Game Balance: Designed structure and consumer agency in an online game
Massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) attract millions of people every year and are now a major industry. Using the internet, these games connect players and give them goals to pursue within virtual worlds. This thesis examines the early life of one such game, the North American version of TERA, based on participant observation on a player vs. player server. TERA’s players met and interacted within a virtual game world controlled by the company which developed the game, and although players constructed their own social groups and factions within this world they were constrained by software that they could not change. Everything from the combat rules to the physics of the environment was designed, and players could only take actions that were accounted for and allowed by that design. However, TERA launched as one of many available MMORPGs which were competing for the attention of the same audience. Its players tended to be experienced and well-informed about the genre, and used their knowledge to evaluate and critique TERA both privately and in public forums. Aware that game companies’ chief concern was for profit, players exercised agency by embracing a consumer identity and pressuring developers in their own commercial terms. To retain players’ loyalty and continue receiving their fees, companies were obliged to appease their customers. This allowed players to see the game world develop and change in accordance with their desires despite the fact that they lacked the access or the expertise to change it themselves. I link this approach to agency to the rise of consumer movements in capitalist societies, and show how the virtual world of TERA can serve as an example for other situations in the physical world where contemporary technologies are used to both enable and constrain agency.