Living virtual worlds; Now technically possible yet still not here

January 5, 2015

One of the fun things about the world in Farcry 4 is that events don’t feel as fake as they do in MMOs. For instance, when PQs were first introduced in Warhammer, they were new and fun. By the time Guild Wars 2 used the idea, it felt tired, old, and fake (especially when compared to that disaster of a manifesto). The events being marked on your map, the by-the-numbers repetition, and the odd insistency that these ‘random’ events need to be heavily scripted all leads to them being far short of what they should be.

To return to the Farcry example, seemingly at random Karma events will happen, whether it’s a fight between the two factions, a supply truck that you need to steal/destroy, or a messenger speeding on an ATM you can intercept. These aren’t major pieces of content, and if you want you can fully ignore them, but they also don’t feel as staged or as forced as the MMO examples above.

For instance, chasing down a supply truck can be lengthy if you have bad aim, and during that chase you might run into other Karma events or just a random enemy patrol, who will join in the fight and start shooting/chasing you. Or maybe the truck will drive towards randomly spawned allies, and they in turn will shoot and possibly kill the driver, or get into a fight with whatever enemies might also be chasing you. The major highlight is that these things aren’t scripted, so sometimes the Karma event is short and easy, and other times turns into a bigger deal, and those aspects are somewhat player-controlled (first shot killing the driver basically stops the event, while again bad shooting/chasing can seriously extend and snowball it).

All of this could still be taken further, especially in an MMO. While the Karma events are fun, imagine if those supply trucks didn’t spawn at random but instead because a faction actually needed supplies moved from a real point A to a real point B? If a messenger wasn’t random but not only had a reason to go someplace, but his actual message was real as well? If outposts traded hands to really push a war in one direction or another, rather than just falling because the story said it should fall now?

Way back at the start of the MMO genre, Ultima Online tried something like this with its living ecosystem. It never made it out of beta because the players killed everything, the chains fell apart, and it just didn’t work in terms of a fun, playable game. In terms of lost potential, I’d rank UO’s abandoned living ecosystem as one of, if not the greatest, losses to the genre (which should also tell you how sad and devoid of advancement the genre has been when its first big title is also one of the most innovative). But that was in 1997; its 2015 now, and we certainly have the technology and hardware to make what was impossible in 1997 very doable.

I also don’t believe what UO tried to do is actually impossible from a player-behavior perspective. Yes, in a game where killing stuff is needed to gain skills and loot, with zero clear negatives for such killing, people are going to kill stuff. But look at Skyrim for example; does everyone kill every NPC? No, because the game rules suggest (but don’t outright prevent) that you don’t do that, and so unless you are playing a very certain style (which has its own challenges, ie guard agro), you don’t. An MMO could be designed in a similar way, leading to a more living, working virtual world. If you discourage but also account for the outliers, and create a system that not only handles them, but actively supports them, it can work.

That nothing on the horizon is even attempting to do so is disappointing, but disappointment has been the hot MMO trend for at least the last few years, now hasn’t it?


Modern MMO design creates new barriers for grouping

December 16, 2014

Keen is talking about why people choose to solo instead of group, and all of his points are spot-on. Some are design mistakes (solo being more efficient/rewarding than grouping), others are social (people are mean), and for some the time needed for group content just doesn’t fit into their gaming time often enough to bother. I think all of this is true, and an area where MMO design has to evolve, but not devolve into sRPG games with global chat.

One thing an MMO needs to do is encourage grouping naturally. If I’m out in the world killing stuff, another player coming along should always be a bonus. This not only means that you form groups with random players and potentially make new friends, but it also means that when a guild mate logs on and joins you, that’s always a good thing.

Far too many MMOs today fail with the above. Back in the day quests were simple, one-off “kill a bunch of X” tasks. This simplicity meant that “I’m questing” didn’t instantly result in “I’m playing solo, you aren’t on that chain”. So yes, we got fancier, more involved sRPG-style questing with phasing and whatnot, but we lost the social aspects that got us interested in an MMO in the first place.

A lot of times you don’t even need official questing IMO; just give me a natural reason to kill a bunch of mobs (wealth progression), make killing them better/faster with more people, and allow me to determine how many people I want to bring and how long we want to keep killing. Again modern MMOs over-focus on holding your hand and always making sure you have a directed list of tasks, and all of that creates major barriers to playing with others, which is insane to think about in the MMO genre.

That said, it’s also important to acknowledge that times HAVE changed. People have more choices now, and not only that, but it feels like most people play more games at the same time than in days past. If we want to go way back, I remember having to play every Sega Genesis game to death because I only got one every few months, where now I can pay a few bucks and get half a dozen in a Humble Bundle. Factor in F2P titles, Steam sales, mobile gaming, and everything else, and suddenly expecting the average player to sit down and hammer away at your MMO for 3-5 hour blocks 3-5 times per week is simply asking too much. Even those of us who have that much gaming time aren’t likely to dedicate it to just one game for long periods of time.

Just because someone only has an hour to play, shouldn’t mean they can’t spend that hour in a group doing something fun in an MMO. Developers need to look at all of the barrier they have created of late and ask if it’s all worthwhile. Is everyone playing an sRPG really better for your game, or would enabling players to form social hooks in your title keep people playing/paying longer/more?


Burnout is a myth

November 25, 2014

When WoW was declining due to one crappy expansion after another featuring accessibility-inspired dumbing down, some people tried to write this off as not being about the content, but just due to ‘burnout’. They would have you believe that after 1, 2, or 4 years, people were just getting burned out on WoW and that’s why sub numbers were declining. The counter point the entire time was EVE, but now you can toss WoW itself into the mix.

Related is this recent info about Payday 2. The highest activity in the game, which is now more than a year old, just occurred this October. Perhaps FPS gamers are just immune to burnout? Or maybe its because the content that is constantly added to Payday 2 is fantastic. Deathwish difficulty raised the bar and gave even the most experienced players a real challenge (or for most people, an unreachable/impossible tier, which sounds vaguely familiar to something else…), the mix of paid DLC and free updates have been solid and steady, and the game today doesn’t just have more ‘stuff’, but it has more stuff that fits and actually expanded all of the original content, rather than replace it (now where have I heard about that approach working long-term…).

LoL (4 years+, peak numbers), CoC (2 years+, top grossing app today (oddly Hearthstone didn’t show up in the top 150 for either downloads or revenue, wonder why)), DoTA2 (crazy growth this year), etc etc etc. I think you get the point.

If a game is great and keeping being great, while giving you more of that greatness, you don’t get burned out. If a game stagnates, or especially if it gets worse (hi Trion), people leave because of that, not burnout.


I’ve officially quit WoW again

November 12, 2014

Title of the post is just to continue things for folks who apparently only read titles and go directly to comment.

There was a lot of nostalgia when my old raiding character, an orc warrior in full T2 wielding the original Quel-Serrar, first loaded in near the bank in Ogrimmar. That nostalgia was pushed further when, about 5 minutes in, I had a few people whisper me about my gear. Some things never change.

Looking over his bank content was like viewing a trophy room of past accomplishments. Items from MC, BWL, AQ40, Nax40, PvP tiers, and others. In his bags I still had the server-first Spinal Reaper that I crafted, though sadly it no longer has the text of who crafted it (thanks Blizzard). I got a chuckle out of all the flasks in his inventory, and the two full bank bags of gems and other crafting materials. Even little Diablo, the original collector box pet, came out to say hello.

Nostalgia aside however, WoW does nothing for me at this point. The game looks beyond dated now, with the graphics long since having move from ‘stylized’ to just plain ugly. In 2014 EVE looks like a 2014 game. In 2014 WoW looks like a 2004 game. Then there was everyone else around me; the dozen or so ridiculous mounts that would make the most asian of MMOs blush, the drab yet at the same time silly looking gear, the stupid-even-by-WoW-standards pets. While even in vanilla WoW had some ‘immersion breaking’ stuff, today it’s just full-on clowncar nonsense.

The UI is also something that looks like it has a few (dozen) too many mods going for it. Just stuff all over the place, which I’m sure once you get use to makes sense, but is EVE-level of shocking when first glanced at. I’m almost tempted to get my wife to give returning a shot, only to see how she would react to the UI, especially as we are playing FFXIV (which, now more so than ever, I fully believe is just a better version of what made WoW great in 2004, brought up to 2014 standards)

And so SynCaine the orc warrior went back into retirement in the same spot he did so many years ago. The world around him has changed, but he won’t be tarnished by it.


AA: Good design can’t overcome a bad business model and stupidity

October 27, 2014

Whelp, things went downhill fast huh?

To some extent this should have been obvious, given that ArcheAge is a F2P MMO, the very clear minor-leagues of the genre. Maybe I was trying to convince myself otherwise, or maybe a particularly bleak dry-spell was to blame, or I was just coming off the terribad roller-coaster ride that was DF:UW. Either way, I currently have zero motivation to log into AA, and my sub has been canceled.

What’s interesting about AA is that from a design perspective it gets so much right, both big and little. I’ve covered a lot of them here, and hopefully future MMOs take a note or two on the better aspects of AA. If this is but one of the general directions the genre is going in, I’m ok with that. But ultimately the game was doomed by two major factors, one predictable (F2P), the other somewhat a surprise (Trion).

The F2P aspect is obvious. The Pay4Power aspect is brutal, as is the cheese factor of the cash shop. The taint of F2P is felt in almost all aspects, and the fact that being a subscriber only takes you out of ‘worthless to anyone but bots’ free territory and into ‘you are paying but not enough, give us more!’ land doesn’t make you feel good. The daily loyalty points you get, which only allow you to buy a few things in the shop, are more of a slap to the face than anything else.

But again that part was somewhat predictable, and I’ve played such MMOs before and not minded it that much (Atlantica Online is by far the best example of this IMO).

The F2P factor becomes a bigger issue than normal when mixed with disaster number two; Trion.

I’ve joked and not joked about Trion before, but I say this now being 100% serious; I’ve never experience a bigger disaster than what Trion has done with AA. It’s borderline criminal to be this incompetent on so many levels, and to be so dishonest about all of it.

Very recent and easy example; remember how for the first month, whenever anything was going wrong with AA, Trion would answer everything with basically “we’ll pass a note to XLGames, as we are just the publisher and can’t do anything”? Funny how for some reason (accounts unsubbing) suddenly a month later Trion is having GMs spam chat with how often they catch a hacker, and it seems not a day goes by that Trion is releasing a statement about what they are doing about the rampant cheating in the game. They have even gone so far as following up on specific Reddit threads, supposedly having someone go into the database and confirm that so-and-so was legit and didn’t hack.

You know what might have helped Trion? You not waiting until people slapped you with the wallet-vote before you did something. Maybe instead of waiting until everyone has chat turned off due to spam, you could have launched the game with chat restrictions? It’s a joke, especially because the ‘crackdown’ on hacking is not only too late, it also only catches the idiots stupid enough to run a well-known and easily available hack kit on patch day. Everyone else is still sitting pretty, and Trion knows it but won’t do a thing about it.

The real shame here is that in a genre with so few decent options, one was taking away not because of its core design, but because of its business model and the incompetent fools tasked with simply porting the game over and doing some basic maintenance.

Even when we get something nice, it’s tainted to such a degree that you are forced out. Real shame.


AA: View from level 50

October 21, 2014

I recently hit the current level cap of 50 in ArcheAge, so now is a good time to talk about that experience, what changes, and plans going forward.

First thing however is how effortless getting to 50 was. Not only is the leveling experience fairly short by MMO standards, but almost everything you do in the game gives XP. Spend some timing mining? You got a ton of XP. Did some work around the farm? XP. Trade run? Bit of XP. I’d say easily 40% of my XP was gained from non-quest activities, and that number could have been a lot higher had I wanted it to be (I actually enjoyed blitzing the quests and just whacking mobs).

In AA however, more than in any themepark I’ve played so far, getting to the cap isn’t a game-shifting event. There really is no “game starts at cap” for AA, for a number of reasons.

One is that you still care about getting more XP. Because of how the skill trees work, and the large number of them, you will likely want to level more than your original three up (assuming you didn’t switch midway to 50, in which case you haven’t hit 50 in all 3 of your current trees anyway). Additionally things like your combat pet or mount also need to hit 50, so you care about XP there. Keeping XP relevant even though your character level is at the cap is pretty brilliant, because you avoid the motivational and design issue of only some players benefitting from an activity that factors XP into its reward. Blizzard had this problem in WoW (TBC days anyway), and tried to solve the problem by having quests convert their XP reward into giving out more gold, but the way AA does it is not only cleaner, but feels more natural as well.

Beyond the issue of XP, what you actually do at 50 is what you were doing at 49. You still do your farming, you still work on your crafting skills, you still chase after better gear, and you still jump into stuff like rifts, zone battles, trade routes, the arena, etc. And because all of those things still give XP, you are also progressing on that front should you decide to as well. The whole thing just feels very ‘sandbox’, while still using more themeparky elements like XP and quests.

Going forward I have plenty of personal goals to chase after, in addition to working on larger, guild-wide goals (dungeon runs, zone bosses, arena team, getting more land and a bigger house, pirate adventures, etc). And assuming Trion doesn’t Trion things (ha), the next continent is opening soon with additional content options as well.


Some people play MMOs, some play EVE

October 20, 2014

To say that EVE is a different kind of MMO is perhaps the biggest understatement in gaming. Year after year events happen in EVE that no other game will likely ever come close to replicating, and the game’s depth, complexity, and sheer scale draw and hold some of the best and brightest players. There is perhaps no finer example of this then the most recent Rooks and Kings’ masterpiece, Clarion Call 4. It’s over an hour long, and my only criticisms is that it isn’t two.

There is just so much to love here. There is of course the utter brilliance of the tactics used, and the razor sharp execution of those tactics. But almost as amazing is the begrudging respect you hear from the victims. The name “Rooks and Kings” means something (usual quick death) to tens of thousands, despite the group being very small by EVE Corp or Alliance standards.

That kind of earned respect, over many years of excellence, just doesn’t happen in other MMOs. In WoW the ‘top’ raiding guild and roster changes yearly, if not monthly, and the excitement or respect generated by being a world first is both short lived and quickly forgotten. In LoL, which just had it’s amazing world championship (more on that in another post), who is king also changes year to year, and while the names and teams impress, they also quickly burn out of view. Who won season 1, and who was on those teams? Would even 1% of all LoL players know? Because certainly far more than 1% of all EVE players know R&K, and have known about them since before the first game of LoL was ever played.

That R&K have been around in EVE for so long isn’t an accident, just like the CFC being so large and dominant is no accident. It’s a reflect of what CCP has created, and a reminder that no one else is even close, and haven’t been for more than ten years now.

Edit: H/T to TAGN for reminding me to blog about this video.


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