Getting back to the source

January 11, 2012

Jester has a post up about how Sovereignty works in EVE, and how the game might benefit from borrowing some ideas from Perpetuum in that area. A good read as always, and it brings up a larger point: competition amongst MMOs can be a good thing, and ultimately if the devs are smart the real winners are the players.

Devs being smart is something that seems to be lacking in the genre of late.

Take for instance Rift. In beta, when Rift was limited to only one large zone (the 1-20 game), it was a great game. Players quickly learned which areas were the elite ‘tough’ areas, which parts were easier, and the different hubs truly felt like hubs given the player activity and uses. Combine this setup with how the invasion system worked back then (far more active, more impact to hubs), and while the ‘world’ back then was still a zone, it felt much larger and grander than the typical themepark zone.

The day-before-release nerf to invasions happened. The after-20 zone layout happened. And finally 1.2 happened.

And while this is just me speculating, IMO Trion tried to WoWify Rift. More speculating; they did it because WoWbies tried Rift and wanted it to be, well, WoW. It’s what the locust do after all. How’s that working out for Rift now? It’s one thing to ask your community for suggestions and such. It’s another to just blindly give the players exactly what they are asking for, regardless of how it fits into your game or what you originally set out to do.

What if Rift, start to finish, was like the beta version of the game? The one that was near-universally praised. The version that, for those how tried it, saw a game that, while still firmly themepark, at least felt a little different. Had a little more… MMO to it?

What if Rift borrowed from Guild Wars? 1-20 level game just to teach you the basics, and then all zones tuned to level 20, each one different based on theme and setting rather than level range. Make invasions really matter, allow them to dominate a zone to the point the players are ‘locked out’ until they rally together and fight back. At worst, one of the ten zones you can visit as a lvl 20 is blocked, big deal. Expand the game in that area, horizontally, rather than just repeating the same world event every few months, tacking on raids, and having everyone wait for the inevitable level increase and total content reset/replacement.

But, because while Rift was still cooking, WoW had its 11m ‘subs’, Trion borrowed from Blizzard rather than a different source. Same can be said for Mythic and WAR, Funcom and AoC, and today BioWare and SW:TOR. The results are in for WAR/AoC/Rift, and it’s not rocket science to predict what SW is going to look like in 5 months.

What’s amusing about all of this is that, because EQ1 had 500k subs and UO/AC ‘only’ had 100-250k, the big suit copy/paste monkeys looked at EQ1. And it works for a while, because for all its faults, at least EQ1 was still an MMO. And so was WoW origin. And… well we all know how things went, and what the ultimate result is.

So now, does the genre gravitate back towards EQ1-style design, or does it go full-circle to its roots, where we start seeing teams create worlds and make them work, rather than settling on a theme and tossing in some MMO concepts to calling it a day?

Is it 6 months yet?

The more things change…

December 1, 2011

Timing is everything.

Today Raph has a post showing a 3-part “History of MMOs” video. (well worth watching btw, especially for those who started playing post-2004)

Also today Tobold has a post about how bots could easily play certain MMOs better than players.

In the video, the narrator credits WoW being more linear and accessible as a major source of its success.

The more linear/accessible your game, the easier it is to create a better-than-the-player bot for it.

The… oh, mild connection between ‘dumb as bots’ gameplay and ‘mass market’ is hopefully not lost here.

This of course is not entirely negative. WoW is/was, after all, a great ‘intro to MMOs’ game for many. Whether that same crowd takes the next step into ‘real’ MMOs is up for debate. Certainly a title like SW:TOR is not helping people take that next step, but on the other hand SW tanking BECAUSE it’s an entry-level title in a market of vets (I use that term very loosely) will do some good. If we take one step further, buy into the hype, and assuming GW2 is indeed an MMO that fixes all previous MMO woes while not being a ‘dumb as bots’ title, and it’s successful, then we (MMO players) all win going forward.

Or you continue to laugh/cry at the genre while FiS.

Hopefully both.

1997 all over again?

November 16, 2011

Whether it’s at MMOCrunch, over at Keen’s site, or even here, a lot of people are expressing interest and excitement over the possibility of a more “open world” MMO. This confused me initially, considering WoW and other linear-world games are today’s popular choices (EVE aside, as usual). And then I realized most of today’s MMO players never played an MMO pre-2004. They never saw UO in its true form. They never experienced Asheron’s Call in its prime. They have a very tough time going from the land of rainbows to getting ganked in Darkfall. They log in to EVE and try to figure out the fastest way to get to the ‘end game’.

And just like I was beyond excited about the possibility of playing a multiplayer Ultima game that never ended in 1997, they today are excited to play a multiplayer Skyrim that never ends. And they should be; virtual worlds are, IMO of course, the absolute peak in gaming. The rush you can get from them dwarfs any moment you can have in a solo player game, online or off.

What I’m curious to see is if player’s wallets talk as loudly tomorrow as their words do on blogs and forums today.

Bad content burns you out

September 28, 2011

While talking about the fun curve, Tobold addressed something he and I have been going back and forth on for a bit: do you burn-out on an MMO, or do you quit because the game changed?

Before we go on, I understand that the easy answer is “it depends”, but for the sake of making a blog post, lets continue.

If Cata was BC/WotLK, you would not have quit, right? -Me

I am not certain. It is hard to look into alternate universes where thing would have happened differently. I liked WotLK more than I liked Cata, but maybe that hypothetical “more fun if Cata had been WotLK” would only have made me play a month or two more – Tobold

Tobold wrote more after that, see his blog for the full reply.

Cata caused Tobold (and many others) to quit, while at the same time Tobold (and likely many others) were already growing tired of the formula that is WoW. The Cata changes simply accelerated the path to “not having fun anymore”. And like Tobold says, had Cata been WotLK, perhaps it would have bought Blizzard another month or two, but the same-old feel would still likely have kicked in.

But what if Cata had not only been better than it was, but better than WotLK? What if the expansion had been something like (insert your favorite MMO expansion)? What if, instead of every 2 years, Blizzard released an expansion every year, with enough ‘stuff’ to keep players entertained until the next one?

Isn’t that… the point of the MMO model? (Or was anyway) And more importantly, isn’t that the ideal MMO experience? To have a game that is constantly evolving in a positive way, while retaining the core that got you interested in the first place?

Isn’t that why we all thought MMOs would dominate gaming forever, because instead of consuming a set amount of content and moving on, we would now be in a world that constantly provided us with more content, enabling us to stick around ‘forever’? And, well, isn’t that what happened ‘back in the day’? How long did you play EQ1? How quickly did people ‘burn out’ on AC1? Did anyone EVER see all of the content in UO back when that game still had a dev team?

On the flip side, we have plenty of examples of devs trying to do just that, and instead of adding positive content, they add trash AND screw the core up. Rift in beta vs Rift today will always stick in my mind, but WoW has slowly (or not so slowly, depending on who you ask) fallen off as well for many. Point being, changing the game can just as easily make it worse than make it better, and if you have a good thing, the ‘safe’ play is just to feed people ‘more of the same’ until it stops working, and then you go F2P, shut down, or do something drastic.

The reason I don’t believe that burnout is ultimately inevitable is because we have solid examples to suggest otherwise. I mean, Tobold has played WoW for 6000 hours. Are you really going to tell me it takes 6000 hours to reach burnout? Or was WoW so good that burnout was not a factor until the game itself started slipping? I played UO until Trammel, I played DAoC until ToA, I played WoW until TBC, I played Rift until 1.2. In not one of those games did I move on because of burnout. It did not take years to burn out on UO/DAoC, months for WoW, or weeks for Rift. Time was not a factor; the games changing was what did it.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that EVE, an MMO that has kept its core solid (blowing up spaceships), while at the same time evolving more than most, has seen and continues to see growth, even after 7 years. If Online Excel can do it, why can’t others?

30 minutes to cap

September 23, 2011

Tobold’s post today does a nice job of summarizing what’s gone wrong with MMOs in the last few years in terms of design. The best example is this part:

If you consider a theoretical MMORPG with an infinite number of levels and free-for-all PvP, it is pretty obvious that the players spending the most time in the game would crush those spending the least amount of time.

The above is true, and it’s also terrible design. It’s why UO/AC worked as PvP games and had/have runs longer than almost any themepark. It’s why EVE continues to work, and it’s why Darkfall has its 3rd anniversary coming up. Those games combine the hook of character progression with the balance of player skill, and mix in a whole lot of social interaction to keep it all in check. The best PvPer might be a force 1v1, but they become a non-factor on the ‘grand scale’ of GvG warfare (unless, of course, they are in one of those guild, at which point they become a very powerful ‘boss’ figure).

The real evolution of MMO design is to not just balance between the octo-mom players and the hardcore, but to enable the two groups to complement each other. EVE gets this right in many ways, with the hardcore playing in 0.0 space, and the casuals benefiting from those actions in Empire (econ ramifications, being in the same world those major events happen, being able to jump into 0.0 when time permits, etc). In turn, 0.0 players benefit from all those miners and mission runners doing the ‘boring’ stuff in Empire that eventually makes its way out (and gets blown up, keeping the cycle going).

Poor design, such as creating raids that are initially too hard for most, and then nerfing them until they are faceroll easy, not only misses the entire point, but creates easy “us vs them” divides. This also leads to short-term content, rather than long-term solutions/hooks, and in a genre designed to be played for months (if not years), short-term content itself adds nothing in the long run. All of the end-game content from vanilla, TBC, and WotLK is now worthless in WoW, while (most) of the features added in each EVE expansion still matter today. The options in EVE expand, while those in games like WoW simply change (and if they change to something you don’t like, your only option is to leave, as I did pre-WotLK, and now even Tobold has done thanks to Cata). It’s not hard to understand why EVE retains its players for so long, while WoW is a revolving door.

And of course, if your game is designed around a revolving door, rather than retention, you have no motivation to create deeper gameplay. You have no reason to go as deep as EVE does with some of its mechanics, or to design combat systems that can’t be learned on youtube or reduced to a few scripts; your players leave long before they ever get to the mastery phase. And really, it’s not even their fault; it’s how so many of the post-WoW games are designed, and the results of such design decisions are on display for the world to see.

2000 hours with EQ, 5 minutes with the kids.

September 22, 2011

2000 hours to hit the original level cap in EQ1 is not the reason EQ1 was ‘hard’ (not a great way to really look at this, but more on that later). A harsh death penalty wasn’t it either. Nor was camping a mob for 16 hours, or the forced grouping, or red-con zone runs. It was all of that and more, all mixed together.

Another analogy (it’s analogy week here): is your best friend the person you hang out with regularly, or that random guy you occasionally talk to for five minutes? Better yet, can you spend 5 minutes with your kids and still be a great parent? No? So being a parent/friend is really just ‘a grind’, where time = result, right? No? But you just argued exactly that for an MMO. That it’s not about the amount of time you put in, but the level of effort. Why is it that you believe you can get ‘meaningful’ MMO content in 30 minutes, but you don’t believe you can be a great parent/friend in just 30?

Spending “quality time” has time in it for a reason. While time is not the ONLY factor, it still counts.

The MMO genre was built around living in a virtual world. It’s not a ‘casual’ genre by design, because by design the parts that really make a game an MMO require time to be put in. You don’t get great communities, solid guilds, or heated rivalries when you jump in for 30 minutes and log out, no matter how ‘quality’ those 30 were. A well designed game like EVE will allow those 30 minute players to co-exist with those who drive the content, but while the game would continue to function without the 30 minute players, it would not without those who push things forward.

As the genre has expanded (or fractured, really), solid options for the 30 minute player exist. A game like Global Agenda is a pretty horrible MMO in the traditional sense, but it provides great content in small, random, pick-up-and-move-on bites. It works despite failing horrible in areas like server community, but then again it’s also F2P and won’t scratch that traditional MMO itch. For the 5 minute player we have Facebook, etc.

History has very clearly shown that when games get traditional MMO design right, they profit. UO/EQ/AC/DAoC/EVE/WoW (pre-Cata) and others have all made boatloads of money for their designers, specifically because they keep you entertained for months on end. It’s also no surprise that more ‘casual’ WoW clones, ones that minimize the core MMO basics in the name of ‘accessibility’, burn out so fast. Not only do these games fail to capture the core MMO audience, but the more casual players they intended to attract move on quickly because, well, that’s what casuals do. By definition they don’t get super-invested, and so when the next shiny comes along, they chase it. That’s fine if you are selling a one-and-done $50 box, but it’s not going to work out when you hope to collect $15 a month, or even when you try to sell ponies or potions in your item shop.

Back to EQ1 being ‘hard’: getting to the level cap was not a true test of twitch skills or some massive mental hurdle. There was no ‘hard stop’ like in, say, a fighting game, where if you can’t beat the guy you are fighting, you simply can’t progress. The really nice thing about an MMO is that if your personal skill level is lower, you can still progress by putting in more time. What made UO/EQ/AC and such ‘work’ was that ‘putting in more time’ did not just mean grinding more mobs, and certainly not spending more cash in the item shop; it meant reaching out to other players for help, or finding a solid guild. It meant working with others, which in turn creates those solid player communities that keep you logging in day after day.

Mechanics such as a harsh death penalty or a long XP curve encourage (or in EQ1 and grouping, force) playing with others. The better the design, the more natural this encouragement feels, and the more time you spend with those people, the close the bond, and the deeper the ‘MMO hooks’ become.

This is exactly why being able, or in the case of something like WoW-Cata, being encouraged to level solo is so anti-MMO. It’s why solo-instances are a sad, short-sighted design joke. It’s why random, cross-server PUG groups erode communities. The mechanics now work AGAINST what it means to be a true MMO, and by doing so reduce the very thing that made the whole model originally work.

The point is not to exclude 30 minute players. It’s actually a solid design challenge to allow them to co-exist in the same world (it’s no surprise that it works in EVE, when you consider EVE has just one server), but if the goal is to design a ‘real’ MMO, it must be designed to natural encourage the things that make an MMO what it is. Because when you get that design right, and everything comes together, you get a level of gaming that is above anything else, and anyone who has experienced it knows it.

Turning RPG players into MMO players: Solutions

August 8, 2011

As first mentioned here, there seem to be a high number of RPG fans who turn to MMOs to get their gaming fix, yet most MMOs do a rather poor job of getting those solo-minded players into what really makes MMOs great: massive AND multiplayer content.

The major flaw in games like WoW and its ilk is well known: for the entire leveling process, going solo is OPTIMAL, grouping hurts you most of the time, and then everything gets flipped on its head when you hit the cap and raid or die. In more sandbox titles, the entire game seems so arcane to RPG fans that they have a tough time just getting over the initial hurdle. EVE is famous for this, but games like Darkfall are also daunting mountains to climb.

For too long the solution to getting RPG fans to stick around was to try and mimic their games of choice by letting them be the solo hero and letting them be the focus of the entire world with stuff like phasing or instances. After all, in how many RPGs does the big bad get killed while you are not playing, or off finishing a side quest? In first-gen MMOs like UO/AC/EQ1, it happened all the time. Long-time MMO fans will know this is somewhat of a non-issue, as a good MMO will have lots (or in AC1’s case, monthly) epic events, so missing one is not the end of the world. Players unfamiliar with the genre will see this as lost content or being forced to play at certain times however. At the end of the day, this is more a PR issue than an actual in-game issue. Once fans see that being part of something special, while very cool, is not a one time or “must attend” event, they relax and participate in what they can, when they can (forums aside: on the forums you will ALWAYS have crybabies crying about missing an event, but forum opinions don’t count anyway).

The bigger issue however is creating content that naturally transitions someone use to playing solo into an MMO player. As already mentioned, stuff like phasing and solo instances do the exact opposite, but what content do you actually need to accomplish this?

For starters, solo content IS important. If you log in and no one is around, not having SOMETHING to do is not good. It won’t take long for most players to get bored staring at their character’s butt while they hope someone else logs on, and unless you are in a very active guild (the ultimate goal, but not something that newer fans all have), odds are decent that’s going to happen. If someone logs in for 5 minutes, has nothing to do, and logs off, guess how hard it gets to actually get anything done in a semi-active guild? It’s a really, really bad domino effect.

With that said, solo content should be the last resort. It should only be an attractive option when no one else is around, or for those times when you have only 30 minutes or so (note that if you only ever have 30 minute chunks, MMOs are not the genre for you). In all other situations, grouping with even just one other person should always be optimal, even if it’s just to continue working on something that could otherwise be done solo. Themeparks traditionally fail here for a few reasons. First, solo quest content is already silly-easy, so grouping up makes this even worse. Second, many quest goals are optimal when no one else is around (collecting for instance), so bringing more people actually hurts progress. It amazes me that such basic design flaws continue to get reproduced game after game, but that’s another rant.

Instead, farming should become easier and more enjoyable with others. Mobs should be tough but doable solo, but with a buddy they should go down fast enough to increase profits, while still having them respawn fast enough to not force downtime. Apply this to quests, actual gold farming, or collection materials for crafting. Whatever the objective, the system should be designed in such a way as to encourage bringing friends. First-gen MMOs got this (mostly) right, and it’s crazy that current-gen games get it so wrong.

Another key factor is establishing systems to encourage community and player interaction. Queue hubs and instances destroy server communities because they don’t allow for ‘random’ interaction. This is why heavily instances games (GW1 being a great example) are often called non-MMO titles, because they lack that very basic ‘run into someone random’ possibility and what it brings. Darkfall pre-alignment revamp is another good example of mistakes made. By actually encouraging everyone to attack everyone, randomly grouping for PvE never happened (or only happened when a vet was scamming a noob), which is terrible. Since the re-vamp, blue (good) players can be trusted, and you see more natural grouping as a result. This of course leads to guild recruitment, which fosters communities, and up and up we go.

Finally, and at the highest level, goals have to be group/community based rather than the traditional RPG goal of personal character growth. Current-day themepark raiding, while technically a group activity, is mostly about gearing up your own character rather than succeeding as a group. The side-effects of guild-hopping, selecting participation, personally being ‘done’, etc.  are well documented.  Larger, group-centric goals not only tend to motivate more people, but also keep everyone ‘busy’ until the goal is done, which alleviates some of the “you play more than me” issue, and then allows the entire group to transition together to the next goal. This keeps people together, and spreads the sense of accomplishment around, strengthening bonds and communities. Goals can be group-sized, for guilds, or even server-wide. Generally, the bigger the better.

The overall point is that MMOs have tried to become more ‘accessible’ by becoming more like solo RPGs, but in doing so have lost the key quality that makes an MMO work, and more importantly, makes that $15 a month seem worthwhile. It’s no surprise that we see so many ‘MMOs’ today start as sub games and quickly switch to F2P, jump-in jump-out titles. Simply put, they’re not really MMOs.


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