Prognosticating the MMO the Mouse Built
I love Disney. Not the company, which is increasingly reaching to foul and loathesome depths in its push to get marketoys into the hands of little girls. Not even the man, though obviously he was a person to respect. I love Disney the gestalt, the overall combination of customer service, ambition, creativity and innovation that lets places like the happiest place on earth exist. Their Walt Disney World resort in particular is fascinating, a microcosm of a country all within the space of a few former swampy marshes.
Particularly engaging is the idea that - in almost every way - Disney is the ultimate MMO developer. Though their forays into the genre have been tentative so far, the house of mouse is poised to be the designer of the happiest places on meta-earth as well.
It should be noted, first and foremost, that the company is already very interested in getting gamers on-board. Though their closure of Virtual Magic Kingdom may have left fans of that space disappointed, they’re pushing forward on a number of fronts. ToonTown Online and Pirates of the Caribbean Online are already established entities in this space, but there’s even more here. Disney folks have been showing up in droves to game conferences. There have been buyouts, announced plans, and numerous rumors. They’ve even publicly let slip the fact that they view gamers as a growing population - ripe for co-opting.
The people Disney should be turning to when they want to craft a virtual world are the same people they consult when they want remake our own: the Imagineers. In truth, Disney’s well-known group of theme park designers, artisans, and builders are probably the single greatest world-building team on the planet. Their numerous disciplines are meshed just so, and you can already see their results in the greatest Massively Multiplayer Offline Game ever built: Walt Disney World.
Disney has always been skilled at creating new concepts, not just stories or individual products. Anybody can do that. Disney concepts a brand before it does anything. It takes strong products and turns them into far more than that. The amorphous concept of the Princess, for example, is now a lifestyle choice among a certain segment of young women. In the same way we’ve seen World of Warcraft become a board game, card game, miniatures game, and clothing line, Disney would leverage a game world into every home in America. The folks who taught us to love colored movies might just make gamers out of all of us.
Theming and branding are two very different things. A brand is a line of products or services. A theme is the coating on the outside of whatever it is you’re branding. The WDW park is best known for theming in line queues. Visit any given park attraction and you’ll be wrapped into its ‘story’ long before you set foot in a ride mobile. Whether it’s the crazy imagery on the outside of the Muppet Show building or the banking planes just outside Soarin’, Disney knows how to pull you in. Just imagine an MMO where they actually pay attention to the little details. One aside from World of Warcraft, of course.
World of Warcraft's theming is legendary. Originating in the launch game's polish, players cheered at little touches like the plaques in the IronForge Explorer's Guild or the far-seeing orb in the Tower of Azora. The modern game offers even more highly developed tweaks, like a quest that has you going back in time just to beat someone up and steal their hat or the ongoing construction presaging the upcoming expansion. A Disney MMO could take this to the Nth level, offering the degree of verisimilarity the designers of Warhammer Online are currently hoping to obtain in their capital cities. The key here is that this appearance of reality would be only as deep as would be needed to prop up the fantasy - just as in the theme parks, where false fronts project an image of high adventure or far-off lands.
Flow is all about crowd control. Not the game mechanic kind, where the Warlock keeps the second monster at bay while you kill the first. The actual physical movement of people (or, online, avatars) from point A to point B is a damned tricky project to tackle. Engineers have spent billions working to get the flow right at Disney World, and they’re still working to get that perfect frission just so. In an online space this background would translate into well-designed player cities, and an intrinsic understanding of how a zone should be laid out. No more running back and forth for you.
Each and every one of Disney’s attractions is about one single core concept. An Elemental idea that - almost always - is conveyed effortlessly by a given ride. Even just walking through the theming is likely to prepare you for a ride’s central element. Space mountain rockets you through a trippy version of ‘space’, for example, while the Rock’n’Rollercoaster is all about basically crawling inside music. In an MMO, think of each game subsystem as a ride. The ‘crafting’ ride would convey one thing and one thing alone to the player. What we know about Warhammer’s crafting is probably the best example of this: it’s all about utility, nothing more.
A given, right? MMOs are all about people getting along and having a good time? Just throw them all online together and a community will form? In fact, there are precious few games out there that are doing a good job with this. Disney exudes community from the moment you step on property to the moment you see the waving Mickey hand. Employees are friendly, encouraging others to do the same. Paths and sitting areas are arranged to offer spontaneous chatting opportunities, and there’s nothing like getting to know the guy next to you as you scream through the Tower of Terror’s drops. Even just the term Disney uses to refer to employees - “Cast Members” - speaks volumes about how they view their jobs.
Even if you’ve had a terrible experience in a Disney park, I’d be willing to bet you left smiling. The reason is insidious: Cast Members at Disney are nice. And not the polite-but-secretly-hating-you-nice we’ve grown to expect from the retail industry. They’re really, really nice. Everybody smiles at you, greets you with respect, holds doors for you, and generally goes above and beyond the call of service every chance they get. MMO companies fail utterly at this right now. Even ‘the good ones’ only have good customer service in comparison to other MMO companies. It seems sort of straight-forward that a hacking and the deletion of a much-loved avatar is a moment for “people skills”, but generally the response is somewhere just north of “you deserved it, lolz.”
The ideal MMO for the Imagineers to craft would take the best parts of the Disney World concept and translate it into a living, breathing world. Why not have multiple 'themes' all within one world? Really explore them, rather than just having 'zone props' as we so often see. Instead of the "snow zone", give us activities, quests, and challenges that really pit players against an arctic environment. In "DesertLand", have us riding camel mounts and interacting with ancient cultures.
Disney is going to make a truly standout MMO someday. It already runs a pretty convincing one in the southern half of Florida. The park even abbreviates like an MMO: WDW. Whether you’re a fan of the mouse or hate every order Walt’s preserved head has given since the 50s, it’s hard to deny they have the chops for the virtual world racket. It just remains to be seen what virtual ‘adventureland’ they deliver us.