Pick a group, design for it, don’t get greedy

September 28, 2012

When I see people write that no MMO can hope to retain people beyond 3 months now, like they did back in the big 3 days, I can only shake my head, laugh, and think about my recent two years with Darkfall, my almost three with EVE, and the infinite amount of time I’m about to spend with MMO baby jesus DF:UW.

Snark aside, the reality is that most MMOs after 2004 are designed, either intentionally (GW2) or not (SW:TOR), to be short. The first time I heard EAWare mention the 4th pillar is the first time I said SW:TOR is going to fail (look it up kids). That one single design decision is all I needed to know about the game, because NOTHING could have saved SW:TOR from being a short-burst game after the 4th pillar was announced. (Short of going in the total opposite direction after the story end. Gee I wonder what EAWare is focusing on of late?)

Consider these two stark contrasts. In GW2 you have access to EVERYTHING your character can do combat-wise at level 30, which lets be really kind and say takes 30 days to reach. In EVE, you won’t be able to sit (forget flying well) in one of the biggest ships (Titan) in the first 177 days, assuming you do NOTHING but straight train towards that (and completely ignoring how you would actually acquire one).

The question at hand is not which method you would prefer, or which one is more ‘fun’. The question is simply this: out of the two options above, which one sounds like it’s designed for a game that the devs expect you to play long-term, and which one is designed to be played in a short burst?

Of course for the 177 day training to be found worthwhile, everything else around it must also work to some extent, and in EVE it does. I’m by no means saying that long-term retention is as simple as extending the ‘grind’ and calling it a day. As I’ve said thousands of times now, long-term retention design is HARD. Really, really hard. But hard does not mean impossible, and under the right conditions, long-term retention done well can yield WoW (12m subs). Most likely it yields EVE (400k subs). Maybe if you really go niche it yields Darkfall (100b subs). So long as you properly identify your market size and deliver something for it, you can be successful on a variety of levels. Not everyone (anyone?) can be WoW, and that’s ok.

And it’s important to remember that much of the current MMO population is not interested in long-term retention. Whether someone outright states they don’t want to play something longer than a month, or has a playstyle that reflects it (solo), these people are not looking for the same thing people interested in living in a virtual world are. They might drop in and visit (tourists), but regardless of the design, you just can’t retain them. (WoW is the MMO first-love for many, which is why it draws them back time and time again. It’s another perfect-storm situation that can’t be repeated. It’s also dying and something like 5 people bought into Panda-time and 3 of them have already quit, so whatever).

The mistake so many devs have made is believing that they CAN retain them, if only they tweak the design and add more solo PvE content to a PvP game (WAR), or put in a 20 level pre-game to the core game (AoC), or spend a billion dollars on one-off voice acting (SW:TOR). These design decisions sacrifice the long-term for a quick burst, and the expected result happens; you get your short burst at the expense of your long-term. It’s why MMO release after MMO release looks exactly the same, and why it has convinced some that that’s just how things are today.

The reason I cheer for games like SW:TOR to fail is because, hopefully at some point, developers will wake up and realize you can’t attract the millions of short-burst players AND retain them by trying to design for both.

If you want to make a short-burst MMO like GW2, go for it. Sell the box and don’t expect more after, have a business plan that supports that expectation, and make the best one-months-worth of content you possibly can. If you do it right you will sell a whole lot of boxes and people will move on happily a month later. Just don’t do PR where you proclaim to have ‘fixed’ the MMO genre and all will be good.

And if you want to get $15 a month from a few hundred thousand people, please design accordingly as well. That group has shown a willingness to deal with valleys if the peaks are worthwhile, but they better have something to do in six months, and that something better not be the exact same thing just reskinned from the first month. Plan your business model accordingly, figure out a way to handle the tourists initially, and don’t get fooled into thinking you have something bigger than you actually do. Long-term retention MMOs are a niche. It’s a pretty sizable niche, and $15 a month for 6 months is more than $60 once, but yea, it’s hard to get right.

As players, we have to be honest with ourselves. You can’t expect the highs of long-term moments to fit into your ultra-casual schedule. The peaks and valleys will be more muted because in the MMO genre, you get what you put in. That said, it’s not nearly as hard to be part of something big as some make it out to be. World-first raiding and the time/dedication it requires is not the only way to get a huge high from an MMO. Just being a regular member of a guild doing something big/cool might be enough.

Of course, that guild can’t do something really cool if everyone moves to the next game in a month, but that’s the tradeoff you accept when deciding between the two styles.

Splitting the genre in two

September 27, 2012

Let’s move past why GW2 sucks and onto a bigger topic; why so many recent MMOs suck, shall we?

Chris thinks all MMOs are good for 3 months or less, and that’s just how things are today. Keen has a pretty solid counter, but it raises the question that will (hopefully) clear the air here: are you looking to play a game for a while, or not?

Because I think that really cuts to the root of the issue. In the ‘good old days’, I think the vast majority of MMO players WANTED to get sucked into something long-term (group 1). Much of the original hype behind an MMO was that it was an RPG that never ended, and that is EXACTLY what people wanted. New Ultima game but with unending content? Hell ya! Take my money!

Today not everyone is on the same page. There are a lot of players who DON’T want to get sucked into something long-term (group 2). They WANT a 3-monther or something to do for a month and move on, and nothing short of a miracle (WoW) is going to change that.

One group is not more right than another, and however you arrive at either group is an unrelated issue (got old, more money, kids, whatever).

What does matter is that the two groups are looking for very different experiences, yet are being lumped into one group (MMO players). Worse still, studios are designing games with the impression that they can design content for the short-term group, and expect long-term retention. SW:TOR is the latest poster-child for this, but it’s just one of many such failures. And make no mistake, these games ARE failures, because the target they are aiming at is WoW, which prints money not because it sold a ton of boxes, but because it RETAINED millions of players for years. EAWare expected SW:TOR to RETAIN at least 500k subs, and at one time the expectation was 1m+. They sold a ton of boxes because group 2 wanted something new. They failed because solo-story content does nothing for group 1, and even if it did, group 1 is just not that big.

Both markets, the short-term ‘MMO’, and the original model, are viable. EVE is an undeniable success, DESPITE the fact that it’s a niche within a niche product (non-IP Sci-Fi with no avatar). CCP is successful because they understand who their market is, and they design the game around the long-term retention of their core rather than the short-burst of group 2 (Incarna aside). Misleading talk aside, GW2, much like GW1, will likely do fine because the model is not around providing long-term entertainment, but rather just a short burst every now and then.

This also clears up the F2P vs sub aspect as well. F2P ‘works’ because a tiny subset of your entire base is willing to pay enough to subsidize everyone else. That’s why so much of the design around a F2P is aimed at catering to that tiny minority, or to convert some of the unpaying masses into cash cows. By contrast, the sub model is designed to provide enough content for the long-term majority, in the hopes that most people will stick around and play/pay.

And if you combine the intent of group 1 or 2 with the business model and content design around a game, you have your target.

Developers are doing a decent job catering to group 2. There are countless F2P titles that are good-enough to play for a month, and occasionally one will get some cash out of you. Those that don’t, shut down or get their support slashed, but even the most marginal titles end up surviving in one form of zombie mode or another.

Designing a solid title for group 1 is much harder, in part because it’s so different from the rest of gaming. Instead of just making sure the current content is fun once, the devs must consider how the content will play in a year, or for the 100th time, or when someone with 1000 hours plays alongside someone with 10. That’s hard. Just as EAWare, Mythic, Turbine, or any other studio that has tried and failed. Maybe the original big three were really lucky, or really good, or understood the market better than most do today. Regardless, it worked then, and it continues to work today.

The extreme example of success in group 1 is WoW, but that’s misleading if you buy into the fact that WoW’s success was as much good timing as it was solid design. Make no mistake, 2004 WoW was very well designed, but that’s not the entire story IMO.

Regardless, it’s unlikely that we will see another WoW-like success. Far more likely is someone hitting EVE-like numbers. And again, CCP is making very good money off EVE. But that’s happening because they understand the size of the market, in addition to how best to cater to it.

You can’t spend $300m today because you predict 1m+ subs. It’s not going to happen. Plan to get 100k with a solid title, figure out the budget to make that happen, and good luck. And let’s not kid ourselves, with 100k subs you can make a VERY solid game. Maybe you won’t have all your dialog voiced by professional actors, but you won’t be limited to Pong-like graphics either. Spend smart, spend S-mart!

GW2: What he said

September 27, 2012

If Guild Wars 2 is what MMOs should have always been, then I am very thankful that every other one I’ve played has done so much wrong. – Attic Lion

Via KTR.

Well said sir, well said.

GW2: Pre-80 vs post-80

September 26, 2012

How can you spot if someone has reached the level cap in GW2? Ask if they still like the game.

While for some time now themeparks have been two different games, the leveling aspect and the ‘end-game’, the change in GW2 is IMO by far the most drastic. And it’s drastic not because you go from solo-questing to forced-grouped raiding, but because the exact content you found compelling and rewarding at 79 instantly turns into flawed meh at 80. It’s shocking if you have not come to accept that progression = success for an MMO. And if you are among those who do not, feel free to look at successful MMOs of the past and draw a link as to why those games worked long-term. (Hint: progression that matters) Even easier, just look at recent failures and identify the trend.

And I think this is where I lose people when I say GW2 is a shitty MMO, because NOT fading after the (very short in GW2) leveling game is a critical metric. It’s one of the key things that make a game an MMO. Lots of games in lots of genres are solid to great short-term. On that criteria, GW2 is not the worst way to spend 40-60 hours. It’s not the best this year, or even really on the same level as something like Skyrim, but it’s not Superman64 by any means.

The issue I have is that not only did Anet call GW2 an MMO, but they (yes they, not fans) hyped the product not only as an MMO, but an MMO that ‘fixes’ so many wrongs of the genre. And yes, they succeeded in some regards (the overall “players are your friend, not the enemy” thing is well done), but the trouble is they failed in the most critical area. Being nice to others or having lots of options in terms of where to level or how to get gear or where to collect crafting mats is all pointless when, once you hit 80, it all does nothing for you.

MMO content, GW2 very much included, is not good enough on its own. Put the average GW2 quest next to an average Skyrim quest and Skyrim wins 10 times out of 10. The reason you would pick GW2 is because you can do that quest with others in a world where doing that quest ‘matters’ long-term. It’s why people mine in EVE when mining in EVE might be the worst gameplay in all of gaming. You progress, and that progression makes doing silly/bad/terrible things worthwhile. Molten Core was not awesome-enough content to justify running it 500 times. It could easily be argued that if you removed progression, few would ever run MC once, let alone return. But you ran it 500 times because you, along with 39 others, had a lot of fun hanging out and bashing your collective heads into the next raiding wall, and damn it, you needed that .01% crit chance upgrade from MC to do it.

If you hate the above that’s fine. If you expect or even want to go from one game to the next each month, that’s cool. But understand that’s not how the MMO genre as many know it works. Titles tagged as an MMO have diluted this, as have other unfortunate trends. But unless you accept a very different definition of what an MMO is and what makes an MMO work, GW2 does not measure up, no matter how good the first few hours are.

EVE: Learning curve

September 25, 2012

Note: Not all MMOs shown are still popular

The above is a little old (PotBS…) but is still often used. EVE, compared to most MMOs, is indeed a tough game to get into and stick with. However in terms of tutorials and explaining the basics of a very complex game, I believe what CCP has in place today is about as good as it’s going to get, and all of the UI enhancements of late have lowered that bar as well (it’s still higher-than-average, but at this point that’s due more to the game’s complexity than the UI getting in your way).

What keeps the above image true is the sandbox nature of EVE; by design it does not hold your hand and show you all of the pretty sites like a themepark, and for many that lack of guidance results in them getting lost and ultimately leaving. Of course it’s tough to admit the failure is on the player, which is why more often than not you will get skewed or simply inaccurate accounts shortly before or after someone leaves (assuming they don’t just fade away without a peep).

One example I’ve seen play out over and over is the ambitious miner. A new player to EVE will go down the mining career path and plan to fly the biggest and best ship for mining. They initially enjoy the slower pace, as well as the ISK and the small market gameplay that goes with it. They are playing EVE like a themepark, ‘gearing up’ and working towards that BiS ship. Problem is, once they hit that goal, or get close enough to see what hitting it will be like, they get bored.

For them, progression has stopped or slowed to a crawl, and they are left wondering “now what?” If they don’t come up with a good answer, they are done. The same cycle exists for the high-sec mission running when he gets into a faction battleship, or for the trader once he gets ‘enough’ ISK.

The problem with all those goals is they are not only short-sighted, but they also just provide you with a tool (ISK) to do ‘something’ with. Mining/mission/trade efficiency is not itself content. The reason you mine or run those missions is you can then turn around use that ISK to do X. If you can’t fill in X, and keep filling in X once your first initiative is complete or gets stale, you will drift away. The advantage EVE has over anything else on the market is the sheer number of choices, and the depth that many can go to.

And in EVE, the biggest source of X is other players, be it alliance-level combat or working with other traders to corner a market or create a new hub. As you get more involved, bigger and longer-term goals start to creep up, and you end up having TOO much to do vs having nothing. This is easily identified by your current training plan; if it’s full and you had to make tough choices, you are sucked in. If you are training aimlessly or just finishing stuff up, you likely lack solid goals (or have a super-advanced pilot, but EVE veterans tend to stick around as the metrics have shown in the past).

I don’t really think the problem can be fully solved, at least not at a mass-market scale. This, ultimately, is why the MMO genre is a niche; the number of people capable and willing to find, set, and follow-through on goals is limited. At the same time, the formula itself clearly works, as EVE’s upcoming 10 year anniversary attests to.

Ultimately it’s all a balance between handholding and mass-market, and inversely retention and longevity. If you are interested in selling a ton of boxes and getting a huge one-month pop, you go one way. If you aim to entertain for 10+ years, you go in the other direction. The middle is either a gold mine or a total disaster, depending on countless factors, not all of which you can control.

UO turns 15

September 25, 2012

Good read from Raph about the early days of UO, which recently turned 15 years old. Which is likely older than the average age of today’s WoW players. Which is scary in many ways.

GW2: One step forward, two steps back for the genre

September 24, 2012

Keen has a report card out for GW2, and while I think the grades are a bit high, I agree overall with his assessment. In short, GW2 is a good game, but a month in its pretty clear GW2 is a very shitty MMO. If you are keeping score at home, you will notice a trend here in the last few years.

I’ll start with this, because I think it’s important to keep in mind when considering any ‘MMO’: If the ‘MMO’ does not have a sub fee, it’s the developers telling you they don’t believe people will find the game good enough to pay $15 a month for. PR can spin it any way they want, but the fact remains that you only stop being a sub game (or never start) if you suspect or know people won’t give you the money. WoW is WoW because enough people still believe it’s worth it, and that is why Blizzard still has their money tree. F2P ‘works’ because a few people can’t help themselves and spend a fortune while most don’t spend a dime. That should tell you all you need to know about the MMO in question.

Back to GW2. As mentioned numerous times, it’s a solid game. Most things work, it looks good, and occasionally it will do something unexpected or above-average to surprise you. Yay.

The problems hit at level 80, which unfortunately comes almost instantly so long as you login a few times. Once you hit 80 and hit the AH once, you are done progressing. Yes, there is still a lot of ‘stuff’ to do, but none of it is going to open anything new up for you or give you new toys to play with. The only form of progression is collecting cute outfits to play dress-up with, and if that’s your thing, awesome, but I suspect for most it’s not. It certainly has not been historically on this side of the ocean.

On top of the above, which is very critical, is the fact that while GW2 has a lot of content, almost all of it is the same. ‘Dynamic’ events are not only not dynamic, but for the most part are just reskins of each other. If you have seen one “collect X” event, you have seen them all. Kill invaders, collect stuff, kill big bad. Which ‘chain’ did I just describe? Half of them, in all zones.

And not only is the content just reskinned, but the method to defeat it is the same since about level 30 as well. Regardless of your class, you will likely end up using the same skills and tactics against everything, and those tactics will always work. For most events, it’s as simple as “spam big AoE attack to tag mobs, collect loot”. On occasion you will need to dodge, maybe. And yes, it’s like that until the final Orr zone, so don’t buy into the “it gets more complicated later” BS either.

For all its hype, the combat system in GW2 might be one of the worst in the themepark genre, if only because of its simplicity and the games total lack of strategic encouragement. You will literally be hitting the same buttons over and over again, brainlessly, and not only will you succeed, but you will actually perform at almost max efficiency. At least in WoW or other themeparks the facerolling only gets you to 50% dps or so, and there is/was content where that was not good enough. In GW2, regardless of what you do, it’s not only always good enough, but doing better is almost impossible.

WvW should be the save grace and the reason to stick around, but again with zero form of progression, the ‘why’ kicks in pretty quickly, and what little ‘server pride’ you might muster up, the queues and off-hours scoring will do a great job of crushing. The scoring is perhaps the saddest part if you think about it: more points are scoring in off-hours than during primetime, which means the ‘best’ servers are not those with the best players, but those that organized to cover all time zones. Makes splitting EU and NA servers apart a total joke.

Worst still is the fact that, because of the combat system and the tiny maps, playing WvW is only a slightly different experience than grinding a generic ‘dynamic event’. Most of it is still AoE spam, and most of the time doing just enough is all that is required. Contrast WvW results to which Alliances succeed in EVE (and how), or which guilds did well in a game like Darkfall, and it becomes very clear that WvW is highly flawed not just at the top, but all the way to its core. There are ways to make MMO PvP work, and what GW2 has is very, very far from that.

Which brings up the ultimate question; would I pay for new content? I think the answer is no, because I don’t imagine the new content playing like anything but more of the same due to the game’s core flaws, and I still have some of that content untouched as is should I want it, which I don’t.

It’s sadly funny that the more current-day devs try to evolve MMOs, the further they go from what actually makes the games work.


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