This is not the review of the anime. For my review on Sword Art Online, click here.
The light novels of Sword Art Online (SAO) is obviously written by a lively gamer. The story contains details that only a wanderer of the virtual worlds can know. The author has also created a virtual world as the setting of the story. Although the interface between the player and the world is through a full virtual reality environment, he still manages to remind us that the characters are in a game with its own limitations and rules. Because the ‘game’ aspect of SAO is so dominant, one can take a step back and look at the game of Sword Art Online and how far it is from reality.
Let me begin by stating that a MMORPG as described in Sword Art Online is flat out impossible to realize in the foreseeable future. Be it on the technical front, the financial front or the ethical front. I know people aren’t dumb, but not all people are equally knowledgeable about computers and games. Consider this paragraph to be dedicated to those few. A game like Sword Art Online is just a distant dream.
That said, the world of MMORPGs nowadays does need an ambitious dreamer. The genre has basically come to a standstill with companies just copying each other and making titles that are ridiculously similar. At least companies have learned it the hard way by now; that the amount of MMORPG players were as good as infinite was just the industry being overly optimistic when the genre was still relatively new.
It is quite understandable for developers to want to make their own MMORPG even without innovative ideas and with the odds of financial success against them. The reason is probably that making a MMORPG is equal to creating a virtual world with the players as your citizens. The idea of something like that is pretty exciting, accompanied with lack of expertise, ideas and a positive financial outlook, this is probably the reason why so many virtual worlds are almost devoid of the citizens the developers were hoping for.
I too, have a dream of designing a MMORPG someday. However I do realize that my ideas are probably just as unrealistic as SAO’s. Still, that doesn’t mean some game features of SAO can’t be implemented in some way in the real world. At the very least they can be used as inspiration. Let’s go through the details of the imaginative game called Sword Art Online.
Full Virtual Reality System
Sword Art Online is played with a helmet called NerveGear, which intercepts all signals from your brain to the rest of your body and converts them to input for whatever you’re playing. This way, your real body won’t run into a wall while you’re trying to get away from a rampaging slime. This all supposedly happens using small radio waves. Sensory information are also fed back to your brain in more or less the same way.
I do believe medical sciences will make a breakthrough in the near future about how our brain works. Although even if the technology of manipulating our brain to this extent exists, one can only be frightened when you know you can’t move your real body while using such device. You will be completely relying on the technology itself to get back to the real world. So even if a mad scientist decided to produce these things, I doubt it will be accepted by the masses…at least not in the upcoming decades.
Conquering the Floating Castle of Aincrad
Sword Art Online takes place in a floating castle called Aincrad that consists of 100 floors. On each floor there is a city, hunting fields, smaller towns and a boss dungeon that connects the current floor to the next. Players start at the bottom of the castle at floor 1 with the goal of clearing every floor of the castle, reaching the 100th floor and defeating the final boss. Reaching the city of the next floor will enable players to freely teleport to that city from any other city.
In the above description of SAO, one can find one fundamental difference between SAO and real-world MMORPGs. Simply put, SAO is a MMORPG that can be cleared. When was the last time you saw a MMO like that?
Although this is certainly achievable in the real world, developers design their games to be infinitely extensible, so that they can keep hauling in the cash as long as they want. MMOs are expensive to make and creating a logical end to the game will certainly impact the financial balance. However, I still think MMOs with a clearing condition can be made while still being profitable.
Another striking feature of the objective of SAO is that all players are encouraged to work together to clear the game. In most MMOs, you play for the benefits of yourself, your party, your guild, your nation or your alliance. But never have I seen a MMO where all players help each other to progress through the game. This allows the roles you might find in a party or in a guild to expand to a much larger scale, creating a different gameplay experience altogether.
Sword Skills and System Assist
Even though one is allowed to swing his/her sword the way they want in SAO, one can also initiate pre-made offensive skills called ‘Sword Skills’. To use one, a player strikes a predetermined pose for a certain skill. Upon releasing the skill, the system will take over the control of the player’s character to make a superhuman movement. This latter part is called System Assist.
Even without the limitations of our physical bodies doesn’t make you a sword master. Our brains has limitations too, so a little help is required to still make those supernatural things game characters are capable of. Swords Skills and System Assist are actually logical ways to make the game not only easier, but also more awesome.
Without SAO’s virtual reality system, this is actually still doable to some extent. Like using a Wii-controller of some sorts to strike the pose. Of course, the recognition algorithm must be solid and of course, current technology aren’t that accurate. Even more advanced hardware and algorithms are needed to properly recognize random swings. And here I haven’t even mentioned computation power and how to visualize these movements without the character looking like some marionette.
Dead = Dead, I’m serious
In the story of Sword Art Online, dying the game means dying in the real world. Period.
A not very original plot device, but I’m not reviewing the show at the moment. Let’s think about this for a while. I don’t even have to mention that connecting deaths in virtual worlds with deaths in the real world is against ethics. I doubt many would want to play such a game either.
But dead = dead isn’t that uncommon as a feature in the virtual worlds themselves. Diablo has a hardcore mode in which you you lose everything, including your character upon death. The characters in Fire Emblem die permanently for the duration of your playthrough if you let them get killed in any mission. These game features force the player to take a playing style with less risks and more safety nets, instead of just doing something and see what happens.
The problem with something like this in MMOs is however, that players spend a lot of time to build a character. It becomes less of just virtual data, but some kind of virtual belonging of the player. This is all the more evident when players start to sell items or characters for real money. With that in mind, a rule that states that if you die, you lose all the things you spent so long to gather is rather unfair to the player.
If one still wants to implement such a feature though, one can think of a death penalty that involves the player not being able to use the character for some period of time; say a week. Such a penalty is already enough for a player to weigh in the risks very seriously. It creates a world where death has more meaning.
Of course, there are many more aspects to the world that Sword Art Online describes, but those features are either quite similar to reality or aren’t that interesting to talk about.
A lot of players nowadays play MMORPGs as if they’re a single player game where you can see other players walking around. It’s not how the genre in general should be played and the way solo players are looked down upon in SAO reflects this idea.
With the above points, I think Sword Art Online created an idealistic MMORPG, where all aspects of what we are familiar of there, but still with that little more spice to make the experience all the more richer by emphasizing on the community. Role-playing on the scale of a whole player base, how cool is that?
Hey developers, one copy of Sword Art Online please!