FFXIV: The good kind of difficult

July 6, 2015

One of the aspects that soured me on WoW post TBC (although even prior to WotLK this was already somewhat of a trend in the game, just much slower) was the decrease in challenge in the ‘normal’ game, with only special ‘hard mode’ versions of the same content being tuned to really push you. Especially in vanilla, there was plenty of content that would test you, even during the leveling game (elite quests, certain dungeons). This removal never made sense to me, because WoW never forced you to beat that content, and outside of max-level stuff, you always had the option to go back later if you wanted to see something.

FFXIV is a lot of fun in part because the content challenge doesn’t insult you with how trivial it is in spots. Yes, most random quests you pick up ARE very easy kill five of this or collect five of that tasks, but the dungeons you run as you level require some level of competence, and the main quest line (that isn’t optional) and class quests have some fairly challenging fights you must solo due to the Duty system (basically a private instance).

It’s these Duties that my wife struggles with at times (and sometimes I do as well), mainly because we always do them right as soon as they become available, and because our gear is limited to what we get from questing and running the dungeons once (no AH or crafting), and I think this challenge is a great thing overall. The smart thing about this design is you CAN come back to the Duty later when you are a bit stronger, but even then you can’t completely overpower it as the Duty will level-sync you should you be more than four levels above it (though four levels is a fairly significant amount of power).

The only consistent complain I’ve seen about FFXIV is that the main story is required to progress in the game, but I think the real complain is the challenge, because WoW has trained newer MMO players to not expect any. And again, this isn’t even older WoW, where if you wanted to see the main villain of the expansion (Illidan) you had to be a top-tier raider; this is simply required content you can’t completely faceroll to progress past, and yet a minority still complain.

As Rohan wrote, this overall helps FFXIV, as it weeds out the worst of the ‘WoW-kiddies’, meaning you don’t get randomly grouped with them during a dungeon, or have them running around spamming local chat, tagging mobs, and generally being WoW players. I’m glad SquareEnix ‘doubled down’ on this design by making the expansion content gated behind completing the original content, and hopefully they don’t make the mistake Blizzard made with WoW starting with WotLK.


Are Clash of Clans and Boom Beach MMOs?

June 30, 2015

This is mostly just food for thought, and spoiler answer: No, but its real close.

To really answer this question, you first have to ask yourself what you value most in an MMO, and how many of those factors does a game have to have before we can label it an MMO in the traditional sense.

Let’s start with the easy stuff.

Massive: A large number of players need to be around, more than a large FPS map or private Minecraft server of 64 or 128 players.

Multiplayer: Not only must a larger number of players be around, but that should mean something critical to the game. If you can get 90% or more of the experience without interacting with others, the game fails here.

Online: This one is interesting, because at first you think this is simply about connecting to a server, but does asynchronous activity count here? Or does ‘online’ mean two people are online and interacting in real time? A dungeon run is real-time, you selling something on an auction house is asynchronous. How much of the core gameplay needs to be real-time to count? Does it at all?

Let’s look at how I play CoC/BB. I run a ‘clan’ in both, the CoC one has 50 accounts, the BB around 30. In both games we have regular, guild-wide activities (Clan Wars and Operations), and in both of these activities we spend a solid amount of time helping each other out and working together to win. One is group-based PvP, the other is group-based PvE. Chat is very frequent and lively, and Reddit/YouTube is often referred for strategy or game updates.

Personal and guild-wide progression is a main focus of both games, and both games are frequently updated, often with content that adds more progression. Both games are played by millions in one ‘world’ (you can potentially interact with anyone playing), and minor solo PvE content aside, everything is multiplayer.

Basically, the way I play CoC/BB is more like playing an MMO than how I play FFXIV today with my wife, where we duo almost exclusively (random fate groups and dungeon runs aside). I’m more invested in CoC/BB, I’m more into the community of those games, and I do more massive, multiplayer, online gaming in those titles than in FFXIV.

Again, the biggest disconnect is the asynchronous difference, and the lack of a true ‘character’ to play in CoC/BB, although that last one I could argue is no different than flying a ship in EVE. In CoC/BB I’m the chief (pilot) of my village (ship), fighting against other chiefs (pilots) and their village (ship)*.

*Insert easy TiDi is asynchronous gameplay joke here.


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.


What really makes a themepark tick, and why FFXIV is a rolex

June 9, 2015

Where a good sandbox is like a mountain climb with incredible peaks along with plenty of valleys, playing a good themepark is like taking a nice walk on a familiar path; at no point are you overly thrilled, but the activity as a whole is enjoyable and ultimately you feel good about the time spent.

Most themeparks ‘fail’ because that steady drip of entertainment drops below an acceptable level, and people drift away (or you do something really dumb to instantly piss them off, like Allods with its cash shop). This is especially true if the themepark tries to use the sub model, because now there is further pressure to justify not just your time, but also your monthly cost (trivially low as it may be). At least under F2P, it only takes a tiny subset of all players to whale it out and keep things going (short-term anyway; long-term the need to keep those whales spending inevitably dooms the game), rather than a majority vote of happiness that is the sub model.

For years WoW held a choke-hold on themeparks because of how good+popular it was (not the post for that breakdown/discussion, but hopefully you understand that WoW wasn’t successful just because it was well-designed). The fabled coming of a WoW-killer was announced often, and each failed. If you were going to play a fantasy themepark (or ‘Sci-Fi’ that was fantasy reskinned), you might as well play the one with good content that all your friends are playing, right?

Realistically the only entity capable of ‘killing’ WoW was Blizzard itself, and thanks to New Blizzard making one mistake after another with the game since WotLK, that process has been underway for a few years now. WoD was able to lift WoW as much as it did because the hype was “a return to Vanilla”, but clearly New Blizzard wasn’t able to produce what really made Vanilla WoW, and sub are once again dropping.

While New Blizzard was working hard on stopping what should be an unstoppable juggernaut, SquareEnix re-released FFXIV, a themepark that is, in a way, Vanilla WoW in 2015. Not in terms of content, systems, or any specific design (all those are evolved and better), but Vanilla WoW in terms of keeping you on that nice, steady, enjoyable walk along that familiar path. Much like in 2004 WoW didn’t do any one thing amazingly well, in 2015 FFXIV doesn’t have a ‘killer feature’; it just has basically everything you could want, all co-existing beautifully in a world you want to spend time in and with a character you want to progress further, with plenty of ways for that progression to happen.

Themeparks don’t need a Burn Jita event. They don’t need to push the envelope in terms of battle sizes, or economic complexity, or to build and sustain the history of large player groups and rivalries for a decade. You don’t play a themepark expecting the peak of something like BR5 to happen, because you also don’t play it for the hours and hours of valley that makes something like BR5 possible and matter as much as it did. And you most certainly shouldn’t attempt to design your themepark to achieve this, because you will fail, horribly.

At least so far, SquareEnix seems to understand this with FFXIV. While the pace of content updates is very high, few if any of the updates are highly controversial or change/remove something you previously enjoyed. They add stuff, and generally the new stuff is good so you will experience it, but it if doesn’t happen to click with you, you aren’t disrupted or upset.

The other very important thing for any MMO, themepark or sandbox, is that updates should add content, not replace it. EVE is amazing in this regard, and FFXIV is good as well. WoW hasn’t been for some time. Most of the time a major addition to WoW effectively replaces something else, which can not only cause disruption, but also doesn’t create the massive content juggernaut that the game should be.

Take something as simple as leveling; in WoW every level increase should extent that part of the game (the best part of the game for many), but with every increase the leveling rate is also increased, so while you have more levels, they come quicker, and can be accomplished with less content consumed and time spent. That makes sense if you are dead-set on everyone sitting at the level cap, but for those that wish to experience an older zone as it was meant to be played, they either can’t (outlevel it) or can but only though additional hoops (stopping xp gain, limiting what items you use, etc).

Right now I’m ‘behind’ in FFXIV, with my main class at 38, my highest crafter at 25, and my miner at 21. If I was playing WoW, at lvl 38 I’d quickly outpace my current zone, everything would be a cakewalk due to item inflation, and it all wouldn’t feel like it did for those who hit 38 originally. Forget experiencing dungeon or group content ‘as intended’. In FFXIV none of this is the case. Every dungeon run has felt appropriate, every zone feels alive, and group content (fates) are still very popular (imagine playing WAR a year after release, being in a mid-level zone, and being able to complete every PQ with a group; that’s FFXIV today).

Other related little bits:

I recently opened up ventures for my retainers, as well as the dye and materia systems. All three open up once you complete some quick and easy, but totally optional quests. We talk often about exploration in MMOs, but way too many games have exploration limited to going to a pre-set and easy-to-spot landmark and getting an achievement, which is more achiever content than explorer. In FFXIV ‘exploring’ is, in part, finding these optional quests that open up more content for you, which is awesome.

Ventures for your retainers also tie nicely into the economy, crafting, and the roles system. Since you have to equip your retainer, and how well you equip them impacts the rewards you get, crafting lower level gear is viable/valuable, and your retainer can only level up as high as you have that role, be it combat or gathering (no crafting). Since you can have multiple retainers, this further encourages (though doesn’t force) you to switch and level different roles to open them up for your retainers as an option. The ability to switch roles on your character is already a great feature, and retainers add just one more reason why.

The dye system is fluff, of course, but is one of those “every game should have this” system, and again feeds into crafting nicely. The materia system is, as far as I see it right now, mostly an end-game thing, although you can use it earlier to give your gear a little boost. Creating materia by first getting gear to 100% bind, and then breaking it down, is another nice system that again ties other systems together. Since you can equip retainers, maybe you don’t automatically break down all your older gear? It’s not a major decision point (you can always craft or buy gear), but it exists, it adds depth to the game, and it’s a tiny little piece of a much larger, yet all inter-related puzzle that keeps you playing/paying.

FFXIV rightly deserves its spot as the top themepark MMO out, and hopefully current Square-Enix doesn’t become Old Square-Enix ala Blizzard in the years to come. If they continue down the path they have traveled so far, we’ll wonder if any MMO will ever topple it, much like we did with WoW back in 2007ish.


FFXIV: Sub model isn’t just about higher quality, its also about safety

March 10, 2015

Full interview can be found here.

So, just because ESO moved into a free-to-play subscription model, it doesn’t necessarily mean for us to move into that direction as well. Also, for use we have taken player surveys and took a look at what our customer satisfaction level is and we actually garnered data that shows that over 80% of our players are satisfied with the subscription model and they feel very assured that it is a constant. You are safe to be in that environment, and you know that you can expect a decent amount of updates and content. So, we don’t believe that FFXIV needs to shift in that direction and not everything that other competitors or titles do will necessarily apply to our title.

Bold section for emphasis as its something I’ve always felt is true about the sub model vs other models, and it’s nice to have a senior dev from the most recent successful MMO state it as well.

As I’ve written before, each update from a sub MMO is usually a celebration of getting something new or improved, while each update under non-subs is a potential “give us more money” cash-shop power update or ‘addition’. In short, you cheer sub updates, and grow to fear non-sub updates, which itself has a pretty significant impact on overall enjoyment.

PS: If/when they add the snowboarding game from FFVII, that’s going to be a massive time sink for me. God I loved that game back in the day.

 


Crowfall: The winners don’t need help

March 5, 2015

Building a bit off this post from Az (link coming later, site blocked due to work network) about winner and loser motivation in Crowfall today, but a quick note first: I think Az is missing or discounting the fact that ‘jumping in’ to a winner world (which itself will only work in the faction vs faction worlds, as you can’t join the winning side in the FFA or Guild vs Guild worlds) isn’t that helpful in Crowfall based on the (granted, very limited) info we currently have.

You build up what you can potentially walk away with over time on a world, and already the devs have indicated that even if you are on the winning side, if you joined late your reward percentage is diminished. If scaled correctly, you should earn more reward for your time finishing strong on a losing world than jumping into a winning one late. And if you are abandoning your work on a losing world to play an alt on a new world (to jump in early for max reward), there is always the chance that you don’t end up picking the winner this time either. We’ll see if reality aligns with expectations, but at least on paper the system isn’t critically flawed (no 4th pillar or manifesto here, at least not yet).

I think what is critically important however is to get the reward scales ‘right’, and by right I mean not making winning too good, and not making losing a “quit the game now” situation. After all, winning itself feels good. You don’t actually win anything when you beat everyone else in a boardgame, but you still feel good about it right? That feeling along has value, so even if everything else was equal, the winner feels better than the loser.

We know the winners in Crowfall will get a larger percentage of their stashed loot, but really this percentage doesn’t need to be huge. Rewarding the winner by making it easier for them to win again is a recipe for disaster, and it’s why almost all professional sports leagues ‘reward’ weaker teams with better draft picks; parity is far more entertaining than utter dominance by a select few (sorry that the Pats are so much better than the rest of the NFL that they still dominate in spite of this, but that’s what happens when the greatest QB of all times is paired with the greatest coach of all time.)

Another aspect of rewards is you don’t need to make them help you win the next time. ‘Fluff’ rewards work, as do leaderboards. In addition to just the feeling of winning, a guild or player will be additionally motivated if it means getting their name in history, or on some score sheet. In WoW, the top guilds compete for world firsts, even though there is no ‘real’ reward for doing so; the loot isn’t better the first time a boss is killed, and imagine how much worse the raiding scene would be if that was the case? If the first few kills rewarded better items? Crowfall needs to avoid this, or create additional systems (seeding based on previous performance?) to counteract it.

What’s new and interesting in this entire mix with Crowfall is the length of time too; we are talking months per world, and we haven’t seen how the average player will react to that length of time. We have plenty of examples of far shorter timeframes, be it arenas or battlegrounds in MMOs, or now the average MOBA match. We also have EVE and its decade+ of warfare, along with other ‘forever’ examples in MMOs. If you want to count ‘soft’ resets (increase in level cap) in themeparks, those are often years apart as well, and are a borderline apples/oranges comparison. But we have never seen what happens when the clock is set to months, and that alone is a huge unknown.

Hell, right now, even I’m not sure how I’ll feel about it really. I think I’ll love it, because to me it sounds like a long-enough timeframe to get really invested, but not so long that the next reset seems like it’s never going to happen, but maybe once the game is live I’ll feel completely different. It’s an exciting prospect, but also incredibly dangerous. If it feels ‘wrong’, Crowfall might be doomed regardless of everything else. Quite the gamble, but that’s what the MMO space SHOULD be about.


Crowfall: The winners stand alone

March 2, 2015

If there is one thing I still regret about Darkfall, it’s AV not making the now-gone MVP forums public after they did away with the program; a lot of good ideas and discussions all gone because I don’t think AV knows how to update or manage their forum software. More to today’s point; one of the ideas thrown out that had a good amount of backing was the idea of seasonal servers that would reset and could be ‘won’ based on different point systems. That sound familiar?

Imagine if AV had beaten Crowfall to the punch with one of their major features? Classic AV though; get a good idea, sit on it, and then end up going with something else (worse) instead. Moving past that little bit of amusement, lets talk the idea itself.

The biggest and most obvious fact is that everyone who plays an MMO on day-one loves it (bugs/crashing aside). There is just something about that ‘new world’ feel that works, and I think anyone who has played an MMO day-one can relate. Crowfall being able to replicate this feeling, especially with random geography on each world, is huge.

It’s huge for current players getting a built-in motivator to kick it up a notch, and its huge for former players and potential new ones as it gives everyone a ‘start this day’ indicator similar to the launch of an expansion.

The downside is perhaps similar to eating candy, maybe too much of a good thing isn’t that great? Right now I don’t see that being the case for me personally (the start of a new Civ game is always enjoyable for me, even after dozens of games), but the MMO space is a little different, so we will see.

The other downside is the counter-effect; when you know a world is set to end, only those truly invested in the ending (likely the winners) will stick around. Everyone else will likely be long gone, and so I can see worlds ending not in a final epic battle, but in days or weeks of cleanup by the winners. And if the cleanup time is lengthy or a pain, I can foresee even winning to be more grind than reward, and that overall would be a huge problem (think EVE null territory battles; some epic fighting, then a bunch of structure grinding).

I’m curious to see how Crowfall handles things in this regard, but overall I still like the general idea for the game.


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