ARK – A micro-MMO

August 26, 2015

My obsession with ARK continues, and it has now bled into the MMO-thinking part of my brain. To be very clear, ARK isn’t an MMO, but in a lot of ways it certainly plays like one.

The big thing is progression; you certainly have it in ARK, between your own character’s level, the base you build, the dinos you tame, the blueprints you collect, and the ever-expanding scope of stuff you can do as you progress and get more powerful. What’s funny is in an MMO like WoW, you can go from fresh character to the level cap in less time than it would take in ARK, and then both games have a lot of different stuff to do once you are at the cap, with a key difference being that levels help in ARK, while levels are required for ‘end-game’ content in WoW.

The main reason ARK isn’t an MMO is scale. Servers currently max out at 70 players, while an MMO server can hold thousands (or tens of thousands if we are talking EVE). ARK also has trouble handling more than ten or so characters on one screen, while again in an MMO that is common and expected. But the question in my mind is how often, when playing an MMO, does that matter? When you run a dungeon, it’s just you and the 3-5 others with you, and literally nothing else matters. Raids are bigger, but basically the same thing. An auction house is something thousands of players interact with, but unless you are deep into playing the auction house, do you actually care that the goods are listed and bought by others, or would your experience be mostly the same if bots did it?

In fact, one could argue player interaction in ARK is more important than it is in a typical MMO. The obvious example is PvP; raiding someone’s base has a huge impact, larger than killing someone in WoW or even blowing up a ship in EVE. A lot of things are easy to replace in ARK, but there are also a lot of things (high lvl dinos, rare items or blueprints) that aren’t, and losing those hurts. Plus base raiding has various degrees; someone blowing up one wall and looting one room stings, but a rival tribe leveling your base is a rage-quit level event.

PvP aside, even living near someone else has a large impact in ARK, while your garrison in WoW has nearly zero impact on anyone but you. In ARK resources don’t respawn near a base, so having 2-3 bases in close proximity not only means a large void of respawns, but also increased competition for the remaining resources. It’s comparable to mining in EVE, where you show up and the belt has already been stripped, only in ARK resource availability plays a more major role, and it’s not as easy as simply flying to the next belt.

ARK makes me wonder if a lot of the design problems of an MMO can be solved by going micro-MMO, especially if going smaller results in MORE player interaction.


Hitting rocks to build success

August 13, 2015

For me the simplest measure of how much you liked a game is how long you played it. I think there is certainly value in a great 10 hour experience, but IMO no matter how great that 10 hours was, a game you spend 100+ hours with is the better game. Even if you disagree on that, I think we can all agree that if you’re a dev for an MMO, you certainly want your players playing for 100+ hours instead of 10.

Right now in the group I’m playing ARK with, there are people who have 2000+ hours spent with the game, which besides being INSANE on a personal playtime level, is an amazing compliment to the longevity of the game and its ability to entertain someone long-term. ARK isn’t an MMO, but if it was, I think it would be a fairly successful one just based on how well it retains people and the amount of time you can spend with its content.

And ARK, besides being RUST+Dinos, is basically a crafting/gathering simulator. Sure, there are other things you do like PvE (kill dinos), PvP (kill players), and PvB (bashing bases), but those activities occupy a minority of your time compared to hitting rocks/trees/bushes, and making stuff from the gains of said rocks/trees/bushes. You build a base to protect your stuff and craft more stuff, and dinos enhance your gathering or ability to protect your stuff from others. In short, given the popularity of not just ARK but games like it, a TON of people love gathering/crafting, and love it enough to do it for a LONG time.

Now the critical part is the motivation behind those basic activities. Much like few if any find mining in EVE thrilling, so many do it because the ‘why’ is worthwhile, not the ‘how’. The same is true for ARK; hitting a rock isn’t thrilling, but what you can eventually make from hitting that rock is very worthwhile, so you hit that rock, and the rock next to it, and the next thousand rocks after that. It also helps that gathering in ARK can both be relaxing in its simplicity (running a low risk, familiar gathering cycle), and occasionally more of an adventure if you go far out into hostile territory with a valuable dino along with you.

What I find absolutely insane about the MMO genre is that, despite these obvious examples of player wants, few if any MMOs cater to this crowd well. Sure, EVE has its mining, and FFXIV might be the best example with its gathering/crafting roles and all of the additional gameplay options related to them, but what about everyone else? Why is gathering/crafting such a footnote and total mess in games like WoW? Why hasn’t someone made ARK, The MMO already? ARK itself is close, but clearly the design intent is to sell the product and allow players to play on various servers, which is a slight but very important difference from playing/paying for an MMO service.

The market is there, by the millions who are willing to play for a long time, and it’s crazy that not only do we not have a full-on crafting/gathering focused MMO (ATitD is the closest, but in all honesty is a pretty poor product overall when compared to the gameplay and features of RUST/ARK), but that so many current MMOs minimize this aspect of the game or outright neglect it. We keep talking about MMOs today lacking longevity, perhaps if we looked at what players DO spend a lot of time doing in other genres, we might be able to return to a time when MMOs lasted longer than a month or so of content consumption.


Fun vs Reward

June 23, 2015

Designing MMO content is, IMO, far different than designing gaming content, primarily because MMO content has to last, while other gaming content has to be as fun as possible. It may sound odd, but I don’t think you should try and make all of your MMO content as fun as possible. Allow me to explain.

We generally play MMOs far longer than we do other games. If you get 30 hours out of a ‘normal’ game, that’s considered pretty good. If you only get 30 hours out of an MMO, you likely quit long before hitting the level cap or seeing the majority of the game, which in turn means you didn’t really like it. The business is built around this as well, especially the sub model. A happy customer who only played your sub MMO for 30 hours is not a good customer.

As MMO players, we are odd beasts. We will do things we don’t really like/love (dailies, farming, travel, etc) to allow us to do the stuff we do like/love (main quests, PvP, beating raid bosses, etc). Not only that, but we will continue to do this for far, far longer than we would tolerate in a normal game. Imagine if you had to hit rocks in an sRPG for 50 hours before you could craft a half-decent weapon? You would quit that game in short order, and it would get ridiculed in reviews. In MMOs though? 50 hours to level up a crafting skill/profession is considered rather short, and in many games that timeframe is orders of magnitude longer, with thousands and thousands of players participating and accomplishing that goal.

To return to not making your content fun, I believe MMO content should be designed on a scale. On one end you have rewards, and on the other end you have fun. The more fun said content, the less rewarding it should be, while the less fun something is, the more rewarding it needs to be to stay viable/relevant.

Some MMOs already do this well. PvP in EVE is considered the fun stuff, and not only is it not directly rewarding, it’s in fact neg-sum. Sticking with EVE, mining is perhaps one of the least fun things you can do in any game, let alone an MMO, but it’s highly rewarding (not just for the ISK earned, but also because the reward comes with so little effort). Travel in an MMO is generally not fun gameplay, but it’s again easy to do and the reward is easy to see (you arrive where you want to be). Raiding is hard work with little reward initially (but learning encounters and seeing new content is fun), while farming a raid isn’t all that fun, but it’s highly rewarding.

“Syn, why not just make content rewarding AND fun?”

Content has to be balanced, in that it all should be viable to the average player. If one bit of content is ‘the best’, it not only ruins the other stuff but also gets your players into bad patterns and ultimately sees them out the door quicker. As a designer it’s important to remember that one of the worst enemies of your game are the players themselves, and it’s your job to protect them, even if that means being the adult and telling the child that he can’t have yet another candybar.

Take FATES in FFXIV for example. Many players will form groups and grind nothing but FATES. This is because fundamentally, FATES aren’t well balanced. They are a bit too rewarding for what they are; decently fun group content. It would be hard to tone down the fun of FATES (I guess you could make them longer/more grindy), but lowering the rewards would be easy. But why would SquareEnix want to do this? Because you have a lot of other great content, and the more you can spread people out, the longer it will take for someone to get bored of your game, and keeping people around is what the model is all about.

Note that this only applies to content which is expected to last. A one-off piece of content, like a story quest or special event, should be as fun as possible, and so long as the rewards don’t spoil the rest of the game (like giving you the best weapon or a massive amount of gold), all good. Those little bits of content should be highlights for the player, something to look forward to and further motivate you; a bit of long-term ‘reward’ let’s say.

Far too many MMOs get this all wrong IMO, where a lot of developer resources are spend on imbalanced content, and one or two pieces are left unchecked that everyone rushes to, consumes, looks around, and leaves because everything else seems to lacking in comparison.


Bringing games to prison

June 9, 2015

Via Az, what PC game would you pick if you were in prison for 10 years with no internet, and what three games would you pick if you were locked up for life but had Internet to play games but no web?

For me this is simple.

Mount and Blade: Warband + all DLC/mods is such an easy choice for scenario one, I’m more concerned that I wouldn’t have enough time in that ten years to finish doing everything. Civ V was also in the running, but really it’s a landslide toward M&B.

Scenario two is also pretty easy IMO.

First choice is EVE. You know its going to last, it has infinite content, you realistically COULD play it 23/7, and being awesome/addicted to EVE would mean you are critically involved in so much of the very best stuff.

Game two would be LoL, mostly as a break from EVE, but also because you know its going to last, get updated, and is a gaming formula that is proven to hold up.

Third option was more difficult for me only because I would be perfectly fine with just EVE and LoL, but I think at this point I’d go with FFXIV simply because of the content depth and pace of updates. At least in prison with EVE and LoL, I wouldn’t burn through FFXIV all that quickly, and the more relaxed pace would be a good break from the other two.


2015 midyear check-in: Still not a single great F2P MMO

June 4, 2015

Wildstar announcing it is moving to the minor leagues of the MMO world (F2P) is… something? Personally I have zero investment/interest in Wildstar, as I never saw the point of creating a ‘hardcore’ raiding MMO and then picking a hyper-cartoon artstyle and thinking more than a tiny population would remain interested. Those seem a bit contradictory, and anything bigger than “tiny niche product” for Wildstar was never going to happen anyway.

The only real surprise I guess is that Wildstar is going F2P later than ESO did, though I highly suspect the delay for Wildstar had more to do with resource limits, and console-release deadlines for ESO pushing it towards F2P faster-than-needed (and I’m not sure ESO wouldn’t have stayed sub if it was a PC-only title anyway).

But all of this does further reinforce my point about business models in the MMO genre; if you have a good game, it can be great if its sub, and no F2P MMO can be great. That Wildstar wasn’t great and is now moving down to F2P doesn’t change that. Nor does ESO, as ESO wasn’t great.

What was of interest when both games were announced with the sub model is that it gave both games a chance, at least in terms of the business model, to be great. No MMO that is under the F2P weight can ever be great. If an MMO tomorrow is announced, and part of that announcement is that it’s F2P, we know that, at best, it will be mediocre, with very good odds that it will be hotbar-selling garbage.

That’s just the upper limit of F2P. Always has been, and midway through 2015, nothing has changed. In 2015 the best and most successful MMOs are still sub MMOs (FFXIV, WoW, EVE). Saying the sub model is dead or outdated makes you sound like an ignorant fool at best, if not an outright idiot. What is almost-dead is the MMO genre itself, at least compared to days of old, with only a few studios still making MMOs that are anything above mediocre. But make no mistake; if you are one of those studios, the sub model is the one model that will allow you to truly create something great. That hasn’t changed in 2015. As always, lets revisit (repeat) in 2016, shall we?


How many more people will we allow Blizzard and WoW to murder?

May 22, 2015

I think its about time someone took up the righteous cause of saving the world from murder/suicide-assisting MMOs and the evil that they bring. Now you might be saying “But SynCaine, surely the developers are setting proper limits here and not encouraging such things?”, but you would be wrong.

When this little angel got tricked by evil Blizzard, did they change the game? Or did they further push the boundary limits of their suicide-assistance machine with more social-engineering grind? Did they step in to stop the evil, or did they add more daily quests? Did they add a whole new method of gameplay (garrisons) that further preyed on the weak-minded? How many have died? And how many more will die, just because evil Blizzard is left unchecked, and their evil supporters have long stood with them and get off on the deaths of others for pageviews, clicks, and maybe a free coffee?

Well not anymore my beautiful internet! It’s time we, the non-evil, stand up, rise together, and say no more! No more assisted-suicide via themepark grinds! Shut them all down (except FFXIV, that game is fine), and let us live in a more peaceful, evil-free world! Where only such virtuous titles like EVE Online exist, where CCP has been so merciful as to allow progression when offline to not commit the evils that Blizzard and their ilk have.

It’s time internet! Good men must not sit idle as these atrocities continue! Join me, and together, we can save the world from this this evil!

#gamerlivesmatter #WoWisEvil #DeathToTheDeathMachines #DeathToTheirSupporters


GTA V: A monster of quality content

April 21, 2015

Quick plugs first: The CoC clan has one spot currently open. Anyone with a non-rushed TH7+ that will be active please apply to “Supreme Cream!” and mention the blog. Also the Boom Beach group “Hardcore Casual” has spots open as well. More relaxed in that game so no reqs to join.

Moving on.

GTA V is an example of a massive budget used well. For example, the amount of top-notch voice work you will miss or have in the background easily outnumbers the total amount of voice work in most ‘AAA’ games total. Or how some of the side activities are better ‘games’ than other products that do just that one thing. Or just the sheer size and detail of the world, right down to traffic patterns. It really is mind-blowing when you stop and think about all of the work put into the game, and how somehow, amazingly it all comes together to form such a great game. From a project management aspect the game is a huge accomplishment.

It has been said in the past that WoW is impossible to replicate because it has so much content, but WoW over time has been replacing stuff rather than just adding more and more on (unlike, say, EVE). It’s why you can launch FFXIV and not have it feel like a much smaller version of WoW, despite WoW having nearly a decade head start. GTA V isn’t that. Sure, it builds off of what worked in previous GTA games, but GTA V itself is a massive package of content that few if any games can even come close to matching (Skyrim is really the only title that comes to mind).

It also brings me back to when I played Saint’s Row 3 (a solid game itself), and why that game is smart to push what it does well (over the top action and comedy) and not just try to straight-up be a GTA clone. If it did that, it would get slaughtered, because it would be nearly impossible to stack up in terms of quality AND quantity, and the corners cut would be noticeable.


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