What makes a great game? – Part 10: Familiarity and Belonging
Today’s discussion is about a sense of familiarity and belonging in games. This is something of an extension on the discussion of a sense of home in games, but it’s a more general sensation. Here, let me try to give you a few examples of what I’m going for:
Reading a book you’ve read before
Playing an old game you used to play as a child
Wandering a museum you’ve been to before
Hanging out with old friends
Visiting with family
Hearing a song you used to listen to all the time
These all invoke a sensation of the familiar. A sense of belonging in that time, place, whatever. Some games draw people in because of the inherent familiarity of the surroundings. Some games keep you playing because of a genuine sense of belonging there.
This topic basically struck me as soon as I started playing the Lord of the Rings Online Free-to-Play Beta a few months back. I’ve read The Lord of the Rings once in my life, but it’s something that sticks with you. I’ve read The Hobbit several times though (it’s way shorter and mostly a travelogue). Anyways, when I first set foot into the LOTRO version of Middle-Earth, I felt that I was already familiar with the world. As I made my way through the Bree-Lands, I managed to orient myself and discover those locations in the books that I wanted to see for myself. I’ve been to Weathertop, I’ve wandered the Shire, and I walked some of the same paths that the original 13 dwarves walked with a confused hobbit and a wizard of implied repute. I battled goblins and barrow-wights as I made my way through the world that Tolkien imagined and I never felt that anything was amiss in that.
Another game that gave me the same sense from day one was Star Wars Galaxies. I already knew so much about so many things in the Galaxy Far, Far Away that when I set foot into Galaxies and was shown the waterfalls of Theed or the Lesser Sarlacc of Dathomir, I was amazed. I recall spending several months just as a tourist (of course, I had a 56k modem when I started playing, so that’s all I really could do). I was so familiar with the things in Galaxies and to this day I still say I belong there. Elorfin Thendt, Commando, at your service.
Something that definitely contributes to the sense of belonging in games (especially online ones) is the guild. It may be called by different names (kinships in LOTRO, fleets in Star Trek Online), but guilds are lasting groups of player avatars that allow for a much easier association between players. It encourages trade and group play amongst the guild members and it gives the players something to belong to and work for that is larger than themselves. In Galaxies, I belong to the guild Remnants of Mandalore and whenever I log in (which is less frequently than I’d like) I’m always welcome. I’ve been a member of ROM for almost two years now and I’ve never had a chance to regret it.
I suppose it’s a draw for a game to be set in a familiar world. Where the player is dropped into an existing world that they’ve experienced somehow, somewhere before. I was excited when I heard about Star Trek Online coming out. I wasn’t so much about Tabula Rasa (rest in peace). I’m looking forward to Star Wars: The Old Republic and Stargate Worlds, but not so much The Exiled Realm of Arborea (TERA) or Black Prophecy. That’s not to say I won’t give the ones I’m not exactly looking forward to a try later on, but I suppose I’m just a big fan of the stuff I know already. Games that players get to participate in a familiar setting tend to do a bit better than original settings with no connections to other things. I’ve played several games that define standalone (pretty much every Final Fantasy game fits there, with the only real connection being the title of the game and maybe some of the connected themes like crystals or a guy named Cid who makes airships or a boss named Gilgamesh) but I’ve also played a lot of franchise games. Of course, belonging to a franchise doesn’t mean the game is going to be good (most Star Trek games are way too difficult to be any fun and some Star Wars games are just terrible) but at least they have something going for them to get more copies out to more players.
Still, like picking up a favorite book or listening to a song I used to overplay, some games just have that sense of familiarity and belonging that I love. A warm sensation that says I should stick around a while, pull up a chair, have a drink, and go on another adventure. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.
I recently picked up an old educational game I used to play as a kid: Super Solver’s Midnight Rescue. Holy crap it’s an educational game with playability! Playing it now, I’m fascinated with how simple yet how captivating the game was. It is a SMART game and it is a FUN game even today. I remembered how to play right away and I remembered what I was doing. It was fantastic. I picked this game up after not playing it for something like 20+ years and I did pretty darn well.
Anyways, I’m going to leave you there. I’m intrigued by this Black Prophecy game (plus the trailer they have is cool), so I’m going to check that out (I registered for the Closed Beta while writing this). It’s probably an EVE Online clone, but I’m still interested in seeing what they’ve got going on.
Until next time, cultivate that sense of familiarity!
P.S. “Familiarity is the thing — the sense of belonging. It grants exemption from all evil, all shabbiness” – E.B. White