Comedy in MMOs

You may know that I love humor. I’m not particularly funny myself, despite attempting to be almost constantly, but I really do appreciate comedy. That is also the case when it comes to playing any game, be it massively multiplayer or otherwise. However, I think some games tend to go overboard. There is a line in comedy that should only be crossed by a certain type of game, and even then it should be moderated.

The line I draw in the sand is overt real world references, particularly if they are rooted in pop culture or current events. In World of Warcraft, I think Haris Pilton with the Tinkerbell wolf pet is simply too much. It’s too overt. And, in 5 years, it may very well be completely unfunny to most people (or completely lost as a joke). That kind of comedy is easy to abuse, and just as easy to come up with. Not to mention, I don’t actually find it funny in the first place in the context of most games.

But, I can appreciate real world references if they are a little more obscure and they don’t knock you over the head. Case in point, there is a plane crash in Nagrand that has snakes in it. Yeah, Snakes on a Plane. That, if I do say so, is friggin’ hilarious. If you don’t get it, it’s still contextual to the world. If you do get it, it’s funny as hell.

That said, using too much humor that has roots in the real world is still a no-no in my opinion. Even though it can be funny, it can also rip a player right out of the world. If this happens too frequently, it can be quite detrimental to a player’s experience, especially in an MMO with a world that players are supposed to be immersed in.

Not to mention, every time a designer proves how clever he is by putting in a real world reference, other designers will follow suit or try to one-up the other references, and your game can end up one giant silly fest that has almost as much to do with the real world as it does the world you’ve created.

Hell, I’ve been guilty of it myself. If you talk to a drunken barbarian in a little tavern in EverQuest II’s Antonica, you may notice a string of replies that include “Huh,” “What,” and “No.” Yeah (oh, that one too), straight out of Chappelle’s Show. It may have been obscure enough to not interrupt gameplay, but it’s still an example of something that should be used sparingly.

Overt real world references or abundant obscure real world reference can work for some games, I guess. To each game its own. I just prefer not to have too much of it.

What I do like, however, is game-world-contextual humor. A great example of this from WoW is Griftah. He sells shady, mostly useless goods and has for quite some time. Mostly useless in that the things he sells allow you to jump, return to your body upon death, swim, or do other things you can already do or have no use for whatsoever (like protection from Tikbalangs, which don’t exist). He hawks his wares and generally being a silly nuisance. In patch 2.2, he got exiled from the city, and was later let back in in 2.3. That’s a terrible description of why it’s funny, so click the link.

The problem with making humor that is contextual to the game world is that it’s not nearly as easy to do as referencing the real world. It takes more finesse to come up with good ways to do this, and you can’t really rely on people reading lines of text for something to be funny. Situational or character-based comedy is definitely possible, and is definitely a great idea, but not all of us have a gift for it.

There are many other types of comedy that can be used as well, but I’m generally not very good at any of them. Slapstick comedy is possible in an MMO with all of the animations we have. You can even have cultures or factions making fun of each other. And, I’m sure you can find ways to use dark comedy, parody, and all those other forms of comedy in a game if you’re smart enough.

One of the coolest things that I think you can do to inject comedy into a game is observe player behavior and the evolving subculture of your game, then use it as a tool for comedy. For example, if gnome players tend to get naked and dance around your auction house, drop a line on a nearby NPC like, “I’ve seen about 500 too many naked dancing gnomes in my time. I think it’s making me go blind!” Every major update, increase that number a little bit, and maybe you can even make the character go blind some day. If I saw that in a game, I’d think it was hilarious, especially if I had seen naked gnomes dancing by the auction house or been one myself.

But, be careful not to admit that it’s a game. Don’t use game terms. In your world, do NPC’s know what a “train to zone” is? If they don’t, they shouldn’t ever mention them. So, an extremely bad version of my above example could be, “Why do so many gnome players unequip all their gear and /dance? It makes me want to log off!” No NPC should ever say that unless your game intentionally has no fourth wall to break.

What all this amounts to is that I love comedy in games and I think it’s appropriate to use in just about any world, from fantasy to sci-fi, from western to horror, in the appropriate situation and with the appropriate frequency. If the game is supposed to be dramatic, heroic, and fantastically epic, it shouldn’t have comedy at every corner or it will just get annoying (likewise, it shouldn’t be dramatic at every corner, or that can wear people out). In most games, real world references should be used sparingly, and overt hit-you-over-the-head real world references should rarely, if ever, be used in a majority of MMOs.

All that said, each game is different. One of the strengths of a game like World of Warcraft is its comedy. In my opinion, one of its weaknesses is the overuse of overt real world references, but some would disagree with me. Some other games would be just fine being funny throughout, even referencing the real world constantly. Other games should never overtly reference the real world, and should rarely, if ever, make obscure references to the real world. It all has to do with the tone and feel of the game and world.

In all games, I believe there’s a little room for comedy, even if it’s not the kind that makes you laugh out loud, and even if it isn’t terribly frequent (think of the LotR movies. Things like Gimli talking about dwarfs being good sprinters or the hobbit comments about second breakfast are funny because they are infrequent and entirely contextual).

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