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.

 


UO Forever: Death by dragonfire

January 22, 2013

While Aventurine continues to uphold the DF:UW NDA, and :stuff:, I’ve decided to entertain myself with a bit of UO:F, joining up with Keen and his crew. So far it’s been very enjoyable overall, and also leads to one amusing story.

Just north of Britain there is the ever-popular dungeon Despise. It’s a good spot to farm some gold and the odd magic item, and it’s where I’ve spent the majority of my time in-game so far. The ettins and trolls found on floors 2 and 3 are very doable solo and drop a nice amount of gold, while killing deep earth elementals in a duo lands you a very nice 600-700 gold.

It was in this duo setup that a rather… amusing thing happened. Deep inside the third level there is a glowing portal. I had seen it before, but did not enter. With my friend along, I figured now would be a good time. My character is not ‘done’, but he has a few skills to 100, with other in the 60s or 80s, and I was wearing full plate while wielding a magic hally.

As soon as I entered the portal I knew I was in trouble. For starters, you are in agro range of not only a dragon, but a special ‘boss mob’ dragon as well. In addition, this portal was a one-way trip. Needless to say, I lasted for all of a few seconds before the welcome embrace of black-screen death took me, and I was standing inside a new dungeon as a ghost.

Just to provide further proof of my silly actions, as I made my way out of the dungeon in ghost form, I passed multiple dragons and other major creatures; all which would have surely seen to my end had the original two mobs not been so quick.

And because this is UO, all of my items were left on my corpse; a corpse that would not be recovered. Furthermore, instead of an instant portal to some graveyard, I was left to find my way out in ghost form. And when I finally did get a rez from a wandering healer, I was quickly dispatched a few minutes later by some random mob. Back in ghost form, I finally made my way to a town, got rezzed again, and spent about 30 minutes and 3000 gold to get myself back into fighting form.

All of this happened while my friend was laughing at my misfortune on vent. He was smart enough to wait for my initial reaction rather than jump right into the portal, and lived. And during my stumble back to town in ghost form, we talked about how quickly such an experience would be ‘fixed’ in modern MMOs. How someone would be quick to point out how ‘unfun’ such a trap is, and how during their ‘casual’ playtime, they can’t afford to not make progress. How such a ‘harsh’ experience has no place among the masses.

And it’s probably true. Far too many players are absolutely risk-averse, can’t deal with setbacks, and will only sign up if they are promised rainbows and lollipops just for showing up. It’s also here where having a strong dev team with solid vision comes into play, because while I do believe most players don’t believe they want this kind of experience, I am fully convinced such experiences are what make an MMO great, and make you stick with a game. They are memorable, make you work harder, and give you something to come back to and hopefully get your revenge. And if they do/did cause you to rage-quit, you would have anyway over something else. Knowing who is NOT your target audience is just as important as knowing who is when it comes to designing an MMO.


MMO housing IS gameplay

January 17, 2013

And yes, I’ve heard the Ultima Online house analogy. But until I can plant a flower box outside my POS, I don’t buy it. EVE ain’t Minecraft.

Going to pick on Jester a bit in this post. I say pick on because while Jester is extremely knowledgeable about EVE (and writes the best blog about it), his overall MMO experience is somewhat limited, and I’m 99% sure he did not play UO and experience its housing.

So with that said, flowers did not make UO housing. Not even a little bit. And ‘flowers’ would not be what would make EVE’s POS revamp. ‘Flower’ housing systems, like what LotRO has, suck. They are pointless, vapid wastes of instances space. That type of housing has zero gameplay. But that’s not what UO had.

The reason housing in UO was amazing gameplay was because it centralized you in a huge world. Without a house, you lived out of an NPC city, and those cities were not ‘yours’. As soon as you had a house, that was YOUR spot. Everything around you was important, because it was connected to YOUR spot in the world. That alone is perhaps the biggest retention ‘hook’ in the genre.

But housing in UO went further than just claiming land. It also opened up options such as running a vendor, or a crafting station near a mine, or just being a guild house for everyone to store items in and work out of. Each of those avenues further branched out. Once you start running a vendor, you care a lot more about the economy, and what items are worth. Or you go into crafting to ensure supply. Or you make connections to a crafting guild to work out a deal.

Point being, a house is the central point of the giant spiderweb we call sandbox content, and it’s a damn crime so many MMOs do it so poorly or don’t even do it at all.

Returning back to EVE, running a POS is painful. Really, really painful. No one likes it, very few tolerate it. Yet even in the sludge that is the current system, you have some interesting gameplay. Jester himself covers one example here.

Now imagine if CCP removed the sludge of the horrible UI you have to use to place POS guns, or the mishmash that is placing refineries and hangers. Designing a house/POS should be fun, like it is in UO. It should allow talented individuals to do something like the deathstar, but to the degree EVE lets you do things (think EVE market manipulation vs WoW kiddie pool economy).

And if newish players are given the chance to jump in and setup a small home, how many new players does that bring in? What kind of splash would a video showing the creation of a great looking and function POS make in the media? Hell, new players often struggle to define a ‘why’ in EVE; and building/growing your POS could be just the ticket. Reach a certain size, and the game should naturally encourage you to branch out, socialize, and work with others to continue on, much like UO subconsciously did way back in 1997. Again, the problem has been solved. The solution has simply been forgotten and drowned out in WoW-clone me-too trash design.


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’.


Lessons from the past: MMO combat

January 14, 2013

Keen alerted me to a private version/server of Ultima Online, and due to extreme boredom I grabbed the client and messed around a bit. I have no intention of fully returning to UO, because to really get to the good stuff of UO I would have to invest more time than I want to, but even just spending a few hours with the game, it amazes me how far the genre has fallen. UO’s original version still, to this day, does so many things BETTER than many modern MMOs.

For this post I want to just focus on combat.

Combat in UO is very simple, especially melee. You move next to a mob, double-click to start swinging, and that’s it. Once the mob is low it tries to run away slowly, and you just follow it and keep whacking. Compared to the 60 abilities on a hotbar that some games have, it’s night and day. And yet I find combat in UO more satisfying than any themepark, including the most recent GW2 (invuln-roll faceroll, yay…).

First, the pace allows you to actually watch and enjoy what is happening, rather than watching your hotbar spin cooldowns. Now sure, UO is not exactly a looker, so what you are left watching is 2-3 animation frames of an attack and crude blood splatters, but yea, still better than a hotbar. And in UO, watching your surroundings is very important for many reasons.

And while 1-on-1 combat is simplistic, in all but the easiest examples, drawing agro correctly and getting a mob into the right spot is more than half the battle, and for that using the environment is critical. UO-does-it-better example two; the environments and their impact on combat.

In many/most themeparks, where you are fighting only matters in terms of the color pallet or other non-gameplay visuals. A ‘dungeon’ fight is the same as a fight in the forest or a cave, save for pre-scripting “hide behind the obvious pillar” gimmicks of a boss. In UO a tight corridor fight is 100% different than out in the open. A location with many mobs is very different than one with only a few, and again not in the pre-scripted “this is an obvious bring CC situation”.

The value of a farming spot has just as much to do with its actual location (the layout, proximity to other points of interest, player traffic) as it does with the mobs or the quality of the loot. How different would themepark raiding be if the decision of ‘where’ was based on ANYTHING other than “we need the purple shiny from X”? It’s just one factor of many that change a game from an on-rails journey to living in a virtual world, but these are the lessons that today’s MMO devs have almost all but forgotten, or don’t have the ability to recreate successfully.

Magic and ranged combat add some complexity to combat in UO, but even then it’s still nothing like hotbar spamming. Magic becomes a resource management game that is deeper than “spam until empty, wait a second, spam more”, while also adding in the cost of reagents. Just because you could take a mob down quickly with multiple flamestrikes does not mean you do it; if you spend almost as much gold on reagents to kill something, that’s not exactly efficient farming.

Group farming has its own layer of complexity that I won’t cover here, save to say it’s not as simple as “more dps, faster kills, go go go”.

And of course all of these factors are in a mix that includes open world PvP. So being able to beat a mob but just barely is dangerous. Farming for a long time has added risks. Farming a popular or highly-efficient spot is not “the best choice” based solely on gold/hr like it is in PvE games.

But even with PvP removed from the equation, the simplistic combat in UO trumps more modern systems in the most important area for an MMO; replayability. The ‘burnout’ rate is much lower, because the point is not to simply master (Google) a skill rotation, or cap-out and get BiS gear, or ‘finish’ some personal story.

No, getting better at combat in UO is simply a tool; one that allows you to reach your next goal (a house, a PvP rep, control of an area) faster or more efficiently. And as you get better, the tiny details become clearer, and mastering those is truly an art, one that requires some serious buy-in.

Assuming, of course, you decide to focus on combat. In UO, and any good sandbox, that is but one path to success. And way back in 1997, UO got that path right.

Looking at it in the context of 2013 and the current state of the MMO genre and its combat, UO got it scary-right.


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