Ready Player One’s OASIS offers an exciting vision of immersive virtual reality gaming, but the film’s universe is hampered by a rule set that would likely make it a lot less fun to play than it is to watch.
OASIS is a virtual reality space filled with hundreds of worlds that encompass all sorts of gaming activities, as well as nongaming spaces for socialization and commerce. It’s more than a game; it’s a platform like Steam or Xbox Live.
Each person has an avatar with a persistent inventory of all the wealth, items, special artifacts and movie references they’ve collected over the course of their various adventures in OASIS. But they drop all their stuff, lose all their progress and must start over as a level 1 scrub if they are killed.
The same rule set governs the entire platform. Imagine if you lost your collection of Hearthstone cards whenever you died in Overwatch, and that’s basically OASIS.
Ready Player One’s rules provide tension and drama for the scenes set in the film’s virtual reality spaces, while mirroring the rules of 1980s-era arcade and console games, which made players restart from the beginning if they ran out of lives. But the stakes in OASIS are much higher than anything we’re accustomed to dealing with in actual games, and much higher than anything most players would likely find fun.
By looking at how real games punish players for failure, we can imagine how the OASIS rule set might actually work in a space populated by real gamers. It’s easy to see why real games almost never play by such harsh rules.
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Ready Player One.]
How games punish us
One classic game that kills you a lot and punishes failure harshly is Battletoads, Rare’s legendarily difficult 1991 side-scroller for the NES. Its third level is Turbo Tunnel, a jet ski obstacle course. You die if you hit one hurdle or miss a jump, and you only get a few lives before the game is over and you have to start at the very beginning. Not the beginning of the level, but the beginning of the entire game.
That kind of design made sense in an era where memory constraints meant that saving player progress was difficult and most games were limited in their scope and length. Having to start an Atari- or NES-era game over from the beginning is very different from getting kicked back to square one in a game like Destiny or Horizon Zero Dawn. A full playthrough of Battletoads takes less than an hour — if you don’t die.
Forcing players to start over pads a game’s difficulty as well as its length; it’s a lot easier to master something like the Turbo Tunnel gauntlet through repeated trial and error if you don’t have to replay half of a game to take a couple of shots at it. Contemporary games tend to be a lot more thoughtful about how — and how much — they punish players for failing.
The penalty for failure in most modern single-player games is that you must restart from a recent save or checkpoint; you rarely lose more than a few minutes of progress. Games that make failure costly encourage a careful, risk-averse play style, and they raise the stakes on complex or difficult encounters like boss fights. Dark Souls uses this to build tension; if you die, you drop all the currency you’re carrying, and you have to run back to your corpse from a spawn point to retrieve it. If you die again before you get your stuff, the first corpse — and all its loot — disappears.
It feels fair for failure in a game to carry a heavier consequence if failure is an uncommon occurrence, or if it denotes a serious mistake that the game needs to teach the player not to repeat. Games that kill you often and also punish you severely for dying feel unfair, or at least unfun.
How we punish each other
OASIS isn’t a single-player game like Battletoads, however. It’s a multiplayer environment, and penalties for death become more complicated in that setting. It’s no longer the game that is punishing the player; the players are punishing each other. And designers have to carefully design the rule sets that allow this to happen, unless they want to allow some portion of their player base to drive everybody else out.
World of Warcraft has been dealing with this issue for over a decade. Players from opposing factions can kill each other at any time, but only on PvP servers. High-level players can prey on low-level players, and the power difference makes it impossible for the low-level players to fight back.
When you die in World of Warcraft, you respawn at a graveyard as a ghost, and you have to run back to your corpse to resurrect it. The time lost during this task is the punishment for failing. There weren’t many graveyards in the early versions of the game, so the corpse run could take five minutes or more. Killing another player imposed a large time cost on them, which gave griefers all the reason they needed to hunt down other players.
World of Warcraft developer Blizzard Entertainment later added more graveyards, which reduced the time penalty for death and made griefing for its own sake less of a reward.
Some multiplayer games have very high failure costs. Blizzard’s Diablo games feature a “hardcore” mode with permanent death. It’s not terribly popular. In 2012, Blizzard developers told players that 4.1 percent of Diablo 3 characters are created in hardcore mode.
In the spacefaring MMO Eve Online, powerful spaceships can take hundreds of hours to obtain, and since the in-game currency has a real-money exchange rate, the vessels can be “worth” thousands of dollars. When they’re destroyed, they’re gone for good. As a result, Eve players tend to play carefully, but when they don’t, they can suffer spectacular mishaps. A player attempting to transport game-time licenses worth over $1,000 had his ship and all its cargo destroyed by pirates in 2010.
In 2012, thousands of players battled over a key space station location, resulting in the destruction of ships worth over $200,000, including a single advanced Titan capital ship worth over $5,500. These large battles are a feature, not a bug. They create news and lead to more player interest.
Rare’s Sea of Thieves provides a lower-stakes version of the same kind of experience. As players in that game traverse the sea to get their caches of loot back to a shop where they can spend it, other players can attack them and attempt to steal their booty.
The currency in Sea of Thieves can only be used to buy cosmetic improvements, though, and the amounts at stake in ship battles generally don’t exceed players’ earnings from a single play session. Other players can steal your gold if they take your ship, but after an outcry from the community, Rare recently canceled a plan to implement a tax of in-game currency for player death. Sea of Thieves is a lighthearted, fun game. More rules would likely just get in the way.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite have become extremely popular games on streams in part because getting killed results in elimination from the match, a much higher penalty than is typical in traditional multiplayer shooters. Therefore, the firefights have higher stakes.
The high penalty for dying also encourages a more cautious and methodical style of play, and the slower pace is easier for viewers to follow than more kinetic shooters. But while battle royale players drop their stuff for other players to loot when they die, gear in these games doesn’t persist from match to match.
The stakes are high enough to matter, but low enough that players have very little reason to get actively angry. Eve Online is one of the few games that seems to encourage active hostility in players through its systems, in the hopes that pain is turned into a reason for revenge. And players invested in revenge don’t tend to leave the game.
OASIS’ rules would make playing much less fun than it looks
Among all these games, there’s a common thread: With some exceptions like Eve and hardcore Diablo, the harshest penalties for failing in games set you back no more than a couple of hours of progress. There’s usually a reasonable backstop on how much you can lose from a bad decision or a disconnect in the middle of a match. Games limit how much damage other players can do to you.
This is because being punished isn’t fun. Losing your stuff isn’t fun. And while some people enjoy the excitement of taking big risks, there are many gamers who aren’t gamblers. They want their real-world risk to be mediated in a way that makes sense for the game.
The rules of OASIS seem to offer unchecked freedom. The range of things OASIS players can do far exceeds the options available in any current video game, and players can transport weapons, items and artifacts from game world to game world.
However, that freedom is circumscribed by the brutal penalty of losing all your shit anytime you suffer the kind of mishap that is routine in gaming. Early on in the film, the characters Aech, Sho and Daito are introduced while they’re battling to win an artifact in a deathmatch fight that resembles games like Doom or Gears of War. But in a typical shooter deathmatch, even very good players are likely to die a few times in the span of a single short round.
One character in Ready Player One spends all his money on power-ups to chase some prize in a PvP space, only to die and lose everything. This kind of thing is how an entire underclass ends up working off real-world debts in virtual servitude to the villainous IOI corporation.
The film’s heroes believe they are trying to prevent OASIS creator James Halliday’s vision for the OASIS from being corrupted by IOI. But it’s Halliday’s rules for OASIS — which allow players to spend real money on in-game stuff that increases their power but can easily be lost — that allow IOI’s exploitative practices to exist in the first place.
Would you play a battle royale game where the winner gets the chicken dinner, and the other 99 chumps get trafficked into servitude?
In nearly all video games that allow players to inflict death penalties on each other or to mug each other for loot, it’s in service of some gameplay purpose, and it’s usually governed by some concept of fairness. Ganking other players as they try to haul swag out of The Division’s Dark Zone or treasure chests in Sea of Thieves isn’t trolling or griefing — it’s the whole point of the exercise. OASIS doesn’t make its combat or penalties part of a game; with so much at stake, it could never be a game. It’s just robbery and malicious destruction.
At the climax of Ready Player One, the villain’s last resort to stop Parzival from winning the Easter egg hunt is to detonate a bomb that destroys all the players on an entire planet. The bad guys didn’t invent this weapon. Halliday’s OASIS, for some inconceivable reason, contained a bomb that allowed its holder to arbitrarily destroy the persistent characters and inventories of thousands or even millions of other players, without any opportunity for counterplay.
In game design terms, that is bullshit.
And players without IOI’s resources could likely inflict havoc on a smaller scale. You don’t need the holy hand grenade from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to kill a bunch of people in a crowded virtual social space like the nightclub where IOI troopers try to assassinate Parzival; a regular hand grenade will do the job at a fraction of the price, as will a claymore mine or a suicide vest.
In a massively multiplayer game world with a rule set that gives players unlimited freedom and a vast array of options for destroying what others have built, every troll can be a terrorist. This is why there are no video games where you get to take away things people buy on Amazon if you beat them in a virtual street race. Even if it were legal, who the hell would want to play when microtransactions seem unlimited?
OASIS as depicted in Ready Player One is a marvelous technology platform running a game that is unfair, arbitrary and incredibly punishing. James Halliday, a man worth $500 billion who couldn’t figure out how to get a woman to kiss him, evidently didn’t understand the games he was supposed to love any better than he understood romance.