Crowfall: Game design that has also grown up

September 17, 2015

Crowfall is the MMO I’ve pinned my future hopes on (and a decent chunk of change is backing that up), but since it is still fairly far away, and I know I can ‘catch up’ when I get access to the alpha/beta, I’ve not really kept up with all of the info tidbits released.

ARK is the game I’m playing most right now (a recent move has heavily cut into my gaming time, but that is mostly over for now), and while it’s not an MMO technically, in a lot of ways it sorta is. What I find interesting right now is what ‘first post on this blog me’ would think of ARK, especially in terms of “is it an MMO”, vs what ‘current me’ thinks of it.

I think ‘first post me’ would certainly say ARK isn’t an MMO, and possibly be a lot less interested in it. Back then I think I placed a much higher emphasis on massive, but also far rarer ‘epic moments’ in an MMO. One such moment would justify days or even weeks of less-than-awesome gameplay. Basically, my tolerance for long valleys was higher because the high peaks justified them, and I would experience enough of those peaks often enough to keep me going.

Current me still loved the idea of that peak, and still believes it’s the pinnacle of gaming experiences, but also recognizes that the level of effort to reach that peak isn’t always doable anymore, or even something I want to chase after. I think in a lot of ways this explains why I’m not currently playing EVE; I know as far as MMOs go, it’s still a gem amount a sea of trash, but I also know I can’t reasonably obsess over it the way I would need to hit the peaks I’d want to. I’ve been down the EVE rabbit hole far enough that simply playing it casually wouldn’t work for me like it does for others.

Getting back to Crowfall, I think one of the big reasons I’m high on it is because, on paper, it should allow for a mix of peaks and valleys. I think it will cater to those who obsess over it and give them truly epic moments. I also think it will allow those who don’t obsess as much to still see a peak, but either less often or not to the same scale. The different ‘world’ rules, the continued progression outside of those worlds, and the fact that you can decide to go ‘hardcore’ on one world and then take a more casual approach to the next, all leads me to believe that Crowfall, more than previous MMOs, will more flexibly give you back what you put in.

For someone who, if we are being honest, is still a pretty hardcore gamer, though can’t 100% commit to a ‘raiding schedule’ life anymore, Crowfall sounds like the natural evolution of the genre. ‘Growing up’ doesn’t mean I only have 15 minute chunks of time. It doesn’t mean I expect everything handed to me for an hour’s worth of effort. I am still willing to set that alarm clock if needed. I’m just not going to set the alarm on a regular schedule, or commit to 5 hour chunks 3 days a week, every week, for a year. With Crowfall, I don’t think I’ll need to, but I do also believe the option will exist. So long as both options ‘balance out’, it should be a great experience.

GW2: The new F2P champion has arived

August 31, 2015

I feel like I should post about GW2 going F2P, only I can’t call it a ‘downgrade to the minor leagues’ because the game wasn’t a sub MMO to begin with. Side-grade I guess? Which, thinking more about it, is right in line with everything GW2; it’s not outright bad, just some middle level of meh.

The business model change, along with what the expansion is bringing (raiding, and basically other ‘end-game’ stuff), is of note however. Out of all of the game’s many flaws, the biggest one IMO is the lack of long-term interest/progression. At the start, Anet wanted it both ways. They wanted the business model to be like a single-player, one-off purchase, but to support the game like an MMO with frequent updates and players sticking around long-term, without actually designing the game to support long-term playing. This change confirms that wasn’t working out, even after the in-game cash-shop was greatly expanded after release.

The root problem circles back to why the sub model is really the only model for successful MMOs; in order to support your game like an MMO, you need a constant source of revenue, which is what the sub model provides. A cash shop is great at hooking whales, and if you hook enough of them you can get a huge, though most often temporary, boost in cash (that you will likely make a big PR release about only to go silence after). But long-term the model simply doesn’t work in the US/EU (Asia is very different) for MMOs. Either you let sales diminish, or you try to keep them up by escalating the cash shop. Either way, things will eventually come crashing down.

MMOs aren’t League of Legends with its 100+ million active players. MMOs aren’t LoL where selling skins fits perfectly with the game, and where creating skins has zero impact on gameplay and the drive of the other developers to improve things. MMOs have a very difficult time not slipping into Pay4Power with their cash shop, even if the intended goal is just to sell ‘convenience’. MMOs also have a hard time convincing people that selling ‘convenience’ isn’t driven by making the free part of the game cripplingly terrible if you don’t pay. There are no hotbars to sell in LoL.

GW2 is likely, almost by default, the best F2P MMO out, and it’s fitting that the ‘best’ F2P MMO is one that most try, find decent, but ultimately don’t honestly care all that much about. That ‘achievement’ is the ceiling for F2P; you made something people don’t hate. Huge congrats. Now make something people actually like, and that $15 a month will start rolling in, consistently, for years to come.

ARK – A micro-MMO

August 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hitting rocks to build success

August 13, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

WoW Legion: We get to watch it all burn down to the ground

August 7, 2015

Oh New Blizzard. After attempting “We are making the game like Vanilla again, come back!” with WoD, and failing to actually deliver, New Blizzard is back with “We are making the game like TBC, our one good expansion, come back!”, and, based on the feature list, have failed again.

Likely the only good that will come out of Legion is it further reinforces that TBC was the last time WoW was growing because it was still a solidly designed MMO, and I’m one of those crazy people who believes that the quality of your design has an effect on how successful something is. New Blizzard is, in a somewhat ironic way, trying to copy/paste Old Blizzard now. Unfortunately New Blizzard isn’t as good at the copy/paste game (see WoD vs Vanilla design), so isn’t getting the expected results.

Another problem going forward for New Blizzard is people aren’t going to be fooled again. WoD provided a large spike because people want WoW to be vanilla/TBC WoW, and bought into Blizzard being capable of return the game to that level of quality. A lot of people experienced that Blizzard isn’t capable of that today, and won’t believe Blizzard saying it this time around.

Additionally, past mistakes like the initial release of Diablo 3 with it’s RMT AH, subpar games like Hearthstone, and abortions like HotS have all worn away at the Blizzard name. They aren’t a sure-hit studio anymore, and fewer and fewer people will blindly buy the next Blizzard offering just because its a Blizzard game. What Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo built, these new release have torn down.

There will of course be some spike in numbers when Legion releases, because for all its long-term faults, enough people do still enjoy the first month of new WoW leveling content, and even at increased expansion prices, still see that month as a worthwhile buy. But between now and launch, subs will continue to erode away due to bad design and the fact that FFXIV is doing to WoW what WoW did to EQ2; just being a similar but outright better game (though for all its faults, WoW today isn’t nearly the disaster that EQ2 was, so at least the fight is a bit harder). How far those sub numbers fall will be interesting, as will seeing how much smaller the Legion pop will be compared to WoD.

I also think another major factor will be when Square-Enix announces it now has the largest sub MMO out, because that announcement will be seen as big news and draw the curiosity of the ultra-casual WoW player who doesn’t follow gaming news as closely as a lot of us do. MMO population momentum can turn quickly, and if suddenly guilds in WoW are getting empty, with everyone going to that FF MMO they keep hearing about from their friends/guildies, that snowball is hard to stop.

For me the most interesting item to watch is not when WoW is dethroned, or how quickly it falls overall, because those items are now inevitable, but the larger picture of when will Blizzard stop being considered a major studio? Right now their pipeline looks terrible (HS, HotS, and the only upcoming new title is Overwatch, which I think most of us know will be DoA), and they can’t live off older IP glory like Diablo and StarCraft for long. Can’t say I’ll shed too many tears over seeing the studio that nearly destroyed the MMO genre finally burning down.

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.


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