Phasing out ‘multiplayer’ in MMOs

June 3, 2009

Tobold has a post up today talking about direct and indirect social interactions in MMO games. It’s a good read with interesting points, but is a somewhat odd topic to be discussing in a genre with Massive and Multiplayer in its name. Or at least, one would think it would be.

Simple test: How much of your current MMO would still be possible if you were the only player on the server? What would remain unchanged, what would be different, and what would be impossible?

Now, create a list of your personal top 5 MMO moments.

For me at least, my top 5 are impossible without other players, and actually have little to do with game mechanics and far more with who was there. In addition to that, what I look for in an MMO is directly related to other players (PvP, working economy/crafting, group PvE, player-driven stories), and while I still partake and enjoy the more solo aspects (solo PvE, harvesting or other character development activities), I only enjoy them in the context of the virtual world and the competition/environment it brings. My time in DarkFall is reduced currently not because the game itself changed, but because soon we will be moving to a new server and what happens between now and then ‘does not matter’. It mattered when I knew my actions today would influence future events both for myself and others. It’s just pixels, but when those pixels ‘count’, it’s a lot more motivating and fun to continue, which for me is the huge separation between the MMO genre and non-persistent games.

To get back on point, it’s both disappointing and understandable that the mass market section of the MMO genre is moving towards the ‘single player online game’, where logging in is just a formality (and excuse to charge $15 a month or open an RMT shop), and the majority of a players actions are done within his/her own little bubble.

It’s disappointing because the ‘it’ moments in an MMO are not based around cleverly scripted instances or great quest content, but rather in sharing whatever accomplishment you and others have worked for and finally reaching that goal together. Traditionally the ‘game’ part of an MMO has been mediocre at best (hence the term ‘grind’ and not ‘gameplay’), with the obvious selling point being that this mediocrity is performed in a living breathing world, and in that setting it goes from mediocre to (if you are a fan of MMOs) as good a gaming experience as you will find. Remove the world aspect, and is it any wonder that the mediocrity begins to show? And while not always the case, why is it that the more time spent trying to improve the ‘game’ aspect of an MMO, the more the ‘world’ aspect is pushed aside or minimized? Is it as simple as saying they are mutually exclusive?

The ‘understandable’ comes in when you look at the mass market and what is required to appeal to it. It has to be ‘accessible’, which means catering to as many people as possible. Or in other words, no focusing on one particular group at the expense of others, and simply trying to gravitate as close as possible to the happy middle. Raiding in WoW was not ‘accessible’ because only those with time to understand and work towards a higher level in the game could experience the content. Of course, in order to make raiding ‘accessible’, Blizzard had to lower the bar, and in turn remove the aspect that the previous group actually enjoyed, the challenge. As other games chase the mass market, one area identified as being a potential ‘problem’ was the reliance on others in a virtual world. As a dev you can’t control other players, and make everyone play nice to get the most out of that dungeon you designed or to player that battleground how you had hoped it would be played. Working with others is a challenge (hence it’s value in the work force), and it’s a challenge ‘the masses’ would rather see removed. In order for the MMO genre to cater to ‘the masses’, MMO devs must deal with the challenge of other players; the current solution seems to be to remove them.

At what point does it become impossible to identify a casual MMO and a single player game with an RMT shop attached to it?


Fans of hype, fans of gaming.

June 2, 2009

Hype in the gaming industry is a form of entertainment all its own, and history has shown that plenty of people LOVE getting wrapped up in the pre-release fanfare. This is not only something that consumes people in their search for information; it can also be big business for those who cater to that crowd.

Remember Diablo II pre-release? The super-slow info leaks from Blizzard, including releasing teaser or outright misleading screenshots? The countless fan sites that literally broke down every single screenshot, dev post, or movie frame by frame? How many mega-sites launched years before D2 was released, feeding on that info frenzy and no doubt making a pretty penny along the way? If you don’t remember it, just follow along as the same thing happens with Diablo III.

That frenzy did not hurt Diablo because, well, Diablo was an amazing game. For all its hype, it lived up to it and more. No backlash from the super fans, and everyone following the game got to play something great, perhaps even enhanced due to all their ‘insider’ knowledge and being able to finally experience what they had been waiting for all those months/years.

Pre-release and post-release are two different phases of a games life cycle, and success in either can lead to some profit, while success in both is not only rare, but also exponentially rewarding. If your hype machine succeeds in selling a ton of people on a pile of crap, and that crap had a modest dev budget, you can still turn a profit even though your actual game failed to ultimately deliver (AoC for example). At the same time, a quality MMO will EVENTUALLY get the attention it deserves; even if it takes a while for word of mouth to spread (EVE is perhaps the best example). And of course the genre’s most famous example, WoW, delivered on both a successful hype machine and a quality game (since ruined by carebears, obviously). The MMO graveyard is littered with failed hype AND failed game examples.

And just like the games themselves have different phases, so do fans. Some people only play the pre-release hype game, jumping from one game to the next, always feeding on the possibility that the next game is going to be ‘the one’, moving on from a previous game a month or so after release because it did not live up to their own self-created vision of what that game should be. Others not only ignore all pre-release hype, but give any MMO a good 3-6 months of post-release time before getting interested, knowing that what is promised or even delivered on day one is NOT going to be the same game 3-6 months later. Between the two extremes is the gray area, where fans might pick a title or two to follow pre-release due to a particular interest, but generally don’t engage in the long, drawn out process of following a project years before release and gobbling up any and all scraps of information.

At the end of the day, regardless of how effective the hype machine was, or how many superfan dreams get crushed at release, a quality title will attract its buyers, and more importantly, deliver a quality gaming experience for its target audience. After all, we are GAMING fans, and not news/hype fans… right?


Puzzle Kingdoms and Sid Meier’s Railroad fill the DF void.

June 1, 2009

With some time opened up due to playing DarkFall for PvP only, I gotten around to playing some other games. It’s been a while since I’ve played a quality turn based strategy game (something like Heroes of Might and Magic), yet checking both Steam and Direct2Drive.com, it seems that drought continues in the industry. King’ Bounty for $20 was an option, but lukewarm reviews drove me away for now (but hey, no one cares about those metacritic rating, right? The one who determine who gets ‘top rated’ standing on Steam/D2D? Yea, zero effect on sales I’m sure).

Before I get into what I did purchase and play, I want to briefly touch on Steam and D2D, as I always hear people talking about how great Steam is, yet I never hear mention of D2D, even though both are very similar IMO. Both run specials which drop games to very attractive prices, both have similar layouts that are easy to navigate and make finding what you are looking for quick, both have a large product offering, and both offer fast downloads for delivery. The one knock I have against Steam is that it needs to run in the background whenever you play a game off it, even a single player game. Most of the time this is a non-issue, but when my internet was acting up, Steam had a real tough time getting itself in offline mode, and a few times ‘thought’ it was running when it was not, making actually using it impossible without a comp restart. D2D on the other hand is a straight download, and all the game codes you need when installing are all stored on the website, making the process a very simple copy/paste job only needed once. After that the game starts up as if you had bought it in a store, and you never have to deal with putting a CD in.

Choice of digital delivery aside, the two games I have been playing recently are Puzzle Kingdom (PK) and Sid Meier’s Railroads (RR). Both games are very much on the casual side, both were cheap ($20 for PK, $10 for RR), PK was off Steam, RR I got from D2D during their 50% off 2K games promotion. I’ve had PK for a few weeks now, while I got RR Saturday.

Puzzle Kingdom is of course the sequel to Puzzle Quest, a game I really enjoyed. It’s similar enough in its base structure of matching colors, but changes up what you power up and how you win each fight. It’s not a ‘bad’ game, but it’s terribly easy even compared to Puzzle Quest. So easy that about halfway through I stopped really trying and just started plowing through the fights to progress the story, which is itself awful and even makes you as the hero look like an ass in certain cut scenes (unintentionally). Oddly enough the most difficult puzzles can be found on the ‘side’ items, getting additional troops or spells/items, while the main quest battles are often laughably easy. PK’s main issue (IMO of course) is that it offers you TOO many options, and so falls into the easy trap of allowing you to create near insta-win combos of troops/spells/items. Another major downside is the lack of multiplayer, short of a thrown together and very poor hotseat option. The ‘minigame’ option is also just each puzzle style offered as a standalone game, but again this is lacking as you get more than enough of each type during the main game, and nothing special is done to spice up the puzzles. It’s tough to really recommend PK, especially when compared to Puzzle Quest, as it just feels like a rushed cash-in on the success of its predecessor. Unless you are dying for exactly what it offers, I would wait for a price cut to $10 or even $5, and pick it up as a quick diversion.

Sid Meier’s Railroads is a game I was interested in when it original came out, but after some time with the demo, never got around to actually purchasing. At $10 on D2D, it was an easy grab, and initially I though it was going to be a quick play and forget as it seemed rather easy/pointless at the lower and mid difficulty settings (2/10 score at this point using the EG scale). I’m happy with it currently however once I turned it up to the highest difficulty setting. Going so high up the difficulty setting was a bit surprising for me considering Sid’s other games, especially Civilization, are a solid challenge at the mid levels, and are downright scary/cheap at the highest settings. Once the challenge issue was addressed, the true details of RR come out and you realize behind the cartoony (but good quality) graphics and setting is a decently deep strategy game that rewards forward thinking and takes advantage when you make a mistake. For whatever reason, I love when the AI makes a move to block you right as you were about to make a similar move to block it, as it just gives the game a real feeling of having to play your best and not get lazy. Games of RR are generally a manageable hour or two, and the random map generator so far has done a good job of creating a challenging layout, due to the major challenge of the game being how and where you place your rails in relation to your opponent’s rails. So far (5-6 hours maybe?) it’s been a great title to fill the gaming void until DarkFall launches it’s NA server and I go back to more or less full time with that game.

I also re-subbed our (fiancé and I) two WAR accounts and played some RvR for about an hour or so. It’s going to take some time to re-adjust to the ‘meatgrinder’ style of PvP that is WAR compared to DF, but that should also provide some good filler until NA-1, not to mention a good chance to reconnect again with some old carebear friends.


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