MMO Future: Understanding old memories

October 31, 2013

Almost all of the original MMOs worked. UO, EQ1, AC1, DAoC; all of those games had solid populations and growth in their prime. In contrast, most of the recent MMOs (AoC, WAR, LotR, SW:TOR, Aion, Rift, etc) have not. Either they are getting shut down, closing servers, or in the F2P minor leagues. Based on this, it’s easy to see why many players are interesting in returning to ‘the good old days’, while others are dismissing those feelings as a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience that can’t be reproduced and only happened because of the time, not so much the games themselves.

As with most topics the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I do want to address why those older games worked as MMOs, and dispel a few misconceptions about ‘the good old days’.

First and foremost, all four of the games listed above worked because they had content for months if not years, rather than weeks. You can say it was a long character grind, or punishing mechanics, or archaic systems, but at the end of the day the fact remains that to ‘max out’ in those games it simply took far longer than in a game like SW:TOR or WAR, and when your business model is based on keeping people subscribed and playing, that’s pretty damn important.

Another factor to consider here is that we are not talking a few months or even the first year when talking about the original four peaking; they all did it later (And of course, we are still seeing EVE ‘peak’ yearly). This is important because it dispels a myth that leads to the often-repeated mistake of cutting your current game short to allow everyone to catch up and ‘get to the good stuff’, which is usually the latest expansion or added end-game content. Today we are so worried about a new player getting stuck in the old stuff, that we completely forget the fact that if the content is good, having more of it is a bonus, not a penalty.

WoW today has a stupidly-fast leveling curve, so fast in fact that you simply can’t complete all of a zone before out-leveling it. Is that really a strength of the game; zipping you to the end-game? Or would WoW today fare better with a much longer/slower leveling curve, one that allowed players to finish a zone without have to trick the XP system? Was WoW ‘broken’ in 2004 with its slower pace? Was everyone dying to get to the ‘good stuff’ of raiding Molten Core? The numbers most certainly don’t support that theory.

Player burnout is happening faster today than before. Is it because many of us are MMO vets now and are just not entertained as long by the same stuff, or is it also a factor that many of the games we play force burnout by zipping us along at a breakneck pace? It’s hard to state “man, I wish I was gaining XP slower!”, but at the same time, are you really dying to get passed the leveling and progression aspects of early life in an MMO? To put it another way, when you recall the more fun moments of a typical MMO (especially a themepark), are those memories all at the end-game, or did you enjoy the ride as much if not more than the destination (spoiler: in most MMOs the destination sucks, which is why you quit).

A related item I want to address is the memories older MMO players have of the early days, such as camping a spawn for hours or running the same content an insane amount of time for a single item. It’s common to see someone state they would never do that again, and hence the older approach to making an MMO simply wouldn’t work today.

First, when players talk about those times, it’s important to understand that such extremes are memorable because they were and are extremes; the average day for an EQ1 players was NOT spent sitting at one spawn waiting for a specific iem, just like the average day for a DAoC player was not a 5 hour relic raid. A UO player’s average day was not breaking into a house, or getting ganked with half your items at the Brit bank. Today massive battles in EVE are news-worth because they don’t happen daily, record breaking thefts make the front pages because, well, they just broke a record in a game with 10+ years of history.

That said, let’s make no mistakes about it, the above are very important to those games; many are the catalysts that inspire others to start playing or to play more/differently. When they go well, they are the highs that make the day-to-day stuff worthwhile, and even when they go wrong, they leave an impression. Keeping everything vanilla is safe, but safe doesn’t inspire year after year of loyalty and excitement; it gets you a 3 week run that is entirely forgettable.

That’s not to suggest you can simply copy/paste 1997 UO, release it with updated graphics, and profit. Changes to the formula are needed, but outright abandoning the core is clearly not working. So when MMO fans talk about bringing back the ‘good old days’, it’s not because they want everyone to sit around a mob spawn for 12 hours daily, or because they would love to play a game where they lose everything at the bank all the time. In addition to a lot of basic concepts I’ll cover in a future post, they want the possibility of something memorable happening, because without those standout moments, your MMO is just another game to check out for a brief period of time, and that is NOT what an MMO is all about.


I’ll just answer my own challenge

October 30, 2013

I’m currently semi-addicted to Steam trading cards and leveling up my Steam account. Why? Because I’m an idiot. F2P ALL THE WAY!

PS: If you are not into the cards, please send one or all to me and we can be buddies on Steam forever. Tag = Syncaine.

PPS: Totally serious about the above, please send me a card. Any card(s) will do. I’ll find a way to make them work.

PPPS: I feel like I’m approaching the F2P rock bottom of addiction. That’s a good thing right? On the way to recovery and all that?


F2P challenge, still waiting

October 28, 2013

Last week I asked F2P fans to comment/post on why the F2P model for an MMO is better for both devs and players. I’m still waiting…


MMO Future: Suits and timebombs

October 24, 2013

A lot of good back and forth dialog happened yesterday, which you should go read if you haven’t. Thanks go out to Brian (Psychochild) Green for putting up more of a fight than the hotbar salesmen from SW:TOR. I’d like to follow up on a few items today and hopefully keep the conversation going.

On suits only funding F2P MMOs right now: I don’t doubt that is the environment Brian has to deal with today (ignoring the next big MMO coming out, TESO, being a sub game). But since when do the suits know best? Remember, suits thought SW:TOR’s 4th pillar sales pitch was so hot they threw $300m+ at it. Suits also didn’t think Ultima Online would work. Suit after suit thought if you just copy/paste WoW, you too will easily reach millions of subs. Suits, by definition, are CHASING the latest trend, not setting it, and when that trend is a timebomb like F2P (more on that later), jumping on that train isn’t going to end well for anyone other than the suits (who usually include an out clause).

You know what the suits have missed? Things like Star Citizen, which right now has raised $25m+. That’s not 25m in sales of a completed game, that’s 25m in “I like your vision, hopefully it works out, take my money” wallet-voting. I wonder how much money suits would have thrown at Chris Roberts, and what their demands would have included? Hard to imagine which title is ultimately going to turn out to be more entertaining…

Or to look at it from a different angle, if what SOE showed at the EQN reveal (a tired cartoon look, parkour, and move out of the boss’s red box ‘gameplay’, yo) was put out as a crowdfunding initiative, would it even sniff 1m? “Oh the one-hit wonder factory SOE is making another F2P themepark with crap I don’t need/want, please take my money” – said by no one, ever. I’m sure they will have a wonderful selection of wings in the cash shop though, just don’t forget to pay your epic items upkeep license fee.

Brian took offense at comparing the stereotypical Walmart shopper to the stereotypical F2P MMO player, yet who really is the ideal F2P MMO player the suits are hoping to attract?

Is it the educated MMO player who has put time into titles like UO, DAoC, EVE, early WoW? Is that the kind of player who is going to become a whale in your cash shop? Is that the player who benefits from the zero-entry barrier of your amazing F2P MMO? Is that the type of player who NEEDS that zero-entry barrier when they find something worthwhile? Are they going to keep you in business through repeat fluff purchases? Are they the audience who is going to look at a P2W setup and jump in?

Or is the target someone less educated? Is the target someone who would be lured in by a shiny exterior with a clearly hollow center? (h/t Supplantor for the link) Someone who is into buying power without realizing what that ultimately means (a cheapened gaming experience for everyone)? Is it someone who can get hooked on the cash shop, buying just one more set of wings, a hat, or a pretty dress? Is it someone who hasn’t caught on to the fact that buying an XP booster is nothing more than just paying to play something you (should be) enjoying less?

If everyone in the MMO genre was an educated MMO player well-versed in both sub MMOs and F2P offerings, would F2P still be around? Are whales anything but simple, weak-willed individuals? The same people you shake your head at as you pass them in the casino, hopelessly addicted to a slot machine? Or the last few still standing off in a corner during their cigarette break, killing themselves slowly but unable to stop?

Now granted, stupid has existed since the beginning of time and will continue to exist in one form or another, and finding a way to cater to stupid can be a successful business strategy. As the saying goes, a sucker is born every day. But the key to catering to stupid is you have to keep evolving the tricks as the populace catches on to the last batch.

The F2P MMO model was a nice trick when Zynga first pulled it off, and they made a killing. It’s a timebomb because at some point (and that point is basically now or very soon), too many former dummies/whales will have caught on to your trick, and they won’t be shelling out the hundreds and thousands you depend on for just another gem pack, or one more set of wings.

Solid design and content is worth paying for, and will continue to be worthwhile. The tricks of a hotbar salesmen are temporary, and that clock is about to hit midnight.

And now a little challenge to the F2P supporters; imagine you just launched the most successful MMO ever (2005/6 WoW level success). Millions of people not only showed up day one, but millions are still around years later, and for them your game is the absolute main focus and they can’t get enough.

Is that game better served by being a F2P MMO, or as a subscription title, for both your players and the developers?

I would love, love for some pro-F2P person to take the above and break down why a successful MMO is better under F2P. What benefits do I get as a player, and under those benefits, how are the developers better off? How have you maintained year-after-year success and prosperity under the F2P model?

We know, because we have seen it (WoW before the talent drain) and continue to see it (EVE after the correction of theF2P-error that was Incarna), that when an MMO is great, the sub model works for both players and devs. So unless the ultimate goal is mediocrity and a quick cash grab, I need someone to blog/comment on the above. What is the best-case scenario for a great F2P MMO?

(And it has to be an MMO, you can’t mention something like LoL, GTA, or CoD. LoL is not an MMO, nor is its F2P model ANYTHING like a cash shop-driven F2P MMO. Same for GTA/CoD, or any other title that is not an MMO.)


People of F2P MMOs

October 23, 2013

Nope.

First, can we stop linking to that 2011 LotRO announcement of how great it’s doing? Please link to the 2013 “still doing great” announcement. Same goes for DDO. Last I heard, Turbine was releasing a response to in-game protests about bending people over in DDO. Game is obviously still doing awesome thanks to F2P, right?

Next, has anyone ever called F2P ‘fans’ lazy gamers? What does that even mean? People too lazy to put in a credit card number to subscribe? People too lazy to get a job in real life to afford $15 a month?

What MMO players that don’t pay are, in the best case, are cattle. They are (hopefully) content for those who do pay, and in exchange those who are paying the bills get to enjoy a better experience thanks to the free-loaders. How often that’s the case I’ll leave up to you to decide.

Bringing up Wal-Mart is appropriate when talking F2P. There is a reason People of Walmart exists, while People of Macy’s or People of Whole Foods does not. People of F2P MMOs is a thing that should exist.

Walmart is in part successful because they have mastered logistics, keeping their costs down. If you want to call reskinning wings and reselling them to people in a F2P MMO ‘logistics’, the comparison continues to work. The other factor in Walmart’s favor is being so big that they can bend laws to suit them, which is very Zynga-like. The key difference being laws caught up to Zynga and destroyed them, while Walmart has enough lobbying power to prevent that.

The core of what Mike at Massively is saying is correct however; MMOs turn to F2P for financial reasons. The ‘why it works’ part is where the disconnect happens. MMOs that turn F2P don’t magically get better content-wise. DDO/LotRO are still the same flawed MMOs that failed as sub games, but now ‘enhanced’ with a cash shop that pesters you continuously to try and sells you content, items, fluff, and power. So why do these games sorta-work (again, looking for that 2013 announcement of still doing awesome) as F2P when they failed as subscription games? Because of the People of F2P.

Tricking someone into giving you a buck is easier than keeping them around full-time for 15, especially when you target that particular brand of player with flash over substance. The other major change is you don’t need people to stick around in the F2P model; the cattle are plentiful and you are only hoping to skin a few bucks off them before they leave. That’s basically the opposite of being successful as a sub MMO; as a sub you not only have to be good enough to attract initial attention, you only succeed if you prove that you are worth it long-term. As we have seen over the years, most developers don’t have the talent to pull that off. Selling a sparkle-pony is easy, providing lasting, worthwhile content is not.

That the MMO genre is currently in a major rut and F2P is popular is not a coincidence. Hopefully we get out of it ‘soon’.


Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes mini review

October 22, 2013

Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes was on my Steam wishlist since release, and recently went on a 75% sale so of course was picked up. Initially I was a bit meh on it because at first glance, is almost the same game as Fallen Enchantress, and FE was a title I wanted to like a lot more than I ultimately did.

After putting a few hours into it, and fully completing one game, FE:LH is basically the fun, enjoyable, working version of FE, which I know was the whole point but man, did Stardock pull it off (and hey, it only took them almost four years and three releases!)

The game is a 4X turn-based fantasy strategy title set in a world with a story that is pretty whatever. If you are looking for lore or interesting stories, FE isn’t it. What it does have going for it are a slew of semi-complex systems all (finally) woven together to make a really interesting and entertaining strategy title.

Quick example: In FE, heroes were so overpowered your towns really didn’t matter, while in FE:LH towns are not only vital to supporting your heroes, they are also a major factor in getting them. It’s changes like this that abound in FE:LH, and (so far) it’s all working wonderfully together.

The only knock against the game for me is a total lack of multiplayer. This is exactly the type of game I’d love to play with my buddy ala Civilization or Heroes of Might and Magic, and its absence reduces the longevity of the game for me. That said it does allow for a lot of AI and map tweaking, along with mods, so I’m confident I’ll get my money’s worth here.

If you are looking for a new strategy title to sink your teeth into, even if you got burned by FE, I’d consider FE:LH a worthwhile pickup, especially when it inevitable goes on sale again.


MMO future: Social baseline

October 17, 2013

At the time of its release, WoW was criticized for not bringing much to the MMO genre, and simply being a refined EverQuest. Refining someone else’s idea was, after all, how Blizzard made a name for themselves originally. In 2004, it was a valid complaint.

By 2013 standards, not so much, considering what Rift, SW:TOR, or GW2 have brought to the market. And while it is certainly true that today’s MMO player is not as easily entertained as the average player was back in 2004 (where simply logging into a server and seeing others run around was a new thing for many), current offerings are also not even bringing to the table what WoW did in 2004, and the retention rates reflect that.

As I previously mentioned, a game generating enough interest/hype that ‘everyone’ wants to play day one is a huge factor in getting the social ball rolling for your title, and those social hooks are a major retention tool. At the same time, your game has to be different-enough that once everyone arrives, they stick around past the normal 3-month drop-off.

WoW certainly had that, in no small part because leveling to the then-cap of 60 was at least 3 months of gameplay (the insanity of viewing that as a problem to fix has never made sense to me). The longer you play one title, especially in a social setting, the more time the hooks have to develop, and the more likely you are to get involved in some form of end-game. One of the not-so-hidden dangers of being ‘accessible’ and letting everyone level to the cap solo is you deny people the natural social evolution of your game, and no matter how awesome your one-and-done content is, an MMO ultimately lives or dies by its repeatable content, be it dungeons, instances, PvP, etc.

That repeatable content is, overall, not amazing stuff. Its degree of fun can vary, but it can’t compete straight up with one-off stuff for the most part. The reason players stick around for months/years to run it is mostly due to the social hooks. A dungeon might not be amazing the 50th time through, but if you are doing it with a fun group that you meet in that game, its enjoyable-enough to keep going, especially if you are working together to advance to bigger and better things.

There is absolutely no better example of this than EVE and the ‘action’ of null-sec. Waiting HOURS to form up a giant fleet only to shoot at a structure and then head home is likely not on anyone’s top list of awesome things to do in an MMO, yet year after year EVE retains and grows while pilots in null-sec continue to do what they do. Why? Because sometimes that fleet will result in a massive, epic battle. But just as important; because shooting that structure and winning advances your alliance forward, and that’s important in EVE. The players are invested because of the social hooks, and those social hooks don’t magically appear at the level cap.

The next big MMO needs to find that sweet spot of fostering and encouraging the social aspect while not falling into the ‘forced grouping’ trap. It also needs to contain enough quality new stuff to keep people interested long enough for those hooks to develop. Those are both easy to describe but difficult to execute items, but if we are to see an MMO ‘work’ anywhere close to the level of a WoW or an EVE, it will contain them and perform them well.


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