7 minutes in heaven, a month of hell

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’.

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in Combat Systems, EQ2, EVE Online, Guild Wars, MMO design, Rant, Rift, Ultima Online. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to 7 minutes in heaven, a month of hell

  1. There are other factors that play into mission running. Some of them are simple and easy, no matter what ship you fly. Some of them are hella hard unless you are fit right and do the right thing. (Worlds Collide anybody?) And if you totally over-fit you mission runner with faction gear, you may get a visit from somebody looking to gank you. And then there are the unwary or ballsy who run missions in low sec.

    And, in the end, missions and ratting and boring PVE stuff generates the seed ISK that drives the whole economy. Despite their reputation, EVE missions are tied into the whole game quite well.

  2. bhagpuss says:

    This all fine but aren’t we at the point now where these are just completely different types of games with completely different audiences? I know discussing this stuff is kind of the point of this and many other blogs, my own included, but it’s coming to be a whole lot of special-interest groups talking past each other.

    EVE is great for those that think EVE is great. GW2 ditto. Strengths or shortcomings in one are unlikely to have any impact on the players of the other any more than a rule-change in volleyball will impact basketball players, despite both being team games where you throw a large ball about on a court.

    It’ll be nice when the DF NDA drops and you can start telling us all those great stories like you used to do. Speaking of Darkfall, I saw this story on the BBC website today and my first thought on seeing the headline was…well you can guess.


    • SynCaine says:

      For GW2, this matters less as Anet knew from day one what they had and hence just sold a box. GW2 is as much an MMO as GW1, and I wish Anet had been consistent with that. I only bring them up because their insufferable PR and fans, for months, told everyone how GW2 fixed the MMO formula and was gods gift, and I got flames to hell and back when I said GW2 was meh from my time with it at PAX in 2010 (or 2011?).

      For a title like SW:TOR though, that expected to get and RETAIN 1m (later 500k) subs? Yea, I’d say the topic of retention is important.

      • bhagpuss says:

        As I’ve said a number of times in various places, my problem with GW2 is that its *too* good at holding my attention. I never wanted to play it exclusively but I’ve really played very little else since it launched and even making a real effort to play other MMOs I am still playing 30+ hours of GW2 a week and so is Mrs Bhagpuss.

        In WvW we’ve been playing alongside the same names week after week for months – scores of them. I do agree that WvW lacks focus and could be improved but at least on Yak’s Bend it has held a very committed audience for a good long time and the community there remains very solid.

        There definitely is a high level of churn in GW2 in general but the servers remain packed and busy. The buy-to-play structure means a lot of people drop out but come back whenever there’s something new, which is fairly often, but I see a lot of the same names every day that I was seeing back in September. The thing is, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. I expect to be playing GW2 for years, albeit not exclusively, and I think that’s the design strategy.

        Whether you call that an MMO is your call. These days everything’s an MMO, that’s the problem.

        • SynCaine says:

          But your captain opposite.

          If a game does not hold your attention, or you dislike certain content, that to me is a major indicator of something working for most MMO players.

          That you are still playing GW2 makes 100% sense to me.

  3. saucelah says:

    You would make better arguments if you stopped assuming that your experience, or even your guild’s (filled with MMO vets that prefer PvP and prefer to be at the leading edge), has anything to do with the general population of MMO gamers. Sometimes, reading you is like watching an NFL coach try to take over a Peewee team. You’re constantly shouting at the team that they do not understand how deep and complex the game can be. Well no shit, they haven’t spent as much time with it, and more than likely none of them will ever play at that level. Most of them aren’t even interested in playing at that level.

    I’m unemployed, which means the only requirement on my time is to spend a few hours finding ads to send resumes to. You’re not unemployed, so that’s 40 more hours at minimum I have to game in a week than you do. Yet you reached 80 in the first month and I only hit it in late November. You’re not hardcore casual; you’re just plain hardcore.

    I’ve been a hardcore sandbox player, and I’m sure I will be again. But that experience doesn’t apply at all to my time in theme parks. Nor do I think most theme park players have any intent or desire to get out of the games what I got out of SWG or even Glitch. There’s about as much in common between my motivation to play SWG and my motivation to play GW2 as there was between Tetris and Zelda.

    • SynCaine says:

      What general population? The ones not playing SW:TOR? The ones that continues to leave GW2? The ones that have not, since WoW, made any ‘general population’ MMO a success?

      This fictional, massive group of casual MMO players is just that, fictional. If they existed, casual MMOs would be raking in the money WoW-style. They aren’t. Not even close.

      • saucelah says:

        Sigh. I’m not a casual gamer. I still play only a fraction that you do. My experiences in sandboxes and the reasons and the ways people played those do not apply at all to my experiences in theme parks.

        My main point was not there is a mass of casual gamers, but that you base your opinion and are exposed almost exclusively to the experiences of people that are so deep into the hardcore bell-curve that you’ve expanded your definition of casual to describe . . . gamers. Not hardcore, not casual, just normal gamers.

        This is much of the “talking past” each other that bhagpuss mentioned. No, your experience is not one that you can generalize to most gamers. Most MMO players do not dedicate 5 hour blocks of time several days a week. This does not make them casual. It makes you unusual.

        There’s nothing wrong with that. But it does make your hyperbole a bit of an eyeroller and takes away from the actual insights you have.

        • SynCaine says:

          But where in the post am I asking for 5 hour blocks? Where in the post do I even talk about how much I play? Do you really think hitting 80 in GW2 in a month is some hardcore minority feat?

          My topic is MMO gaming. That right there defines a certain type of player. The type that is going to stick to something for months if not years. The type that buys into the social fabric as much as they do the gameplay. The type that seeks these games out in part BECAUSE of the social aspect, be it direct or indirect.

          If the above does not apply, we are not talking the same crowd. And I don’t care about the other crowd when the topic is MMO gaming, because that other crowd does not count. They don’t stick around to support games, and games aimed at them have a very proven track record of failure. (That suits are stupid and keep trying is what it is)

          You won’t fix the other crowd. You can fix your game to attract the right type of people to make you successful. That is the point here.

        • saucelah says:

          I do not turn off my memory and read each of your blog entries in a vacuum, nor did I begin reading your blog today. You have a whole entry about dedicating 5 hour blocks. That’s just plain unusual.

          Yeah, you’re still not accounting for people like me, or others that read this blog. Wilhelm comes to mind. We play theme parks like Rift or GW2, we play them with our social groups from other games, and we play them for long periods of time.

          GW2 and Rift both work great for that and are doing just fine marketing to us. The social aspects are fine because we’re not looking to meet people or expand our guilds. We’re looking to game with our friends in a persistent world while goofing on ventrillo or mumble or skype. We’re looking for one gaming session to have an effect on the next, even if it’s just steady progression, and we’re looking to do it in an RPG environment.

          Of course, we all met in Glitch and stayed there over a year. I’m not saying you’re wrong. What I am saying is that your hyperbole detracts from that statement. Points like “GW2 is only good for a few weeks” are just clearly not a common experience. It seems to be something I only hear from people deep into the hardcore curve. Like yourself.

          So I guess my point is that if you’re trying to be convincing, generalizing your experience as common makes you less so. If you don’t actually want anyone to accept your arguments and are, essentially, trolling but sincere, then carry on. But having an effect on gamers who continuously embrace games that do not retain them would require actually speaking to their experiences rather than denying them.

        • Xyloxan says:

          I have no clue what saucelah is complaining about regarding this blog entry. Complaining that SynCaine is not a “typical gamer” or that he is opinionated? That’s why I read his blog!

          A bad hair day or something, saucelah? Have an axe to grind?

    • Mekhios says:

      So you are criticising Syncaine for writing personal opinions on his own blog? ;)

  4. spinks says:

    You’ll never know how much better EVE would be doing if the missions were just that bit more engaging because you don’t know how many people were turned off who might have gotten really into the game if they’d been around long enough to meet others/join a corps.

    • SynCaine says:

      Maybe. Or maybe they are made ‘more engaging’ and drive people off long-term, like most of today’s MMO content.

      (I get that they could be made better. My point is I wish other MMOs had content AS GOOD as EVE. EVE has already risen the bar far above what others are capable of as is.)

      • saucelah says:

        I would quibble and say that Eve has mechanics that are better than that in other games, but not content. Player-driven/created content is still content. But the content itself is not inherently part of the game. In some strange hypothetical in which CCP banned all current players, the content would be gone. New player-driven content would replace it, but that content is a function of the community and the game mechanics.

        I do think it is the better way to design in general, however, and not just for retention. Mechanics do trump content. I’d really love to play the Game of Thrones RPG, but the combat is ridiculous and terrible, so even my love for the IP did not drive me on.

        • Mekhios says:

          EVE is a special case though and thrives because of its sandbox content. The concept of risk and reward is woven into the fabric of the game and all of the game systems are tied into each other (except for PI in its current form).

          An example. I lose a strip miner to a player pirate, have to buy a replacement next day, someone plays the market selling miners, and I mine the ore which will end up on that market which strangely enough may in part be used to build my replacement miner or combat ship to hunt the pirate that killed me in the first place. And this is just the most basic example.

          I will also argue though there is a large contingent of players who hate PvP and avoid games like EVE. They are just as valid an MMO customer as any other.

      • spinks says:

        Yeah, I don’t disagree with you on the longterm content, and that some people just aren’t suited to MMOs But the shortterm intro play needs to be interesting enough (or at least show you enough of what you can expect later) to draw people in so they can find out if they are MMO type players..

    • I am sure that argument was used to push the NGE in Star Wars Galaxies as well. SOE never knew how many more subscribers it would pull in until they implemented it.

      If you had said we would never know how much *different* EVE would be, I might be with you. But the presumption that missions could be made more engaging in a reasonable way (And what does “engaging” really mean? Should they add voice acting? A more difficult AI? A larger variety of objectives?) and that such a change would automatically make EVE *better* seems a bit… well… presumptive.

      Besides which, actually discovering how to fully exploit and profit from even very simple missions is a voyage of discovery in and of itself. You might have to shoot the bad guy, loot the wrecks, salvage the wrecks, and mine some rare asteroids to get it all. And what do you do with all of that, since you cannot just vendor things? You have to use the market. And you may find that some loot is oddly valuable, like a special tag that happens to open up a special area in a different mission. Only the tag doesn’t say anything about it in the description.

      Anyway, engaging is in the eye of the beholder, so when you say something could be better, you might just be saying it could be better for you.

      • spinks says:

        It could definitely be better for me. So I’m just assuming there are other people who tried them, thought they were dull and didn’t stick around. Syn even says they’re boring as hell so I’m assuming he thinks so too.

        Some of it has to be boring because that is key to the game, like the travel time. Some of it could definitely be improved without really affecting gameplay like the UI (and chat window). But yeah, I would think if a piece of gameplay is unnecessarily dull AND you are relying on it to hook in new players, it’s worth a look.

        • Honestly, you can objectively “prove” everything in EVE is boring as hell. I don’t think there is a thing I have done in EVE that somebody has called boring. And I cannot refute those claims in any way because, objectively, I have to admit that they certainly do sound boring.

          But you know what else is objectively boring? Most quests in WoW. Running off and killing 30 whatevers for Hemet Nessingwary in Nagrand is verifiably boring. Yet I and a lot of other people did that not just once, but through all nine versions of the same damn quest, plus the named versions at the end as well. I have the achievement to prove it. I bet you do to.

          And don’t get me started on EverQuest or MUDs.

          Why did we do that? Because we were engaged with the environment and the story and progression of our avatars and what was going on around us and the social interaction which it brings.

          I am one of those people that find EVE amazing just because… well… internet spaceships! So I enjoyed doing missions… and I enjoy flying in thousand person null sec fleet engagements. Both, objectively, boring as hell. I have a blog devoted entirely to pictures of EVE. Pictures of a boring game.

          If you don’t find the environment and the progression mechanisms and the social interaction engaging, I don’t think it matters how spiffed up it gets, it probably just wasn’t meant to be. And twisting things around ala the NGE to attract the customers you don’t have reminds me of a saying about a bird in the hand.

          And this does not mean I do not think EVE cannot be improved. But CCP is doing that all the time. I was trolling you a bit when I mentioned AI and mission objectives. Both of those have been changed and expanded a lot since I started playing. You dodged my trap!

          But saying missions clearly need to be fixed to make them less boring to somebody who does not find the game engaging enough to stick with it does set off NGE alarms in my head.

        • spinks says:

          You’re still trolling me because you’re ignoring that Syncaine also said he thought they were dull :)

        • SynCaine says:

          I did, but I did not say I would change them.

          Mining is duller than missions, and I think its great just the way it is.

          Are parts of EVE boring? Yup. Is EVE overall boring? Nope (IMO and the opinion of one other guy with 450k accounts that uses PLEX to pay for them so he plays for free, of course).

        • If I am ignoring SynCaine, you aren’t the one I am trolling.

          Plus what he said.

          Plus, I am not sure how you could make missions more interesting in general (there are, in my opinion, a wide range of missions, dull to quite gripping) without getting into game mechanics that impact other parts of the game which is an industrial size can of toxic fire breathing radiation worms. And they can write forum posts.

          Missions have their place in the game. Some people get to a point where they can move beyond them. Once you learn the mechanics, get a bit of ISK, and earn some reputation, you can get on to other things. Some people run them for their whole career, some on purpose and some because they don’t know they can stop. EVE isn’t good about telling you what you should do.

  5. Sorry, I’ve read this post several times and I’m not convinced that simplistic combat makes for better retention in MMOs.

    If WoW is the exception, then so is EvE.

    What we’re left with, after removing the two games, is a range of MMOs with various levels of complexity and different sized audiences that tend towards the WoW model more than the EvE model.

    Combat with depth isn’t the only factor that aids in retaining players, but it can help.

    • SynCaine says:

      WoW combat original was pretty simple too. Remember the original UI had a single hotbar. And the industry trend right now, between WoW and GW2, is to simplify away from what EQ2 made famous.

      But no, simple combat is not the sole factor. Nothing is.

  6. Ettesiun says:

    Great, for the first time, Tobold and Syncaine agree ! They both prefer simplistic combat where the depth is not from the multiple skills option or quickness to react, but from tactic or strategy !
    And I agree with you, GW2 combat is still a bit too complex – and lack depth ! Elementalist is the worst !

    This is not the first time you say that, but why do you hate so much Invuln-rollign of GW2 ? It could have been better with the ability to just avoid the damage if correctly placed, but you seems to totally hate it.

    • SynCaine says:

      Dodging in GW2 is a lie. You don’t actually dodge; you become invulnerable while the dodge animation plays. If the animation was changed to a WoW Pali bubble, it would have the same effect.

      A real dodge would take into consideration what is happening WHILE you dodge. So dodging from one end of a fire pit to the other would still hurt. Or dodging backwards from a bolt attack would still cause the bolt to connect.

      Also dodge in GW2 gives the illusion of aiming, but the combat system is tab-target. You can’t dodge anything in GW2. You can move out of an AOE like in all other themeparks, or you can bubble yourself to go invuln. The first is nothing new, the second has been done and is cheesy.

      • Shiolle says:

        That is actually not entirely true. While rolling indeed makes attacks miss you for a brief while, you can also dodge at least ranged attacks by regular movement. That said most projectiles travel rather fast, so you need some range to perform it, or at least a good connection.

  7. Lyss says:

    Its the same combat mechanic like everywhere else, made annoying due to the fact that you have to roll like a whacko everyonce in a while. Its no meat nor fish.

    You cant just stand there and play halfmeditating because then you will die, on the other hand you will be bored to tears if you concentrate on the combat because more then a roll you cant do.

    Its the annoying parts of both worlds, the boredom of stand and use abilities combat without the ableness to halfass it, and the need to concentrate on what you do without any tactical advantage. its horrible.

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