategy games aren’t massively multiplayer (there are a few) nor are the worlds persistent.

The concept I’m expressing could be summarized as a cross between a massively multiplayer persistent strategy game and the more typical massively multiplayer RPG. Sometimes you would simply issue directives then walk away while your character works through the process. Other times, you’d step in and handle the minutia yourself.

Of course, the devil is always in the details. It might be tough to balance the needs of attended and unattended players. AI requirements might be more complex than in other games. There might also be a tendency for a greater percentage of subscribers to remain connected to servers, increasing load and costs.

I think the concept would only work if attended game play were fun and engaging. A vibrant mix of PAK (Player-At-Keyboard) and AFK players is required. After all, if there are no live players to keep pace with, what’s the point of playing AFK?

Despite the pitfalls, I find this an intriguing concept. I’d like the opportunity to feed the embers from time to time without committing to an all night bonfire.

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