“It seems much easier to make interesting, sandbox PvP content then it is to maintain and create PvE treadmill content”

November 30, 2010

Every now and then you come across something shocking it’s just too hard to ignore. Today is one of those days. This is a comment from a post Keen made, waiting for WoW to embrace its PvP nature (pro-tip: HKO is going full-loot before WoW embraces MMO PvP).

Bartlebe (15th comment):

The baffling thing about this, for me, is that it seems much easier to make interesting, sandbox PvP content then it is to maintain and create PvE treadmill content.
They could make interesting and wonderful open world PvP content fairly easily.

He goes on, but that part is the real gem.

First let’s consider the context here: we are talking about WoW, where the devs claim it’s technically impossible to get a 100v100 battle going without instancing it, hence the failure of Wintergrasp. Ignore the fact that, in WoW itself, you had bigger world battles in vanilla, but hey, they said it’s impossible, so it must be true. And pre-BG vanilla is also the last time WoW had anything remotely resembling world PvP, and it was Blizzard who worked diligently to crush it, so again, look forward to those HKO changes first.

But let’s move beyond WoW and look at the MMO genre as a whole: how many working sandbox PvP games have we had, compared to how many PvE treadmill games we have seen continue on year after year, despite being average at best? Or to put it another way: which would be easier to re-create and get right, EVE or WoW?

We have seen WoW recreated dozens of times, with various results (from LotRO to Alganon), but the formula itself is about as Mickey Mouse as playing WoW itself, and the make/break really comes down to polish, timing, and your IP.

The list of issues in recreating EVE is about as long as the wait for a pony reskin.

Hell, even EVE itself took years to really get itself into shape and become the massive success it is today, not to mention the ambitious plans CCP has for it’s future to further refine and get the game ‘right’. WoW ambitious future? A few zone revamps, and two more player model reskins. Ground-breaking stuff, really.

The simple fact is that PvE content, especially instanced, super easy PvE content, is easy to create in terms of getting it right. Yes, you need good artists to make it look good, and you need a QA army to polish it, but given how controlled everything is, balance and predicting what the players might do is kids stuff. Plus, if you screw it up (Rag 1.0, Nef 1.0, AQ40 1.0), just say it was tuned to be difficult and scale it down. Oh actually, call that a ‘feature’ going forward!

The obvious advantage a PvE themepark has is that everything is separated into its own little instance (be it an actual instance or level-set zones), and that instance is so tightly controlled that, well, your players get on the rail, get pulled along by the nose, and eventually depart after receiving their complimentary gift. So long as you don’t leave a gaping hold in the rail, the content ‘works’. The biggest enemy to your game, the players, can’t do more than dance on a mailbox to harm you, as you have ensured they keep their hands inside the ride at all times, and you shuffle them on/off at exactly the right time.

Those safety nets don’t exist in a sandbox. The more ‘sandbox’ you make your game, the more freedom you give to the players. Most will use this for good, but it’s not those who make designing the game a challenge. The minority who seek to destroy everything are the ones who makes designing a sandbox so difficult, and the more ‘sandboxy’ your game, the more weapons you give them.

Without instances that change the rules, without spells only doing X in setting Y, without checking to make sure everything is nice and ‘fair’ before you start, the downward spiral can come quick in a sandbox, and once you get rolling it only feeds the griefers to continue abusing things harder. While blah themeparks can chug along for years (DDO), a poorly designed sandbox soon eats itself whole (SB).

It’s also very telling that the ‘easy’ way out of a problem is to add themepark-like controls (WG becoming an instance), while only a few will stick to the original goal and put in the work to make it right (CCP with fleet warfare). It’s telling that games like WAR, which tried to play the middle, ultimately fail on the sandbox elements and ‘cheap out’ by going themepark. Knowing what we know about Mythic, if going sandbox really was the easy path, WAR would have been on it after the 3rd month.

Ultimately the trap some players fall into is they look at the complexity of a single piece of sandbox content from the outside, compare it to the complexity of a themepark piece, and come to a conclusion. The reason this fails is that in a sandbox, you CAN’T just look at any one item and focus on that without analyzing the impact to the rest of the game. You can’t tweak a malfunctioning PvE ability without looking at its PvP impact. You can’t change up crafting on a whim without considering what it will do to the economy, which ultimately controls both PvE and PvP motivations. The entire world is one giant complex puzzle, rather than a long string of one-off content chunks, all of which can and do often get a massive ‘reset’ to fix whatever balance or design issues that may arise.

When’s the last time EVE had a themepark-like reset button pressed?


One too many gaming options

June 22, 2010

Having too many games to play might seem like a silly thing to stress over (it is), but man can it be annoying/frustrating/great all at the same time. Between Darkfall being about as exciting as its ever been (with an expansion right around the corner as well), Eschalon coming out of nowhere to enthrall me, Battle of Wesnoth being multiplayer TBS gold, Guild Wars all of a sudden getting good, Age of Conan and Wizard101 being interesting rather than terrible in the one hour I’ve played them, and EVE always looking at me from the desktop, I just feel swamped right now. Not to mention gaming’s Armageddon, Civilization 5, is coming to steal 100% of my life away in new hex-based glory.

Can you feel my pain?

I need to do a proper post about Eschalon book one, but I’ll just say here that it was 20ish hours of classic RPG gaming greatness, and book two so far has been an overall improvement on the whole thing. I still don’t get how something that looks so simple on the surface can be this good, other than the old adage that gameplay is indeed king.

Battle of Wesnoth also needs its own post (see, I’m even swamped with potential blog posts here!), but I’ll just say this: if you are playing a strategy game and the very first turn is not critical and always interesting, you are doing it wrong. There is just something amazing about being able to play a complete game in 10-15 turns and feel like you just executed/failed a master strategy, with all of the tiny make-or-break details of a massive multi-hour gaming session. Oh and the maps? Possibly the greatest multiplayer maps of all time, no joke. The game is crazy good, both offline and on, and it’s a crime that it’s free.

Guild Wars: As readers will remember, GW somewhat failed to keep Aria interested, and I was 50/50 on it. Not being a quitter, I decided to press on a bit more with my Dervish, and I must say things really picked up after level 10, including a nice set of missions (with cutscenes), and the overall progression of the story/setting. I had a feeling we quit right before things got better, and at least so far, I was right. Now to get Aria to catch up…

Not much to say about AoC/Wizard101 other than I’m interested in playing them a bit more. So far both games have made a solid first impression (for very different reasons), and if not for the avalanche of options, I’d likely be putting in some serious time into one or both. I’d say hopefully things clear up soon, but I don’t see that happening. The good news is that since neither game is going anywhere, and if anything only improving with time, no worries on the delay to really play them. Same deal for EVE really, just too many options to fully jump back into EVE, so beyond a few missions, some market work, and just talking to old Corp mates, nothing to really write about.

Finally Civilization 5: when Civ 4 was released, I don’t remember how long I played it without playing anything else, but it was a good chunk of time. Civ is just one of those games that demands you keep playing it, and once you start you don’t really stop until you at least finish your current game. Problem is, when the game is still new and fresh, as soon as one game ends you have about a million other things you want to try, so starting another game is inevitable. It’s a great problem to have of course, and I can’t wait for the game to get released, but hopefully I can wrap up Eschalon book two, get enough Wesnoth, and somehow balance Darkfall time come this fall.

Busy gaming season, it’s serious yo.

Chuck-o-the-day: A sequel to 300 is currently being filled staring Chuck Norris. It will be called 1.


Chasing sheep money

June 16, 2010

My comment yesterday about Warhammer 40k looking like WoW in the future was only partly based off the fact that, well, it looks like WoW in the future. The other factor in making that statement was the fact that in today’s market, it seems that if someone is billing an MMO as mass market, they mean WoW clone. The degree of cloning varies (LotRO is far closer than AoC or WAR, but all three look identical to WoW when placed next to EVE for example), but some basics are always there. The game is more or less faceroll easy, it’s difficult to play the game ‘wrong’, and the basic structure is the same PvE/Questhub design we all played in 2004. And no, tacking on some ‘new’ twist or variation of an endgame does not make you special.

Now before I go on, let me just get this out: being a WoW clone is not all bad. LotRO was a fun game, I enjoyed WAR, and I’m liking what I’ve seen so far from AoC. But it also gets terribly boring, the design is amazingly limited when compared to a sandbox-style MMO, and if the difficulty is down near WoW-levels, it’s personally insulting to even log in and have anything be called a ‘challenge’ or an ‘achievement’. Obviously plenty of people love walking over what is in front of them with zero effort, and that’s a profitable market if you can keep them, but it’s not what I’m looking for 90% of the time.

But WoW-cloning is not the ONLY way to make an MMO, and an IP like 40k is just so damn perfect for doing something different. How interesting would it be to play an MMO with 8 races/factions, all at war with each other? How new would it be to play an MMO where instead of a single character, you are in control of a squad, the leader being your ‘main’ but the other members would also be involved and interact (imagine the Dragon Age party system, where things differ slightly based on who you have in your party/squad at the time)? Hell, just change the view/combat to how Darkfall does it (1st person for shooting, close-locked 3rd person for melee) and keep the whole PvE/questhub/instance setup. Just do something beyond !, ding, achievement, epic, faceroll until its over.

And while I would love to lay blame with the developers, let’s be honest, they are just giving people what they want. Tobold today is wondering why there is no loss in PvE games, or why so many think PvP in an MMO can’t work (despite the fact that, you know, it has for 6+ years in EVE and 24/7 in Asia, not to mention since the dawn of computing in other gaming genres), and why only a small ‘elite’ seems to actually enjoy quality PvP. The answer is the same as to why McDonalds is so popular; most people are sheep. Having to think, having to make a decision, and getting possibly negative feedback is scary to them, and the more they can isolate themselves from that, the better. Why do tourists (not the MMO kind) visit a McDonalds in Paris? Because rather than taking a ‘risk’ with something new, they play it safe and ezmode it with something familiar, even if that something familiar is utter garbage when compared to other options.

WoW has done its part here by not only lowering the bar to subterranean levels in terms of the challenge/reward ratio, but also by conditioning so many in terms of how quickly and effortlessly they should expect to progress. You have an entire subset of the MMO gaming population that believes the WoW pace of advancement is ‘just right’, and so anything that takes longer than a weekend to max out in is a ‘huge grind’, and if anything kills you more than once the game is impossible and not worth playing. Launch today without SOMETHING dinging every 10 minutes? You lack ‘content’. That part of the genre is a sad joke when compared to pre-WoW days in terms of what it means to be playing an MMO.

Ultimately what it comes down to is that the MMORPG genre is indeed a niche in gaming, as its simply too difficult, too scary, too different for the sheep of the world to grasp or appreciate. ‘Luckily’, the sheep have the MMO genre to play around with. They can mimic the hobby elements, feel like they are in a virtual world and part of something ‘massive’, all while smashing 1-2-1-3 in their solo instance to save the world for the 4th time that day. It just sucks that 40k is looking like an MMO rather than an MMORPG, but you can’t fault the devs; sheep money is still money.

Chuck-o-the-day: Fire escapes were invented to protect fire from Chuck Norris.


Wizard101 and AoC reviews

June 10, 2010

The EG review of Wizard101:

Cute and polished, but did we not learn from FF7 that no one wants to watch the same overextended summoning animation after the 10th time? Bonus points for making the first battle seem like I have some control, but do I really need to click the little box after every… single… short… little… text… blurb? I thought this game was designed with the ADD generation in mind? 5/10

The EG review of AoC:

You swing a stick, one guy dies, you ding. Really? The epic-spewing loot piñatas in WoW have nothing on AoC progression speed. Oh and FunCom, SoE called, they want their 1995-speed downloader back, people need those EQ2 trials delivered at the end of the month. 5gigs at 100k, GO! Digging the setting/look/style in all of the 10 minutes I had with it though. 4/10

Chuck-o-the-day: Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, but Jack still couldn’t dodge Chuck Norris’s roundhouse kick.


Snicker indeed.

May 13, 2010

Our good friends at EuroGamer strike again.

Read the comments over at Lum’s site for a link to the original review that was pulled down, along with some good points, like complaining about the lack of a level cap increase while also complaining that the AA system (that uses XP to increase) adds too much complexity to playing a character.

I also like how EG again tries to save face by claiming that while the review was actually fine, they pulled it because they want to buff it up to that oh-so-high EG standard. To quote the site:

We believe the review provided an accurate and reasonable account of the game in its present state, but on further investigation we are still not completely satisfied that it meets the standards expected of MMO reviews.

I guess it must be in the water over there. The review was accurate and a reasonable account of the game, but somehow that is not the expected standard for an MMO review? Well, we certainly know it’s not the standard over at EG.


2009 predictions: BINGO! (not exactly)

December 30, 2009

Can you believe I had trouble finding my 2009 predictions post. I know, how hard is it to find a post titled “2009 Predictions” on my own blog, but um, it took a lot longer than I care to admit. I blame not tagging it with the “Site Update” tag, now fixed. Personal stupidity in the clear, we move on…

Actually not really, we just move on to a different form of stupidity, that being my 2009 predictions. They are… not exactly as on-target as I would have liked them to be. To the fail list!

WoW: All players will burn through WotLK faster than they did TBC, increasing the churn rate. WoW will launch in new areas of the world and count those players towards its own overall sub number (despite more than half of those not being full-paid subs), which counters the effects of the above and WoW retains its 11 million ’subs’. The new raid content will be beaten the day it is released live by top guilds, but it will be considered tuned ‘correctly’ despite the churn. More daily grinds in 09.

I think the burn/churn part was/is correct, as WotLK shipped with a very limited and easy endgame, and updates have been traditionally slow to come. By the looks of things everyone is waiting for Cataclysm to really shake things up, although the now-fixed LFG is allowing the antisocial crowd to see some ‘new’ instances. The biggest thing I missed is WoW being banned in China, which has actually cut 6 million or so gamers out, rather then the predicted “new territory” opening to keep numbers stable. 2009 being a ‘failed’ year in terms of AAA titles also helped maintain WoW sub numbers IMO. “More daily grinds in 09″ is a great line by me though, good job self.

WAR: Mythic steals CCP’s stackless I/O tech and Fortress sieges without lag become a reality. The Choppa and Slayer classes are added, and the game overall is ‘fixed’, with balance becoming the never-ending debate. Keeps gain the functionality they have in DAoC, along with some new features. WAR continues as the #2 sub MMO in the US/EU.

Oops. So not only is WAR not the current #2 MMO, it’s actually one step away from the grave, and EA is very NCSoft-like in killing underperforming titles (AC2, Sims Online). The big thing of course is that WAR is, by all accounts, still not ‘fixed’. That requires a third+ faction, and with it’s budget/staff cut, I wonder if that will ever happen. More than anything I’m disappointed in myself for not spotting this design error sooner, or perhaps believing that Mythic would be able to pull off a set two-sided conflict. I still hope Mythic can turn WAR around, as I’d love to play it as a casual PvP game to jump into and enjoy for a few hours a week. The game overall is not nearly as bad as some make it out to be, but when your entire endgame is marred by such a huge blunder, it’s impossible to ignore.

LoTRO: Replaces EQ2 as the ‘other’ fantasy PvE game in town, and continues to improve monthly. The overall effects of MoM are seen as a huge long-term positive for the game, and take its focus in that direction, with more legendary items and complex classes. The bread and butter book quests continue to be the best PvE in MMOs.

A bit off here as well. While LotRO is currently bigger (in terms of subs) than EQ2, it’s not enjoyed as successful a year as it did in 2008. The pace and quality of updates has slowed, MoM had/has some issues (and I’m not sure it’s long-term additions are positive), and currently LotRO has nothing that screams “come back!” to me, which back then I was almost positive would happen.

SOE and EQ2: Not much will change for EQ2, as 2009 will being ‘more of the same’, which will be embraced by the core players. Thanks to Station Access it will remain a nice option, yet it will concede more players as the engine continues to get more dated. FreeRealms will launch, and no one above the age of ten will notice. It certainly won’t be the MMO jesus SOE is praying it will be, but rather will become another free-to-play cartoon. The Agency will flop, as MMO players will reject the FPS-lite gameplay.

I think I got the EQ2 part right (anyone playing care to confirm?), and certainly FR is not the barn burner some predicted (when is the last time they released one of those enlightening ‘120 billion characters created’ PR pieces?). The Agency is still MIA, and news (at least in the sources I check) has been non-existent about it. Is anyone still looking forward to this game?

AoC: Closed before we see 2010.

Yup, wrong again. The most surprising part about AoC is not that it’s still alive, but that it’s still alive despite not being fixed (again, at least according to the sites I visit). I think the general down year that was 2009 actually saved AoC, as those playing it really did not have anything major to pull them away.

EVE: Continues to grow, with avatars in stations bringing in many new players. Most leave once they fly out to low-sec and get podded. EVE continues to be the one MMO that defies all of the ‘WoW or bust’ logic, and gives hope to anyone looking for a different and yet successful MMO.

If you want easy prediction points, predict EVE will continue to grow. Still waiting on those avatars though. If we attribute the business models behind Fallen Earth and DarkFall to EVE, the last part of that prediction also works.

Free-to-play MMOs: They continue to be pumped out at dime-a-dozen rates, each a bit more anime than the last. Without a AAA representative, they remain in the same spot as they have been in 2008, an MMO afterthought or ‘niche’. The few gems in the crowd have difficulty finding an audience due to the overall perception of free-to-play games.

While the perception may be slowly shifting, F2P is still without a AAA representative, and instead has become the ‘fall back’ plan for failed sub games, most notably DDO. I think I got the ‘gems in the crowd’ part right, as we still see piles of F2P games released and sifting through them is a difficult and time-consuming process. Oddly enough the successful niche titles of 2009 (Fallen Earth and DarkFall) have gone with the subscription model, although W101 is a hit F2P game.

RMT: Again as in 2008, RMT is kept to buying ponies or cute dresses, though all games in the MMO graveyard (Station Access) gain some form of RMT. At least one major MMO will make a legitimate push into full-on RMT, giving us the NGE of 2009.

The pet store in WoW was not even close to NGE, but it did ruffle some feathers, and overall more games added RMT-like ‘features’. This is still an area the genre is trying to figure out, as we have seen titles offer too much (FR) and get burned, while others (DDO) seem to be offering ‘just enough’ to satisfy. Certainly one of the trickier balancing acts in the business today.

So overall I was a lot more wrong than right, and things did not play out like I expected them to. It’s been somewhat of a strange year in the MMO genre. On the one hand, unless you are currently enjoying FE or DF, you can easily view 2009 as a down year for the genre in terms of new games. Older titles got some nice updates and continued to do what they do, yet nothing earth-shattering really happened in those games either.

The difficult part for me is separating my opinion of the year with what overall happened. For me personally 2009 was a great year, but that’s solely based on DarkFall delivering far beyond my expectations and being a consistent source of entertainment for basically the whole year. That I don’t see this greatly changing in 2010 is also something to really look forward to. I’m also very happy to see Fallen Earth doing well and bringing some new ideas and formulas to the MMO table; it’s always good to see someone rewarded for NOT cloning EQ1. If either title inspires more creativity to actually be released, then 2009 was a good year.

I should have my fail-tastic 2010 predictions up tomorrow.


Life Evolution in the sandbox

November 24, 2009

Pacing and gameplay evolution are very important and at times overlooked factors in any MMO. The actions and motivations of a day one player are very different than those of a two year veteran, and good game design takes that into consideration. What can be enjoyable in the first month might very well be considered a ‘grind’ one year in, and something that might cause confusion after a few weeks could be a key feature keeping someone around month after month.

Themeparks get off easy in this regard because the developer is always in control of the rope pulling you forward, and they decide what is available to you day one, day one hundred, and ultimately on your last day. On the other hand a sandbox by design does not have such a rope, but rather multiple points-of-interest that server to motivate and influence, but never force, player behavior.

DarkFall has not always had the smoothest progression path, and while improved today it still has a ways to go before it’s fully there. Beyond the differences in control and UI, I believe the initial pacing of the game is currently solid. Skill gain from 1-50 is IMO relatively fast for most skills, and a skill at 50 is generally ‘good enough’. In relatively short order (10 hours?) you can be well on your way to establishing your preferred method of combat (melee/archery/magic), and in that time the average player should be comfortable with the controls, immediate environment, and basic concepts of the game. You certainly won’t be a master at anything, but your character should begin to establish an identity and purpose (being a part of a clan at this point will of course help in both regards, but motivated solo players should be fine).

In-game this means exploring and finding local mob spawns that are a good source of skill and loot gain, building up your bank, and learning the basics of crafting, PvE, and PvP (likely from getting attacked) combat. If you are part of a clan at this point you are likely still focusing more on PvE than PvP, with the major difference being that you are hunting mobs around your clan’s current location rather than a starter city, perhaps even in small groups. You can still join in on any PvP runs (with the knowledge that you will likely be going up against superior enemies and 1v1 situations will result in death, so just play your part and help out rather then trying to play the spearhead of any attack), and you will be included in major events such as sieges or large raids.

At some point later down the road (30-40 hours?), player motivation and gameplay should shift from discovery and growth to role execution. At this point your core skills should be around 75 or above, your secondary skills should be coming along, and you should have a solid understanding of most in-game mechanics and happenings. Your in-game time should be shifting away from focused skill gain to doing and reacting to what is happening around you (which is why a clan is key for all but the most self-motivated individuals), and through those actions your skills will continue to increase more ‘naturally’.

In-game this means you are now hunting mobs with a more focused goal (enchanting mats, gold for a specific skill/goal, rank 40+ weapons), and really working on your PvP skills, both group and solo. You should be able to hold your own in most combat situations (although power-gamers will still dominate you), and most importantly that initial rush and panic will be controlled.

The final ‘phase’ in a sandbox is true role pursuit and acceptance. Whether this means being a powerful economic force, a name to be fears on the battlefield, a regarded tactician, or simply a local area menace, you should have SOME purpose other than more gold/skills. Your character should be ‘done’ in most areas, with perhaps some secondary goals that serve more as a side project than a true need.

In-game this is where a sandbox shines, because the number of options and possibilities should be great, and the ability to change direction should be possible without a complete re-roll. This is also the stage of the game where upcoming additions and changes affect you most, and you should be heavily involved (directly or otherwise) in the ‘end-game’ of politics, city warfare, and empire building. The amount of content here should be nearly endless, as things such as alliances and military power change almost daily. Your allies today might be your enemy tomorrow and vice versa.

It’s this final phase that is both the major strength and current weakness of DarkFall. On the one hand, it deserves credit for having such a solid and functional end-game this early in its MMO life. That you want to and can siege a city without the server blowing up is more of an accomplishment then you might think, considering MMO history like SB (SB.exe), AoC (instanced city fails), WAR (the whole endgame), WoW (world PvP and Wintergrasp fails), Aion (fortresses). At the same time, clearly some issues exist, such as OP AoE magic, 6 hour sieges, ships and warhulk functionality, etc. And compared to other sandbox titles such as UO (pre-tram) and EVE, DarkFall is lacking the true depth those titles features in areas such as economic balance and possibility, non-combat influence/power, and RP/fluff possibilities (think player-made orc clans in UO).

The good news is that because of it’s solid base, developer time can and is being focused on adding and expending those areas rather than continually trying to get the core working, so while DarkFall might not be the game for you right now Mr. Exclusive Crafter Economy guy, it should/will be at some point ‘soon’, and when you do join up, you’ll have a lot of other options to entertain you as well.

(DarkFall-related post disclaimer/reminder. If you click the image link near the top-right of this page and buy a DarkFall account, I get paid 20% of the client cost. If you believe this taints my views and reporting on DarkFall, your opinion is wrong.)


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