#oneaday Day 902: Follow the Rules (That Haven’t Been Written Yet)

I’ve been playing a bunch more of The Secret World today and I stand by my initial impressions that it’s a significant step, nay, leap forward for the MMORPG genre. My only slight criticism would be that so far I’ve had very little incentive to actually play alongside other people, but 1) this is nothing unusual for modern MMOs and 2) I haven’t tried any “dungeon” missions yet.

It’s in the Investigation missions that I mentioned yesterday where the game truly distinguishes itself. I shall try and resist spoiling specifics at this point, but completing one today involved searching for something in the game world, finding a laptop (password-protected, natch) and then having to break into it. The clue on the computer was vague at best, and there was nothing in the immediate vicinity to help. A little exploration was required, and then some actual honest-to-goodness deduction and lateral thinking on the part of the player. It was a true case of “I wonder if this works… holy crap, it does.” As I say, spoiler-free, but it involved the sort of shenanigans normally reserved for “alternate reality games”. Which is impressive stuff.

What all this clever puzzle-solving leads to, though, is something of a dilemma for the community. In other MMOs, the General chat channel is the home for people asking how to do things — when it’s not the home of teenage boys soliciting sex from hot female Night Elf avatars, of course. It’s sort of expected that if you ask a question such as “where is quest objective x?” that you’ll get a straight answer. And that’s fine — a lot of MMOs are still a bit clunky on the whole “user-friendliness” part and thus often forget to point the player in the right direction, necessitating either a lot of tedious searching the game world or simply asking other players.

In The Secret World, however, the confusion inherent in these Investigation missions is part of the appeal. The sense of satisfaction when you unravel one of the game’s cryptic clues is unprecedented in the usually rather predictable MMO genre. Assuming you worked it out yourself, of course — and herein lies the problem.

Players coming to The Secret World straight from titles like World of Warcraft and Star Wars: The Old Republic will come to General chat or the dedicated Help channel and pose the usual sorts of questions. One of two things then almost inevitably happens — 1) someone posts the answer and everyone then yells at them for spoilers. 2) someone posts a vague clue and the new player then gets annoyed at not being able to get a straight answer.

Actually, this is an exaggeration — so far, from what I’ve seen, the vast majority of the community is on the side of “give hints, not answers” and only a few people ruin that. The trouble is, if you happen to glance at General chat when one of these people is spoiling a quest solution — perhaps unintentionally — then you can’t unsee it. You’ll know forever that Dr Bannerman’s computer password is — wait, hang on, you won’t get it out of me that easily!

Funcom’s GMs are apparently being pretty strict about those they catch posting spoilers in the chat channels, so hopefully the community will be “trained” out of that particular practice sooner rather than later. The trouble is, tempers often run unchecked online, meaning that some people will fly off the handle to a disproportionate degree at these spoiling types — who, in many cases, simply hadn’t yet got a handle on the game etiquette. Sure, it’s common sense that in a game with a heavy puzzle-solving component that people might not want to just hear the answers blurted out, but it’s entirely possible for the reasons I mentioned above that people may not have considered this. Getting yelled at and verbally abused by people isn’t going to help them change their behaviour — it’s simply going to make them defensive and often lash out back at their “aggressors”, thereby perpetuating a cycle of people bitching and complaining at each other unnecessarily.

In many ways, it’s the same as in teaching. In the classroom, if you spot someone misbehaving — or if another child comes up and “tells on” the miscreant, the worst possible thing you can do is yell, shout, scream and otherwise draw attention to their inappropriate behaviour. In many cases, the child was simply seeking attention, so to succeed so completely — even if it’s with negative attention — will not train them to behave more appropriately in the future. Instead, a more assertive approach is the way to play it — take the child aside and discuss quietly and discreetly with them why what they did was wrong rather than encouraging them to get upset and strike back.

Now, obviously most of the players of The Secret World are a little older than primary school children (hopefully), but this approach is still a sound one. If someone behaves inappropriately — such as by posting spoilers — it may be easy to simply publicly shame them in General chat with an “FFS” and a few choice expletives, but all that will do is make them call you a “moron” (or worse) and ensure that you both end up on each other’s Ignore lists. Instead, a simple, polite private message explaining why what they did was inappropriate or unacceptable is the way forward. No malice, a simple — but assertive — desire to help them out and make the experience more pleasant for everyone involved. Easy, right? Well, it should be. In practice it doesn’t always work that way, but people will settle down over time as the “norms” of the game community are established.

The way online communities interact with one another is something that’s always been fascinating to me, and the fact that The Secret World is even running into this issue at all shows what a big shift away from conventional, predictable MMO thinking it really is. The community is going to have tom come up with established conventions and ground rules — perhaps policed by GMs in the early stages — and those used to a different set of norms will have to adjust and adapt appropriately.

Anyhow. That’s that. If you haven’t figured it out already, The Secret World is most definitely worth your time and money, particularly if you have the slightest interest in Lovecraftian horror, or if you enjoyed Funcom’s adventure titles The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. While it has its flaws and its bugs, it’s certainly a far more interesting experience than the vast majority of other online titles out there, and I recommend you give it a shot — even if you’re not normally into MMOs.

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