Themeparks: Raid or die

January 8, 2014

I’m on record here saying I have little interest in WildStar, but that from the outside looking in I think the game has a chance. One reason is the devs acknowledging that their game won’t be for ‘everyone’, and that they accept that. We’ll see if they keep to those words post-release, but I’d rather have a dev tell me that then talk about a 4th pillar or a manifesto of lies.

Reason two, and the topic for today, is the focus on raiding.

To me there are basically only two ways to keep MMO players entertained long-term; either you give them tools and make them create ‘content’ (usually via PvP in one form or another), or you produce content at a rate similar to what players can consume. I think sandboxes aim for the first, and themeparks aim for the second.

Currently, I believe raiding is the ONLY form of themepark content that developers can create at anything close to player consumption levels, and retaining players is the name of the game in this genre. WildStar is focused on raiding, and while that does limit its appeal on the mass market level, it also gives it a real chance to attract a niche and keep it (and a niche in the themepark space could easily mean 500k subs. If you can’t make $15x500k work for you financially, game design is not your main issue).

I also think there is more you can do with ‘raiding’ than what many of us remember it as (40 man, 3-5hr runs in WoW). There certainly is a place for large-scale, top-end raiding, where the upper tier throw themselves against highly tuned, very difficult encounters that, over time, become more accessible (not Blizzard ‘accessible’) to lower-tier guilds. I also think you can have a ‘lower level’ of raiding, where the encounters still take weeks/months to learn/complete, but can be done with 10 players, or with a guild that only raids two nights a week.

I don’t know enough about WildStar to know if they are aiming for some of the above, but if they are or eventually do, I think not only will that allow them to retain a certain crowd, but slowly expand to draw in ‘raiding lite’ players. Either way I’m interested to see what happens, and for that reason alone I hope all the other factors that could doom a game don’t happen to WildStar.


ESO: The “make a good game” problem

January 6, 2014

Clearly a Forbes writer is a big fan of this blog, what with this copy/paste job of an article. I’ll excuse the lack of a h/t this time, but clean it up will ya? Anyway, since everyone is jumping on my wagon about ESO, I’ll just have to argue with myself today for content.

The (incorrect) Lessons of The Old Republic

The biggest lesson from SW:TOR isn’t that you can’t have a big budget, or that you can’t launch with a subscription; it’s that if you are going to spend a giant pile of money and ask $15 a month, don’t launch a terrible game. SW:TOR is terrible. The 4th pillar was a sad joke when they announced that in 2010, it was a sad joke at launch, and how many of those ‘big content releases’ have built upon it?

Remember how SW:TOR launched without an end-game, and just expected millions of players to reroll and progress alts through the same lame content over and over to hear the unique bits of voiced dialog? Or how EAWare expected MMO players to spend months grinding to the level cap because they wouldn’t be smashing spacebar across the 4th pillar?

Yes, there are lessons to learn from SW:TOR. Plenty of them. Big budget/sub fee is not one of them.

Also, the notion that the ES IP is weaker than the SW IP? Across all brands globally sure, but in the realm of videogames, and especially RPGish ones? I’d say ES is the stronger IP here. How many copies did Skyrim sell vs whatever the last SW game was?

I’m also continually amazed at this “oh nooz $15 a month” stuff. What today doesn’t have a subscription? You pay monthly for Netflix, you pay monthly for console services, you pay monthly for cable/internet/phone. Services like Twitch.tv are rolling out subscription options. In 1997 when UO launched yes, asking for a monthly fee for a game was something new and a hurdle. In 2014? If the tiny cost of $15 a month is a deciding factor for you, spend less timing gaming and more time reevaluating your life, because you are seriously doing it wrong.

Also this quote ‘officially’ sums up nicely why F2P is a weaker model if you aim to produce something above mediocrity:

“And it’s important to state that our decision to go with subscriptions is not a referendum on online game revenue models. F2P, B2P, etc. are valid, proven business models – but subscription is the one that fits ESO the best, given our commitment to freedom of gameplay, quality and long-term content delivery. Plus, players will appreciate not having to worry about being “monetized” in the middle of playing the game, which is definitely a problem that is cropping up more and more in online gaming these days. The fact that the word “monetized” exists points to the heart of the issue for us: We don’t want the player to worry about which parts of the game to pay for – with our system, they get it all.” – Matt Firor

Know Your Audience (No one wants multiplayer Skyrim…)

I think just about anyone who has played Skyrim can imagine how that game could work as a multiplayer game. Not an MMO, but a co-op style game where you and a buddy or two head out into the world and clear dungeons/caves and complete quests. At one point a mod team was working on that, but the mod got shut down for obvious reasons. So on a basic level, I do think some of the tens of millions of Skyrim players are interested in that IP being multiplayer.

The big question and likely problem is just how “multiplayer Skyrim” is ESO going to be. Likely not enough from what I’ve seen. The game is stuck in a strange/bad middle ground, where it’s not quite just co-op Skyrim, but not really anything special as a pure themepark MMO either, beyond the IP. Maybe the pieces come together and that ends up working, but if there is one major question about ESO, I think it’s that.

The Gold Rush is Over (MMO genre is dying)

From an outside perspective this would certainly seem true. The last however many big MMOs have all failed to one degree or another (GW2 not bombing out of the gate is the most ‘success’ a new title has had in years), but to me that says more about current MMO devs than it does about the viability of the genre itself. For whatever reason, the general flaw in every new MMO is that you can finish it in under 3 months, and that’s a rather large problem when you are trying to build a game that only ‘works’ if people play for months and the all-important social hooks develop and keep people playing/paying.

The F2P fad has only distorted this further because if you can get a sucker to spend a ton in those 1-3 months, as a F2P dev you believe what you have done is working, and with so many MMOs recently downgrading to F2P, the ‘first month rush’ is still fresh in people’s minds (how many times has someone linked to that LotRO F2P first month article as ‘proof’ that F2P is a great thing?).

But building off a broken base (F2P) doesn’t work long-term. We talk often about a player’s MMO first love and how that effect can’t be recaptured. The same is true for F2P in the MMO genre. You might whale it up in one game, but once you realize you are throwing money into a hole for nothing once, most people aren’t going to fall for that trick again (exceptions exist of course, dumb and rich are not mutually exclusive). While $15 a month might be a ‘hurdle’, it doesn’t corrupt your basic game design like F2P does. The sub model forces you to make a better game, since you don’t have the whale lottery to bail you out short-term, but “make a better game” is a problem I want MMO devs to have.


Closing out 2013. 2014 predictions

December 30, 2013

2013 ends much like it began for the MMO genre, with a collective ‘meh’, and this blog overall has reflected that both in post volume and the number of posts about MMOs vs other games.

My most played MMO this year was Darkfall: Unholy Wars, and while I had a lot of fun with the title for a good number of months, right now it feels far too much like an oversized arena PvP game than a sandbox MMO. Character progression is short, top gear is trivial to horde, and if you don’t PvP for the sake of PvP, you don’t have much else to really do. I’ll see what AV does with the title in 2014, but right now I have little reason to log in.

I played some EVE online, but wormhole life is not something you can’t do without serious dedication, and I just couldn’t find the will to do that consistently. I’m currently out in low-sec with the alliance, and looking forward to jumping into some fleets there. Ultimately however I need to figure out a big-picture goal, either for myself or the corp. We’ll see if that happens in 2014.

I started 2013 playing UO:Forever with Keen and crew, and while that only lasted a few months, it was fun going back to early-days UO. Some aspects aged very well (PvE, housing, the worldly feel), others not so much (combat, PvP), and ultimately I drifted away because I had accomplished what I wanted, in large part thanks to the server setting character progression to Panda-WoW speed. A lesson that sadly the genre is still learning and trying to come to terms with.

So yea, 3 MMOs in 2013, one a sequel to a title announced in 2003, one a title launched in 2003, and one a title launched in 1997. Sums up the genre pretty accurately IMO.

Let’s look back at my 2013 predictions, shall we?

“I do believe 2013 will be the year the MMO genre figures itself out, and a clear distinction is made between games that are ‘real’ MMOs, and titles with MMO-lite qualities that we consume.”

Nope.

Might as well make the same prediction for 2014. It’s going to happen eventually… right?

“EVE will reach and retain 500k subs in 2013.”

Didn’t hit 500k, but did increase to just under 400k. Edit: Yes it did. Got this one correct without even knowing it…

“SW:TOR will shut down or go skeleton crew by 2014.”

Didn’t shut down. Does sell you hotbars. Recently released a Starfox mode as the big update. 50/50?

“LotRO will directly sell you The One Ring and a chance to play Sauron.”

Skeleton crew didn’t get around to Sauron, but you can pay Turbine to skip half the game, so… 50/50?

“DF:UW will actually release and exceed the first year of DF1.”

Yes and no. Yes because it launched, the launch was solid, and the game fixed a lot of the core issues DF1 had. No because the fixed issues from DF1 exposed more core issues with the game, and those remain as 2013 draws to a close.

“GW2 will have 9 tiers of gear by the end of 2013.”

I honestly care so little about GW2 and even reading about it is terribly boring so I can’t comment on this. Has it happened? I know you can pay for high tiers of harvesting tools, but what else?

“A bunch of MMOs will have kickstarter campaigns. Few will actually make it, almost all will be meh.”

No kickstarter MMOs launched, did they? I know some got funded, others failed to reach their goal, and nothing that I saw made me go “yes, that is brilliant, take my money and do that”, so I’ll call this one a win.

On to the 2014 predictions:

EQNL will have everyone loving it the first month of release. Shortly after just about everyone will be asking “now what?” and drift away.

EQN will continue to attempt to copy/paste from my design docs, and will continue to SOE them into failure.

ESO will have a big launch, followed by a quick death (F2P). I’d like to pretend that THIS massive themepark failure will teach the industry to stop, but if SW:TOR didn’t, nothing will.

WildStar won’t suck. Just throwing a dart here, as WildStar doesn’t interest me personally, but what little I know about the dev team, I like. If they stick to their ideas/goals post-release, I can see WildStar being a solid ‘niche’ MMO. We might even be calling it “themepark done right”.

The GW2 train will continue to roll, although with less steam and more heavy-handedness towards the cash shop. Such is F2P life.

LotRO will continue to provide us with amusing stories, perhaps selling you a character 3/4th of the way into the game, or something equally dumb. 50/50 on being able to play Sauron. 75% chance you will be able to buy the One Ring in the shop.

CCP will go bankru… haha just kidding. Best MMO out will continue to play chess while the genre learns checkers. 450k subs in 2014. Edit: Since we are at 500K already and this isn’t WoW, raising this to 600k.

WoW will bounce back with the next expansion and have a strong 2014. Now that the interns are back to being interns, and the real devs are back from failing to make anything with Titan, WoW will prosper. It will also help that 2014 won’t offer it much real competition (Unless WildStar draws away a significant portion of the raiding crowd, which is a possibility). WoW will end with more subs in 2014.

Did I miss anything?


Clones making clones

December 23, 2013

Around this time of year, most blog authors will do year-end posts (hopefully I’ll get one up as well, but no promises), and I think a trend we will see this year was that 2013 was pretty blah for the MMO genre, and that 2014 isn’t looking much better. To say the genre has been in a rut of late would be an understatement; the two most ‘successful’ games (in terms of interest, design, and countless other factors) are still WoW and EVE. Those games were released in 2003 and 2004. A decade ago.

Ten years is a long time. It’s long enough that someone who was 15 when WoW was released is now 25 and (hopefully) working. They might even be working at a game studio, perhaps on an MMO. And like Keen posted about here, maybe all they know of an MMO is WoW and its clones.

Furthermore, how many MMO players today have solid experience with an MMO that’s not a WoW clone? I don’t mean they tried something different and left after a month; I mean how many players today have actually made significant progress in non-clone MMOs? Is it a million? Compared to the tens of millions of clone players?

All of the above wouldn’t be a problem if the average clone was somewhat successful, but for the most part they are not, and I don’t get the sense that the average MMO player is happy about the situation either. Again, how many ‘year end blog posts’ are going to be glowing with praise for 2013 and pumped for 2014?

I think the two factors above, clone devs and clone players, are the core problems with the genre; the ‘talent’ to produce something different, interesting, yet still enjoyable and playable is generally lacking. But how do you learn what makes a good MMO? You certainly don’t go to school for it, and what few books exist, how many of them are really relevant? Playing different titles works to an extent, but if you can’t correctly see what works and why in certain titles, it’s only going to take you so far.

The MMO genre is also more difficult than say, making a shooter, because the more things your MMO tries, the more human nature plays into it, and on top of limited knowledge/experience in MMO design, how many developers can correctly analyze what the masses will do with feature X or function Y? If you look around, the answer to that is few, oh so very few.

Finally, as if the above wasn’t difficult enough on its own, players are also the genre’s worst enemy. More and more these days we are seeing people asking for X or Y, because they are sick of clones, yet on day one those clones get gobbled up only to be dropped in a month or three. Worse, players ask for X and Y but don’t understand why what they are asking for is going to doom their game. As inexperienced as the average dev appears, it’s far worse for the average player, and yet far too often we see devs listening to said players to ‘give them what they want’.

The genre is a mess. An ugly, complex, recycled mess. Happy 2014!

Edit: And now the post has a title…


DF:UW – Take care of the sheep to keep the wolves

November 27, 2013

The biggest challenge for any PvP sandbox developer is figuring out how to keep the sheep around. The easiest challenge is figuring out how to keep the wolves. If you look at the history of this MMO sub-genre, it’s not difficult to notice a pattern of developers focusing on the wolves, losing the sheep, and then seeing the wolves lose interest as well, despite making so many of the changes they asked for.

Darkfall 1 can be added to the list above. DF:UW may or may not qualify just yet.

So let’s talk about those sheep, because I think they might be the most misunderstood group around. If you have already taken the first step, and have bought a game like DF or EVE, you are already in a different class of player than the ‘normal’ PvE themepark player (I’d write that makes you better, but then someone would point out I’m an egotistical asshole and my feelings would get all hurt :tear: ).

That said, simply because you have taken the first step does not mean you instantly fall into the wolf category. Far from it actually. What the vast majority of these players are looking for is actually a very PvE-focused, social (no not that kind of ‘social) experience, just with the flavoring of an open world and PvP. They don’t play in spite of the PvP, but they also don’t only play for it. The “PvP Only” crowd, while very vocal, is always a tiny minority. For every Hydra Reloaded, you have dozens of EVE Uni pilots. For every Zealot, you have dozens of Empire players.

The game in question needs to cater to the sheep in order to survive. It must allow them to grow despite the efforts of the wolves, and it must be a better, more interested PvE experience than what they could get in ‘safer’ MMOs. Certainly leveraging the open world PvP aspect here is key, as you can’t compete straight-up on PvE, but there is a fine line between leveraging and simply allowing PvP to be ‘the point’.

As is always the case, EVE gets this right. Ganking in Empire space is still possible and can be very profitable, but it’s also very easy to avoid and really only effects the sheep who more or less should be ready for it (rich players). Null, while being the PvP-focused portion of the game, is also setup in such a way that the average cog player is not some PvP expert, but rather just another player in a giant Corporation/Alliance. The core PvPers are your FCs, CEOs, or the small-scale, elite Corps.

That said, the incentives are also there to get those Empire players out into more dangers space. Wormholes offer far more profitable PvE than known space, and both null and low-sec also hold advantages outside of simply allowing PvP. The balance however lies in the fact that in Empire, most of the game is still possible, if perhaps not optimal.

DF1 failed here because the influence of the core PvPers was far too great, both on the small and large scale. In small scale, a single great player could easily beat multiple weaker players, quickly recover, and continue on. On a larger scale, the smaller elite clans were often the deciding factor in a siege, and under the ‘merc’ tag, basically strangled the game’s political aspect.

DF:UW is better on the small scale, where it’s more difficult for one player to go superman-mode in a fight. Player skill still creates a large gap, but not SO large as to be a major, insurmountable problem. This then translated into large scale combat as well, making ‘zerging’ more effective and giving large, casual clans better odds.

DF:UW current problem however is not PvP-based, its everything else. For the sheep, reach the state of being ‘done’ is fairly quick, and for them PvP’ing for the sake of PvP is not a major draw. There are no long-term goals to shoot for like in EVE, nor is the simple allure of more wealth there. In EVE sitting in a fully-fitted Titan (if we pretend that’s an end-game goal) is very difficult. In DF, reach the equivalent is trivial.

As for those wolves, they will remain so long as the sheep do. Oh, they will cry you rivers of tears when you make things more difficult for them and threaten to leave countless times, but don’t worry, they aren’t going anywhere. In part because their options are limited, but also because deep down, that play style naturally enjoys the challenge. Goons didn’t burn Jita because it was profitable, or because it was easy; they did it because CCP put up road blocks to try and dissuade them.


DF:UW – Economy, MVPs, and Forumfall noise

November 17, 2013

Warning, the following is a long post centered around Darkfall, but in many ways applies to MMOs in general, and skims many concepts in order to prevent this from being an even longer novel. Apologies if I lose you along the way, feel free to ask in the comments section for clarification on anything.

One of the core aspects of an MMO all players go through while playing is progression. It’s the thing many of us love most about these games, whether we outright know it or know it by association (the leveling part, finishing gear sets, getting into bigger or more specialized ships, having enough wealth to control sections of an economy, becoming a go-to crafter, etc). The genre has a long and very clear history to support this; games with quick progression curves struggle with prolonged retention, or at the very least become a ‘jump in, spend a day, leave’ option now that we have F2P. Some games make that style work, other games are more about a consistent world than each player’s individual adventure.

The original Darkfall had a very long character progression path, one that was flawed by the need and acceptance of macroing (much like the early days of UO), but even still that long progression was there. It also featured a lengthy gear grind, one that was extended multiple times by the developers (AV) boosting stats on gear, but leaving all of the old gear unchanged and therefor inferior.

Despite DF1’s many core flaws, its unsustainable economy of uncontrolled faucets and weak sinks was hidden or marginalized by AV resets and the long character grind. In particular, gold was needed for a long time due to the fact that in order to skill up magic (something anyone who wanted to be PvP-viable had to do), you had to spent a ton of it on regents to macro. That massive sink, while unsustainable long-term, was sufficient for long enough. DF1 wasn’t abandoned in favor of Darkfall: Unholy Wars because of its unchecked economy, but that’s only because that timebomb never had a chance to explode.

Fast forward to DF:UW today. AV reduced the character grind, eliminated the need to macro, but kept the basic sinks and faucets of the game from DF1 (and if anything, increased said faucets even further, in part because the community continues to call for ‘worthwhile’ rewards). The result is that today, almost a year since release, anyone who has bothered has a ‘full bank’ of gear, to the point where getting more ‘stuff’ is no longer a driver. Watch any recent DF:UW PvP video and you will see this flaw in action; everyone is in top-end gear, even for the most casual of PvP encounters. To put this another way, if EVE had the DF:UW economy, everyone today (if we assume EVE had been released in 2012) would have multiple all-officer-fit Titans, and everything below that would be considered a ‘junk fleet’.

It’s no real secret to anyone paying attention that the population in DF:UW has not-that-slowly dropped, likely now below acceptable levels. It’s recent and seemingly successful launch in Asia might be what’s keeping the lights on right now, but unless Asians expect something radically different from DF:UW than what the US/EU expects (and they might, Asian’s can be pretty odd about their MMO flavors), it won’t take long for DF Asia to get in the same spot DF EU/NA is today.

That spot, just to summarize it briefly, is that since most everyone has enough stuff, going out and doing things (farming mobs, dungeons, capping villages, fighting over sea towers for the rewards, sieging cities so that a clan has better local farming) for the sake of getting stuff is no longer a motivator. With that motivator gone, DF:UW falls apart completely. You stop logging in to do activities that could result in PvP finding you, you are not online when clan-mates need help, and rather than the game being a day-to-day item, it drifts into becoming a “special occasions only” type of deal. To make this worse, unless you simply enjoy PvP for the sake of PvP, you have little to no reason to continue playing. A newly added dungeon is only entertaining once, as once you’ve seen it, you don’t need to return to farm it. Same goes for any new content really; you see it once and that’s it. All of the existing content? Unused. AV being as small as they are, they simply have zero chance producing content at a rate needed to sustain that broken model, even if they accepted the hyper-inflation rate and just ran with it.

So DF:UW is broken, and the core issue is its economy; simple too many faucets without enough sinks, resulting in players reach an ‘end’ in terms of progression. Important to note: character progression via prowess is also fairly short, at least in terms of getting one class to be fully PvP viable. In a vacuum this was an excellent change by AV; in the current state it has the unintended effect of highlighting the core flaw sooner.

Recognizing that their game was flawed, AV created an invite-only MVP sub-forum to get the players to help. The idea behind the forum was to reduce the amount of noise that generally happens on forums (and especially Forumfall, but more on that later) by selecting people who they identified as helpful and knowledgeable. In some ways this was an attempt at something like EVE’s CSM, which has been hugely successful. AV’s selection process unfortunately was… let’s just say not perfect, and while they did identify many of the good apples, a few rotten ones also snuck in. That said, outside of a couple examples, the sub-forum was at least successful in driving productive conversations about the game’s issues and what could be done to solve them.

The core issue, the economy, came up shortly and was discussed. I stated much of the above to the forum, and proposed EVE’s greatest sink (item destruction upon death) be added to DF:UW in order to help balance things and get the game into a healthier state. The simple fact was that the economy was so broken, so out of balance, that little tweaks or adjustments would not accomplish what was truly needed. Internally, I believe many understood the concepts and were on board with some form of solution, including AV themselves.

In a foreshadowing of future events, the most rotten of the apples went full retard on this topic, making one nonsensical statement after another (more on this soon). After a few attempts, I simply gave up trying to educate him. The situation was more of one child raising a temper tantrum over something they didn’t understand but perceived as ‘bad’, and as an adult, sometimes all you can do is pat the child on the head, tell them what they want to hear so they quiet down, and continue the conversation with the rest of the adults.

The first MVP forum update was a combined effort with AV, where the past weeks discussions were detailed, including the economy balancing proposal. Not surprisingly, Forumfall had (and is still having) an epic hissy fit. A relentless avalanche of idiocy commenced, with things being type that, had someone told me about them rather than seeing them myself, I’d have called you a liar. I don’t even know where to start on this so I’ll just throw out a few of the real gems (paraphrasing a bit here):

“We don’t need the economy balanced, AV needs to instead make PvE objectives worthwhile”

“Removing items off a grave would stop DF:UW from being a full-loot MMO and turn it into WoW”

“Rather than remove gear, AV should add more tiers of gear so people have a reason to fight over resources” (this, literally, was stated right after the above. So in summary: Item destruction = WoW, adding gear tiers = hardcore MMO. Forumfall everyone!)

“A better sink would be to have gear decay in your bank over time”

“Rather than destroying items at random, all items should take a durability hit, with low-dura items being destroyed” (If you don’t see the issue here, understand that many PvP bags are all low-dura items)

“Destroying items is carebear, AV should instead add a barrel where we can drop gear in to get point, and then we can spend those points on fluff items like different colored mounts or sex changes” (No joke, one of the more ‘hardcore’ players suggested this, in more or less exactly that way. He then suggested a magic unicorn that dropped a unique crafting pattern be added, so the sheep crafters would seek it out and the wolves could set a trap for them. I can’t make this stuff up)

And the most common and perhaps most idiotic: “Removing items from a grave would reduce the incentive to PvP”

On top of the above, plenty of suggestions were throw out that could be best summarized as “I want AV to add stuff that would take years to create, but I want it added tomorrow so the game is fixed”. A core focus in the MVP forum was to consider the amount of effort required for a suggestion, and if that effort level was high, that might not be possible. It’s not all that surprising so many on the general forum fell right into this mistake.

And on and on the idiocy cascaded. Now to be clear, I’m not at all surprised. Forums are what they are, and for every sane suggestion you should expect ten bits of nonsense or… well the equivalent of a fart noise in text.

My primary concern is that AV will cave in to the noise. They have a somewhat unhealthy track record of doing that. On top of this, it’s important to understand that the DF community is the immature little brother of something like the EVE community. When EVE players riot, odds are decent it’s for a good cause. The best and brightest of EVE are some of the smartest people in the genre, period. When the DF children get upset, it’s likely because you didn’t get them yet another candy bar at the checkout isle. If you cave in every time, you end up with a spoiled little fatty.

So we’ll see what happens going forward. It would be a shame if, once again, Darkfall’s great potential to be a solid niche MMO is wasted due to equal parts developer mistakes and misguided community noise. Right now most that are still interested are on the sidelines waiting to see what AV has planned. I can’t say I’m overly optimistic, but I haven’t fully given up just yet.


MMO Future: Understanding old memories

October 31, 2013

Almost all of the original MMOs worked. UO, EQ1, AC1, DAoC; all of those games had solid populations and growth in their prime. In contrast, most of the recent MMOs (AoC, WAR, LotR, SW:TOR, Aion, Rift, etc) have not. Either they are getting shut down, closing servers, or in the F2P minor leagues. Based on this, it’s easy to see why many players are interesting in returning to ‘the good old days’, while others are dismissing those feelings as a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience that can’t be reproduced and only happened because of the time, not so much the games themselves.

As with most topics the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I do want to address why those older games worked as MMOs, and dispel a few misconceptions about ‘the good old days’.

First and foremost, all four of the games listed above worked because they had content for months if not years, rather than weeks. You can say it was a long character grind, or punishing mechanics, or archaic systems, but at the end of the day the fact remains that to ‘max out’ in those games it simply took far longer than in a game like SW:TOR or WAR, and when your business model is based on keeping people subscribed and playing, that’s pretty damn important.

Another factor to consider here is that we are not talking a few months or even the first year when talking about the original four peaking; they all did it later (And of course, we are still seeing EVE ‘peak’ yearly). This is important because it dispels a myth that leads to the often-repeated mistake of cutting your current game short to allow everyone to catch up and ‘get to the good stuff’, which is usually the latest expansion or added end-game content. Today we are so worried about a new player getting stuck in the old stuff, that we completely forget the fact that if the content is good, having more of it is a bonus, not a penalty.

WoW today has a stupidly-fast leveling curve, so fast in fact that you simply can’t complete all of a zone before out-leveling it. Is that really a strength of the game; zipping you to the end-game? Or would WoW today fare better with a much longer/slower leveling curve, one that allowed players to finish a zone without have to trick the XP system? Was WoW ‘broken’ in 2004 with its slower pace? Was everyone dying to get to the ‘good stuff’ of raiding Molten Core? The numbers most certainly don’t support that theory.

Player burnout is happening faster today than before. Is it because many of us are MMO vets now and are just not entertained as long by the same stuff, or is it also a factor that many of the games we play force burnout by zipping us along at a breakneck pace? It’s hard to state “man, I wish I was gaining XP slower!”, but at the same time, are you really dying to get passed the leveling and progression aspects of early life in an MMO? To put it another way, when you recall the more fun moments of a typical MMO (especially a themepark), are those memories all at the end-game, or did you enjoy the ride as much if not more than the destination (spoiler: in most MMOs the destination sucks, which is why you quit).

A related item I want to address is the memories older MMO players have of the early days, such as camping a spawn for hours or running the same content an insane amount of time for a single item. It’s common to see someone state they would never do that again, and hence the older approach to making an MMO simply wouldn’t work today.

First, when players talk about those times, it’s important to understand that such extremes are memorable because they were and are extremes; the average day for an EQ1 players was NOT spent sitting at one spawn waiting for a specific iem, just like the average day for a DAoC player was not a 5 hour relic raid. A UO player’s average day was not breaking into a house, or getting ganked with half your items at the Brit bank. Today massive battles in EVE are news-worth because they don’t happen daily, record breaking thefts make the front pages because, well, they just broke a record in a game with 10+ years of history.

That said, let’s make no mistakes about it, the above are very important to those games; many are the catalysts that inspire others to start playing or to play more/differently. When they go well, they are the highs that make the day-to-day stuff worthwhile, and even when they go wrong, they leave an impression. Keeping everything vanilla is safe, but safe doesn’t inspire year after year of loyalty and excitement; it gets you a 3 week run that is entirely forgettable.

That’s not to suggest you can simply copy/paste 1997 UO, release it with updated graphics, and profit. Changes to the formula are needed, but outright abandoning the core is clearly not working. So when MMO fans talk about bringing back the ‘good old days’, it’s not because they want everyone to sit around a mob spawn for 12 hours daily, or because they would love to play a game where they lose everything at the bank all the time. In addition to a lot of basic concepts I’ll cover in a future post, they want the possibility of something memorable happening, because without those standout moments, your MMO is just another game to check out for a brief period of time, and that is NOT what an MMO is all about.


MMO Future: Suits and timebombs

October 24, 2013

A lot of good back and forth dialog happened yesterday, which you should go read if you haven’t. Thanks go out to Brian (Psychochild) Green for putting up more of a fight than the hotbar salesmen from SW:TOR. I’d like to follow up on a few items today and hopefully keep the conversation going.

On suits only funding F2P MMOs right now: I don’t doubt that is the environment Brian has to deal with today (ignoring the next big MMO coming out, TESO, being a sub game). But since when do the suits know best? Remember, suits thought SW:TOR’s 4th pillar sales pitch was so hot they threw $300m+ at it. Suits also didn’t think Ultima Online would work. Suit after suit thought if you just copy/paste WoW, you too will easily reach millions of subs. Suits, by definition, are CHASING the latest trend, not setting it, and when that trend is a timebomb like F2P (more on that later), jumping on that train isn’t going to end well for anyone other than the suits (who usually include an out clause).

You know what the suits have missed? Things like Star Citizen, which right now has raised $25m+. That’s not 25m in sales of a completed game, that’s 25m in “I like your vision, hopefully it works out, take my money” wallet-voting. I wonder how much money suits would have thrown at Chris Roberts, and what their demands would have included? Hard to imagine which title is ultimately going to turn out to be more entertaining…

Or to look at it from a different angle, if what SOE showed at the EQN reveal (a tired cartoon look, parkour, and move out of the boss’s red box ‘gameplay’, yo) was put out as a crowdfunding initiative, would it even sniff 1m? “Oh the one-hit wonder factory SOE is making another F2P themepark with crap I don’t need/want, please take my money” – said by no one, ever. I’m sure they will have a wonderful selection of wings in the cash shop though, just don’t forget to pay your epic items upkeep license fee.

Brian took offense at comparing the stereotypical Walmart shopper to the stereotypical F2P MMO player, yet who really is the ideal F2P MMO player the suits are hoping to attract?

Is it the educated MMO player who has put time into titles like UO, DAoC, EVE, early WoW? Is that the kind of player who is going to become a whale in your cash shop? Is that the player who benefits from the zero-entry barrier of your amazing F2P MMO? Is that the type of player who NEEDS that zero-entry barrier when they find something worthwhile? Are they going to keep you in business through repeat fluff purchases? Are they the audience who is going to look at a P2W setup and jump in?

Or is the target someone less educated? Is the target someone who would be lured in by a shiny exterior with a clearly hollow center? (h/t Supplantor for the link) Someone who is into buying power without realizing what that ultimately means (a cheapened gaming experience for everyone)? Is it someone who can get hooked on the cash shop, buying just one more set of wings, a hat, or a pretty dress? Is it someone who hasn’t caught on to the fact that buying an XP booster is nothing more than just paying to play something you (should be) enjoying less?

If everyone in the MMO genre was an educated MMO player well-versed in both sub MMOs and F2P offerings, would F2P still be around? Are whales anything but simple, weak-willed individuals? The same people you shake your head at as you pass them in the casino, hopelessly addicted to a slot machine? Or the last few still standing off in a corner during their cigarette break, killing themselves slowly but unable to stop?

Now granted, stupid has existed since the beginning of time and will continue to exist in one form or another, and finding a way to cater to stupid can be a successful business strategy. As the saying goes, a sucker is born every day. But the key to catering to stupid is you have to keep evolving the tricks as the populace catches on to the last batch.

The F2P MMO model was a nice trick when Zynga first pulled it off, and they made a killing. It’s a timebomb because at some point (and that point is basically now or very soon), too many former dummies/whales will have caught on to your trick, and they won’t be shelling out the hundreds and thousands you depend on for just another gem pack, or one more set of wings.

Solid design and content is worth paying for, and will continue to be worthwhile. The tricks of a hotbar salesmen are temporary, and that clock is about to hit midnight.

And now a little challenge to the F2P supporters; imagine you just launched the most successful MMO ever (2005/6 WoW level success). Millions of people not only showed up day one, but millions are still around years later, and for them your game is the absolute main focus and they can’t get enough.

Is that game better served by being a F2P MMO, or as a subscription title, for both your players and the developers?

I would love, love for some pro-F2P person to take the above and break down why a successful MMO is better under F2P. What benefits do I get as a player, and under those benefits, how are the developers better off? How have you maintained year-after-year success and prosperity under the F2P model?

We know, because we have seen it (WoW before the talent drain) and continue to see it (EVE after the correction of theF2P-error that was Incarna), that when an MMO is great, the sub model works for both players and devs. So unless the ultimate goal is mediocrity and a quick cash grab, I need someone to blog/comment on the above. What is the best-case scenario for a great F2P MMO?

(And it has to be an MMO, you can’t mention something like LoL, GTA, or CoD. LoL is not an MMO, nor is its F2P model ANYTHING like a cash shop-driven F2P MMO. Same for GTA/CoD, or any other title that is not an MMO.)


People of F2P MMOs

October 23, 2013

Nope.

First, can we stop linking to that 2011 LotRO announcement of how great it’s doing? Please link to the 2013 “still doing great” announcement. Same goes for DDO. Last I heard, Turbine was releasing a response to in-game protests about bending people over in DDO. Game is obviously still doing awesome thanks to F2P, right?

Next, has anyone ever called F2P ‘fans’ lazy gamers? What does that even mean? People too lazy to put in a credit card number to subscribe? People too lazy to get a job in real life to afford $15 a month?

What MMO players that don’t pay are, in the best case, are cattle. They are (hopefully) content for those who do pay, and in exchange those who are paying the bills get to enjoy a better experience thanks to the free-loaders. How often that’s the case I’ll leave up to you to decide.

Bringing up Wal-Mart is appropriate when talking F2P. There is a reason People of Walmart exists, while People of Macy’s or People of Whole Foods does not. People of F2P MMOs is a thing that should exist.

Walmart is in part successful because they have mastered logistics, keeping their costs down. If you want to call reskinning wings and reselling them to people in a F2P MMO ‘logistics’, the comparison continues to work. The other factor in Walmart’s favor is being so big that they can bend laws to suit them, which is very Zynga-like. The key difference being laws caught up to Zynga and destroyed them, while Walmart has enough lobbying power to prevent that.

The core of what Mike at Massively is saying is correct however; MMOs turn to F2P for financial reasons. The ‘why it works’ part is where the disconnect happens. MMOs that turn F2P don’t magically get better content-wise. DDO/LotRO are still the same flawed MMOs that failed as sub games, but now ‘enhanced’ with a cash shop that pesters you continuously to try and sells you content, items, fluff, and power. So why do these games sorta-work (again, looking for that 2013 announcement of still doing awesome) as F2P when they failed as subscription games? Because of the People of F2P.

Tricking someone into giving you a buck is easier than keeping them around full-time for 15, especially when you target that particular brand of player with flash over substance. The other major change is you don’t need people to stick around in the F2P model; the cattle are plentiful and you are only hoping to skin a few bucks off them before they leave. That’s basically the opposite of being successful as a sub MMO; as a sub you not only have to be good enough to attract initial attention, you only succeed if you prove that you are worth it long-term. As we have seen over the years, most developers don’t have the talent to pull that off. Selling a sparkle-pony is easy, providing lasting, worthwhile content is not.

That the MMO genre is currently in a major rut and F2P is popular is not a coincidence. Hopefully we get out of it ‘soon’.


MMO future: Social baseline

October 17, 2013

At the time of its release, WoW was criticized for not bringing much to the MMO genre, and simply being a refined EverQuest. Refining someone else’s idea was, after all, how Blizzard made a name for themselves originally. In 2004, it was a valid complaint.

By 2013 standards, not so much, considering what Rift, SW:TOR, or GW2 have brought to the market. And while it is certainly true that today’s MMO player is not as easily entertained as the average player was back in 2004 (where simply logging into a server and seeing others run around was a new thing for many), current offerings are also not even bringing to the table what WoW did in 2004, and the retention rates reflect that.

As I previously mentioned, a game generating enough interest/hype that ‘everyone’ wants to play day one is a huge factor in getting the social ball rolling for your title, and those social hooks are a major retention tool. At the same time, your game has to be different-enough that once everyone arrives, they stick around past the normal 3-month drop-off.

WoW certainly had that, in no small part because leveling to the then-cap of 60 was at least 3 months of gameplay (the insanity of viewing that as a problem to fix has never made sense to me). The longer you play one title, especially in a social setting, the more time the hooks have to develop, and the more likely you are to get involved in some form of end-game. One of the not-so-hidden dangers of being ‘accessible’ and letting everyone level to the cap solo is you deny people the natural social evolution of your game, and no matter how awesome your one-and-done content is, an MMO ultimately lives or dies by its repeatable content, be it dungeons, instances, PvP, etc.

That repeatable content is, overall, not amazing stuff. Its degree of fun can vary, but it can’t compete straight up with one-off stuff for the most part. The reason players stick around for months/years to run it is mostly due to the social hooks. A dungeon might not be amazing the 50th time through, but if you are doing it with a fun group that you meet in that game, its enjoyable-enough to keep going, especially if you are working together to advance to bigger and better things.

There is absolutely no better example of this than EVE and the ‘action’ of null-sec. Waiting HOURS to form up a giant fleet only to shoot at a structure and then head home is likely not on anyone’s top list of awesome things to do in an MMO, yet year after year EVE retains and grows while pilots in null-sec continue to do what they do. Why? Because sometimes that fleet will result in a massive, epic battle. But just as important; because shooting that structure and winning advances your alliance forward, and that’s important in EVE. The players are invested because of the social hooks, and those social hooks don’t magically appear at the level cap.

The next big MMO needs to find that sweet spot of fostering and encouraging the social aspect while not falling into the ‘forced grouping’ trap. It also needs to contain enough quality new stuff to keep people interested long enough for those hooks to develop. Those are both easy to describe but difficult to execute items, but if we are to see an MMO ‘work’ anywhere close to the level of a WoW or an EVE, it will contain them and perform them well.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 152 other followers