Subtraction by addition

September 3, 2014

One of the lazier strawmen in MMO blogging land is to dismiss the success of an older MMO by stating that fewer people play it today. I’m sure you have read some version of “If UO did so many things right, why aren’t more people playing it today?” on one blog or another. The overall ‘why’ is a pretty complex topic that I won’t fully get into today, but what I do want to talk about is the fact that MMOs can get worse.

Time is one factor. As the months and years go by, a game ages. Visuals that at release looked great might not be so hot anymore. A feature that was special at release might be common in most games a few years later. You don’t have the newest, hottest feature. Etc, etc.

All of the above however doesn’t have to happen in an MMO. You can upgrade your visuals. You can patch in new features. You can introduce whatever the newest technology trend is (super servers for example). Just because WoW today looks like a game from 2005, or EQ2 looks like something from 1999, doesn’t mean that’s just how things go. EVE today looks like a game released in 2014, and its technical backend is still miles ahead of everyone else. UO did an engine update. So did DDO. Plenty of other examples exist. That’s a major selling point of the genre after all; you aren’t just buying a game as-is today, you are buying into a service that will evolve and improve as time goes on.

Yet while the intent of every update is to make an MMO better, not all do so. Of course famous examples like UO’s Trammel, SWG’s NGE, or DoAC’s ToA are well known and deservedly hated, but all MMOs have had some update that has driven someone away. Now most updates are positive, but even if a change brings or retains more people than it drives away, someone somewhere is going to hate that you did X instead of Y.

And sometimes an MMO does just get worse due to updates. How many half-decent MMOs have become complete dreck because of a F2P switch? Remember when LotRO was all about staying true to the lore, or when loading screens weren’t an opportunity to spam with you a cash-shop ad? When EVE forced you into the captains quarters? Etc, etc.

So yes, even if I did love what UO was in 97, that doesn’t mean that the 2014 version with elves, ninjas, and god knows what else is a game I want to play. Due to updates, the passing of time, and a multitude of other factors, in 2014 I’m not playing UO. That doesn’t change the fact that 1997 UO did a lot of things better than MMOs today, including 2014 UO, and that today’s devs could still learn a lot from it, or other once-successful MMOs.

And hopefully, they learn the right lessons, and make the right update, to actually make there MMO better with each update. Seems to be a rare thing these days.


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.


Themepark goes F2P, take infinity

May 15, 2013

Some quick thoughts on the Rift F2P thing, since a few people have asked.

First, it’s not surprising. Scott Hartsman leaving Trion was basically the “Rift is going F2P” announcement.

Second, not surprising given what Rift is. It’s an above-average themepark MMO. Being a 3.0 themepark still does not fix the core problem (being a themepark), and so F2P happens.

Third, F2P won’t save Rift, like it hasn’t saved any other MMO going F2P. Trion will likely release some nice-sounding numbers in 2-3 months, telling us that players/sales/whatever are up 500% and F2P is a massive success. Then they won’t tell us anything for a few months and eventually layoffs will happen. It’s the Turbine story with DDO/LotRO all over again. Again, F2P does not fix the core problems of your game (being a themepark), and ultimately just adds issues to it (the shop and how to get people to buy).

WoW will likely be the last themepark to go F2P, and that will happen soon (2014 remember). The issue isn’t that F2P is great for players and devs (it’s not), the issue is that themeparks are all more of less the same, so when one is just above-average, unless it really clicks with you (and continues to click for months), you might as well go with the F2P one over the $15 one (not how I would do it, but I think that’s how many look at it). Or hell, drop $50 and mess around with GW2 for a few weeks and return whenever content gets added.

The sub model works for something like EVE because if you enjoy what EVE does, you either play EVE or nothing. There is no EVE clone (because making EVE is hard, cloning WoW is easy), and EVE is not designed to be fun for a few weeks. It’s a hobby. Same for Darkfall. The target audience is much smaller than EVE, but the fact remains that if you like what DF does, it’s that or (maybe) Mortal Online, and MO is a mess. Why does Camelot Unchained have a chance as a subscription game? Because if it does what it aims to do even reasonably well, the options will be CU or nothing.

I also think long-term F2P is either going to evolve or eat itself alive. Selling fluff junk is not sustainable, players will eventually catch on to the lottery schemes, and the NA/EU market is not nearly as tolerant of P2W as Asia is. As themeparks race to the bottom, the quality will continue to dip, the shop scams will get worst, and eventually most are going to wake up and realize that playing a graphically better version of Farmville is not worth the time, aggravation, or cost.

Themeparks need to evolve or they will go the way of Farmville.

Edit: Also see this TAGN post about F2P, as I agree with it 100%.


Camelot Unchained: Concerns based on MJ’s history

April 9, 2013

As previously mentioned, the Camelot Unchained kickstarter is up and running, but as of now I’ve not contributed due to a few concerns that I want to cover today.

First and foremost, the total removal of PvE raises some doubts. I get that City State wants to focus on PvP, and with a limited budget cutting PvE saves a lot of time/effort, but in all my MMO experience, some of (if not all) of the best PvP has been PvE-driven.

Evicting someone from a wormhole in EVE is in part PvE-driven (better sleeper farming).

A holding’s worth in Darkfall is in part based on the local mobs to farm, and the heaviest fighting is often over the most valuable properties.

In UO, PvP often happened in PvE locations (dungeons or good world spawns), and housing location was decided either by economic factors (player vendor traffic) or PvE factors (close to a good dungeon).

Hell, even in DAoC, how much RvR conflict was driven by access to Darkness Falls, a PvE dungeon? Some of the best PvP was clearing DF itself, and that happened because of PvE (safer farming).

What will be the conflict drivers in CU? Will they get people out and into situations on a daily basis? Will they matter long-term?

A related concern; do I want to play an MMO that is 100% PvP? Even though I prefer my MMO with a healthy dose of PvP, I still PvE heavily in them. PvE makes for nice ‘downtime’, and allows for me to still login and play without always putting myself into high-risk situations. It’s also content you can rely on, unlike PvP where sometimes the end-result of PvP is no fights happening.

Finally, I don’t know how much I trust Mark Jacob to deliver a solid MMO. Yes, he was responsible for DAoC, but he was also responsible for the ToA expansion to DAoC (an expansion that killed the game for me, and many others), along with WAR. And while MJ has tried to distance himself from WAR and its design decisions, it would be crazy to assume he holds zero responsibility.

ToA was just bad. It added a must-do forced-group PvE raiding grind to a well-established PvP game. I say must-do because the abilities and items you got from ToA were silly powerful, and made you near god-like in PvP if you fought others without ToA powers. How much of that basic concept (adding raiding to DAoC) was MJ? Was it his idea? If not, did he step in and realize it was a bad idea? If he did, was this another example of MJ being overruled, or just putting his trust in the wrong place?

We know a lot of the history behind WAR, but again how much did MJ influence the design here? The lack of a 3rd faction is obvious, but what about the decision to group the races to begin with? Why was WAR not a six-way fight? The lore/IP easily supports it, the PvE structure could have remained the same, and end-game population balance issues would have been very different.

Did MJ really think low and mid-tier RvR zones would hold up long-term? Sure, they sorta-worked while the initial population wave progressed through the game, but as soon as that was over, all of those areas below the cap became ghost towns and wasted effort.

A major issue in DAoC was rampant crowd-control. A major issue in WAR? Rampant CC. Other than blind faith, what’s to suggest that CU won’t have CC problems?

Remember the original structure for the end-game RvR? Funneling everyone into a single city siege? How much of that was MJ? How strongly did MJ believe in that design? And if he did see the design issues early on, why again did a product with his name on it ship designed like that? When such a moment happens with CU, and it will, what will MJ do?

CU is on my radar. In many ways it’s a game I want to get behind and support. It’s trying something different in some of the directions I want the genre to go in. And overall I like MJ from what I’ve heard/read about him. I do believe he got screwed by EA with WAR (because, let’s face it, everyone gets screwed by EA, be they devs or players). At the same time, the above are all concerns I have.

 


Camelot Unchained has a release date!

February 5, 2013

More on this tomorrow or the next day, but just a quick comment: we are making hype videos with a date for launching games on kickstarter now? Bit… odd, right? And do they expect to get all 10m from kickstarter?

Spoiler alert: I’m actually semi-interested in this and forgive Jacobs for WAR. Still find his old blog title hilarious too.


Splitting the genre in two

September 27, 2012

Let’s move past why GW2 sucks and onto a bigger topic; why so many recent MMOs suck, shall we?

Chris thinks all MMOs are good for 3 months or less, and that’s just how things are today. Keen has a pretty solid counter, but it raises the question that will (hopefully) clear the air here: are you looking to play a game for a while, or not?

Because I think that really cuts to the root of the issue. In the ‘good old days’, I think the vast majority of MMO players WANTED to get sucked into something long-term (group 1). Much of the original hype behind an MMO was that it was an RPG that never ended, and that is EXACTLY what people wanted. New Ultima game but with unending content? Hell ya! Take my money!

Today not everyone is on the same page. There are a lot of players who DON’T want to get sucked into something long-term (group 2). They WANT a 3-monther or something to do for a month and move on, and nothing short of a miracle (WoW) is going to change that.

One group is not more right than another, and however you arrive at either group is an unrelated issue (got old, more money, kids, whatever).

What does matter is that the two groups are looking for very different experiences, yet are being lumped into one group (MMO players). Worse still, studios are designing games with the impression that they can design content for the short-term group, and expect long-term retention. SW:TOR is the latest poster-child for this, but it’s just one of many such failures. And make no mistake, these games ARE failures, because the target they are aiming at is WoW, which prints money not because it sold a ton of boxes, but because it RETAINED millions of players for years. EAWare expected SW:TOR to RETAIN at least 500k subs, and at one time the expectation was 1m+. They sold a ton of boxes because group 2 wanted something new. They failed because solo-story content does nothing for group 1, and even if it did, group 1 is just not that big.

Both markets, the short-term ‘MMO’, and the original model, are viable. EVE is an undeniable success, DESPITE the fact that it’s a niche within a niche product (non-IP Sci-Fi with no avatar). CCP is successful because they understand who their market is, and they design the game around the long-term retention of their core rather than the short-burst of group 2 (Incarna aside). Misleading talk aside, GW2, much like GW1, will likely do fine because the model is not around providing long-term entertainment, but rather just a short burst every now and then.

This also clears up the F2P vs sub aspect as well. F2P ‘works’ because a tiny subset of your entire base is willing to pay enough to subsidize everyone else. That’s why so much of the design around a F2P is aimed at catering to that tiny minority, or to convert some of the unpaying masses into cash cows. By contrast, the sub model is designed to provide enough content for the long-term majority, in the hopes that most people will stick around and play/pay.

And if you combine the intent of group 1 or 2 with the business model and content design around a game, you have your target.

Developers are doing a decent job catering to group 2. There are countless F2P titles that are good-enough to play for a month, and occasionally one will get some cash out of you. Those that don’t, shut down or get their support slashed, but even the most marginal titles end up surviving in one form of zombie mode or another.

Designing a solid title for group 1 is much harder, in part because it’s so different from the rest of gaming. Instead of just making sure the current content is fun once, the devs must consider how the content will play in a year, or for the 100th time, or when someone with 1000 hours plays alongside someone with 10. That’s hard. Just as EAWare, Mythic, Turbine, or any other studio that has tried and failed. Maybe the original big three were really lucky, or really good, or understood the market better than most do today. Regardless, it worked then, and it continues to work today.

The extreme example of success in group 1 is WoW, but that’s misleading if you buy into the fact that WoW’s success was as much good timing as it was solid design. Make no mistake, 2004 WoW was very well designed, but that’s not the entire story IMO.

Regardless, it’s unlikely that we will see another WoW-like success. Far more likely is someone hitting EVE-like numbers. And again, CCP is making very good money off EVE. But that’s happening because they understand the size of the market, in addition to how best to cater to it.

You can’t spend $300m today because you predict 1m+ subs. It’s not going to happen. Plan to get 100k with a solid title, figure out the budget to make that happen, and good luck. And let’s not kid ourselves, with 100k subs you can make a VERY solid game. Maybe you won’t have all your dialog voiced by professional actors, but you won’t be limited to Pong-like graphics either. Spend smart, spend S-mart!


Bucket of rage

June 20, 2012

Random ranting incoming:

One ‘awesome’ feature does not an MMO make.

“TESO is a copy/paste puddle of fail, but feature X looks interesting”. A cute gimmick feature can make an iPhone game worth the buck and download. It won’t get people to subscribe to your MMO for years.

You know what feature separated Asheron’s Call from Ultima Online? Everything. Why was DAOC different from the previous big three MMOs? Because it was, from its roots to its end-game. Way too many MMOs today look identical in all aspects but one or two, and yet devs are surprised people are ‘burning out’ at an accelerated rate. Combine this with the MMO model being one of KEEPING people interested, rather than just GETTING them interested like a single-player game, and the failtrain is pulling into the station earlier and earlier these days. When people can write off your game after your first interview (SW:TOR , TESO), you might want to reconsider some things.

Three faction PvP is the new MMO cure-all.

Can we stop this already? Yes, after DAOC everyone was asking for three faction PvP instead of the two-sided stuff that WoW and its clones were doing. And yes, it’s sad that it’s 2012 and we are just now getting titles coming out that may have it. And yes, in general 3-sided PvP is better than two, but already the concept has been screwed and cheapened.

You know why factions worked in DAOC? Because you had ugly dwarves vs hippy elves vs asshat humans, and most people could identify with one side and hate what the other two represented. DAOC had three factions, who happen to fight over stuff. Hate keeps people logging in and bashing doors or space structures. Fact not opinion™.

It’s not “three faction” PvP if you take your only ‘faction’, split it evenly into three groups, and have them fight off in a corner and then come back to hug it out. If there is no buy-in or hatred, it won’t work long-term, and long-term is kinda the goal here.

Stop talking about your game years before its release.

If your release date can still be counted in years, stfu. If I can’t play your beta in a few weeks, I don’t care, and consider your title 100% vaporware. Feel free to prove me wrong, but do so quietly. Dominus, Copernicus, Embers of Cearus, DF2.0, the list goes on. Any intern with Google can create an awesome-looking list of MMO features. Before they deliver anything everyone is always convinced they not only know what previous titles did wrong, but how to fix it. And of course, come beta (if beta ever comes), we find out that 99% of what you said all these years can be summed up as “bears bears bears” and you just released a horrible version of WoW.

Bonus points to those who, after their MMO is shut down, continue to talk about how amazing their MMO was. If your game was worth a crap, it would not have been canned, but obviously whatever it was you were showing to those with money did not look nearly ‘awesome’ enough for anyone to throw you a few bucks.

Double bonus because no one can ever claim your ‘awesome’ feature was in fact trash, since you never made it far enough for anyone to see. Your e-rep is safe, yo!

Kickstarter.

Kickstarter is about as trendy right now as updating your Twitter or Facebook was yesterday. And while the general concept is cool (vote with your wallet), can we at least get projects that have SOMETHING completed before you ask for money? Like I’m pretty sure if I copy/pasted by “PvE MMO design” post into Kickstarter today, I’d have a million bucks tomorrow. And I could probably hit two million by copy/pasting some obscure MMOs art and making a ‘dev video’ talking about how my combat system is the most “fluid, lifelike, immersive” system ever, and how my housing/ship/war/econ/political system has the depth of a full-on sim title, all within a “massive, unique” world. STFU or start your beta.

In totally unrelated news, I finally finished my Baldur’s Gate 1 game, and having started BG2, I still can’t believe the same company behind those games made SW:TOR. It’s like Grey Goose releasing a new flavor called sewage water. Just disgusting.

Also BG1 is a better sandbox than most ‘sandbox’ titles today, but that’s another post.


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