From Dennou Coil to SAO: We’ve Gone Post HCI

Technology moves really fast, especially in areas where there is a lot of economic incentive to innovate. HCI stuff, big time. But it wasn’t too long ago that science fiction begin to imagine what it would be like in the next “dimension”; the orthogonal turn from linear improvement of, say, how fast and power computers are, but to how these faster and more powerful computers enable things that we cannot even dream of doing before. For example, AI is one of those very staple thing, but mimicking intelligence is as old as when the first monkey learned from mimicking the next. None of these forefathers were big about, say, streaming from the cloud. Or being able to torrent to dropbox. Or be able to control sex toys via USB.

The reality of the situation is that, well, reality has long since caught up to fiction. When Google demoed their skydiving glasses (go to 1:27:00 or so) during this past Google I/O, the only thing missing was Densuke. The reality was that wearable visual augmentation hooked up to a computer with network capabilities was something that was around since I was in undergrad, and that was a long ass time ago. It was just a problem of how practical you can make it, and figure out what the heck people would use it for. I think Brin & co is still working on that.

So what does fiction do when reality has caught up to it? In Japan’s case, you make a moe heroine and pour some kind of white, viscous fluid on her, using this new technology. Yep!

Well, entertainment and fanservice aside, I think Sword Art Online approaches the whole virualized reality thing by playing on the experiences of hardcore MMORPG gamers. And by that I mean games like UO, EQ or FFXI, and by that I mean definitely not WoW, although WoW probably gives players enough of an in given how similar that was to those two games. While it probably isn’t the first anything to build on some kind of new HCI paradigm, SAO is the first one that I know which builds on the newly introduced concepts that came with the advent of MMORPG.

By definition, MMORPGs are constructs that are significantly different than their historical, single-player-offline sort of deal. Compare that to, say, Dennou Coil’s Densuke or thermonuclear beard war, people probably have an easier time imagining dealing with the mechanics of SAO (the game) than having to walk Densuke everyday, even if we do walk our dogs and what not. There’s just too much of a gap between walking your dog versus walking your virtual dog that lives in your glasses; or rather, since we have no idea how it walking your virtual dog, we can only think of it like walking with a real dog. On the other hand, we can imagine a virtual reality WoW experience easily, and it is nothing like actual WoW.

(The point I want to make by excluding games like WoW is because I get the feeling SAO is created by someone who has realized how punishing and annoying some of these games are. And WoW is basically the polar opposite of punishing. The whole exclusive, “leet” streak Kirito takes is all too much for me to take seriously without questioning the credentials of what’s at stake, or how this story got to the point it did by episode 3. Soloing in a game means different things if you grew up with FFXI versus, say, any WoW and post-WoW games, let’s just say.)

Anyway, I think it would be interesting to see if SAO is indeed pulling from the viewer/reader’s experience to construct the emotional context that the story takes place. It certainly is considered otaku material, so we do have that going. If we contrast SAO with Accel World, I feel that connection is the biggest difference between the two. In SAO you feel like playing a MMORPG (albeit in a very chuu2 way); in Accel World it feels like just another chuu2-shounen manga formula.

PS. You know SAO is otaku lit when the game is populated largely by guys. In reality more women play MMORPGs than any other types of games! At least, in the west.

16 Responses to “From Dennou Coil to SAO: We’ve Gone Post HCI”

  • NegativeZero

    I actually have a massive problem getting into SAO. It’s so far utterly failed to suspend my sense of disbelief, and I think a lot of it is because I’m coming from the perspective of a programmer who has dabbled in game development, and also an MMO player since back when MMOs were MUDs. There’s a lot of things in the actual premise which don’t seem to make sense for me. An MMO that launches with only ~11k players, yet everyone seems to be talking about it? Seems very conservative to me, I’d expect a factor of ten more even given the presumably expensive hardware requirement. The amount of current draw required to fry someone’s brain instantly with microwaves (the instant the helmet is removed) would normally be beyond what most household electrical systems would allow without immediately tripping a breaker or burning out a fuse, and that’s assuming it’s powered via mains power and not via a connection to the computer. The game is presented as having been the creation of a single person, yet the scope of it appears to be enormous (it takes months for players to even find the first raid boss?) and highly detailed, the sort of thing that would take an army of artists and developers decades to build, and I have trouble believing there would be an organization that big where no one would notice all the ‘world’s most elaborate trap’ code in there, and would be unable to simply issue a well-coordinated hotfix to allow the players back out. The assumption is that such a team would need to all be in on it. Just seems far-fetched to me.

    The MMO structure they seem to have built seems really off to me too, though it is nice to think maybe in the future the genre will break free of the Tank-Heals-DPS ‘Holy Trinity’. Maybe it’s a fault of the adaption rather than the source material (I don’t read light novels) but what it feels like to me is a story written by someone who has observed and read about MMOs but not actually played many of them. Some of the mechanics are right, but some just seem completely off to me. Like the concept that the game has an ending. MMOs don’t have an ending. That’s baked into the whole design, right back to early MUDs.

    So yeah, I just can’t get into it. It’s not a bad show by any stretch, but it keeps on throwing up things which are subtly off and throwing me out again.

    • NegativeZero

      That said, I really hope the Google Glass thing comes off because I’d much rather live in the Dennou Coil future than the Sword Art Online future. Augmented Reality is awesome.

    • omo

      I agree with a lot of your criticisms. The gender ratio bit falls right in there. Actually, the only thing I don’t disagree with you is the ending thing. MUDs and MMORPGs can build progression, and anything that has progression has an ending. The nature of the MMORPGs is that it is extensible, as long as it is being extended it will not end. But of course, if it isn’t extended then it could.

      Also, this is why I keep saying chuu2, because it is.

    • NegativeZero

      I suppose if you consider the game to be less of an MMO and more of a persistent multiplayer-focused RPG then some of the game elements might make more sense. Sword Art Online: When Diablo 3 Hardcore Mode just isn’t Hardcore enough.

      And yes, it’s very chuu2.

  • vendredi

    I do agree that SAO takes more from FFXI than World of Warcraft at the end of the day. There aren’t that many differences in the genre, but it certainly feels like “eastern” developers do tend to emphasize different things than “western” developers.

    I think WoW’s big difference is that it’s become less of a world and more of an amusement park, in the sense that you can queue up for your ride (i.e. dungeon), get in the cart with a bunch of random feature (automated matchmaking), and off you go for X minutes.

    • omo

      Amusement park is a good analogy for WoW and other more narrative-focused games. Actually that describes SWTOR in a nutshell.

      Times like this it makes me wonder if Japan played Eve online, what will happen?

  • Taka

    Hi, veteran 6 year WoW player here until I quit in 2010. After I watched episode 2 I read the side story that it was adapted from to see what all the hub-bub was about and…I had many, many flashbacks to the days of early WoW. I can agree the criticism that SAO is not like WoW as it exists today but is it like Vanilla wow? Hell yes. From the drama surrounding loot to the possibility of a raid wipe situation all of it seemed eerily familiar. The entire thrust of the story reminded me of trying to PuG Upper Blackrock Spire. So in that sense omg I had so many flashbacks of things I thought I had forgotten from my early early wow days. I can’t say the show made me feel the same way but that one novel I read, good lord. I’m afraid to read the others because they might make me want to play wow again.

    • omo

      Vanilla WoW is still a child’s play, sorry. Death means nothing in that game and the hardest part was wrangling 40 people doing some of the more complicated rooms. Which is just the minimum threshold for raid in FF11 and possibly even EQ. Just for the record I used to play WoW too, but mostly from late Vanilla to end of BC. Was part of the beta but kind of gave up about a few months into the game proper.

    • Taka

      To be fair death is meaningless in any MMO when compared to SAO where you actually die. As far as I know they haven’t created a real MMO like that.

    • omo

      Well it’s an extreme case, but:
      Hardcore mode in Diablo 2/3–if you die you lose the character entirely.
      In FFXI and EQ, you’re always a hair’s breadth away from death, which usually involves a 30-minute corpse run plus loss of like 3-10% exp. Which in those games, means you lost about a few hours of grinding.

      Where as in WoW it’s pretty much, in the raid case, a short run back to where you wiped and a couple gold (which is worth next to nothing even back when I was playing).

    • Taka

      Yeah I played Diablo II for awhile but I still don’t think you can equate death in real life even with permanent player character death.

      For that matter almost nothing I read in the light novel reminded me of the Diablo II style because minus the dungeons it seems largely quest based for leveling. Which to me screams WoW. I’m sure it’s not unique to have exclamation points signify available quests but the resonance for me at least is with WoW. Also in the side story Kirito follows Argo out to some obscure location to learn how she got her whiskers that also triggered various WoW based flashbacks of NPCs in obscure locations.

    • omo

      If by wow you mean like every single MMORPG that’s before wow and far majority of them after wow, then yeah. Everything you’ve brought up was present in the 1997 UO game, the first graphical MMORPG. I think later on even over-head display on NPCs?

      I’m trying to point out how SAO is actually very much NOT like WoW because it is the polar opposite in certain regards, and much closer to games like FFXI or EQ. The sense of danger is much higher, the “unknown” frontier actually often a real deal. Of course, there have been no game where you die while dying in it, but there have been some cases of people dying playing MMORPG and the like (certainly D3). In that sense it’s kind of like WoW (which probably has the highest kill count simply because the newbie players that makes up the huge install base).

    • Taka

      I know what you were doing. I was disagreeing. But I’ve exhausted my argument and haven’t played any ancient MMOs so I’m merely commenting on my reaction to the LN. When I first encountered WoW all that unknown frontier stuff was the real deal for me.

    • omo

      Fair enough. Your first love is always your first love after all. The sense of wonder of MMORPGs is partly what draws the large crowd of people that play these games today, whichever one that it is.

      Those feelings include, sadly, the whole hair-line-away-from death feel that you just don’t get from WoW.

  • jpmeyer

    If Japan played EVE Online, everyone would form a queue at common griefing locations and each person would grief one ship that passed into that sector, then head to the back of the line and wait until it’s their turn to grief a new ship.

    Also, lololololol hotly anticipated game where people need to camp out overnight for days in order to get it which ultimately sells…a few thousand copies.

    (I wish that this anime were like Infinite Ryvius meets the part in Fushigi Yuugi where Miaka’s brother goes looking for her and finds the book. Make it about like say, the police trying to investigate how the brain killing microwave made it through consumer product safety testing undetected, that sort of thing.)

    • omo

      If Japan played EVE Online, everyone would form a queue at common griefing locations and each person would grief one ship that passed into that sector, then head to the back of the line and wait until it’s their turn to grief a new ship.


      You are not the only person who wants to see SAO played out outside of the game. It could be really cool.

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