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.


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%.


MMO housing IS gameplay

January 17, 2013

And yes, I’ve heard the Ultima Online house analogy. But until I can plant a flower box outside my POS, I don’t buy it. EVE ain’t Minecraft.

Going to pick on Jester a bit in this post. I say pick on because while Jester is extremely knowledgeable about EVE (and writes the best blog about it), his overall MMO experience is somewhat limited, and I’m 99% sure he did not play UO and experience its housing.

So with that said, flowers did not make UO housing. Not even a little bit. And ‘flowers’ would not be what would make EVE’s POS revamp. ‘Flower’ housing systems, like what LotRO has, suck. They are pointless, vapid wastes of instances space. That type of housing has zero gameplay. But that’s not what UO had.

The reason housing in UO was amazing gameplay was because it centralized you in a huge world. Without a house, you lived out of an NPC city, and those cities were not ‘yours’. As soon as you had a house, that was YOUR spot. Everything around you was important, because it was connected to YOUR spot in the world. That alone is perhaps the biggest retention ‘hook’ in the genre.

But housing in UO went further than just claiming land. It also opened up options such as running a vendor, or a crafting station near a mine, or just being a guild house for everyone to store items in and work out of. Each of those avenues further branched out. Once you start running a vendor, you care a lot more about the economy, and what items are worth. Or you go into crafting to ensure supply. Or you make connections to a crafting guild to work out a deal.

Point being, a house is the central point of the giant spiderweb we call sandbox content, and it’s a damn crime so many MMOs do it so poorly or don’t even do it at all.

Returning back to EVE, running a POS is painful. Really, really painful. No one likes it, very few tolerate it. Yet even in the sludge that is the current system, you have some interesting gameplay. Jester himself covers one example here.

Now imagine if CCP removed the sludge of the horrible UI you have to use to place POS guns, or the mishmash that is placing refineries and hangers. Designing a house/POS should be fun, like it is in UO. It should allow talented individuals to do something like the deathstar, but to the degree EVE lets you do things (think EVE market manipulation vs WoW kiddie pool economy).

And if newish players are given the chance to jump in and setup a small home, how many new players does that bring in? What kind of splash would a video showing the creation of a great looking and function POS make in the media? Hell, new players often struggle to define a ‘why’ in EVE; and building/growing your POS could be just the ticket. Reach a certain size, and the game should naturally encourage you to branch out, socialize, and work with others to continue on, much like UO subconsciously did way back in 1997. Again, the problem has been solved. The solution has simply been forgotten and drowned out in WoW-clone me-too trash design.


The Niche is Real

January 4, 2013

Massively has linked to a video about 38 Studios. It’s worth watching. In the comments section, there is a link to an article about the entire thing. I’m pretty sure I’ve read it before, and perhaps even linked it here, but still, it’s worth reading (or reading again).

Not that I want to rehash the entire 38 Studios story, but I do want to bring up how much money was spent to almost-create a game that, by their own admission, was not fun to play. We are talking tens of millions of dollars, if not more than 100 million.

Along those same lines, SW:TOR cost north of $300m, and we know what $300m bought us in terms of MMO gaming or genre progression.

And at least according to EAWare, SW:TOR needed to cost 300m+ because hey, that’s just what MMOs cost to produce. Prior to closing, Curt and 38 Studios would have backed that up.

Darkfall 1 cost 10m or so to make (I’d link to the source video but lazy, find it if you doubt it). Now sure, DF1 did not have special celebrity guests mailing in voice acting, or the 100+ devs 38 Studios had doing… something. But even if you hate FFA PvP gaming, it would be hard to argue that the game did not delivered something that people enjoyed, brought some new things to the table (combat), and sustained itself for 3 years until DF2010 came along and… NDA beta in 2012/13 :grumble:

The thinking that MMOs are always expensive and in order to deliver anything you have to spend $100m or aim for the WoW crowd is not only outdated, it’s just wrong. Everyone (literally, everyone) who has aimed at being WoW has failed; either by shutting down or selling TheOneRing/Hotbars/Wings. And yes, plenty of titles that did NOT aim to be WoW have failed as well, but plenty is still better than all, and the financial impact of Dawntide never exiting beta are not on the same level as SW:TOR’s failure causing a studio to gut itself and the docs in charge to ‘retire’.

So as we roll ahead in 2013, I’m expecting/hoping we seem more titles in the 10m range. Titles that don’t feature add-nothing IPs, content designed for ‘everyone’, or the attempt to be WoW but with X (but yes, this will still happen, and the results will be the same). Rather, we’ll see titles that aim to get one thing REALLY right, and attract and retain fans looking for exactly that.

Furthermore, a return to titles that are actual MMOs. Games not designed to be consumed and discarded like far too many ‘MMOs’ today that wonder why no one stuck around after the first few months/weeks. They don’t need to demand 100% of your gaming time, but they do need to offer you limitless entertainment. No more ‘personal’ stories with a final boss. No more zones that you move on from after X hours. No gear tier X that is current for a few months until it’s replaced by Y. All of those things are anti-MMO design, and just because one titles remains profitable DESPITE them, does not mean they work or are needed. (Or make that and do what Anet did, just sell the box and call it a day).

I think Kickstarter is showing that such interest/demand exists. Whether anything of substance comes from Kickstarter is a separate issue, but what is fact right now is that not only are people showing interest, they are showing it in a very real way (with their wallets). This is not Turbine announcing 4m characters created as a metric for success; this is some indie title that has little chance of ever becoming a game getting a million dollars of support thanks entirely to word-of-mouth.

It’s far too early to tell if all of this is some fad and nothing will come of it, or if this is indeed the first step to getting the MMO genre back to what many of us remember it being (and when it was actually working). That said, it’s encouraging to see people attempt it, and even more encouraging to see many others support those efforts. Maybe as we begin 2014, we will be talking about which little MMO we are playing, rather than which dream might actually happen as we uninstall some title we just finished that called itself an MMO.


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.

 


On second thought, the hobby horse seems very reasonable

December 13, 2012

Pay to Travel, Turbine style.

It’s going to be a really sad day when LotRO shuts down, because this kind of entertainment is almost priceless, and I’d hate to rely solely on SOE to provide it.

(This is the part of the post where I mockingly predict the next ridiculous item Turbine will sell, but I just can’t do it. After a $50 hazing implement and P2Travel, what’s left? BiS gear sets for $7000? $5 Hotbars? $6 for a token that promises not to sell your credit card info to shady Russians?)


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.


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