UO Forever: More lessons

January 28, 2013

UO Forever has been a great time so far, both from just a pure gameplay perspective and as a refresher of sorts on how the MMO genre got started and the design decisions that worked.

I’ve covered combat already, as well as talking about the slower pace and why that’s important. Keen has a post about his enjoyment of crafting, which I think touches on some of these points as well.

Quick comment on the crafting aspect; as I said on vent, mining in UO ‘works’ because you are advancing towards something that matters to you, in a way you want to. You mine to get ore, to get ingots, to skill up smithing, to smith better items, to place those items on a vendor, and ultimately to make that vendor known and have people come to you to shop. This ultimately makes you good money, but also gives you a bit of fame, carves out your spot in the world, and opens other doors (shoppers become friends or guild members, the gold is used to fund bigger projects, the vendor traffic attracts other shopkeepers to your area of the world, etc).

In other MMOs, a ‘crafter’ is just a monster slayer that happens to dump gold into a side profession (usually at a huge loss), and the ‘fix’ that many have added is to get monster slaying experience from the art of crafting. “Level to the cap from crafting” should not be seen as a step forward, it should be seen as a slap in the face to crafters. Of course, when the result of crafting is being an anonymous listing on some global AH, who really cares?

Moving on, the skill gain rates on UOF are interesting. Combat skills go up very quickly. You can max out the basics in about 10 hours, and all but a few skills (magic resistance being the main one) shortly after that. Crafting skills on the other hand are very slow.

The fast skill gains, IMO, just shorten one area of the game and get you into another faster. Had they been slow, players would have spent more time fighting weaker creatures, all while farming less gold/items while they skill up. Eventually many would have reached the cap, and what is happening now would have happened then, but instead that early phase was basically non-existent. If UOF had a sub fee, that would be bad design from a business standpoint. Since it does not, it might just lead people to burn out quicker.

That said, just because you are able to get some skills to the cap does not mean you are ‘done’. Far from it. My current goal is to buy a house to place in our guild city. Originally this was going to be a basic house for about 65k, but the farming has gone well and along with a buddy, we have decided to go big and aim buy a two story for 150k. We are currently about 50k short of that goal.

And once we buy and place the house, it opens up some additional options for us. We will now have a base to PK out of. We will have a place to run a vendor from if we choose. And of course, we can’t leave it unfurnished, now can we?

By the time all of that’s done, who knows what other goals or options will pop up. Perhaps we will be in a guild war, or working to establish control of a particular dungeon. UO being a sandbox, the path is not pre-arranged and laid out for you to follow.

Finally, playing UOF reconfirms my belief that the reason UO retained subs for so long was because it’s a great game, not because it was the only MMO out (as if people didn’t have other gaming options back then…). It also confirms how massive of a mistake EA made when the trammeled it, and later butchered the IP with silly stuff like elves, ninjas, and whatever else is in the current paid version of the game. To think that UO could have been handled like EVE has been handled, expanded and enhanced while remaining true to its original design. Somehow I don’t think the genre would be quite as focuses on ‘personal stories’, instancing, or voice acting.

 


WAR’s legacy

January 23, 2013

Nice interview by Massively with Mark Jacobs. He makes some good points.

WAR’s hype was inexpensive and very effective. The point of hype is to get people interested enough to buy; for WAR, that worked. My only question would be whether the hype would have worked as well with a more measured tone. If ‘bears bears bears’ was not in the game yet, or was not how the game really worked, would a more toned-down video have been just as effective for hype purposes? Or did the hype only work because it was as crazy and outlandish as ‘bears bears bears’?

The whole third-faction, RvR vs PvE focus; obviously I retrospect this was a bad decision. As I point out frequently here, aiming at 300k and getting it is better than aiming for 1m and getting 50k. WAR/SW:TOR and many others aimed at a ‘broad audience’. They appeal to no one enough to retain them. A game like DF:UW only appeals to a tiny subset of the MMO population, but is able to retain that group because for those players, it’s the best game out due to its focus. Why this continues to be a pitfall for others I’m not sure. I get greedy is a powerful thing, but with almost 10 years of examples, it’s pretty crazy that people are still willing to throw money into the fire like that.

Finally, if you look at what WAR brought to the genre, and compare it to SW:TOR or the ‘genre fixing’ GW2, WAR win’s in a landslide in terms of contribution. Public quests, evolving cities, how they did instanced PvP, the Tome of Knowledge, map functionality, etc. Yes, at the end of the day the game did not work enough to succeed, but many of its parts were brilliant and the blueprint going forward. Other than convincing everyone NOT to do voice acting, what did SW:TOR bring? Is there one feature of GW2 that is new and worth copying into another MMO?


Commenting on Blogger

January 23, 2013

Is it just me or is commenting on Blogger-hosted blogs massively frustrating? Between the login errors, the captcha that is impossible to read half the time, to it eating what you wrote, it takes me ten times as long to comment on those blogs than on others, to the point that I generally don’t bother.

Is it as bad for Blogger-people when they come to WordPress sites, or is it a one-way street of suck?

/end rant.

 


UO Forever: Death by dragonfire

January 22, 2013

While Aventurine continues to uphold the DF:UW NDA, and :stuff:, I’ve decided to entertain myself with a bit of UO:F, joining up with Keen and his crew. So far it’s been very enjoyable overall, and also leads to one amusing story.

Just north of Britain there is the ever-popular dungeon Despise. It’s a good spot to farm some gold and the odd magic item, and it’s where I’ve spent the majority of my time in-game so far. The ettins and trolls found on floors 2 and 3 are very doable solo and drop a nice amount of gold, while killing deep earth elementals in a duo lands you a very nice 600-700 gold.

It was in this duo setup that a rather… amusing thing happened. Deep inside the third level there is a glowing portal. I had seen it before, but did not enter. With my friend along, I figured now would be a good time. My character is not ‘done’, but he has a few skills to 100, with other in the 60s or 80s, and I was wearing full plate while wielding a magic hally.

As soon as I entered the portal I knew I was in trouble. For starters, you are in agro range of not only a dragon, but a special ‘boss mob’ dragon as well. In addition, this portal was a one-way trip. Needless to say, I lasted for all of a few seconds before the welcome embrace of black-screen death took me, and I was standing inside a new dungeon as a ghost.

Just to provide further proof of my silly actions, as I made my way out of the dungeon in ghost form, I passed multiple dragons and other major creatures; all which would have surely seen to my end had the original two mobs not been so quick.

And because this is UO, all of my items were left on my corpse; a corpse that would not be recovered. Furthermore, instead of an instant portal to some graveyard, I was left to find my way out in ghost form. And when I finally did get a rez from a wandering healer, I was quickly dispatched a few minutes later by some random mob. Back in ghost form, I finally made my way to a town, got rezzed again, and spent about 30 minutes and 3000 gold to get myself back into fighting form.

All of this happened while my friend was laughing at my misfortune on vent. He was smart enough to wait for my initial reaction rather than jump right into the portal, and lived. And during my stumble back to town in ghost form, we talked about how quickly such an experience would be ‘fixed’ in modern MMOs. How someone would be quick to point out how ‘unfun’ such a trap is, and how during their ‘casual’ playtime, they can’t afford to not make progress. How such a ‘harsh’ experience has no place among the masses.

And it’s probably true. Far too many players are absolutely risk-averse, can’t deal with setbacks, and will only sign up if they are promised rainbows and lollipops just for showing up. It’s also here where having a strong dev team with solid vision comes into play, because while I do believe most players don’t believe they want this kind of experience, I am fully convinced such experiences are what make an MMO great, and make you stick with a game. They are memorable, make you work harder, and give you something to come back to and hopefully get your revenge. And if they do/did cause you to rage-quit, you would have anyway over something else. Knowing who is NOT your target audience is just as important as knowing who is when it comes to designing an MMO.


MMO housing IS gameplay

January 17, 2013

And yes, I’ve heard the Ultima Online house analogy. But until I can plant a flower box outside my POS, I don’t buy it. EVE ain’t Minecraft.

Going to pick on Jester a bit in this post. I say pick on because while Jester is extremely knowledgeable about EVE (and writes the best blog about it), his overall MMO experience is somewhat limited, and I’m 99% sure he did not play UO and experience its housing.

So with that said, flowers did not make UO housing. Not even a little bit. And ‘flowers’ would not be what would make EVE’s POS revamp. ‘Flower’ housing systems, like what LotRO has, suck. They are pointless, vapid wastes of instances space. That type of housing has zero gameplay. But that’s not what UO had.

The reason housing in UO was amazing gameplay was because it centralized you in a huge world. Without a house, you lived out of an NPC city, and those cities were not ‘yours’. As soon as you had a house, that was YOUR spot. Everything around you was important, because it was connected to YOUR spot in the world. That alone is perhaps the biggest retention ‘hook’ in the genre.

But housing in UO went further than just claiming land. It also opened up options such as running a vendor, or a crafting station near a mine, or just being a guild house for everyone to store items in and work out of. Each of those avenues further branched out. Once you start running a vendor, you care a lot more about the economy, and what items are worth. Or you go into crafting to ensure supply. Or you make connections to a crafting guild to work out a deal.

Point being, a house is the central point of the giant spiderweb we call sandbox content, and it’s a damn crime so many MMOs do it so poorly or don’t even do it at all.

Returning back to EVE, running a POS is painful. Really, really painful. No one likes it, very few tolerate it. Yet even in the sludge that is the current system, you have some interesting gameplay. Jester himself covers one example here.

Now imagine if CCP removed the sludge of the horrible UI you have to use to place POS guns, or the mishmash that is placing refineries and hangers. Designing a house/POS should be fun, like it is in UO. It should allow talented individuals to do something like the deathstar, but to the degree EVE lets you do things (think EVE market manipulation vs WoW kiddie pool economy).

And if newish players are given the chance to jump in and setup a small home, how many new players does that bring in? What kind of splash would a video showing the creation of a great looking and function POS make in the media? Hell, new players often struggle to define a ‘why’ in EVE; and building/growing your POS could be just the ticket. Reach a certain size, and the game should naturally encourage you to branch out, socialize, and work with others to continue on, much like UO subconsciously did way back in 1997. Again, the problem has been solved. The solution has simply been forgotten and drowned out in WoW-clone me-too trash design.


Three hours

January 17, 2013

In the comments of yesterday’s post, frequent commentator Saucelah suggested that playing an MMO for three straight hours (the comment said five, but let’s work with three, because I think that was my original ask in some post. If not I’m saying three now) is extreme hardcore or niche. I disagree. I’d say that if you CAN’T setup a three hour block to play an MMO, you are in the minority.

Millions of people recently saw “The Hobbit”. Total uninterrupted time needed for that? Over 3 hours. Well over if you have a longish drive to the theater. Even an average movie that runs just under two hours in length is going to take you around three hours total. The cost? Oh, about $15 per person. A number that sounds oddly familiar. Guess movies are for the hardcore only huh?

The NFL is by far the most popular sport in America. Millions and millions watch a game or more each week. Average length of an NFL game? Over three hours. Per week. Watch your team’s game every week, and you just spent 12 hours or more a month. Oh and the NFL also has DLC. Yup, Sunday ticket, which gives you access to EVERY game and special features like Redzone. Cost? About $200-$300 bucks a year. Let’s not even get started on actually going to a game in person, both for time and cost. The NFL, super-niche, yo.

Raise your hand if you have been to a concert that was shorter than three hours total time (driving etc) and cost you less than $15?

I could go on.

So yes, if you personally can’t organize your life to allow for a three hour block of time to enjoy something, you are niche. A sad niche too. L2live noob, you only get one life in this game.

If you CHOOSE not to spend that much time on something that is basically a hobby (MMOs), don’t expect hobby-quality results. Plenty of people show up to Superbowl parties clueless about the NFL, and we can continue to politely smile while tuning you out to focus on the game, while you enjoy the pretty sights and sounds (commercials).


Hell officially freezes over

January 16, 2013

What

The

Fuck?

Obviously overall this is awesome. F2P MMOs that are actually good games growing up and becoming sub games is a thing that should happen. I’ve said over and over that I’d pay $30 a month or more to play a sub-based version of Atlantica Online, for instance. So yea, great news.

But Allods? The $7,000 gem armor or whatever game? That is the first title to start the march back to sanity? What’s next, WAR adding a third faction? SW:TOR becoming successful? Someone playing GW2 longer than a month?

Cold.

So cold.


7 minutes in heaven, a month of hell

January 16, 2013

One point that I don’t think I made clear enough in my post about UO’s combat was that the slower pace and simplicity leads to longer retention, and so today I want to expand on that a bit (in horribly rambly fashion, sorry).

The hyper-dancing combat that so many MMOs have today is both tiring and limited. It’s tiring because mashmashmash, and limited because once you figure out/google/macro the ‘correct’ way, you are done, because short of pausing to perform a boss gimmick dance, your pattern works against just about anything (hence macros). With that out of the way, you are left to focus on the content itself, and MMO content is meh at best, and GW2 final encounter 222222 all too often. And it runs out, terribly fast no matter your budget.

A comment I see often and always get a laugh from is the EVE “shooting red crosses” complaint. That EVE is terrible and a spreadsheet because missions are blah and the combat is just target, F1, repeat. And yes, mission running is basically that, and yup, it’s boring as hell long-term or exclusively. Yet it’s also content still being run 10 years later, and very likely a good chunk of those running it have been doing it for years on and off. By the standard of MMO retention, EVE’s mission system is one of the greatest pieces of content in MMO history.

So why are players still running it? Because while not thrilling, it’s not draining and not quite as simple as macro-spamming (FFA PvP, efficiency, etc), plus you are doing it in the context of EVE, which matters. Place EVE’s mission running as a standalone game, and it would rival SW:TOR for biggest failure of all time.

How did we get from UO and its brilliantly simple combat to the one-and-done invuln-rolling of GW2?

Part of the problem is the misguided belief that more is better. If UO worked with basic attacks, then five ‘special moves’ is better. And if five works, 15 must surely be great. You know what looks more impressive than 15 on a bullet list? 40! Bam, EQ2 everyone.

Except of course it’s not, because you eventually get to Rift where the UI is flexible enough to create a single macro attached to one key to do your combat for you. Back to UO everyone! Oh, except instead of an interesting virtual world with stuff actually happening, you are doing yet another quest/dungeon against whatever for some soon-to-be-replaced item because…. Zzzzz, unsub, or play once a week because of the people more so than the content (and I think Rift is the best themepark out, btw).

It’s sadly comical if you think about it. GW2 boasted about how each class only had five or so skills because the combat was more tactical. More focused on what you are doing rather than a Googled pattern. That mobs would be different and have their special stuff and blablabla. Release comes and surprise, you are mashing five keys while plowing through some completely forgettable ‘personal’ story or zerg-herding in the equally meaningless WvW. And this from the game that ‘fixed’ the MMO formula for us. A wonder it even lasted a few weeks for so many.

Anet was right to simplify things, because having 40 character abilities is just dumb. And they almost got there with the other aspects too. Dodging attacks is good, for instance, but GW2 has invuln-dodging which is a joke. Aiming attacks is a natural evolution as hardware and connection speeds have allowed it; tab-targeting system with some aiming is a half-step failure. Beautiful and varied terrain is great, but completely wasted when it has zero impact on what you are actually doing (outside of one-off jumping puzzles).

Another issue is designing for RIGHT NOW versus designing long-term. There is a believe that if you fail the RIGHT NOW test, long-term is a non-issue, which is why so much development time is spent on a starter area or making sure everything is roses for the first five minutes. That’s all well and good, but not at the expense of long-term if you are indeed interested in making an MMO in the traditional sense.

Plus I honestly don’t buy into the theory. If you are an MMO player, you don’t quit after the first hour, much less the first five minutes. Not when you understand that you are signing up for something that will, hopefully, entertain you for months/years. This is not a $.99 iPhone app we are talking about.

Not to say that the first 5 minutes can be painful, or the first hour totally worthless, but again, understand the target audience and plan accordingly. If I’m a current EVE player and bringing in a friend, is the first five minutes important, or the systems that provide content for the next 10 months? Hell, I’m not bringing that friend in if we are talking GW2 and the start/end cycle is measured in weeks, now am I?

To poorly wrap this up, my point is that the most important and repeatable part of your game (combat), has to last long-term, and has to be supported by long-term systems. Simplicity helps you achieve that, because it allows you to get what you do have perfect, and then apply that perfection in a large variety of ways. The all-flash zero-substance systems that dominate today lead to the very predictable pattern of high initial interest and then rapid boredom.

That problem was fixed a long time ago. Hopefully today’s devs do a little bit of research before setting out to create ‘the next big thing’.


Lessons from the past: MMO combat

January 14, 2013

Keen alerted me to a private version/server of Ultima Online, and due to extreme boredom I grabbed the client and messed around a bit. I have no intention of fully returning to UO, because to really get to the good stuff of UO I would have to invest more time than I want to, but even just spending a few hours with the game, it amazes me how far the genre has fallen. UO’s original version still, to this day, does so many things BETTER than many modern MMOs.

For this post I want to just focus on combat.

Combat in UO is very simple, especially melee. You move next to a mob, double-click to start swinging, and that’s it. Once the mob is low it tries to run away slowly, and you just follow it and keep whacking. Compared to the 60 abilities on a hotbar that some games have, it’s night and day. And yet I find combat in UO more satisfying than any themepark, including the most recent GW2 (invuln-roll faceroll, yay…).

First, the pace allows you to actually watch and enjoy what is happening, rather than watching your hotbar spin cooldowns. Now sure, UO is not exactly a looker, so what you are left watching is 2-3 animation frames of an attack and crude blood splatters, but yea, still better than a hotbar. And in UO, watching your surroundings is very important for many reasons.

And while 1-on-1 combat is simplistic, in all but the easiest examples, drawing agro correctly and getting a mob into the right spot is more than half the battle, and for that using the environment is critical. UO-does-it-better example two; the environments and their impact on combat.

In many/most themeparks, where you are fighting only matters in terms of the color pallet or other non-gameplay visuals. A ‘dungeon’ fight is the same as a fight in the forest or a cave, save for pre-scripting “hide behind the obvious pillar” gimmicks of a boss. In UO a tight corridor fight is 100% different than out in the open. A location with many mobs is very different than one with only a few, and again not in the pre-scripted “this is an obvious bring CC situation”.

The value of a farming spot has just as much to do with its actual location (the layout, proximity to other points of interest, player traffic) as it does with the mobs or the quality of the loot. How different would themepark raiding be if the decision of ‘where’ was based on ANYTHING other than “we need the purple shiny from X”? It’s just one factor of many that change a game from an on-rails journey to living in a virtual world, but these are the lessons that today’s MMO devs have almost all but forgotten, or don’t have the ability to recreate successfully.

Magic and ranged combat add some complexity to combat in UO, but even then it’s still nothing like hotbar spamming. Magic becomes a resource management game that is deeper than “spam until empty, wait a second, spam more”, while also adding in the cost of reagents. Just because you could take a mob down quickly with multiple flamestrikes does not mean you do it; if you spend almost as much gold on reagents to kill something, that’s not exactly efficient farming.

Group farming has its own layer of complexity that I won’t cover here, save to say it’s not as simple as “more dps, faster kills, go go go”.

And of course all of these factors are in a mix that includes open world PvP. So being able to beat a mob but just barely is dangerous. Farming for a long time has added risks. Farming a popular or highly-efficient spot is not “the best choice” based solely on gold/hr like it is in PvE games.

But even with PvP removed from the equation, the simplistic combat in UO trumps more modern systems in the most important area for an MMO; replayability. The ‘burnout’ rate is much lower, because the point is not to simply master (Google) a skill rotation, or cap-out and get BiS gear, or ‘finish’ some personal story.

No, getting better at combat in UO is simply a tool; one that allows you to reach your next goal (a house, a PvP rep, control of an area) faster or more efficiently. And as you get better, the tiny details become clearer, and mastering those is truly an art, one that requires some serious buy-in.

Assuming, of course, you decide to focus on combat. In UO, and any good sandbox, that is but one path to success. And way back in 1997, UO got that path right.

Looking at it in the context of 2013 and the current state of the MMO genre and its combat, UO got it scary-right.


Boxed in

January 10, 2013

I bet you are wondering why I’m blogging less huh? Yea, I figured you were.

Darkfall NDA is mostly to blame.

MMO genre being a pile of crap is another factor.

I mean, not only is there not a title out right now that I bother to waste time on (other than playing EVE Offline), but nothing is happening in the genre worth blogging about, and those that are blogging are not posting anything I need a response post to. It’s that bad.

So I fill my gaming time with random titles. 10 hours of FTL, a few hours of Witcher 2, beating Xcom, playing Civ V multiplayer, playing some Endor while waiting for its graphically updated version, trolling Steam in desperation, and right now, playing Skyrim again with some DLC and mods.

Skyrim is blog-worthy, but I’ve already done that, and other than stating once again that the amount of content in that game makes something as ‘content rich’ as GW2 look like pong, I don’t have much.

As for the rest? A post at most really, and I personally don’t even find those all that interesting to write or read. Just not much debate to “hey, FTL is fun for 10 hours, spend the $3”.

So while racking my brain for something to blog about, I’ve realized that if a game is not blog-worthy, it’s also not that memorable or ‘important’ to me. Take Xcom. Great, great game. I would recommend it to everyone. But I’d trade in Xcom for Heroes 6 and all its horrible flaws 10 times out of 10. Why? Because Heroes 6 stuck with me longer, left more of an impression, and I walked away with more thoughts about it than Xcom. Xcom was what it was, and I moved on.

I don’t know if that means Heroes 6 is better. I know it’s not better if judged hour-per-hour (in a pound-for-pound kind of way), but I was done with Xcom far sooner than Heroes, and in ‘total enjoyment’, Heroes wins.

And if I apply that thinking to the MMO genre, it explains why flawed yet deep games like Darkfall last for me, while ‘perfected’ shortness like GW2 is ultimately disappointing and a waste. Because unlike FTL, I’m not looking just to waste 10 hours in an MMO. That’s not my expectation. And that shouldn’t be anyone’s expectation if you are playing an MMO ‘correctly’, with a guild and digging into the social aspects and caring about the world rather than just your own person experience. For all of that to happen, you need way more than 10 hours.

Of course that last part is basically impossible in so many ‘MMOs’ today. SW:TOR is the poster child, but GW2 has a personal story as well, and so many of its praised design decisions help turn everyone into a helpful yet silence NPC/bot. Awesome for 10 hours, entirely forgettable long-term. It’s the reason the ‘new hotness’ in the MMO genre is just selling you a box. That’s all you get. The content in the box. Play it, finish it, move on. Other silent drones will replace you. Or not. It doesn’t matter to anyone but you (and the soon-to-be-laid of devs).

So until the drought ends, or the NDA drops, I don’t know how much I’ll be posting here. Dark times indeed.


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