EQN: The next big AAA disaster

August 5, 2013

In case you don’t want to sit through the EQNext showing, here are the cliff notes:

“If someone should do it, it should be EverQuest. Again” (UO…)

Lighting

Lighting

Lighting

Lighting

Adventure

Lighting

Lighting

How do you like it? :mild applause:

Lighting

Hyper linear paths with specific animation events, insert buzzword: “ parkour ”

:Summing up the GW2 character system as something new. Classes with weapons = abilities, zzz:

Destroying pre-set levels in pre-set scenarios

Grail 3: the UO living ecosystem (maybe this one will make it out of beta?) “You will be making change!” read: players will butcher everything until it all stops spawning and the system is removed.

Grail 4: Public quests, now stretched out for 2-3 months. (side-note: guy almost slips up and says your alt could repeat the content if you make the same choices. Sorta goes on to correct himself)

Jazzed.

Talks about Everquest Next Minecraft – a world of penises (at least until devs start deleting them)

More talk about having the players create content for the devs

(Final note: Do SOE fans just not know when to clap, or was the presentation just not all that… jazzy? Awkward silence city.)

One has to wonder what SOE scraped prior to going with what they showed. Game must have been nightmare fuel. Terror wondering aside, what they showed was… something. I almost typed ‘meh’ but that best describes the latest Elder Scrolls Online gameplay video (Short summary: watered down ES gameplay + some MMO aspects = generic game with ES skin on top). What SOE showed was really more classic SOE; delusion and a misguided sense of greatness from the studio that is still living off its one hit title (EQ1).

First, EQN looks EXACTLY like Kingdoms of Amalur / Copernicus graphically, which is nice; at least all that work found a home. It still looks like a knockoff Disney movie, but I’m sure the kids will find that appealing. Plus anything is an upgrade over EQ2, by far the ugliest MMO ever.

As the cliff notes above point out, a lot of what was presented has already been done/tried. We know what happens when you allow players to full shape the world; the goons create a rain of penises (Second Life). We know what happens when mobs move around based on player actions; everything is farmed to extinction (UO beta). We know what happens when you sell the concept of a dynamic changing world without it actually changing long-term (GW2).

Now, can SOE take all of the above and make it work? Sure. Will they? Of course not, otherwise they would not be SOE. I mean, we are talking about the same people who included the ultra-lame “Do not stand in the red box” boss crap in their “we are awesome and totally new” trailer.

EQN will go in one of two directions IMO; it will either be somewhat close to DDO in terms of very linear ‘levels’, which will allow for solo or small groups to fully see the destruction, changes, and make it easier to hard-code all of the parkour bits. I think honestly that’s best-case for EQN; it won’t be the big bad sandbox SOE is trying to hype, but it could be a game that ‘works’ well enough for those looking for something like that.

The other direction is a fully open world that changes like GW2 changes; short-term and on a very noticeable and gameable loop, plus dev-driven updates that herd players from one content ‘hotspot’ to the next every few weeks/months.

This is the far more ambitious direction, and the one that will lead SOE to far more issues and broken gameplay than anything else. The presentation and ideas live in an ideal state; the reality of an MMO is you must always assume the players operate under a worst-case scenario. The dream is players will build great-looking castles that add to the landscape; the reality is players will blow the entire world up because they can and rebuild it as a giant penis. The presentation was very much a dream. If the game is also built around these dream-state expectations, hilarious disaster will follow.

Beyond that, nothing shown moves the genre in a good direction. Even if the parkour is amazing and works exactly like the dream-state sells, was anyone asking for that? Will it add anything to the genre besides a few new animations? Was the class/weapons/skills bit anything new, or even a side-step above the norm? The system is pretty meh in GW2, and THAT was a step back from GW1, so what exactly is SOE selling here? I’ve covered the destructible terrain already; that’s lose/lose for SOE. Give players true freedom, and they will bury you. Restrict it enough to keep the bad stuff out, and you likely restrict it to the point of non-factor.

The hardest part of making a sandbox is balancing the freedom you give to the players with creating an environment that is still enjoyable on a large-scale. Nothing that SOE showed suggests they get it, or have a good answer to any of the issues that come with such a design direction.


The blogs reflect the genre

July 10, 2013

This post about blogging over at TAGN, along with the comments, is worth reading, even if you are only vaguely interested in the topic of MMO blogs. As the posts-per-day rate here has slowed over the last two months, it’s a topic I’ve thought about as well. This blog is almost 6 years old now (yikes), and I still don’t feel like I’m ‘done’ talking about the MMO genre. At the same time, something has happened to slow the content rate here, and not all of that can be pinned to changes in my RL (though that is a major factor). So what exactly is going on?

First, I don’t think the fad that is blogging is passing, if only because it never was a fad to begin with. Sure, blogging might have had its ‘time in the sun’ around the time the Warhammer hype machine was at its peak, but it was around before that and is still around after. So long as MMOs still somewhat resemble virtual worlds, they will be worth writing about.

What is happening is that the genre itself is changing, and right now the change is just not really giving us much to talk about. A little history lesson first.

When I was writing about WoW sucking before writing about WoW sucking was cool, a major reason for that was because Blizzard was shaping the genre, and the direction they were going in was not one I liked (or that works). I don’t really care about Blizzard/WoW now because they are non-factors. No one is building the next ‘WoW-killer/clone’. No one is taking a great IP (Warhammer) and driving it into the dirt thanks to the WoW taint.

Right now, everyone is basically in two camps. You are either in the EAWare camp, where you just believe MMOs don’t work, or you are in the indy camp, where you understand that MMOs work when they are virtual worlds rather than sRPGs with a login server, and that the market for THAT is not millions. There is no “let’s make a bigger/better WoW” camp, and so I no longer need to keep educating people about it. You’re welcome. When WoW goes F2P in 2015, it won’t be a surprise but rather confirmation of about a hundred posts I made in 2007/8. Feel free to look back and just leave a “damn, Syn right again” comment on each one. It’s the least you can do.

Where MMOs are going is both obvious and as uncertain as ever. It’s obvious because EVE is still crushing it and for good reason; it’s the definition of MMO design done right. If only someone had pointed that out in 2007… What’s really scary is that CCP might be doing its best work with the game right now, ten years in, so rather than decline like “all MMOs do”, EVE is still very much on the way up, with the only real question being just how high up it will go. I know I said the market is not millions, but CCP might prove me wrong in a few years.

The uncertain part is, spaceships aside, where does everyone else go? I think Darkfall: Unholy Wars is a much improved version of DF, and the patches Aventurine has been doing are hitting all the right areas, but the game and the company behind it have a long, long way to go before they reach anything close to current EVE/CCP status. The foundation is there, certainly, but the goal is so far away its borderline impossible to even think about right now. And much like EVE itself, DF doesn’t NEED 1m subs to be what it needs to be. The current population in the game is just right; fights can be found, but the world is not overcrowded to the point of game-breaking (as can happen).

GW2 continues to do what it’s doing, but nothing since the 3rd week has struck me as a reason to return. It’s just there, which since day one has pretty much been the issue with the game. Again, there is a reason Anet isn’t asking for a monthly fee, and it’s not because they are just that nice. Similar statements can be made about most other MMOs; it’s amazing SW:TOR has not been shut down, Secret World is what it is, and a few other titles are chugging along or milking the last bits for whatever is left (LotRO).

The genre is evolving and devolving at the same time. It’s evolving in terms of how games are made; Kickstarter being the biggest factor, but even having games on Steam vs requiring a box in a store is a big change for gaming, and MMOs in particular. A niche game for 50k gets made today if that 50k votes with their wallet strongly enough, while just a few years back this wasn’t the case.

It’s devolving in that we are returning to games based off what Ultima Online was trying to do (virtual world) vs what WoW became (sRPG). Designing your game for a target audience vs ‘for everyone’ is once again happening. Games with scale and longevity are being pitched. Catering to the lowest common denominator is once again seen as a negative.

The great unknown right now is whether the above will deliver or not. Will an MMO off Kickstarter release and be what it promised? Are all of the devs that today talk about “not being WoW” follow through, or are we just in another Warhammer cycle where people in white shades talk about bears but really just deliver a crappy knockoff?

And because all of this is unknown right now, we can’t really blog about it at length. The genre, and as a result, blogs covering the genre, are in a bit of wait-and-see mode.


The good stuffs in the middle

February 27, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


7 minutes in heaven, a month of hell

January 16, 2013

One point that I don’t think I made clear enough in my post about UO’s combat was that the slower pace and simplicity leads to longer retention, and so today I want to expand on that a bit (in horribly rambly fashion, sorry).

The hyper-dancing combat that so many MMOs have today is both tiring and limited. It’s tiring because mashmashmash, and limited because once you figure out/google/macro the ‘correct’ way, you are done, because short of pausing to perform a boss gimmick dance, your pattern works against just about anything (hence macros). With that out of the way, you are left to focus on the content itself, and MMO content is meh at best, and GW2 final encounter 222222 all too often. And it runs out, terribly fast no matter your budget.

A comment I see often and always get a laugh from is the EVE “shooting red crosses” complaint. That EVE is terrible and a spreadsheet because missions are blah and the combat is just target, F1, repeat. And yes, mission running is basically that, and yup, it’s boring as hell long-term or exclusively. Yet it’s also content still being run 10 years later, and very likely a good chunk of those running it have been doing it for years on and off. By the standard of MMO retention, EVE’s mission system is one of the greatest pieces of content in MMO history.

So why are players still running it? Because while not thrilling, it’s not draining and not quite as simple as macro-spamming (FFA PvP, efficiency, etc), plus you are doing it in the context of EVE, which matters. Place EVE’s mission running as a standalone game, and it would rival SW:TOR for biggest failure of all time.

How did we get from UO and its brilliantly simple combat to the one-and-done invuln-rolling of GW2?

Part of the problem is the misguided belief that more is better. If UO worked with basic attacks, then five ‘special moves’ is better. And if five works, 15 must surely be great. You know what looks more impressive than 15 on a bullet list? 40! Bam, EQ2 everyone.

Except of course it’s not, because you eventually get to Rift where the UI is flexible enough to create a single macro attached to one key to do your combat for you. Back to UO everyone! Oh, except instead of an interesting virtual world with stuff actually happening, you are doing yet another quest/dungeon against whatever for some soon-to-be-replaced item because…. Zzzzz, unsub, or play once a week because of the people more so than the content (and I think Rift is the best themepark out, btw).

It’s sadly comical if you think about it. GW2 boasted about how each class only had five or so skills because the combat was more tactical. More focused on what you are doing rather than a Googled pattern. That mobs would be different and have their special stuff and blablabla. Release comes and surprise, you are mashing five keys while plowing through some completely forgettable ‘personal’ story or zerg-herding in the equally meaningless WvW. And this from the game that ‘fixed’ the MMO formula for us. A wonder it even lasted a few weeks for so many.

Anet was right to simplify things, because having 40 character abilities is just dumb. And they almost got there with the other aspects too. Dodging attacks is good, for instance, but GW2 has invuln-dodging which is a joke. Aiming attacks is a natural evolution as hardware and connection speeds have allowed it; tab-targeting system with some aiming is a half-step failure. Beautiful and varied terrain is great, but completely wasted when it has zero impact on what you are actually doing (outside of one-off jumping puzzles).

Another issue is designing for RIGHT NOW versus designing long-term. There is a believe that if you fail the RIGHT NOW test, long-term is a non-issue, which is why so much development time is spent on a starter area or making sure everything is roses for the first five minutes. That’s all well and good, but not at the expense of long-term if you are indeed interested in making an MMO in the traditional sense.

Plus I honestly don’t buy into the theory. If you are an MMO player, you don’t quit after the first hour, much less the first five minutes. Not when you understand that you are signing up for something that will, hopefully, entertain you for months/years. This is not a $.99 iPhone app we are talking about.

Not to say that the first 5 minutes can be painful, or the first hour totally worthless, but again, understand the target audience and plan accordingly. If I’m a current EVE player and bringing in a friend, is the first five minutes important, or the systems that provide content for the next 10 months? Hell, I’m not bringing that friend in if we are talking GW2 and the start/end cycle is measured in weeks, now am I?

To poorly wrap this up, my point is that the most important and repeatable part of your game (combat), has to last long-term, and has to be supported by long-term systems. Simplicity helps you achieve that, because it allows you to get what you do have perfect, and then apply that perfection in a large variety of ways. The all-flash zero-substance systems that dominate today lead to the very predictable pattern of high initial interest and then rapid boredom.

That problem was fixed a long time ago. Hopefully today’s devs do a little bit of research before setting out to create ‘the next big thing’.


What 2012 was, and what 2013 will be

December 26, 2012

The good for me in 2012 was more of the same (EVE, LoL), while the bad was highlighted by disappointment (GW2) and delay (DF:UW). The MMO genre as a whole continued to struggle with its identity, from massive failures like SW:TOR to mis-marketed ones like The Secret World. WoW’s bleeding continued, although with fuzzy math thanks to Diablo 3, and MoP has fully transitioned the game from vanilla to… whatever it is now. F2P continued its comedy laugh track, be it from the reigning champ, wings factory SOE, to uppity newcomers such as Hotbar EAWare and pony-fun-time Turbine. So what will 2013 bring?

Well, more wings from SOE of course, thought how that will work in Planetside I’m curious to see.

Snark temporarily aside, I do believe 2013 will be the year the MMO genre figures itself out, and a clear distinction is made between games that are ‘real’ MMOs, and titles with MMO-lite qualities that we consume.

It’s funny that in 1997, when UO was releases, it was understood that this was a title you experienced, and the locations and creatures were tools to further whatever you happen to be doing. The ‘end’ was what you made it, and the only sure sign of a ‘game over’ screen was when you moved on. Then came EQ1 and AC1, and while both titles had a beginning and end, the content was such that few if any ever reached it, and again the ‘game over’ screen only came when you decided it was time.

In 2004, WoW was a refined EQ1, and while the path to the ‘end’ was shorter and yes, more accessible, it was still long enough that most did not see it, and the formula still worked. You certainly could see the ‘end’, but it was always just beyond your reach, and the journey was of such quality that even at a very slow pace, you were happy to keep playing/paying.

Fast forward to more recent times and titles like SW:TOR, where not only do you know the ‘end’ from day one, the game is designed such that you see it shortly. Distractions may exists after you consume the main course, but they have little if anything to do with the reason you showed up in the first place, and those distractions are poor-at-best in quality. SW:TOR biggest crime was not its massive budget blown on voice dialog, or its second-rate engine, or even the fact that it’s from EA; it was the expectation that millions would still be around and paying for months AFTER having completed the game.

At least Anet realized this with GW2, and planned around selling just the box to most, and some gems to the diehards. The game still falls into the “play and finish” trap of too many recent so-called MMOs, but at least the here the problem is mainly in how the PR department marketed the game rather than what the devs and bean-counters expected.

Which brings me back to the main topic. I believe in 2013 we will see MMOs that succeed because they are MMOs, and they do contain the months and years of content that an MMO needs. These titles will be ‘niche’ when compared to WoW, but such a distinction is already outdated as everyone finally comes to grips with the fact that WoW has always been an outlier, rather than the standard. With proper expectations and execution, these titles should prosper, especially as general MMO tastes swing back towards something more meaty rather than flashy.

At the same time, along with ‘real’ MMOs, we will see more games with MMO-lite features like GW2, and hopefully like GW2, they will ship with payment models that fit that style of game. These play-to-consume titles will refine their own space, and will provide nice breaks when needed for both MMO players and gamers in general. Their success will be measured not in retention, but in reacquisition; did they leave a positive-enough taste in your mouth to come back when more consumable content is out for sale?

More direct predictions:

EVE will reach and retain 500k subs in 2013.

SW:TOR will shut down or go skeleton crew by 2014.

LotRO will directly sell you The One Ring and a chance to play Sauron.

DF:UW will actually release and exceed the first year of DF1.

GW2 will have 9 tiers of gear by the end of 2013.

A bunch of MMOs will have kickstarter campaigns. Few will actually make it, almost all will be meh.

 


Darkfall: Beta blues

December 12, 2012

Darkfall Delay; part 72,343.

First off, massive points for announcing the delay minutes before you are set to go live. There is trolling, and then there is AV. Just next level stuff that gets forumfall to exactly where it needs to be; on the bleeding edge of suicide (get it). The delay sucks, but at least beta is going to start Monday (hahaha).

Having the beta sucks a lot more though. We live in a world where everything in an MMO is known and well documented before the game even comes out, so it would have been fun to have everyone go in blind for DF:UW. Especially because DF is a virtual world rather than a generic themepark, so things like city locations, farming spots, and builds matter more here than knowing the layout of the next zone in something like GW2.

Having this beta and letting organized guilds pre-plan everything is also going to take away some potential fun. Pre-beta, everyone was going to scramble and take cities they believed would be worthwhile, but that very well could have ended up with powerhouse guilds in below-average cities. That would have resulted in motivation for sieges and conflict. The pre-release meta-gaming was already great fun, with alliances spreading misinformation about their plans and where they will go.

With beta, all of this will be known, and so the most powerful alliances will grab the best locations, while the have-nots will have to settle for lesser spots. That right there will reduce conflict, at least initially. A pity.

Another pity is what day one will look like now vs in a no-beta state. Without beta, day one would have been a wild scramble with unpredictable results. With beta, organized clans will be following a tight script for success, while those less organized will instantly fall behind much further than they would have otherwise. The scramble would have been a chaotic mess of fun. The script execution will be doing what needs to be done, which is important and ultimately leads to what we want (winning), but short-term is a lot less fun.

Of course things could be a lot worse. Instead of a delay, Aventurine could announce that they plan to sell UI elements for $5 apiece in the cash shop, or mount skins for $50. They could have announced the addition of a new race, the pink anime bunny from outer space. Or a RM auction house. Or that they plan to add a new gear tier a week after release. Or that they have downgraded their graphics engine to EQ2-quality. Or just done basically anything that SOE has ever done.

Now that would be worth raging about. A delay? Welcome to Darkfall.


Kappa Sigma Turbine

December 5, 2012

Forumfall loves to bitch about Aventurine. It’s basically a tradition at this point, and it’s pretty well deserved considering DF2010 is (maybe) coming out 12/12/12. Like how hard would it have been for someone from AV to just provide a quick “don’t worry, first person view is in DF:UW”? Not that hard. And then we got the first role preview video, with 3/5 skills shown. Why did you not just show all 5? Because :AV:

But the MMO genre being as wonderfully entertaining as it is, you only have to take a small step back to realize :AV: or :CCP: is still god’s gift to gaming compared to SOE or Turbine. The latest pants-head development to fall out of the clowncar is the $50 hobby horse in LotRO. As others have mentioned, if this was an April 1st post it would fail because it would be too obvious, but no no, Turbine is serious.

Now sure, LotRO is already a F2P MMO, so the bar is meh high, but even at that level this is good stuff. First off, the ‘mount’ just looks stupid, in Middle Earth or otherwise. If it was a free drop for new players as their first mount, people would call it cyberbullying new players by making them ride around on something that looks so insulting and is often used as a hazing ritual. That Turbine wants $50 for it must be some social experiment (I think the question is “How many LotRO players would pay to get kicked in the balls?”), with the ultimate joke being on said players.

Because let’s make no mistake about it, LotRO players will buy this, just like WoW players got in line to buy a sparkle pony. We are not talking about the EVE playerbase that turned back CCP and Incarna here with the Jita Riots, we are talking about a F2P playerbase who already purchase The One Ring in their shop, and subject themselves to the game perma-spamming them to buy more every two seconds. Furthermore, if you think this is the only time this is going to happen (or even worse, that you think THIS is the START of a slippery slope…), let me introduce you to EQ2, a game basically funded on F2P dummies buying fairy wings, magic carpets, or whatever the SOE brain trust has devoted 90% of their development time and effort to. The only question left unanswered here is what will Turbine call the panda expansion for LotRO?

Bonus points to former MMO blogger Tobold for this gem as he attempts to defend Turbine:

Let me get that straight: You would rather that Turbine makes no money and shuts the game down than allow them to “break your immersion”? Sounds extremely selfish to me.

Because it’s either hobby horse or death people! That’s the only option in the MMO genre. Nothing else works. Providing a consistent, quality service and charging for it is for suckers. Massively successful games with a huge playerbase like EQ or LotRO are doing it right, and you are all just way behind the curve.

Never change F2P people, never change.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 183 other followers