Sandbox end-game: Why keep playing long-term?

July 21, 2014

Let’s talk PvP sandbox MMO end-game today.

One of my outstanding questions from the whole Warhammer Online saga is in a perfect world, what was the end-game for that MMO? I mean we know it was to raid the other faction’s capital city and sack it, but was that it? If it was, in that perfect world, how many times could the players repeat that activity before getting bored? And if there was something greater, did Mark Jacobs or anyone from Mythic ever talk about it?

Darkfall has a similar problem, where the end-game is territory control, but due to a broken economy and the overall trivial nature of acquiring gear, no one really needs or desperately wants holdings, and the fights that result over them are thinly disguised “fights for the sake of fighting”. The criticism that the game is an awkward oversized arena stems from this general lack of greater purpose.

Finally EVE, as usual, is the best example in the genre in terms of end-game, as null-sec has value and giant organizations via to control it. The current ‘crisis’ is that 2-3 groups control it too well, and the barrier of entry for anyone outside of those 2-3 groups is practically impossible to overcome (short of those established groups imploding and creating a vacuum of power). EVE also benefits here because it has other end-games, though most revolve around the acquisition and use of money.

End-game is one of the issues I thought about when writing up my PvE Sandbox posts, and my solution is rather than relying on the players to create ‘content’ by fighting each other, the game world itself would drive players into action by having mobs attacking their holdings, and for the world overall to be in flux based on player actions and success. This would be further sustainable with AI tweaks or mob changes; whenever the players would get too comfortable with the challenges facing them, whenever they got too good at fighting back the mobs, the devs could step in and alter things to keep it interesting.

Looking forward to some future MMOs like Camelot Unchained and Pathfinder, what are the true end-games for those titles? Both have territory control mechanics, but will they have the depth and detail of EVE to avoid the problems currently facing Darkfall’s end-game? Will either bring something new, interesting, and sustainable to the table to keep players happily playing/paying?


CU: Finally something of note

July 17, 2014

CSE, makers of Camelot Unchained, have been releasing a lot of info of late about the game and the ideas behind it. So far nothing has jumped out at me as terrible ala “The 4th pillar”, but at the same time nothing has really grabbed my attention as a major “we are moving the genre forward” piece of news. Until today anyway.

The entire slide deck is about character progression, but this specific slide is the one I want to talk about today. What I like about this is that rather than seeing how fast you are progressing by swinging your sword, you instead get a large, end-of-day summery of everything you did. This alone should lead to players more comfortable just ‘playing to have fun’, but still making progress.

It somewhat relates to what Zubon wrote over at KTR, in that HOW you present information to a player is often as important as what is actually happening.

Two points of caution.

If the numbers are too easy to game, the illusion won’t work. If during beta someone puts a “how to progress” guide that tells you exactly what to do to gain access to sword X or armor Y, CSE has failed here. They say this will help them monitor and stop/prevent ‘keep trading’, but I wonder how far that will go exactly. If I spend the entire day swinging swords at anything I can find to ‘power level’ swords or strength, is that actually going to be viable and work, or get flagged or be ineffective?

On the other hand, if the system is too arcane, and ‘just playing the game’ isn’t effective enough to not gimp yourself versus those who powergame the system (and people will), CSE has failed because they will have effectively forced people to adapt or fall too far behind in a PvP MMO, which is a non-starter.

Those two major points of caution aside, I’m looking forward to CU more today than I was prior to all of this news, so at least on that front mission accomplished.


Pathfinder Online: Everything but the game is looking awesome!

July 16, 2014

I was recently talking to a friend about Pathfinder Online, with the gist of the conversation being that I love everything about the game on paper, from the design docs to what the devs have said, but actually seeing it in video is a complete no-go for me, and what that ultimately means.

On the one hand, ‘gameplay’ is a rather important aspect of any game, if not the most important. If what you are doing in the game isn’t actually fun most of the time, what kind of crazy person must you be to keep playing?

As crazy as most EVE players?

I mean, how much fun gameplay is there in many of EVE’s activities? Is mining ‘fun’? Are missions great gameplay? Even the high-point events like massive battles; for the average F1 pilot, is the gameplay really that great? I think most of the above can be answered with a “no, but…”. And that ‘but’ is huge (rimshot), because while mining is either boring or relaxing depending on perspective, it feeding into the best economy in the genre is a large part of what makes it such a popular activity in the game.

If Pathfinder gets the economy right, if it has interesting/worthwhile crafting, etc, would the fact that it has rather poor mining ‘gameplay’ matter? Because at this point I’d rather take poor gameplay but solid, sustainable systems over the opposite. If I just want great but shallow gameplay, I’ll play something other than an MMO.

Of course some of the gameplay has to be good/great. In EVE PvP can be thrilling, and at the highest levels (Alliance Tourney) it’s as deep and skillful as anything else. Pathfinder is in alpha still, so maybe the combat/gameplay will improve significantly, but even if it doesn’t, I can’t fully rule it out, even in the shape it’s in today.

(That said, please for the love of god improve the gameplay Goblin Works!)

 


Please exit to your left, the ride has now ended

July 10, 2014

So this post happened, along with 40+ comments. Give it all a read.

Easy multiple choice question time: When you run out of ‘stuff to do’ in a game, what do you normally do?

A: Keep playing/paying for the lulz

B: Stop playing/paying

The correct and only answer is B.

Now sometimes you quit even when you still have ‘stuff to do’, but that’s better than the game basically ending for you due to the content running out, right?

Raids you might never see, for most players, count as ‘stuff to do’ in MMOs where raiding is ‘the point’. WoW in its prime was very much a ‘raiding is the point’ game. Yes, it had a nice leveling curve and a pretty decent PvP game (especially in retrospect and seeing what we have now in themeparks), but let’s not kid ourselves, raiding was ‘the point’ in WoW vanilla/TBC (you know, those years when the game was still growing).

Now whether it was realistic for the average player to get deep into raiding or not (it was because in a 40 man raid, 10-15 people carried the rest), that content was still stuff to do, with unique bosses, unique loot, and unique locations they had not seen that were ‘important’ to see. That keeps people playing/paying. It’s also far less effective to expect the average player to grind away in a brutal ‘hard mode’ to see the same boss again just with a gimmicky twist. Challenging content is PART of raiding, yes, but it’s not THE only reason, and when that’s all there really is to your true ‘end game’, you are going to lose people (like, you know, the millions WoW has lost since the TBC days).

What’s funny about today’s themepark MMOs is that they took all of the established lessons from earlier games, forgot them, and are doing everything they possibly can to lose people after 1-3 months. As I said in the comments over at TAGN, unless you are in the charity MMO business, giving people a reason to keep playing/paying is a pretty solid strategy IMO.

I also think this topic confuses people a bit with some of its history. For instance, Nax40 in WoW was indeed poorly used content. It was AWESOME content, but it came out way too close to TBC ‘resetting’ the game, so outside of world/server first guilds, it wasn’t viable content for most people. Had it been released 6 months earlier, or TBC was delayed for 6 months, those Nax40 usage numbers would have greatly increased, and it would have accomplished what AQ40 and BWL did before it; kept people playing/paying.

To bring this topic into 2014, myself and 99.99% of all League of Legend players will never see/experience Challenger-level ‘content’ like tournaments, streams, and the balance/meta game that exists at that level. And it’s a level that Riot spends a serious amount of time, effort, and money on. So while it’s not exactly apples to apples, just like the pro level of LoL helps bring in new players and keep existing players interested/involved, those 5-10% raids do something similar for your MMO, especially now with Twitch being so popular. People can watch those at a higher level, and because they are watching a video game vs something like professional basketball (where no matter how hard you try, you just won’t grow tall enough to dunk the ball), they actually CAN work to get better and get closer to that level.

And closer, rather than actually reaching it, is really the key here. So long as you can improve, and so long as you still have a reason (content) to keep improving, you will keep playing/paying. That is the model right? At least at the major league level of the MMO genre?

(And just to clarify, the ‘more content’ doesn’t 100% have to be raiding. Raiding works however because the dev-time to player-consumption ratio is reasonably sustainable, unlike questing or new zones. Now maybe when someone finally figures it out and makes a PvE sandbox MMO :cough: we’ll have a different example of sustainable, worthwhile PvE content, but until that day raiding is it.)

#WoW #MMODesign #LoL


Darkfall: Unholy Wars going F2P and other problems sink it

June 20, 2014

Darkfall and I have had an interesting history (the fact that I heard about the first game from Tobold entertains me to this day), and unfortunately I think this post marks the final chapter. The game is going in multiple directions that don’t appeal to me, the community has lost those who make the game worth playing overall, and comical developer incompetence and corruption was the final little push I needed to finally move on.

Let’s start with the game itself. Recently a cash shop was added, which sets the stage for the game’s F2P conversion coming ‘soon’ (it’s already F2P in Asia). I was asked here a while back if I would continue to support DF even if it went F2P, and at the time I said I would not. This is made all the easier since buying more than just fluff is already in the shop. You can pay AV $5 for a prowess (XP) reset, which is pretty ‘convenient’ when you have a game in constant flux due to a massive combat overhaul and general developer indecision about balance and the direction of the game. How many times will someone accept their current build being nerfed into the ground and told they can fix it for just $5 before they get fed up?

Plus how many times have MMO players heard the song and dance from developers about not selling power when F2P is announced, and a few months later the cash shop is offering you the One Ring? When things get dire, devs get desperate, and DF:UW’s core issues persist to this day.

And what are those core issues? The main one is the game is still an oversized arena PvP game, rather than an MMO. There is no reason to PvP other than for the sake of PvP, and this is reflected in the quality of the playerbase. Where games like EVE have people like The Mittani creating content for tens of thousands of players, those key people have long since left Darkfall, and in their place stand directionless ‘leaders’ providing little if any content. Even DF1 was able to initially attract some of these valuable players (Manus, Glut, Osium, etc), which is what kept that game’s meta interesting for the first two years or so. But as they saw the state of DF:UW’s beta, and the general design flaws of the game, they never even bothered showing up on day one. Inq to this day mocks me about trying to get them to give the game another shot.

The above is also why DF:UW gets laughable indifference from so many EVE players. My alliance would always wonder what I see in a game with no long-term plan, goal, or point, and admittedly I look a bit foolish now with my “they are working on that guys!” enthusiasm, because nope, they really aren’t. So why grind up to play in an arena when you can play a better version of exactly that in games like Chivalry or even your MOBA of choice. At least those games understand what they are, rather than awkwardly pretending to be something they clearly are not capable of delivering.

A more recent core problem has been the combat overhaul. To say it’s a surprising disaster would be unfair, because if you didn’t see it being a disaster pre-release you must be painfully blind. Imagine if CCP, in the name of ‘player freedom’, allowed any ship to fit a doomsday on it, and the balance explanation provided was that since everyone can use it, it’s balanced. That’s what AV did with DF:UW recently. I wish I was joking, but I’m not. They took armor, weapons, and skills all previously designed and balanced around fitting into classes, and just removed the concept of classes without the overhaul to everything needed to make it work. At least in DF1, which had the same ‘everyone can be everything’ system, balance was attempted with that in mind since day one. It was bad, but not “lulz doomsday spam” bad.

The result is not just the expected FOTM lameness that happens in every MMO with such a system that has poor checks and balances, but that combat overall is a cheesefest of who can come up with the cheapest AoE/CC combo to drop people with because nothing was designed with this system in mind. Imagine DAoC roaming 8s cheese but turned up to 11, and that’s DF:UW. The only reason the abuse isn’t nearly as bad as you might expect right now is because of the above point; the playerbase doesn’t have the top-tier talent to create the best builds quickly, but those who remain will eventually get there.

The above are further hurt by the still woefully pointless economy, made more comical by F2P-forbearing gimmicks such as double loot weekends. Having a ‘full bank’ in DF:UW is trivial, and once that happens, it’s just another brick stacked on top of the directionless mess that the game is overall. Again, imagine playing EVE with limitless ISK and you get a good idea of what DF:UW offers once you grind it out for a month or so.

The final and minor side note is how AV handles their community. The most toxic members are left unchecked, especially in-game, where global chat will drive away anyone who has evolved beyond 8th grade gym humor and the lowest of internet meme trash. On the forums the moderation team is all over the place, at times deleting an entire and often valuable thread due to one post, while at other times leaving a cesspool up no matter how low it gets.

When members of the community would try to work with moderators in a productive manner, the end-result was as likely a temp-ban for the one making the effort as it might be for those destroying it, depending on which moderator you happen to get. Double-speak excuses were put forth when confronted about this regardless of how far someone escalated things, which ultimately resulted in many once-helpful people leaving the game in disgust.

To list just one sad example, the head community manager specifically stated that since they somehow can’t verify the content of personal messages on their own forums (yup…), they won’t take any action for that content. If you ever want a place to throw out death threats without consequence, Darkfall is your place. Hell, it already has an Erotica1 clone running rampant, without that pesky CCP getting in the way of those community-building torture sessions.

Even the once-productive MVP forum has so many like-minded people included now that it really serves no purpose, especially since AV has stopped sharing key details and instead are now just throwing out pie-in-the-sky ideas (alignment system, one-off quests, etc) without following up. Even small, silly things like there recent survey, with all its mistakes, could have easily been improved with some feedback, but they don’t use the resources available to them for whatever reason.

Much like Shadowbane and other PvP focused MMOs that have come before it, I think future developers can learn a thing or two from this experiment, and hopefully MMOs like Pathfinder take some of these lessons to heart to become successful titles. This was a good run, with at least as many highs as lows, but with F2P lurking and things overall not improving (the number of bugs and exploits in the game right now is almost back-to-beta bad), it’s time to put DF:UW down.

#DF:UW #F2P


Big boy toys

June 12, 2014

It wasn’t THAT long ago when video games were considered a kid’s toy. Now when someone asks me when I’m going to stop playing ‘games’, I tell them hopefully the afterlife has solid broadband.

Given the above, it makes sense that along with gaming content (‘mature’ themes) changing, pricing models and levels have also been changing. A kid’s toy maxing out at $50 makes sense. Little Billy isn’t the one holding the wallet, which makes picking up a $200 in-game shiny difficult if not impossible for him. Someone a little older and successful can decide between going out to dinner for $200 or buying said shiny, and a serious argument can be made in what has more real ‘value’.

TAGN has a post up about Shroud of the Avatar selling in-game towns for real money, and these are not micro transactions. The smallest option comes in at $750, while the largest is $4000. Those prices are beyond just a decent dinner out, but if you are in a long-standing guild with successful people, splitting even $4000 between 20 or so players starts to sound a whole lot more manageable.

Star Citizen, also mentioned by TAGN, is another example of this growing trend, and just like SotA, if you have the means knock yourself out.

I’m perfectly fine with games like this so long as you know up-front what is going on. While I personally haven’t enjoy my wallet winning for me since giving up Magic The Gathering, if that does it for others more power to them. If a game I’m currently playing switches over to wallet-warrioring, I have a problem, but here both games have been upfront since day one. No one can say they didn’t know what they were signing up for here.


Could Kickstarter have made World of Darkness possible?

June 6, 2014

This World of Darkness article is sort of a good read. I say sort of because how many times have we read an MMO story about managers asking for one unconnected feature after another, code being reworked, and a game that is in development forever not going anywhere? The answer is often. Hell, I’d bet most released MMOs that have done decently even have a similar story.

Moving past that, the point I want to make today is that Kickstarter could have made WoD possible, for a number of reasons.

For starters, I guess the IP is a big deal (I’m not familiar with it), and big deal IPs attract attention on Kickstarter. Combine this with the fact that you don’t need millions and millions of dollars to make an MMO via Kickstarter these days, and had WoD set a target of, say, 1.5m, I think they would have gotten it.

Second, the Kickstarter route means you are selling access to stuff like alpha, which means more people giving you feedback earlier and really driving the game to some sort of release state. This of course doesn’t guarantee you end up with a good game, but it at least moves you to actually finish it or get it to something resembling a more complete product. And while you never fully want to be designing based on what your players/fans are telling you (cough: AV), if you properly filter the feedback it should be a benefit to the overall game.

Finally, the Kickstarter route somewhat lowers the standard IMO. You don’t need to deliver a full bells and whistles MMO, just a solid core that primarily appeals to those who funded you and others like them. If the initial budget is 1.5m plus whatever extra comes your way, you don’t need 500k subs to recoup that, which means if your MMO is only great at 1-2 things specific to the goal/IP, that will work.


Double cheese weekends

June 4, 2014

Quick one for today, which I think is going to build towards a more substantial post: is anyone else highly bothered by an MMO doing “double XP/loot/whatever” weekends?

I think I’m primarily bothered by it because such events bring “this is a game” to the forefront over “this is a living world”. I guess if your MMO is already highly ‘gamey’, not that big a deal, but the closer your MMO tries to be a virtual world, the more this bothers me. Especially when it’s done with a very broad brush, like “all loot sources doubled” vs “this particular type of mob is now 50% more likely to drop X”.


A fresh start, or a kick out the door?

May 29, 2014

When do you wipe an MMO?

That question has been floating around Darkfall for a few days now, sparked by the massive dupe-fest that required a 5 day rollback, but grounded in the fact that the game has had major systematic changes over the last few months, and will continue to dramatically change with the upcoming removal of skill groups/limits.

Rather than focus on Darkfall for this post, I’d rather talk more generally on the pros and cons of wiping, along with some history and different ways to reach a similar conclusion.

Pros:

A fresh start is a notable PR event that gets picked up by gaming news sites and generates buzz for your product. The degree can vary, but news about your game, especially news that is new-player friendly, is always good.

You wipe away past mistakes such as duped items, exploited characters, and whatever other side effects bugs produced while your game matured. You also allow your game economy to work as planned NOW without past imbalances impacting it, and if your previous economy was poor, this can be very significant.

A fresh start is new-player friendly. Those on the outside looking to jump in have the perfect reason to do so, en-masse, on the day of a fresh server. This kind of event is important because those new players jump right into a world that is highly active, with everyone else doing similar activities. This helps get them into the flow of the game and stick with it, compared to starting on a random day on a server that is well-established and mature.

Cons:

Some portion of your current playerbase is going to be upset. This will range from mildly annoyed to frothing ragequits. If you lose more players than you gain, taking long-term into consideration, that’s obviously a major problem.

Player trust is tarnished. I’m not big on this one, but some feel that if a dev team is willing to wipe once, what’s to stop them from wiping again? Why work on and build towards something in an MMO if tomorrow it might be wiped?

The gains might be minimal. The power gamers who got ahead the first time are still going to power-game and get ahead again, so a ‘level playing field’ is only true for the first minute or so of the server being live. A similar statement can be made about economic problems; if you haven’t fixed the root issues, your economy will return to a broken state in short order. Also no MMO is bug-free, and every update brings the possibility of new exploits. Wiping after every bug or exploit is exposed isn’t feasible.

In summary, when or even if you should wipe is a tough decision that requires the consideration of many, many factors, some which can’t be measured.

How you execute a wipe is also another discussion. The obvious option is to take your current server, delete everything, and put it back up, but that’s not your ONLY option. You can put up a new server while keeping the old one(s) up. Those that want to stay can do so, those looking for a fresh start can also do that. If the old server(s) end up mostly empty, closing them down is a much easier, less impactful decision. If the new server has population problems, you made a major miscalculation in terms of needing a wipe/restart.

Partial wipes (just items, just gold, just holding, etc) are also options, though I think they get very messy very quickly. The one exception I would make is character names; I think there is a lot of value in allowing current players first dibs on their current character names.

Certainly an interesting topic IMO, and one that I think will see more traction as MMOs continue to age, change, and figure out ways to keep current players happy while gaining new ones.


ESO: If you have played one zone, you have played them all

May 14, 2014

If you have played one ESO zone, you have played them all.

I think the above is the best way to sum up my feelings as of right now for ESO. It’s so simple, and yet I’m having trouble fully understanding why. Is it ESO specific, is it my continually growing distaste for themeparks, or a combination of both?

ESO gets a lot of major stuff right. The graphics are good, the sound is good, performance is great, and it had a solid launch from a technical perspective. I like the character progression system in terms of modifying skills and selecting 6 to fit into your hotbar, as well as being able to mix armor. At least, I like those on paper. Actually, I think one of the major issues is I like a lot of ESO on paper, and then in-game I’m either indifferent or annoyed.

Quick example; recently my character dug up a treasure chest that contained two blue weapons that were exactly at my level. They replaced two green weapons that were a level or two below at the time. This should have been a large, noticeable boost in power. Maybe statistically it was, but man it didn’t feel like it when I went into combat the next time. I felt just as powerful after equipping those weapons as I did before, and that’s just terribly lame.

Another example; exploring in ESO is better than in most themeparks. There are lots of chests, nodes, and skyshards to be found off the beaten quest path. In the first zone this truly felt like exploring, and it felt rewarding. By just the second zone, this all felt like going through items on a checklist, and while the rewards were the same, they didn’t get me excited or had a noticeable impact on my experience. Again, terribly lame.

Third example; The huge PvP zone is a giant improvement over GW2’s WvW. Bigger map, better siege equipment, better combat system, better performance; just all around superior. Yet I’m as excited to spent time there as I was in GW2; not much. Other than PvP for the sake of PvP, what am I doing there? I really don’t feel connected or care about the outcome, large or small. Dying is an annoyance in terms of respawning, and losing an objective just means a change in spawn points. There are rewards, but they don’t really mean much to me.

Combine all of the above with the general flaws of a themepark (levels, zones, level-based crafting, etc), and ESO flamed out fast for me. What’s different about ESO compared to say Rift for me is that ESO isn’t bad, it’s just not good-enough for me to spent time with. Trion ruined Rift for me with 1.2. That was clear separation. With ESO, it’s just a slow drift away.


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