The blogs reflect the genre

July 10, 2013

This post about blogging over at TAGN, along with the comments, is worth reading, even if you are only vaguely interested in the topic of MMO blogs. As the posts-per-day rate here has slowed over the last two months, it’s a topic I’ve thought about as well. This blog is almost 6 years old now (yikes), and I still don’t feel like I’m ‘done’ talking about the MMO genre. At the same time, something has happened to slow the content rate here, and not all of that can be pinned to changes in my RL (though that is a major factor). So what exactly is going on?

First, I don’t think the fad that is blogging is passing, if only because it never was a fad to begin with. Sure, blogging might have had its ‘time in the sun’ around the time the Warhammer hype machine was at its peak, but it was around before that and is still around after. So long as MMOs still somewhat resemble virtual worlds, they will be worth writing about.

What is happening is that the genre itself is changing, and right now the change is just not really giving us much to talk about. A little history lesson first.

When I was writing about WoW sucking before writing about WoW sucking was cool, a major reason for that was because Blizzard was shaping the genre, and the direction they were going in was not one I liked (or that works). I don’t really care about Blizzard/WoW now because they are non-factors. No one is building the next ‘WoW-killer/clone’. No one is taking a great IP (Warhammer) and driving it into the dirt thanks to the WoW taint.

Right now, everyone is basically in two camps. You are either in the EAWare camp, where you just believe MMOs don’t work, or you are in the indy camp, where you understand that MMOs work when they are virtual worlds rather than sRPGs with a login server, and that the market for THAT is not millions. There is no “let’s make a bigger/better WoW” camp, and so I no longer need to keep educating people about it. You’re welcome. When WoW goes F2P in 2015, it won’t be a surprise but rather confirmation of about a hundred posts I made in 2007/8. Feel free to look back and just leave a “damn, Syn right again” comment on each one. It’s the least you can do.

Where MMOs are going is both obvious and as uncertain as ever. It’s obvious because EVE is still crushing it and for good reason; it’s the definition of MMO design done right. If only someone had pointed that out in 2007… What’s really scary is that CCP might be doing its best work with the game right now, ten years in, so rather than decline like “all MMOs do”, EVE is still very much on the way up, with the only real question being just how high up it will go. I know I said the market is not millions, but CCP might prove me wrong in a few years.

The uncertain part is, spaceships aside, where does everyone else go? I think Darkfall: Unholy Wars is a much improved version of DF, and the patches Aventurine has been doing are hitting all the right areas, but the game and the company behind it have a long, long way to go before they reach anything close to current EVE/CCP status. The foundation is there, certainly, but the goal is so far away its borderline impossible to even think about right now. And much like EVE itself, DF doesn’t NEED 1m subs to be what it needs to be. The current population in the game is just right; fights can be found, but the world is not overcrowded to the point of game-breaking (as can happen).

GW2 continues to do what it’s doing, but nothing since the 3rd week has struck me as a reason to return. It’s just there, which since day one has pretty much been the issue with the game. Again, there is a reason Anet isn’t asking for a monthly fee, and it’s not because they are just that nice. Similar statements can be made about most other MMOs; it’s amazing SW:TOR has not been shut down, Secret World is what it is, and a few other titles are chugging along or milking the last bits for whatever is left (LotRO).

The genre is evolving and devolving at the same time. It’s evolving in terms of how games are made; Kickstarter being the biggest factor, but even having games on Steam vs requiring a box in a store is a big change for gaming, and MMOs in particular. A niche game for 50k gets made today if that 50k votes with their wallet strongly enough, while just a few years back this wasn’t the case.

It’s devolving in that we are returning to games based off what Ultima Online was trying to do (virtual world) vs what WoW became (sRPG). Designing your game for a target audience vs ‘for everyone’ is once again happening. Games with scale and longevity are being pitched. Catering to the lowest common denominator is once again seen as a negative.

The great unknown right now is whether the above will deliver or not. Will an MMO off Kickstarter release and be what it promised? Are all of the devs that today talk about “not being WoW” follow through, or are we just in another Warhammer cycle where people in white shades talk about bears but really just deliver a crappy knockoff?

And because all of this is unknown right now, we can’t really blog about it at length. The genre, and as a result, blogs covering the genre, are in a bit of wait-and-see mode.

The choices you can make

June 25, 2013

Over at KTR, thanks to a RSS trigger from TAGN, the topic of groups has been brought up. I’m generally a “pro groups” person, but playing DF:UW has reminded me why and how most MMOs get the basics wrong.

In most MMOs, the game makes the decision to group or not for you, and often tells you exactly how to group as well. You can’t enter a raid instance solo, just like you can’t bring 100 players to a 10 man raid. In Rift, the random finder goes so far as to insist you have the correct group makeup (tank, healer, dps) before zipping you inside.

Games do this in part because it makes designing the content easier. If you know that 100% of the time the players will only have a group of five, you have a much easier time designing enemy abilities and setting difficulty. This is not always a bad thing, but if it’s the ONLY thing going on in your MMO, you have robbed the players of a very interesting decision; do you group, and if so, how big will the group be?

In DF:UW, the content is not gated behind group requirements or class restrictions. If you want to try and solo the red dragon, you can do so. If you want to bring 100 to down it, go ahead. And while doing it solo is basically impossible, and bringing 100 makes victory almost assured, both results are acceptable because the game is balanced based on the reward; the dragon drops 50k gold whether one person or 100 kill it, so while more makes it easier, it also makes it less profitable per person.

This balance however only works in games without permanent Best-in-slot (BiS) systems; in DF:UW you can gain 50k gold in a number of ways, while in WoW only one raid boss drops the item you want. Additionally, in DF:UW and games like it, that 50k is fluid. You gain it and you can lose it. In BiS setups, once you have it only the devs can take it away from you (expansions).

In a PvP MMO like DF:UW there is also the added consideration of safety. Just because I can solo a mob spawn does not mean that’s always the best choice, even if bringing more will ultimately reduce the gain/hr. Sometimes having a group will be the difference between fending off enemy players and getting sent home naked. This goes one step further; even if I’m going to solo a spawn, if the spawn is close to my player city, that increases my chances of delaying a fight until allies can aid me; if I’m farming on the opposite side of the world, I’m alone. In most MMOs, the location of a spawn is often a non-factor, and again this robs the players of a choice/consideration.

The term sandbox gets thrown around a lot, and games will claim to have ‘sandbox features’. To me, what makes a game a sandbox isn’t always the big-picture stuff like whether PvP is FFA or the world is seamless, but the choices you are offered like those described above. Those choices, and dealing with the consequences, is why farming 180 mobs in DF:UW is entertaining, while a kill 10 quest in a themepark is a complete snooze.

Themepark goes F2P, take infinity

May 15, 2013

Some quick thoughts on the Rift F2P thing, since a few people have asked.

First, it’s not surprising. Scott Hartsman leaving Trion was basically the “Rift is going F2P” announcement.

Second, not surprising given what Rift is. It’s an above-average themepark MMO. Being a 3.0 themepark still does not fix the core problem (being a themepark), and so F2P happens.

Third, F2P won’t save Rift, like it hasn’t saved any other MMO going F2P. Trion will likely release some nice-sounding numbers in 2-3 months, telling us that players/sales/whatever are up 500% and F2P is a massive success. Then they won’t tell us anything for a few months and eventually layoffs will happen. It’s the Turbine story with DDO/LotRO all over again. Again, F2P does not fix the core problems of your game (being a themepark), and ultimately just adds issues to it (the shop and how to get people to buy).

WoW will likely be the last themepark to go F2P, and that will happen soon (2014 remember). The issue isn’t that F2P is great for players and devs (it’s not), the issue is that themeparks are all more of less the same, so when one is just above-average, unless it really clicks with you (and continues to click for months), you might as well go with the F2P one over the $15 one (not how I would do it, but I think that’s how many look at it). Or hell, drop $50 and mess around with GW2 for a few weeks and return whenever content gets added.

The sub model works for something like EVE because if you enjoy what EVE does, you either play EVE or nothing. There is no EVE clone (because making EVE is hard, cloning WoW is easy), and EVE is not designed to be fun for a few weeks. It’s a hobby. Same for Darkfall. The target audience is much smaller than EVE, but the fact remains that if you like what DF does, it’s that or (maybe) Mortal Online, and MO is a mess. Why does Camelot Unchained have a chance as a subscription game? Because if it does what it aims to do even reasonably well, the options will be CU or nothing.

I also think long-term F2P is either going to evolve or eat itself alive. Selling fluff junk is not sustainable, players will eventually catch on to the lottery schemes, and the NA/EU market is not nearly as tolerant of P2W as Asia is. As themeparks race to the bottom, the quality will continue to dip, the shop scams will get worst, and eventually most are going to wake up and realize that playing a graphically better version of Farmville is not worth the time, aggravation, or cost.

Themeparks need to evolve or they will go the way of Farmville.

Edit: Also see this TAGN post about F2P, as I agree with it 100%.

7 minutes in heaven, a month of hell

January 16, 2013

One point that I don’t think I made clear enough in my post about UO’s combat was that the slower pace and simplicity leads to longer retention, and so today I want to expand on that a bit (in horribly rambly fashion, sorry).

The hyper-dancing combat that so many MMOs have today is both tiring and limited. It’s tiring because mashmashmash, and limited because once you figure out/google/macro the ‘correct’ way, you are done, because short of pausing to perform a boss gimmick dance, your pattern works against just about anything (hence macros). With that out of the way, you are left to focus on the content itself, and MMO content is meh at best, and GW2 final encounter 222222 all too often. And it runs out, terribly fast no matter your budget.

A comment I see often and always get a laugh from is the EVE “shooting red crosses” complaint. That EVE is terrible and a spreadsheet because missions are blah and the combat is just target, F1, repeat. And yes, mission running is basically that, and yup, it’s boring as hell long-term or exclusively. Yet it’s also content still being run 10 years later, and very likely a good chunk of those running it have been doing it for years on and off. By the standard of MMO retention, EVE’s mission system is one of the greatest pieces of content in MMO history.

So why are players still running it? Because while not thrilling, it’s not draining and not quite as simple as macro-spamming (FFA PvP, efficiency, etc), plus you are doing it in the context of EVE, which matters. Place EVE’s mission running as a standalone game, and it would rival SW:TOR for biggest failure of all time.

How did we get from UO and its brilliantly simple combat to the one-and-done invuln-rolling of GW2?

Part of the problem is the misguided belief that more is better. If UO worked with basic attacks, then five ‘special moves’ is better. And if five works, 15 must surely be great. You know what looks more impressive than 15 on a bullet list? 40! Bam, EQ2 everyone.

Except of course it’s not, because you eventually get to Rift where the UI is flexible enough to create a single macro attached to one key to do your combat for you. Back to UO everyone! Oh, except instead of an interesting virtual world with stuff actually happening, you are doing yet another quest/dungeon against whatever for some soon-to-be-replaced item because…. Zzzzz, unsub, or play once a week because of the people more so than the content (and I think Rift is the best themepark out, btw).

It’s sadly comical if you think about it. GW2 boasted about how each class only had five or so skills because the combat was more tactical. More focused on what you are doing rather than a Googled pattern. That mobs would be different and have their special stuff and blablabla. Release comes and surprise, you are mashing five keys while plowing through some completely forgettable ‘personal’ story or zerg-herding in the equally meaningless WvW. And this from the game that ‘fixed’ the MMO formula for us. A wonder it even lasted a few weeks for so many.

Anet was right to simplify things, because having 40 character abilities is just dumb. And they almost got there with the other aspects too. Dodging attacks is good, for instance, but GW2 has invuln-dodging which is a joke. Aiming attacks is a natural evolution as hardware and connection speeds have allowed it; tab-targeting system with some aiming is a half-step failure. Beautiful and varied terrain is great, but completely wasted when it has zero impact on what you are actually doing (outside of one-off jumping puzzles).

Another issue is designing for RIGHT NOW versus designing long-term. There is a believe that if you fail the RIGHT NOW test, long-term is a non-issue, which is why so much development time is spent on a starter area or making sure everything is roses for the first five minutes. That’s all well and good, but not at the expense of long-term if you are indeed interested in making an MMO in the traditional sense.

Plus I honestly don’t buy into the theory. If you are an MMO player, you don’t quit after the first hour, much less the first five minutes. Not when you understand that you are signing up for something that will, hopefully, entertain you for months/years. This is not a $.99 iPhone app we are talking about.

Not to say that the first 5 minutes can be painful, or the first hour totally worthless, but again, understand the target audience and plan accordingly. If I’m a current EVE player and bringing in a friend, is the first five minutes important, or the systems that provide content for the next 10 months? Hell, I’m not bringing that friend in if we are talking GW2 and the start/end cycle is measured in weeks, now am I?

To poorly wrap this up, my point is that the most important and repeatable part of your game (combat), has to last long-term, and has to be supported by long-term systems. Simplicity helps you achieve that, because it allows you to get what you do have perfect, and then apply that perfection in a large variety of ways. The all-flash zero-substance systems that dominate today lead to the very predictable pattern of high initial interest and then rapid boredom.

That problem was fixed a long time ago. Hopefully today’s devs do a little bit of research before setting out to create ‘the next big thing’.

The best MMO content = the best MMO content

November 26, 2012

The measure of success when it comes to MMO content is surprisingly simple IMO (the longer the content holds your attention, the better), yet rarely mentioned much less accounted for directly. Both players and developers talk endlessly about many aspects of content, yet when was the last time someone directly stated that piece of content X is fantastic because it’s been reused/rerun countless times?

The absolute worst form of content from a retention perspective is strictly one-off content, yet the most expensive MMO to date based its entire sales pitch around just that, and both players and other devs ate it up for years until launch happened and poof it all went.

People then repeated the same song and dance with GW2 and its personal story, though at least in this case Anet had no illusions of retention and just wanted to sell you a box and perhaps a hat on your way out. (Or at least, said as much and then added resist gear ‘raiding’, but details blablabla)

And at some point we will have a proper name for online one-off games with others around like SW:TOR or GW2, where the bulk of what you pay for is set to be consumed once, while those who REALLY like the theme/setting can still stick around with the other diehards in various attached mini-games (battlegrounds, WvW, hard-mode dungeons, etc), and more can come back to purchase DLC/expansions and one-off that content.

But that genre aside, if you really are designing an MMO, or you really are looking to play an MMO, reusable content is the key. Raiding works for those into group-based PvE in a themepark. It’s hard to argue against the merits of Molten Core or BWL in early WoW when you consider the number of hours poured into them by players at that time vs the amount of dev time spent creating them. And if you don’t think WoW’s early success is tied into that end-game design, I’m guessing you worked on SW:TOR and still think it’s the business model that screwed you.

How Blizzard later handled raiding also helps explain WoW’s more recent performance. About the only thing that ended up being more accessible seems to be the cancel account button, but hey, at least you’re not selling hotbars. (Yet?)

Raiding or themepark-based design aside, it’s easy to look at what EVE does in terms of content and see why a game that’s 10 years old is still a genre leader. Missions are generic and not thrilling content, but given the choice of running 100 missions or one of GW2’s single-player storyline 10 times, which would you choose (factoring knowing the end results/rewards/impact)? Exactly. Plus in EVE you decide when to increase the challenge. You can move to low-sec for your PvE, get into Incursions, or even WH space. And at some point you are going to come across PvP, either because you are seeking it out or it found you, which will open up a whole new can of replayable worms.

But at the heart of replayable content lie the players. Doing the same actions with others (and ‘others’ can’t be easily replaced by silent bots) is just more fun, not to mention somewhat random thanks to human nature. It’s also why focusing so much of your design on REMOVING said random factors is MMO suicide, yet we continue to see developers try to ‘limit the frustration’ and ‘steamline’ things. ‘Groups’ without knowing who is in your group, zero-effort group creating with one-off randoms, rewards for failing, achievements for playing poorly (naked, in joke specs, not causing damage, etc); the list goes on.

Yet during all this trending on attracting… someone… with all this accessibility and single-player online whatever, MMOs that have followed the core principles have continued to do well. With indie-funding on the rise, and quarterly-reporting publishers being minimized, would it surprise anyone if the next wave of MMOs look a whole lot more like MMOs, and less like online sRPGs?

The first rule of MMO club: You must continue to attend MMO club

November 19, 2012

Some good comments from my last two posts, so thanks to everyone who contributed. Amazing what writing a less-than-clear post or two does. (File that under blogger pro-tips kids).

Rather than try to re-explain what I was trying to get at, I’ll just cut right to the chase and state the (maybe not so) obvious: an MMO only works if it works long-term.

Let that sink in for a bit.

It’s why, when BioWare announced the 4th pillar for SW:TOR, it was easy for me to instantly declare the game a failure. The quality of the content, whatever it ended up being, was a non-factor long-term, because long-term resource heavy dev content does not work. You just can’t produce it fast enough, and in MMO land the 10th month is just as important as the second.

It’s also why GW2 is not a sub-based MMO, and we will see if long-term it ends up being/feeling like an MMO at all. No one would argue that GW2 launched with a solid amount of 1-80 content, and that the quality of that content was reasonably high. But until the recent introduction of the resist gear grind and dungeons/raiding, GW2 had zero long-term sustainability (and no, gear treadmills are not the ONLY source of sustainability, but they are the easiest).

Games can change of course, but GW2’s state at launch made it very clear why Anet did not attempt to charge a monthly fee. It would have spectacularly failed. Going forward it will be interesting to see if they can introduce enough progression to sell enough gems in the item shop, especially with how heavy that goes against their manifesto/Vision/sales pitch.

Staying on the GW2 theme for a second, I also find it silly when people bring up being able to ‘jump back in’ to GW2 as some major plus for the game. Here is what you are saying when you say that: “I know GW2 won’t hold my attention long-term, so once I run out of content, I’ll move on, but probably return for a look once more is added”. Combine this with the pace of content delivery in most MMOs (Rift is somewhat unique here, and surprise they are a successful sub-based MMO), and what are you really saying about your expectations? Are you really approaching GW2 as an MMO, or as a sRPG series like Final Fantasy (not the MMO); something updated every few months/years that sees their players return for another run?

And if the above is a non-issue to you, consider what THAT really says. You don’t care for community or continuity, and are only interested in consuming dev-driven content when available, no strings attached, and then moving along. It’s not a wrong approach to gaming, but it is ‘wrong’ for an MMO; both for the player and for the company hoping to make the business model work.

How to produce sustainable content is another, rather long topic, but first I think it’s important to ask if your game of choice even has it, and how much of the focus was spent on designing it versus designing the one-and-done stuff. The second question to ask is if you care. Are you even looking for something sustainable? I’d argue that anyone who answers “no” is not an MMO player, at least as I see the genre.

How to look senile (FBW Thursday edition)

November 15, 2012

Former MMO blogger Tobold is having a rough year. First his EVE prediction is set to be confirmed as idiotic in just over a month, the industry has nothing for him to play and banished him back to the tabletop, and ‘soon’ the reality that Darkfall is coming back for round two is once again going to haunt everyone’s favorite thin-skinned, hyper-sensitive whipping boy.

Of course, a track record a mile long of simply being wrong does not stop him from posting. He is very tackle-titan-Gevlon in that regard, though with less blog-editing-after-the-fact. Today’s troll bait, which embarrassingly I’m going to bite on (in part because, as is most often the case over in dream land, the commenters that don’t get filter out beg for my opinion), revolves around keeping/losing subscribers.

Much like predicting EVE shutting down because “financial reports don’t lie”, it seems the old man’s memory has also lead him to forget which MMO he is talking about here. Because I’m pretty sure making a post about losing subscribers over the last three years, with examples such as WAR, AoC, Aion, LotRO, SW:TOR, and WoW itself around, picking the hardcore niche PvP MMO from an indie studio that remained a sub MMO all three years and with an increased staff is launching a sequel ‘soon’ is a poor choice.

But what do I know. I’m pretty terrible at this predictions thing, having been totally wrong about SW:TOR 4th pillar in 2009, GW2 lack of progression dooming it, WoW with WotLK, LotRO selling its soul, Aion being Aion, Rift 3.0, Tobold rage-quitting blogging yearly, etc etc.

So let’s keep his little post in mind 6 months after DF:UW releases (so 2035), so we can all link back to it and write glowing posts about how Tobold was right about something in the MMO genre. First time for everything right?

Or, after said 6 months, we can link back to it much the same way we link back to the EVE prediction, and have a little fun while DF:UW is down for the expansion patch. Assuming, of course, Tobold is not on a rage-quit cycle.

Also how is he still screwing up FBW, posting this on a Thursday?


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