One additional 2013 prediction

February 28, 2013

EVE will shut down in 2013 and CCP will go bankrupt.

Moral lock everyone!

Mark it down!

(Unless they get more government funding and just shut the server down to make money. That could totally work as well. Wikipedia entries from 2008 don’t lie!)

The good stuffs in the middle

February 27, 2013

Let’s talk a little about the history of the mid-game in the MMO genre.

IMO the mid-game is the time after you have learned the basics of the game (tutorial or beginning phase), and before you stop progressing or have outright ‘won’. Outside of the MMO genre, the mid-game is often 95% or more of the game. To use Skyrim as an example, the mid-game is after you finish the first, heavily scripted encounter, and lasts until you either hit the level cap or finish what content you intended to complete (be it the main quest or a set of side quests).

If we go back to 1997, one of the major appeals of UO was that it was essentially an Ultima game, but without an end. You paid more than just the box price because you got more than that over time. That was the deal. And in 1997, the mid-game in UO was 95% of the game. Getting a character maxed out took time, and was not a major ‘must have’ for many. A few skills to 100 was common, but 7xGM was something you took your time working towards, and whether you eventually got there or not was not a make or break moment.

Fast forward a bit, and at some point (not release), WoW become more about the end-game than the mid-game. The developers focused more/most of their efforts delivering content to those at the cap, and the players in turn focused more on just getting to the cap and the ‘real’ game than what came before.

As it usually does, at the other end of the spectrum sits EVE. With a built-in 15yr+ progression curve, not a single player has ‘maxed out’ a pilot. In a somewhat “only in EVE” issue, there currently exist some players who are reaching the end of worthwhile progression, having trained pilots for almost 10 years, and wondering how CCP will fix that problem. All other MMOs would love to have the ‘problem’ of someone worrying about progression after 10 years, but then EVE has always played on a different level.

I bring all of this up for a few reasons. The first is to highlight the importance of the mid-game in an MMO. Whether they are conscious of it or not, players like progression. They like it enough, in fact, to keep paying while they grow. The end of personal progression is, IMO, the single biggest cause of player loss. And it’s rarely called directly that, which is part of the problem. Players will end progression and slowly lose interest in the game, and claim ‘burn out’ as the reason for leaving without actually realizing what happened. But look back at your own personal history with the genre and see how often you ended up leaving when your own progression path either ended or become more trouble than it was worth.

Speeding players towards that dead end is a great way to tank your MMO, and the genre is littered with examples of just that. WoW once again clouds the picture because of its sheer mass, but it itself is an example. When progression was more extensive, subs grew. When it was cut or minimized, they stagnated or dropped (despite the fact that WoW has by far the largest social hooks in the genre due to its sheer size/popularity).

It’s also important to remember that not all players will reach your end-game. In EQ1, for example, most players never hit the cap back in the day. The vast majority of the community was in leveling mode, and that WAS the game. Yes, raiding and such was in the game, but it was a niche activity for the few capable of climbing the leveling mountain. Also important to note is that EQ1 expansions focused as much, if not more, on expanding the leveling game as they did on refreshing the end-game. Can the same be said for WoW expansions or the major content patches?

As a developer, it’s only natural that you will focus on the areas your players occupy, but that’s a vicious cycle. The faster you get players to the cap, the more will reach it. And taken at face value, it would be logical to assume that is where you should focus. It’s more difficult to step back and realize that, subconsciously, your players really enjoy the journey more than the destination. Raiding and other end-game activities being so cost-effective in terms of development also factor in; designing solid leveling content that will last is hard, throwing together another scripted dragon to be killed weekly is not.

Finally, a disaster like SW:TOR sets the genre back greatly because it’s a terrible example of attempting to create an interesting journey rather than a collection of end-game activities. For the clueless outsider looking in (and these are generally the people with money or the ones making the decisions, sadly), they will see that someone tried to create a great journey, failed miserable, and assume that creating said journey is the problem.

Luckily, we seem to be starting down a path where smaller, more focused products are finally being brought to the table, and their mark of success is not set to the impossible goal of WoW-killer. While certainly not all of them will succeed, they at least have a chance, which is better than the DOA expectations of titles like SW:TOR and their misguided 4th pillar or personal story.

Losing your mid-game

February 21, 2013

Apologies for the lack of content around here lately, I’m emulating the MMO genre…

I continue to play a bit of UO:F, and the server’s skill settings have once again confirmed something I’ve already had confirmed a million times before; increasing the pace of progression is bad. In UO:F most combat skills can be maxed in very short order, which in turn basically eliminates a major chunk of content and a phase of the game.

In the original, it was normal to start a character, spend some time fighting starter monsters (skeletons, zombies, animals, etc), train up a bit, and venture out into the mid-tier of ettins, orcs, and harpies. This phase generally lasted for a while, as maxing out a skill took time, and the longer you spent at popular farming spots, the higher your chances of a PK-based setback. On the other hand, the additional time also meant you got to know the other locals and potentially find a guild or group to play with. Your path to a great set of gear was also slower, and lower-tier magic items still held some value.

In UO:F, the mid-tier does not exist. In a single day you can go from skilling up on a skeleton to farming lichs. The ‘end-game’ consists of either spam-casting Energy Vortex to farm silly amount of gold, or taming/provoking dragons to do the farming for you. Dozens if not hundreds of locations that previously had mid-tier value are now useless as a result, and the social underpinnings of the mid-tier (both good and bad) are gone as well. Anything below the upper-tier magic items is ‘junk’.

UO:F still somewhat works because the game is not all character progression or loot-acquisition based, but that was a major piece. Building up a house or a clan village loses some of its value when you can get everything you could want in a week rather than months. In the past, those months always resulted in “other stuff” happening, and that in turn provided new content. Now, condensed into a week, you can easily just focus on your current task and complete it without interruption, which is not a good thing in the long-run (even though it feels rewarding short-term).

The above problem is very much an MMO-only issue, which is important to keep in mind. Skyrim allowing you to quickly progress through a single quest line is good, for instance, while having the same happen in an MMO would not be. And I’ve noticed that many players have troubling seeing this as well. At best, many only realize it AFTER they hit unsub.

Be un-massive for a reason

February 15, 2013

One of my least favorite parts of blogging is presenting a topic and having people directly apply it to the now. The best example of this is talking about item loss, and having WoW players say it would never work because of how many runs it takes for Rag to drop his legendary weapon. “Losing that to a gank would make me unsub!” Derp…

Yesterday’s post had a bit of that, with people looking at Skyrim and just inserting thousands into the existing game and declaring that it would not be fun. No shit.

The challenge in blogging here is to write enough detail to set people down the correct path, without spelling out every single step and turning each post into a novel. Perhaps the post yesterday was my fault for not providing enough of that detail, but honestly I’d much rather blame the readers. It’s not me, it’s you people.

Blogging mini-rant aside, lets continue down that path.

In the MMO genre we often debate just what the ‘massive’ part means. From solo-instances up to EVE’s null-sec mega-brawls, just how many people are involved in something varies greatly.

I think scale matters. Those EVE battles are epic almost on sheer numbers alone, and that’s important. It’s a bit like watching a sporting event in a giant stadium versus at a local field. Simply by having so many like-minded fans around you, the experience is enhanced. It’s one of the core principles of the whole genre, and often justifies the otherwise simple gameplay (like harvesting for example).

That does not mean bigger is always better. There are some advantages to an instances 5-man experience versus an open dungeon for all. Don’t get me wrong, if I’m designing the MMO I’m going open dungeon and making that work, but that does not mean the entire concept of the instances 5-man is total fail.

Skyrim the MMO would be very much that 5 man experience. But rather than going half-way like DDO, go full-blast. The entire game is small-scale. You can even select the scale. Want to play all the content as a duo? Go for it. 20 man guild? It scales to that as well.

“Cool Syn, but that’s not an MMO” you say? Bah to that! Are you honestly telling me you would not pay $15 a month to play Skyrim on a Bethesda server with your buddies, and that subscription ensured you get Dawnguard-like content updates and fixes but more consistently? Of course you would. I’d even venture to guess a few hundred thousand people would.

And here is the thing; Skyrim has a silly amount of content, so clearly Bethesda can do what EA and SW:TOR seem so incapable of, and that would make the sub model work. Even the broken systems, like magic, would be ok since you are playing just with your buddies. Want to break the game and ‘win’? Knock yourself out. Or maybe because the game would have a team supporting it full-time, those things get fixed. Either way, it’s not a game-breaker like some have suggested it would be.

I’m sure there are a lot of details to iron out here, no doubt. But I think the base concept is solid, and again, I’m surprised we have not seen a more solid effort made in this space (but I’ll just go ahead and blame the WoW-blinders as per usual).

Sky-clone please

February 14, 2013

I’ve been playing a good bit of Skyrim: Dawnguard of late. Quality DLC to a game I’m fairly sure I’ll never see all of, even without the recently released DLC Dragonborn. Skyrim will be on my PC for a while, and it really is one of the most enjoyable titles in recent years (not that you didn’t already know that).

I don’t know the exact development cost of Skyrim, but I’m fairly certain it’s less than the 300m+ of SW:TOR. And we all know why SW:TOR cost that much (voice), but hour after hour of great Skyrim content just continues to hammer home how terrible SW:TOR is in terms of using its funding correctly. On a lesser scale, the fact that Inquisition and I also burned through GW2 in under a month is something to consider. Not to say that small adjustments would have fixed the ills of SW:TOR or GW2, because… well 4th pillar/personal story, but those titles should have done a bit better in terms of retention.

Which brings us back to the question of whether a PvE-based sandbox could work? It certainly works in Skyrim, but would that translate online? Simply adding other players to Skyrim would not make it a better game IMO, so clearly changes would need to be made, but what are they?

Skyrim uses a good bit of zoning (caves, dungeons, forts, certain towns), so for starters those would need to scale based on party size, much like Skyrim currently scales based on player level. The open world could be pre-populated, with different general areas intended for different levels, while some special spots (dragon spot for instance) would bring back higher levels to those areas. Respawning could be old-school, like in EQ1, with higher-value targets coming back after long (24-30hr) downtimes.

Basically every other area of the game would need some tweaking, and I don’t want to break it all down here, but my point is that I believe it’s possible to make a decent PvE MMO just by tweaking what already works in Skyrim.

Yes, I’m basically asking for a Sky-clone MMO. Or rather, wondering why someone hasn’t done it already, considering Skyrim is very similar to Oblivion (a huge success), which was very similar to Morrowind, a game released in 2002.


Return to sanity

February 11, 2013

So this happened over the weekend. Head on over and enjoy, especially the comments section. If you skim, don’t worry, I’ve got a lot of the choice quotes here.

On the surface this just sounds like a bitter ex-MMO blogger venting because others are talking about a PvP MMO, and to them those types of games are scary monsters to be shunned. More of the same, right?

Except it’s not just that, especially if you go into the comments section. There, it’s an interesting look into the MMO genre and how it’s currently in a state of correction.

To put it bluntly, SW:TOR was the last of a dying breed. We will never see another mega-expensive themepark focused on refining what made WoW work, primarily because it’s now been confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that the model does not work; not in WoW now, not in titles trying to be it.

In part, it’s because this is who you are targeting:

MMOs are DESIGNED to be a quick and replaceable pastime, they are easy to pick up and require minimal investment (like all games compared to any real-life activity). Nobody ever designed them to be the Mozart-equivalent of anything. Just because you’re not able to retain perspective, and treat them as the *games* they are, does not turn them into anything different.

You expect the player above to play/pay for months and months in order to make your money back. As EA themselves stated so well: “if SW:TOR can’t do it, no one can”. Oh how right they were.

I find all of this comical in a way. These are the players always telling us that in PvP games, the wolves eat the sheep, and then the sheep leave, and the wolves are left with nothing; yet here we have the sheep leaving their pastures after a month or so, dooming one title after another. Not that I blame them of course; when you are only given a month-worth of content, why stay indeed.

What really seems silly here is the perception of expectations. Let’s start with this:

If today a game released and got 250,000 players, it would be considered a failure

That’s a funny metric isn’t it? Because by that standard, only a few MMOs qualify as a success, and only two of them can be solidly confirmed (WoW and EVE). Everything else? Either hovering near that, or they are far below.

(WoW) remains the yard stick with which other games have to be measured:

If this was 2007, then the above statement would only appear foolish to a few :cough: But its 2013. It’s been almost 9 years since WoW has been released, and in those 9 years, how many titles and how much money has been spent without a single title even coming close to retaining a tenth of what WoW peaked at? No, today no one is using WoW as a yard stick, just like no new music record is using Thriller as the make-or-break point.

But the angst is understandable, because the slow confirmation is sinking in; those who enjoyed what WoW offered will be left out in the cold soon. That ‘mass market’ is, shockingly, just not profitable. The content is too expensive to produce, the players don’t stick around long enough, and even when you seem to get most things right, you still fall about ten million subs short of expectations. Again, in 2007 maybe this was a debate, in 2013, it’s not.

In the whole subset of humanity, people who like MMOs are a small subset, and guys who will always like MMOs are a tiny subset in that subset. Basically not worth even considering when talking about MMO gamers as a whole.

Ah yes, our little niche. The problem with the above is rather simple. If you aim to retain 500k subs, and only get 250k, you have failed. And if all you can plan for is that 500k, the MMO genre seems like a really difficult place to do business. And for years now, all most have heard about is the go-big-or-go-home mantra of WoW-cloning. Why aim at 50k when you can target that juicy 12m?

Because the 12m is a lie, isn’t it? For a multitude of factors already well-covered, the 12m that played WoW back in vanilla/TBC just don’t have a real interest in MMOs as a whole. They never did, and while they were briefly attracted to a bright light every now and again, the tourists always came back, or just left and went home altogether (though ‘9m’ still remain, right?). Yet for years studio after studio tried to chase them, dressing their offering up as a robot, or a superhero, or countless variations of Gandalf. And all failed. All of them.

What has always worked in this genre is accurate targeting and delivery. To most Darkfall 1 was not a success, because it never got above 100k subs and Aventurine’s track record was and is, well, let’s call it special. And yet DF1 was a sub-based MMO for three years, had three expansions and launched a second server six months after release, and now has a sequel of impeccable quality (snicker) in beta. From a players perspective, it’s exactly what you could hope for. More importantly, for those at AV, from the original crew to the new hires, they get to continue doing what they love and getting paid for it. And DF is just one example among many, with by far the most prominent being EVE; a title still growing after ten years that is more true to its vision than just about anything else. A title that started in a niche of niches and carved itself into the second-biggest MMO out. Not bad for Excel Online.

More importantly, Camelot Unchained and others show that the future of the genre is, finally, not in chasing the mythical WoW unicorn, but in reproducing what actually worked; delivering a measured product aimed at the crowd that actually wants it. And if that crowd is only 30k strong, as Mark Jacob’s estimates will be the case for CU, so be it. 30k people paying you each month is more than doable from a business standpoint; you just can’t spend 300m to get there.

And that’s where the fear comes in from the WoW-clone crowd. Titles like CU offer nothing for them. Nothing. They are too focused, too targeted, and demand too much from them. Worst of all, these titles don’t NEED the WoW-cloners, and that scares them to death. After all these years of being catered to, of having one massively over-produced monthly snack after another, the next wave will ignore them and move right past them.

It’s what niche products do. And MMOs are most certainly niche, one unique and unreproducible outlier aside.

Camelot Unchained: A good first impression

February 8, 2013

Snowmageddon will not stop my blogging!

Camelot Unchained is making noise of late thanks to Mark Jacobs sharing some details. I’m not going to link to all of the info, but it’s out there and you should go check it out. Also, don’t forget that MJ’s old blog was called The MMO Genre is a Niche Market. That’s important only for the lulz, but those are very important.

I think the best info about CU is that the team is aiming for a niche. MJ tossed out 30k subs as a target, which is great, and not just because I’ve been saying for years that you can be totally viable with that kind of population. The earlier worries of low-pop servers are silly too. Current themeparks cap out at around 10k per server, so if CU does have 30k subs, that’s either three good pop servers, or one without any population problems (beyond of course having too many in one area, but more on that later).

Along with setting reasonable expectations, MJ has also said that the game will have stuff in it that most won’t like, but the niche will love. We’ll see how far they stick to that once the forum babies start crying, but again, it’s the right thing to say for now. Niche games work not because they are a half-decent version of something great, but because they are great versions of something that appeals to only a few.

I’m a bit curious why so much time has been spent talking about crafting in an RvR game, but hopefully its actually worthwhile. My fear is the crafting itself will be ‘cute’, and fail to really matter because in an MMO, crafting is not about HOW you make something, it’s about WHY.

My biggest concern however is progression. MMOs without it don’t work long-term, and an RvR game aiming at a niche can’t afford to be something that only last for a month or so. The ask for a ‘pure skill’ PvP MMO just doesn’t make sense. We have LoL for that, and LoL does it better than anyone out.

A solid PvP MMO has progression while also allowing for player skill to matter. It’s a tough formula to balance, but minimizing the progression aspect just shortens your retention.

So with all that said, CU is on my radar. I don’t think it’s something we will see for a while, and who knows how it will turn out, but at least the initial info is better than pitching us a personal story or full voice acting. Baby steps.



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