My 15

March 24, 2014

Via TAGN, my top 15 influential games.

1: Ultima Online

This is an MMO blog, and UO was the first major MMO as we know them today. It’s also had the Ultima IP, which was huge for me. And as time goes on, and the genre tries to figure itself out, we realize (or are proven ‘right’, depending on your starting point) UO got a lot of things correct compared to future titles. It wasn’t just the first MMO, it was a very well-designed sandbox MMO that had a brilliant virtual world. We need more UOs, but making them has proven to be very difficult.

2: Ultima V

Way back when I played games on a Commodore 64, and Ultima V was my favorite game by a mile. MMOs are a big deal to me today because prior to 1997 and UO, I was (and still am) huge into RPGs, and for me Ultima V remains not only the first, but one of the best games in that genre. Non-linear, party based, great lore, great stories, epic scope, ;living world’, difficult; Ultima V got a lot right IMO.

3: Myth 1 and Myth 2

Cheating a bit going with both of these, but allow me to explain. Myth 1 was an RTS game far ahead of its time (something Bungie has a habit of doing), and I played it relentlessly. Sadly at the time the computer I had couldn’t really run it, so at a certain point online I couldn’t win games playing at 5-10 FPS (no joke). Myth 2 improved most aspects from the first game, and I had a better machine when it came out. I ended up holding the world #1 spot in the game until the first rank reset, which totally should be on my resume if gaming was as cool as sports. Either way being able to say you were the undisputed best at something out of 50k+ people is fun. Me > you.

4: EVE

UO was the first and laid the groundwork, but EVE is that groundwork perfected, and is the shining example that an MMO doesn’t die ‘eventually’ if it’s built correctly. The list of things EVE does better than anyone else in the genre is almost endless, but for me personally it drove home the fact that if you set a goal and execute, EVE is your oyster. I wanted to start a corp, I wanted it to grow into something, and I wanted to take us out of high-sec and do ‘something’. All accomplished, and it was a very rewarding experience.

5: Shining in the Darkness

I got this game along with my Sega Genesis, and it was my first introduction to console gaming and that style of RPG games. I still have a notebook of the maps my father and I drew as we played it, and whenever I watch a Youtube video of the game the music takes me back. The game being the first entry in the pretty great Shining series is significant IMO, even if the games don’t share a central story or world.

6: Final Fantasy 7

I loved FF7, racking up a saved game of over 100hrs (this was back when 100hrs with a title was something. Now we call that a 3-monther MMO). The graphics were amazing, the story was solid, the videos looked straight out of the future; the game itself is a masterpiece. It holds a special place for me because this title alone is responsible for turning the RPG genre from a niche to a mainstream thing. Suddenly we had tons of options rather than a handful of titles per year, all thanks to FF7.

7: Final Fantasy Tactic

When it comes to turn-based strategy titles, FFT is still my top-rated title. It’s not without flaws, but the strength of this title so far outweigh the flaws that it’s silly. Incredible depth, a serious challenge, a twisting storyline even despite the hit/miss translation, FFT had it all. It’s re-release on the iPhone recently reconfirmed for me how great it is, it’s held up wonderfully.

8: Heroes of Might and Magic 3

Considered the best entry in the series, HoMM3 is a title my friend and I pour a silly amount of time into. A solid single-player experience with amazing multiplayer depth, whether it was co-op vs the AI or going 1v1, featuring great balance amongst the factions and maps. The series has been trying to recreate the HoMM3 experience since, and while HoMM6 was solid, it still wasn’t it.

9: Civilization V

I’ve played every entry in the Civ series since the first, but it wasn’t until Civ V that I become obsessed with mastering the game. A great combination of deep turn based gameplay, historical accuracy, and refined game systems place Civ V high on my list.

10: Streets of Rage

The beat-em-up genre is mostly (completely?) dead now, but back in the day it was huge, and Streets of Rage was my jam. A really fun game whether you played solo or with a buddy, and one of the first games I played to master every boss encounter long past the time when I had initially beat it. The birth of my min-maxing, you might say.

11: World of Warcraft

After UO and EVE, WoW is the most significant MMO for me personally. A lot of this has to do with making friendships with people I still talk to today, raiding buddies who I spent hundreds if not thousands of hours with, carrying god knows how many derps through MC, BWL, AQ40, and beyond. Outside of raiding WoW in the early days had a lot going for it, whether it was leading the masses to victory in AV or raiding alliance towns with the guild and others.

12: Marathon

Another example of a Bungie title being way ahead of its time. As a FPS Marathon was excellent, and many of its mechanics went on to become genre standards. If the title wasn’t Mac-only, I wonder if it would have given Doom a run for its money. IMO it was the better game.

13: League of Legends

I played a lot of DoTA for Warcraft 3, so went into LoL knowing what to expect. But seeing how Riot handled the game, especially in the early years, and reading their forum posts about design hammered home that LoL is DoTA without all its flaws. Furthermore, a lot of the basic concept they explained still apply today, and not just to LoL but to gaming overall. I’m still actively playing the game after all these years, my wife is still addicted to it as well, and it’s the biggest game in the world overall. On top of all that, LoL is the best example of how well the F2P model can work outside of the MMO genre.

14: Syndicate

I played this game only when I was over a friend’s house, but we both loved it. Great atmosphere, great sandboxish design, solid graphics for the time, and the first game I played where you could do interesting stuff like convert a dozen civilians to become a small army, get them into cars, and have them run over other people by accident all until the cars exploded. The AI was good for the time, but because it gave you options, it created a lot of “oh wow that was cool” unscripted moment.

15: Skyrim

I played Morrowind a bit, played a lot of Oblivion, but it wasn’t until Skyrim that I was really looking forward to an ES game, and Skyrim delivered on all fronts. This is the model I want followed when it comes to future single-player sandbox RPGs. I’ve played almost all of its content now, and just the depth and consistence of it all is amazing.


Smed talks sandbox

February 12, 2014

Smed has a new blog that yells at you with giant text. I wish he had named it “MMOs are still a niche market”, but no dice on that. His first post is about sandbox design.

“When we first began making these kinds of games 18 years ago (I mean no disrespect to the Muds and other games out before Everquest)”

In the Smed history of MMOs, the first one was EQ, a themepark before the word themepark was a thing. This is funny because the first commercially successful MMO was Ultimate Online (sorry M59), a sandbox. What’s also interesting here is that while UO was indeed a virtual world, a game experiment in what would happen if Britannia was populated by more than one Avatar, EQ was a 3D graphic skin over existing MUD design, rather than the brave adventure into unknown lands that Smed views it as.

Fast forward to 2004, and we all know WoW was just a better EQ1, thus beginning the long chain of SOE attempting to copy something, and Blizzard coming along and simply doing the copy/paste job better. EQ1 is also the first and last time one could say SOE did something more right than wrong. The SOE MMO graveyard can attest to that.

No event is more memorable in sandbox history than the NGE for SWG, taking that sandbox and (spot the pattern) trying to make it more of a WoW-like themepark, without success. Smed being the man behind that blunder is something he has admitted and apologies for countless times, but for SWG fans that wound hasn’t quite healed yet, as evident in the comments section of his blog. That he has decided to target that group to hype his next (not EQN) MMO is an… interesting decision.

“A great example of this happened with SWTOR. I happen to think it’s a very well done game and the team at Bioware should be proud.”

That Smed considers it a very well done game should be alarming. From the first reveal of SW:TOR in 2010, some of us could easily see the critical flaw in basing your game on the 4th pillar (one-off content). Now granted, back then we couldn’t predict that the most expensive MMO ever would also come with a terrible engine, plenty of bugs, and all the other problems SW:TOR had; but even if none of those other things happened, the game would still have failed because at its very core, it’s a horribly flawed way to make an MMO. If the leader of my company looked at something like SW:TOR as a ‘very well done game’, I’d be jumping ship.

Now, Smed does finally mention EVE in the second to last paragraph, calling it a shining example, so that’s certainly a positive if you have hopes for the next SOE product.

“Our belief at SOE is that it’s smarter to head in this direction now rather than waiting.”

The above can easily be taken out of context, given that EVE has been the blueprint for a sandbox for over ten years now, and SOE has been around longer than that, but I take the above as Smed saying that rather than making EQ3 yet another themepark that can’t succeed (forget competing with WoW), he would rather try to tap into the magic CCP formula. And while I’m all for that, at the end of the day this is SOE we are talking about. They will find a way to screw it up. And then they will try to fix that screw-up and odds are decent they will make it worse. Because SOE.

Welcome to blogging Smed, hopefully you stick around for a bit.


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?


SC: Developer deja vu

December 5, 2013

The 2013 Chris Roberts cult worship reminds me of 2006 Richard Garriott cult worship.

If you look at their Wikipedia pages, their careers look amazingly similar. RG has Ultima, CR has Wing Commander. RG has Tabula Rasa, CR has Wing Commander (the movie). RG has Shroud of the Avatar, CR has Star Citizen. RG has gone to space. CR is currently making RP vids as if he is in space.

I’m not saying Star Citizen is going to be Tabula Rasa (though gun to my head, yea, CR is going to end up closer to TR than to EVE-level design success), but I do find the (basically) blind faith in CR a little strange, if not outright creepily similar to RG back in the day.

 


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.


EQN: The next big AAA disaster

August 5, 2013

In case you don’t want to sit through the EQNext showing, here are the cliff notes:

“If someone should do it, it should be EverQuest. Again” (UO…)

Lighting

Lighting

Lighting

Lighting

Adventure

Lighting

Lighting

How do you like it? :mild applause:

Lighting

Hyper linear paths with specific animation events, insert buzzword: “ parkour ”

:Summing up the GW2 character system as something new. Classes with weapons = abilities, zzz:

Destroying pre-set levels in pre-set scenarios

Grail 3: the UO living ecosystem (maybe this one will make it out of beta?) “You will be making change!” read: players will butcher everything until it all stops spawning and the system is removed.

Grail 4: Public quests, now stretched out for 2-3 months. (side-note: guy almost slips up and says your alt could repeat the content if you make the same choices. Sorta goes on to correct himself)

Jazzed.

Talks about Everquest Next Minecraft – a world of penises (at least until devs start deleting them)

More talk about having the players create content for the devs

(Final note: Do SOE fans just not know when to clap, or was the presentation just not all that… jazzy? Awkward silence city.)

One has to wonder what SOE scraped prior to going with what they showed. Game must have been nightmare fuel. Terror wondering aside, what they showed was… something. I almost typed ‘meh’ but that best describes the latest Elder Scrolls Online gameplay video (Short summary: watered down ES gameplay + some MMO aspects = generic game with ES skin on top). What SOE showed was really more classic SOE; delusion and a misguided sense of greatness from the studio that is still living off its one hit title (EQ1).

First, EQN looks EXACTLY like Kingdoms of Amalur / Copernicus graphically, which is nice; at least all that work found a home. It still looks like a knockoff Disney movie, but I’m sure the kids will find that appealing. Plus anything is an upgrade over EQ2, by far the ugliest MMO ever.

As the cliff notes above point out, a lot of what was presented has already been done/tried. We know what happens when you allow players to full shape the world; the goons create a rain of penises (Second Life). We know what happens when mobs move around based on player actions; everything is farmed to extinction (UO beta). We know what happens when you sell the concept of a dynamic changing world without it actually changing long-term (GW2).

Now, can SOE take all of the above and make it work? Sure. Will they? Of course not, otherwise they would not be SOE. I mean, we are talking about the same people who included the ultra-lame “Do not stand in the red box” boss crap in their “we are awesome and totally new” trailer.

EQN will go in one of two directions IMO; it will either be somewhat close to DDO in terms of very linear ‘levels’, which will allow for solo or small groups to fully see the destruction, changes, and make it easier to hard-code all of the parkour bits. I think honestly that’s best-case for EQN; it won’t be the big bad sandbox SOE is trying to hype, but it could be a game that ‘works’ well enough for those looking for something like that.

The other direction is a fully open world that changes like GW2 changes; short-term and on a very noticeable and gameable loop, plus dev-driven updates that herd players from one content ‘hotspot’ to the next every few weeks/months.

This is the far more ambitious direction, and the one that will lead SOE to far more issues and broken gameplay than anything else. The presentation and ideas live in an ideal state; the reality of an MMO is you must always assume the players operate under a worst-case scenario. The dream is players will build great-looking castles that add to the landscape; the reality is players will blow the entire world up because they can and rebuild it as a giant penis. The presentation was very much a dream. If the game is also built around these dream-state expectations, hilarious disaster will follow.

Beyond that, nothing shown moves the genre in a good direction. Even if the parkour is amazing and works exactly like the dream-state sells, was anyone asking for that? Will it add anything to the genre besides a few new animations? Was the class/weapons/skills bit anything new, or even a side-step above the norm? The system is pretty meh in GW2, and THAT was a step back from GW1, so what exactly is SOE selling here? I’ve covered the destructible terrain already; that’s lose/lose for SOE. Give players true freedom, and they will bury you. Restrict it enough to keep the bad stuff out, and you likely restrict it to the point of non-factor.

The hardest part of making a sandbox is balancing the freedom you give to the players with creating an environment that is still enjoyable on a large-scale. Nothing that SOE showed suggests they get it, or have a good answer to any of the issues that come with such a design direction.


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 good stuffs in the middle

February 27, 2013

Let’s talk a little about the history of the mid-game in the MMO genre.

IMO the mid-game is the time after you have learned the basics of the game (tutorial or beginning phase), and before you stop progressing or have outright ‘won’. Outside of the MMO genre, the mid-game is often 95% or more of the game. To use Skyrim as an example, the mid-game is after you finish the first, heavily scripted encounter, and lasts until you either hit the level cap or finish what content you intended to complete (be it the main quest or a set of side quests).

If we go back to 1997, one of the major appeals of UO was that it was essentially an Ultima game, but without an end. You paid more than just the box price because you got more than that over time. That was the deal. And in 1997, the mid-game in UO was 95% of the game. Getting a character maxed out took time, and was not a major ‘must have’ for many. A few skills to 100 was common, but 7xGM was something you took your time working towards, and whether you eventually got there or not was not a make or break moment.

Fast forward a bit, and at some point (not release), WoW become more about the end-game than the mid-game. The developers focused more/most of their efforts delivering content to those at the cap, and the players in turn focused more on just getting to the cap and the ‘real’ game than what came before.

As it usually does, at the other end of the spectrum sits EVE. With a built-in 15yr+ progression curve, not a single player has ‘maxed out’ a pilot. In a somewhat “only in EVE” issue, there currently exist some players who are reaching the end of worthwhile progression, having trained pilots for almost 10 years, and wondering how CCP will fix that problem. All other MMOs would love to have the ‘problem’ of someone worrying about progression after 10 years, but then EVE has always played on a different level.

I bring all of this up for a few reasons. The first is to highlight the importance of the mid-game in an MMO. Whether they are conscious of it or not, players like progression. They like it enough, in fact, to keep paying while they grow. The end of personal progression is, IMO, the single biggest cause of player loss. And it’s rarely called directly that, which is part of the problem. Players will end progression and slowly lose interest in the game, and claim ‘burn out’ as the reason for leaving without actually realizing what happened. But look back at your own personal history with the genre and see how often you ended up leaving when your own progression path either ended or become more trouble than it was worth.

Speeding players towards that dead end is a great way to tank your MMO, and the genre is littered with examples of just that. WoW once again clouds the picture because of its sheer mass, but it itself is an example. When progression was more extensive, subs grew. When it was cut or minimized, they stagnated or dropped (despite the fact that WoW has by far the largest social hooks in the genre due to its sheer size/popularity).

It’s also important to remember that not all players will reach your end-game. In EQ1, for example, most players never hit the cap back in the day. The vast majority of the community was in leveling mode, and that WAS the game. Yes, raiding and such was in the game, but it was a niche activity for the few capable of climbing the leveling mountain. Also important to note is that EQ1 expansions focused as much, if not more, on expanding the leveling game as they did on refreshing the end-game. Can the same be said for WoW expansions or the major content patches?

As a developer, it’s only natural that you will focus on the areas your players occupy, but that’s a vicious cycle. The faster you get players to the cap, the more will reach it. And taken at face value, it would be logical to assume that is where you should focus. It’s more difficult to step back and realize that, subconsciously, your players really enjoy the journey more than the destination. Raiding and other end-game activities being so cost-effective in terms of development also factor in; designing solid leveling content that will last is hard, throwing together another scripted dragon to be killed weekly is not.

Finally, a disaster like SW:TOR sets the genre back greatly because it’s a terrible example of attempting to create an interesting journey rather than a collection of end-game activities. For the clueless outsider looking in (and these are generally the people with money or the ones making the decisions, sadly), they will see that someone tried to create a great journey, failed miserable, and assume that creating said journey is the problem.

Luckily, we seem to be starting down a path where smaller, more focused products are finally being brought to the table, and their mark of success is not set to the impossible goal of WoW-killer. While certainly not all of them will succeed, they at least have a chance, which is better than the DOA expectations of titles like SW:TOR and their misguided 4th pillar or personal story.


Losing your mid-game

February 21, 2013

Apologies for the lack of content around here lately, I’m emulating the MMO genre…

I continue to play a bit of UO:F, and the server’s skill settings have once again confirmed something I’ve already had confirmed a million times before; increasing the pace of progression is bad. In UO:F most combat skills can be maxed in very short order, which in turn basically eliminates a major chunk of content and a phase of the game.

In the original, it was normal to start a character, spend some time fighting starter monsters (skeletons, zombies, animals, etc), train up a bit, and venture out into the mid-tier of ettins, orcs, and harpies. This phase generally lasted for a while, as maxing out a skill took time, and the longer you spent at popular farming spots, the higher your chances of a PK-based setback. On the other hand, the additional time also meant you got to know the other locals and potentially find a guild or group to play with. Your path to a great set of gear was also slower, and lower-tier magic items still held some value.

In UO:F, the mid-tier does not exist. In a single day you can go from skilling up on a skeleton to farming lichs. The ‘end-game’ consists of either spam-casting Energy Vortex to farm silly amount of gold, or taming/provoking dragons to do the farming for you. Dozens if not hundreds of locations that previously had mid-tier value are now useless as a result, and the social underpinnings of the mid-tier (both good and bad) are gone as well. Anything below the upper-tier magic items is ‘junk’.

UO:F still somewhat works because the game is not all character progression or loot-acquisition based, but that was a major piece. Building up a house or a clan village loses some of its value when you can get everything you could want in a week rather than months. In the past, those months always resulted in “other stuff” happening, and that in turn provided new content. Now, condensed into a week, you can easily just focus on your current task and complete it without interruption, which is not a good thing in the long-run (even though it feels rewarding short-term).

The above problem is very much an MMO-only issue, which is important to keep in mind. Skyrim allowing you to quickly progress through a single quest line is good, for instance, while having the same happen in an MMO would not be. And I’ve noticed that many players have troubling seeing this as well. At best, many only realize it AFTER they hit unsub.


UO Forever: More lessons

January 28, 2013

UO Forever has been a great time so far, both from just a pure gameplay perspective and as a refresher of sorts on how the MMO genre got started and the design decisions that worked.

I’ve covered combat already, as well as talking about the slower pace and why that’s important. Keen has a post about his enjoyment of crafting, which I think touches on some of these points as well.

Quick comment on the crafting aspect; as I said on vent, mining in UO ‘works’ because you are advancing towards something that matters to you, in a way you want to. You mine to get ore, to get ingots, to skill up smithing, to smith better items, to place those items on a vendor, and ultimately to make that vendor known and have people come to you to shop. This ultimately makes you good money, but also gives you a bit of fame, carves out your spot in the world, and opens other doors (shoppers become friends or guild members, the gold is used to fund bigger projects, the vendor traffic attracts other shopkeepers to your area of the world, etc).

In other MMOs, a ‘crafter’ is just a monster slayer that happens to dump gold into a side profession (usually at a huge loss), and the ‘fix’ that many have added is to get monster slaying experience from the art of crafting. “Level to the cap from crafting” should not be seen as a step forward, it should be seen as a slap in the face to crafters. Of course, when the result of crafting is being an anonymous listing on some global AH, who really cares?

Moving on, the skill gain rates on UOF are interesting. Combat skills go up very quickly. You can max out the basics in about 10 hours, and all but a few skills (magic resistance being the main one) shortly after that. Crafting skills on the other hand are very slow.

The fast skill gains, IMO, just shorten one area of the game and get you into another faster. Had they been slow, players would have spent more time fighting weaker creatures, all while farming less gold/items while they skill up. Eventually many would have reached the cap, and what is happening now would have happened then, but instead that early phase was basically non-existent. If UOF had a sub fee, that would be bad design from a business standpoint. Since it does not, it might just lead people to burn out quicker.

That said, just because you are able to get some skills to the cap does not mean you are ‘done’. Far from it. My current goal is to buy a house to place in our guild city. Originally this was going to be a basic house for about 65k, but the farming has gone well and along with a buddy, we have decided to go big and aim buy a two story for 150k. We are currently about 50k short of that goal.

And once we buy and place the house, it opens up some additional options for us. We will now have a base to PK out of. We will have a place to run a vendor from if we choose. And of course, we can’t leave it unfurnished, now can we?

By the time all of that’s done, who knows what other goals or options will pop up. Perhaps we will be in a guild war, or working to establish control of a particular dungeon. UO being a sandbox, the path is not pre-arranged and laid out for you to follow.

Finally, playing UOF reconfirms my belief that the reason UO retained subs for so long was because it’s a great game, not because it was the only MMO out (as if people didn’t have other gaming options back then…). It also confirms how massive of a mistake EA made when the trammeled it, and later butchered the IP with silly stuff like elves, ninjas, and whatever else is in the current paid version of the game. To think that UO could have been handled like EVE has been handled, expanded and enhanced while remaining true to its original design. Somehow I don’t think the genre would be quite as focuses on ‘personal stories’, instancing, or voice acting.

 


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