Sandbox end-game: Why keep playing long-term?

July 21, 2014

Let’s talk PvP sandbox MMO end-game today.

One of my outstanding questions from the whole Warhammer Online saga is in a perfect world, what was the end-game for that MMO? I mean we know it was to raid the other faction’s capital city and sack it, but was that it? If it was, in that perfect world, how many times could the players repeat that activity before getting bored? And if there was something greater, did Mark Jacobs or anyone from Mythic ever talk about it?

Darkfall has a similar problem, where the end-game is territory control, but due to a broken economy and the overall trivial nature of acquiring gear, no one really needs or desperately wants holdings, and the fights that result over them are thinly disguised “fights for the sake of fighting”. The criticism that the game is an awkward oversized arena stems from this general lack of greater purpose.

Finally EVE, as usual, is the best example in the genre in terms of end-game, as null-sec has value and giant organizations via to control it. The current ‘crisis’ is that 2-3 groups control it too well, and the barrier of entry for anyone outside of those 2-3 groups is practically impossible to overcome (short of those established groups imploding and creating a vacuum of power). EVE also benefits here because it has other end-games, though most revolve around the acquisition and use of money.

End-game is one of the issues I thought about when writing up my PvE Sandbox posts, and my solution is rather than relying on the players to create ‘content’ by fighting each other, the game world itself would drive players into action by having mobs attacking their holdings, and for the world overall to be in flux based on player actions and success. This would be further sustainable with AI tweaks or mob changes; whenever the players would get too comfortable with the challenges facing them, whenever they got too good at fighting back the mobs, the devs could step in and alter things to keep it interesting.

Looking forward to some future MMOs like Camelot Unchained and Pathfinder, what are the true end-games for those titles? Both have territory control mechanics, but will they have the depth and detail of EVE to avoid the problems currently facing Darkfall’s end-game? Will either bring something new, interesting, and sustainable to the table to keep players happily playing/paying?


Re-confirmed: I’m kind of a big deal

July 9, 2014

Knowing how many ‘real people’ readers a blog has, much less how much influence a writer has on his readers, is almost impossible to tell. WordPress provides view/visitor statistics of course, but based on personal experience those numbers aren’t 100% accurate (or even close, really). Not only that, but at this point I’m not even sure if they are inaccurately inflated or under-reported for this blog, as a few recent events have hinted at.

Let’s take a step back; as anyone who reads this blog has noticed, post volume is down, mostly because the MMO genre is in the toilet right now and this being an MMO blog, that has an impact. And it goes deeper than just the current crop of MMOs being meh-to-terrible; they also bring nothing new to the table, which further makes it difficult to break things down and write a blog post. For all its failings, at least Warhammer Online brought new ideas, and had a dev team behind it giving us plenty of fodder. It ultimately didn’t work out for Mythic, but it was blogging gold.

In addition to needing a good MMO to play, I’d also like another WAR in terms of blog fodder please.

From a pure “looking at my numbers” perspective, the shutting down of Google reader was noticeable, and my WordPress stats page reflects this. To a lesser extent, VirginWorlds no longer picking up my blog (along with no longer really working overall) hurt. Jester not blogging has an impact as well. But again, while the raw numbers are down, how many ‘real people’ readers have stopped coming here is tough to tell. I’d like to think that if you are a real person, and you enjoy reading this blog, the shutting down of a reader, or another blog no longer updating, isn’t going to instantly stop you from figuring out how to keep reading this blog, right?

Number of comments is another indicator, but again it gets tricky. I mean, I’m pretty sure I could write a comment-bait post tomorrow (spoiler-alert) and get north of 30 comments. If the comment-bait is really good, and gets picked up by some larger sites, 50+ comments would happen. Get a good comment-section flame-war going, and 100+ is ‘achieved’. But what does 30, 50, or even 100 comments mean, especially when they were somewhat baited or 80% of them are off-topic flames? Does a post getting one person to comment mean that post sucked and this blog is dead/dying, or did thousands of people read it, enjoy it, and just have nothing to add so they didn’t comment? These are the kinds of questions that keep me up at night (not really).

Let’s return to those recent events I mentioned in the first paragraph. The first is my Clash of Clans… clan. Those posts didn’t get a lot of comments, and traffic was normal, so it would be easy to assume not many found them all that interesting or were ‘influenced’ by them. Yet today, I think I’ve had 10+ people join the clan (“Supreme Cream!”, still time to join and we are building something pretty solid), many of them new players to the game who picked it up due to this blog. How many others at least tried the game due to those posts and just didn’t enjoy it? How many are playing, just slowly, so they haven’t joined the clan yet (or joined someone else because they are jerks like that)?

The second example is Risen, another post with very few comments, and Steam. On Steam my friends list has grown tremendously due to mentioning my screen name (Syncaine) on this blog and asking people for Steam cards (feel free to send some), which has resulted in getting a better feel for what “the people” are doing on Steam thanks to the “Activity” section.

As mentioned Risen was on sale recently due to the pre-order coming up for Risen 3, and thanks to the “Activity” tab I noticed a bunch of people picked the Risen 1+2 bundle up. Now I don’t know how many of those buys are due to this blog and how many of them would have happened anyway, but I’d bet at least SOME are blog-based, which is pretty cool and says something about influence.

Lastly, and the example with by far the most data, was my time blogging about Darkfall 1 and including the Community Publishing Program link/mention in every post. The CPP was basically a referral system that paid me 20% (I think?) of the initial purchase made using my link, so when AV was running a promo for the game+6months for $100, I got $20 per person who bought that bundle. I wish I had gotten 20% of all future sub fees, if only to track how long people stuck with the game, but sadly it didn’t work that way.

Through the CPP I got credited with hundreds of purchases (and I know for a fact I didn’t get credit with all purchases made due to technical issues sometimes), and AV would later confirm that I was by far the most successful CPP user. This blog, literally, made AV thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars, and unlike Clash of Clans that rakes in millions daily, for AV my contribution was actually very noticeable to the company overall. More importantly to me however was seeing confirmation that this blog was influencing people to the point of spending real money on something they would have otherwise passed on.

Examples like the above making writing the blog easier, because it confirms ‘real people’ are reading and not every view is some spam-bot finding its way here thanks to Google. This blog’s main purpose is to entertain #1 (me), but that can’t happen without all of the little people (you) showing up, so thank you dear reader, and keep dancing on those strings (and sending Steam cards).


EVE: CCP you are the worst, besides everyone else

February 7, 2014

Jester has, as always, a great post up about the reaction to the real life EVE monument CCP recently unveiled, which as his post shows, has largely been negative. EVE is famous for having lots of bitter vets, and as the only MMO to still be growing after more than a decade, many of those players truly are vets, and truly are bitter.

His post however reminded me how good EVE players have it compared to everyone else. For example take this complaint:

I think this boring and featureless statue symbolize EVE expansions.

EVE receives two free expansions every year, plus point releases between those expansions that do more for the game than what some MMOs call expansions they charge you for. Oh how I wish DF:UW got such ‘boring and featureless’ expansions. Hell, I’d take just one, or even half.

Doom and gloom fills every MMO forum. It’s what players do. The happy ones are playing, the unhappy are posting, regardless if your game is a dumpster like SW:TOR or the blueprint like EVE. That said, EVE players should take a step back once in a while and look around the genre. You really wouldn’t trade CCP for anyone else. Not the interns who gave us space goats and pandas. Not the wing factory of monthly embarrassments and flip-flopping. Not someone who burns $300m on a pillar of trash and sells you hotbars. Not the authors of the manifesto of lies. Not the ad-spam One-Ring sellers. Not the fools in white shades, or the ones to put a bullet in the head of an MMO shortly after release.

Be glad CCP runs EVE. It could be a lot, lot worse.


Pathfinder Online: What 1.9m gets you

February 6, 2014

The latest dev blog from Goblinworks, makers of the upcoming Pathfinder Online (currently holder of the very distinguished “Next sandbox MMO least likely to suck” award) talks money, specifically that they spent 1.9m in 2013.

Numbers are fun, especially once this game is released and we see just what 1.9m in a year really gets you. We know what 300m+ from EA gets us (Tortanic), we know 38 Studios wasn’t able to create much of anything with a giant pile of (Rhode Island’s) money, we know the relative cost of WAR, and now we will see what happens here and with the slew of other Kickstarter MMOs.

Side note: The screenshots in the dev blog look refreshing, in that the world won’t be a neon crapland of ‘magic’. The closer someone comes to making a game that looks and feels like a Mount and Blade Online game, the better.

 


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.


All in

October 14, 2013

One point I didn’t see made when we were talking about Warhammer Online (notably I read about 3 blogs about it, so if I missed this someone post a link); I think it was the last MMO to launch where basically ‘everyone’ was playing day one.

I’ll get into this more when I get around to finishing the future of MMOs post I’m working on, but just wanted to throw this point out today because I think it’s significant enough to warrant its own post. Considering how big the social aspect is in MMOs, a title getting ‘everyone’ excited to play is a big deal, and makes things a lot more fun. Mythic did that with WAR, even if half of it was lies (bears bears bears and all that).


Someone should say something about WAR

September 26, 2013

As you might have heard, Warhammer Online is shutting down. TAGN has a post that links to many others; use that if you still need a background or more opinions.

There is a lot that can be (and has been) said about WAR today, which I think itself says something about the game and its impact. Compare WAR to Aion for example, is anyone writing anything about Aion? If it shut down tomorrow, how many “End of Aion” posts would people create, and at what depth/feeling? WAR not only created an insane amount of hype pre-release, it also generated a lot of emotion post-release, and I fully include myself in all of that.

For starters I love the Warhammer IP, so much that it very well could be my favorite IP all around. It works great for the tabletop game, and it should have translated so well into MMO form. The world is huge, every area has a rich history, and rivalries and alliances between the various sides can be logically (in a world with fire-breathing dragons logic) explained.

In much the same way Ultima Online had something extra special because it was the Ultima on top of a great game, WAR should have been special because it was in a world I’ve long wanted to just live in.

WAR is also an MMO my wife really enjoyed, playing it long enough to reach the level cap and do some group content. In particular she liked PQs, to the point of not really enjoying GW2 in part because of the differences between their PQ implementation (less transparency) compared to WAR.

I think WAR’s PvE was underrated (early dungeon content aside, Wilhelm!). Had WAR delivered fully on the PvP, I think more people would have appreciated how the PvE blended into the zones (especially the early zones) and what a nice change of pace it was. I’m not saying it was amazing, but again, had WAR been a solid PvP MMO with PvE, the PvE would not have been judged as inadequate.

Like so many MMOs after it, WAR’s biggest issue is it tried to be everything to everyone, and ended up not retaining anyone. It contained countless design flaws, from the hard-locked two-sided conflict, the inclusion of instanced PvP, and the end-game being a total mess, but its biggest flaw was that Mythic didn’t simply attempt to create a PvP MMO. They tried to create what they thought was a better WoW to compete with WoW, and utterly failed.


EQN: Leading off with your best

August 6, 2013

When someone states their MMO is doing something different from everyone else, which of the following innovations would you rather see:

WAR’s Public Quests, changing how you go about getting into a group to do group content.

Or

EQN’s “parkour”, adding an animation for going over (certain) rocks?

If you think the above example is silly and unfair, I agree, but I’m not the one in charge of putting together the agenda for the big EQN reveal, and that was one of the first items emphasized. Right after lighting, lighting, lighting, and lighting (which, btw, looked average at best, and won’t have any impact on gameplay, unlike say the lighting in Darkfall or Skyrim where shadows actually matter).

I bring this up not just to mock SOE, but to emphasis a point about “advancing the genre”. You don’t do that with fluff, which parkour very much is. You also don’t do it by fully voicing your quests, which is why SW:TOR was easy to declare DOA in 2010. When your big selling point is garbage, it’s not because you are hiding the really good stuff for later, it’s because everything else is even worse garbage.

Now yes, there was more substance to the EQN showing than JUST parkour, but apply the test; was anything else shown something that will have the impact of even WAR’s PQs? (Which is not a high bar, just one simple example) And if you come away with anything in the ‘Yes’ column, will any of those ideas actually work as fun MMO gameplay? A crazy new idea is still garbage if ultimately it’s not fun or outright fails.

Predicting when a new idea that impacts gameplay is going to work can be tricky. Identifying fluff garbage pitched as advancing the genre is easy, as is the reason why someone would present that over solid ideas or innovation.


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.


Going small

April 2, 2013

Edit: Camelot Unchained kickstarter is live today, which is relevant to today’s topic. I’ve not donated yet, but more on that in a different post.

After the WAR bubble burst, one of the many complaints was a lack of population in the RvR areas and PQs. Many attributed this to the general decline in the number of players playing overall. Pushing that line of thinking further, many believe you need hundreds of thousands of players AT LEAST to make a game feel populated and ‘alive’.

That’s horribly wrong.

For WAR, the game’s poor design lead to the feeling of under population. Unless you were part of the initial population surge through the leveling game, most areas felt empty, and RvR battles were non-existent. This would have been the case had WAR retained 1m subs, 500k, or 100k.

On top of those poor design decisions, WAR’s population was always spread across multiple servers. Some retained population well, while others were ghost towns from basically day one. If you happened to pick such a server, you got screwed. And as the population overall started to decline, more and more servers dropped below ‘critical mass’.

How many players do you need on a server for things to feel alive? In Ultime Online: Forever, the concurrent population often hovered around 300 (I believe), and yet the game felt lively. Some of this is due to UO’s design, which on most fronts is simply superior to themeparks, WAR included. But design aside, you really don’t need that many people to give the world a lively feel.

The reason we had not seen MMOs with only one ‘normal’ server (EVE is different, as always) in the past was due to cost. The theory was that MMOs had to be very expensive to produce, and so you needed to attract a lot of people to make any money. As many games have shown recently, and will in the coming years, that theory was about as accurate as the 4th pillar being a core value in an MMO.

This is a huge win for MMO fans for a number of reasons. We get away from the cookie-cutter “MMO for everyone” WoW-clone design. We get MMOs that are more targeted, be they PvP-focused or otherwise. We also get MMOs that (hopefully) won’ succumb to chasing the ‘everyone’ crowd later on and watering down things for the core that is actually playing.

At least, that’s hopefully the trend something like Kickstarter can help start. We’ll see if devs and players alike actually see it through.


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