The heat death of the digital universe

For a while, I was a Final Fantasy XI addict. My equipment was top-notch, my White Mage and Bard fully levelled, and I could navigate Vana’diel better than my hometown. As an officer in a successful “linkshell”, I endured and mediated the drama that competitive internet anonymity creates, and made some good friends along the way. I even shifted my body clock for a week to complete the infamous Chains of Promathia missions with my East Coast buddies. However, the urge to spend time on other pursuits—namely design—eventually grew too strong, and in 2005 I donated my precious equipment, embarked on a suicidal tour of the game’s most difficult foes, and logged off for the final time.

Last month, unable to suppress my curiosity, I briefly rejoined FFXI.

Although the game’s mechanics are largely unchanged, the designers have given belated thought to the beginners’ experience. The fearsome learning curve has been softened thanks to a tutorial, benevolent sprites to help newbies in distress and new trials to allow players to gain their first few levels quickly. No doubt spurred by customer retention metrics, the game’s designers have tried to create a more enjoyable newcomer experience.

Their attempts have failed.

Designers of MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) provide the game mechanics such as the architecture of the game world, the appearance and behaviour of enemies, and rules for movement and combat. But the primary architecture of an MMO is social. While game design provides the initial impetus to explore and level up, the thirst for experience points soon dries up without social context. FFXI’s original design acknowledges this, and encourages player collaboration by rewarding efficient party-based levelling. Thus a new player is quickly thrown into a social world, meeting other players with whom they can explore team-based missions and, finally, “endgame” content such as defeating Notorious Monsters. The fundamental premise of player versus AI foe continues all the way to the highest levels, but teamwork is essential at all times. Even the endgame reward system is socialised, as many boss battles only reward players with raw materials that must then be synthesised by another player. Value is created largely by users—all the game designers can do is trickle currency and items into the system and watch as they are bought, sold and reconfigured. The game outside of combat becomes largely an exercise of socioeconomics and commerce, with markets rife with inflation and deflation, supply and demand, and sharing of resources among clans and friends.

Although there is intrinsic reward in defeating a formidable opponent, social capital is the driving force in endgame play. Defeating Notorious Monsters grants players a title visible to all. Members of exclusive endgame linkshells, who hunt these monsters, wear their allegiance like a badge of honour. Even altruistic acts like raising fallen colleagues help to build reputation in the eyes of others.

In 2005, I was part of this world of interaction, rivalry and friendship. But almost all of my friends have now quit FFXI (endgame play tries your patience after a while), meaning this social incentive is missing from the game today. The shared exploration of the early days—such as being the first on our server to discover, and quixotically attack, Cerberus—has long gone.

FFXI is now a lonely experience for the new player. Experienced players hang around in ever-expanding high-level areas, where they can mingle with players of equal experience and trade endgame equipment. As a lowly level 14 character, these areas were off-limits. I was never once invited to join a levelling party and, since I kept my elite history concealed, established players assumed I had little of value to tell them. Instead of a social experience—a community bonding around the rules of the game—FFXI now feels joyless and isolated. For all their attempts to improve the newcomer’s experience of the game itself, the designers can do little to improve the social experience.

Virtual worlds in their dotage

Square Enix won’t want to lose the revenue from a relatively successful game, and have just appointed a new director to guide the game’s future development. But with a sequel just days away, new players are no longer the focus, minor gestures aside. Instead, the designers will continue to support the endgame activities of their existing, committed userbase. The time investment and social capital these players have built up will mean some keep their accounts, but many FFXI players will soon migrate to the sequel. I expect that FFXI will therefore implode in the foreseeable future. As resources are poured into the sequel, development of new content will cease, and eventually the maintenance costs will exceed revenue. Vana’diel will die, taking with it the memories and stories that took place within its territories.

(If a tree falls in an uninhabited digital forest, does it play a sound file?)

FFXI has had remarkable longevity, but the game is no longer fit for new players. In concentrating on endgame activity, the designers have (perhaps deliberately) caused the social architectures around low-level play to vanish. Where new players once experienced a rich world of social value, economics and interaction, they are now left with a mere game of player against environment.

Digital environments undergo an ageing process more aggressive than mere erosion. This ageing is not caused by the degradation of the environment, which stays as faithfully preserved as at its creation. Instead, the value of our digital worlds is eroded by relative decrepitude. Our games, our websites, our interfaces are soon rendered obsolete by more fully-realised alternatives. Final Fantasy XI loses to Final Fantasy XIV. MySpace loses to Facebook. The lure of the new feature set, the redesign, the higher polygon count is hard to resist. The death of our digital environments—websites, MMOs, operating systems—is inevitable. Entropy always wins.

Perhaps nostalgic sentimentality has no place in our futurist outlook, but in our eagerness to create the new we should consider the human experiences that lie within the walls of our antiquated structures. Designing to conserve experience, perhaps, is the digital industry’s sustainability challenge.

See also: James Bridle—The Value of Ruins at dConstruct 2010.