EQN – Player freedom is too scary for most

The most interesting topic around right now is how a living ecosystem or smart AI could actually work in an MMO. Now, before you go ahead and comment “but SynCaine, you already told us how it would work in 2011”, the post today will go into a bit more detail, as well as cover some “what not to do” aspects.

At a high level, letting your players determine how an MMO goes forward is a very scary thing for most companies. If you give the players a chance to save the world, and they fail (intentionally or not), assuming failing has a real consequence (which it must if the chance was ‘real’ to begin with), are you ready to face the backlash of a destroyed world and what it could do to your player base?

Most companies are not. The ‘fail’ state is often just a delay, and sometimes players STILL get rewards.

EVE is one of if not the most ‘sandbox’ MMO out right now. CCP gives the players great freedom to manipulate the economy, determine territory control, and fight/harass each other. But that freedom can also result in things like Burn Jita, where the Goons decide they are going to shut down the biggest market hub in the game and kill anyone near it, simply because they can. Would Blizzard ever let players do that? Will SOE in EQN?

The comical part of the above is an event like Burn Jita most likely gets CCP more subs than it costs them, because EVE gets a ton of free marketing out of the great player stories it creates, even if those stories result in some players un-subbing because of them. The willingness to let the players sort themselves out is something most companies are missing, because it’s scary, and the genre has a history of that ending poorly (Shadowbane and its infamous “play to crush”, where the players did just that to the game). But those poor results are not because the players are jerks, but because of poor design. SB failed not because the players choked every server, but because the design allowed and encouraged them to do so.

A living ecosystem and mobs actually roaming/reacting is exactly a test of this; how much control are you going to give the players? Are the players driving the game, or are they simply answering the occasional yes/no question along a pre-set dev storyboard?

The EQN example of a tent city becoming something more smacks of yes/no storyboarding. Why is ‘phase 2’ attacks from an underground cave? Are the devs just predicting players will dig, or is phase 1 of the PQ a digging event that just walks the players to phase 2? Much like GW2 and its ‘living’ zones, I suspect EQN will play it very safe, and rather than a living world, we will simply see a series of pre-planned dev events that players progress through. And just like in GW2, it will feel fake and pointless once you have seen the ride once. The big selling point SOE made was that their PQ takes 2-3 months, and once completed goes away. Neat, sure, but not all that different from the on-rails scripted content of every other themepark.

The mob AI is the same thing. Can the players truly hunt creatures out, or will hunting them simply trigger phase 2 of the cycle? The cycle approach seen in GW2 is again easy and safe, and not just for the devs, but the players as well. How much frustration would the average GW2 player experience if they headed to their favorite farming zone after work only to see that everything has been wiped out and migrated to the other side of the world (let’s pretend GW2 has meaningful travel and not teleporting all over)?

In GW2 that can’t happen, because the devs played it safe. In EVE it can.

If you live in a wormhole, your sleeper sites can be run by visitors, and given the respawn timer and mechanics, this could result in your home being devoid of PvE content for hours if not days (if you get camped or the visitors cycle correctly). This temporary extinction is also noticeable to the players because it happened in a space they care about (their home wormhole), and they can’t simply teleport over to the next zone and farm away.

In order for these things to matter, they must have positive AND negative aspects. If you remove all the negative, your players will notice and shortly stop caring. Those GW2 centaurs are probably attacking a village right now, and no one outside the zone cares because that village burning has zero consequence, no matter how hard a manifesto tried to tell us otherwise. EQN is in its own ‘manifesto’ stage right now. Will SOE dare to make more than just hype out of it? And if they do, will they have the talent to avoid the pitfalls of SB and the like?

About SynCaine

Former hardcore raider turned casual gamer.
This entry was posted in EQNext, EVE Online, Guild Wars, MMO design. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to EQN – Player freedom is too scary for most

  1. Jenks says:

    I agree with you on the EQN public quests. I have a feeling they will be a very fleshed out version of the AQ opening in WoW. I enjoyed the AQ opening, and I’ll probably enjoy this, but I agree – the outcomes of these are going to be set. There may be some variables, but the “founding of Halas” PQ is going to end with Halas being founded. If there are variations where player actions determine that it ended up being the founding of the goblin kingdom, or the barbarian trail of tears, or something drastically different I’d be extremely surprised (and happy about it).

  2. kalex716 says:

    Agreed, and it will take a brilliant design team with a lot of conviction to withstand the backlash from the status quo in order to conventionalize mechanics never before seen in order to pull it off.

    This has traditionally never been in the wheel house of big budget development. But then again, neither has a voxel based engine, with user access to toolsets either.

  3. tithian says:

    The fail state is indeed mostly a delay, because in mose cases you cannot stop players from trying again and again. If for example the scenario here is to build a city, even if it’s just 1 person carrying in 1 stone block at a time, he will eventually do it (maybe in a a few years). Denying him the freedom would violate the ‘code’ of the sandbox, no?

    And I’m pretty certain there will be hard caps on what the players can do, much like all sandboxes. I mean, in EVE you can conquer systems but you can’t really destroy planets and moons, can you?

    I want to believe that Smed is looking to create a fantasy EVE (maybe minus the full-loot pvp, we don’t even know). He is (was?) a pretty active Goon and when asked he has nothing but praise for what CCP has created.

    *fingers crossed*

    • SynCaine says:

      The one stone guy should fail because the mobs should steal his stones, or something like that. Freedom does not mean you can do anything you want and succeed.

      In EVE, you can’t destroy planets and moons, but you can destroy a POS (player cities in a way), which can be a pretty huge loss (say a wormhole corp that has stored everything they own in the POS).

      • Shiolle says:

        You are giving an example of player-to-player interaction, but your post is about players-to-world interaction.

        There are still plenty of hard-coded limits even in EVE that exist exactly for the purpose of stopping the world from falling apart at the hands of the players. Mission system, star gates, exploration, pirate factions, indestructible gate and station guns guns, indestructible outposts (ironically), CONCORD, etc.

        In fact, there is little interaction between players and the world in EVE; it’s sandbox is almost entirely limited to player-to-player interaction.

        Not to bash eve or anything, but that’s hardly a shining example of deep player-to-world interaction in MMO. But really nothing is.

        • SynCaine says:

          I see a POS as part of the world, built by the players. I view null-sec empires in a similar light (though yes, destroyable stations would make it better). Players ending or farming an incursion is another example IMO.

          But yes, overall, even though EVE does more than most/all, it could still go further.

        • Shiolle says:

          It may be about semantics, but what makes me say POS, for example, is not a part of the world, is that we only see this kind of structure being built by the players, and only players interact with them. You can’t, say, destroy a series of NPC POS to hinder the number of ships they are able to put on missions, or for an NPC faction to start losing against the other because their ability to deploy reinforcements has diminished. Nor do NPC factions interact in any way with player POSes besides standing requirements to anchor one in hi-sec, and that is hardly an interaction.

          Players are of course part of the world, but gameplay systems that are only influenced by other players draw a line, by definition, between the functional design of the game and static decorations. I would like to say these decorations are there for immersion, but they don’t provide much of it since their cardboard nature in stark contrast to the functional part of the game is immediately apparent.

        • Shiolle says:

          After a bit of thinking I would like to retract my statement that players are a part of the world, because it contradicts my original post. Instead I would say the world is anything outside players (as a whole, not a single individual player), that influences them and their decisions. A world then is ideally a dynamic system partially always out of player control, but influencing them non-the-less.

          Such system that is easily manipulated by the players to the extent of falling fully under their control is what you describe as a failed attempt at dynamic world in Shadowbane.

          GW2, I think, doesn’t provide a ‘living world’ (I hate the term by the way) not only because the series of events are scripted and totally predictable and not only because players can’t influence them enough, but because they don’t affect the players all that much, so most just don’t care what’s happening. Restricting access to teleport locations is a rather weak attempt at influencing players, but an influence still.

      • tithian says:

        True, maybe the 1 stone guy sees that the natural decay of the structures is faster than the pace he’s building, so he brings in 2 more people. It doesn’t change the fact that when there are people involved, if they want to do something (and want it enough), it will happen. I’m not saying a solo player will always be able to do stuff, but given dedication he should be able to do just enough.

        On your second point, the POS is the same as a house built by the above player. Both a part of the world (even before construction concludes) and both destructable by other player. In face, if EQN follows on what it says, that house will be vulnerable to mobs as well, giving it an edge over the alternative in EVE.

        • Mhide says:

          nice try to speak up something that doesn’t even exists (EQN) and favour it against the only sandbox out there that works :)

          your argument about the non-player owned stations:
          I might not be able to destroy the npc-station you’re docked up in, but I sure am able to camp you in so that you die as soon as you undock
          that DE FACTO puts the station out of the game (from your point of view) as long as I can/care to keep the camp going
          (clearly you need a fleet for this, but you get me)

          see BurnJita – Jita didn’t REALLY burn but it was AS GOOD AS DEAD since anyone entering the system ( even the neighbouring systems at the peak of the feeding frenzy:D) was dead within seconds
          thousands and thousands of dead pilots can testify…

          neways, just my two cents, feel free to ride the hype train until you get yet another themepark designed for 6yrs olds complete with a MeanManifesto

        • tithian says:

          I’m not trying to downplay EVE, since I have a history in it and I appreciate what it does well. Try not to fanboy so much over a game.

          I’m also not trying to hype EQN either, it’s all just wishful thinking.

          Two good sandbox games can co-exist side by side, you know. No one’s coming to take your toy away, so you can relax.

  4. Noizy says:

    Smokejumper at SOE Live stated that they were not building a game for griefers specifically in answer to a question on how players could stop a Rally Call from completing. Don’t know exactly how to take that.

  5. Kyff says:

    There are some more things to keep in mind here.

    Firstly I presume that EQN will have enough subscribers to require several servers. (Even Vanguard still runs on several servers today.) So you could have a situation where one server “fails” and the others “succeed” probably resulting in increased transfers to the succesful servers.

    Secondly I really doubt this whole voxel thing will work as shown. I mean if the landscape would really be changed forever through battles and huge monsters the whole server will look like a wasteland after the first week. Every tree will be rooted, every structure and every bridge will be destroyed. Players simply won’t build up fast enough to keep track with the destruction. Therefore I think he let slip that the land will have the ability to “regrow”, probably meaning that everything will be new and shiny every morning.

    • kalex716 says:

      That might not be a problem at all though depending on the design. If certain “campaigns” last a few days or a week, and they reset, and enough of the content is emergent it could be still be very cool. It might also be great if they leverage more procedurally generated “instanced” areas, like you might be able to have your own little fiefdom of some sorts that you live on that don’t reset unless completely different types of conventions are met.

      It would be a complete and utter disappointment if they try and just drop a bunch of the standard conventions of a typical MMO circa 2011 on top of a voxel world.

      But, if they seize the initiative and build a game that we don’t even have the right kind of language to speculate about, it could be amazing.

  6. Milady says:

    The problem is the consideration that a failure state is always undesirable.

    The other day I was trying to come up with a scenario which would solve this reductionist view and encourage both players and developers to allow for the freedom you claim.

    Say Ahn’Qiraj’s opening is enacted in 2013 and we have the tools to make it truly dynamic. You would have to gather resources and do all manners of quests and heroic tasks to further the opening. But your server has been too lazy or too warmongering and hasn’t managed to open it within the allotted time. You might propose that they failed and the gates remained closed, and they are losers. Instead, because I want players to see their impact on the world, and not their failures as mere delays or, err, failures. It just opens up a different path. The gates open by themselves after a given period and a gigantic zerg comes out, wiping the floor with the loitering players. It begins laying siege to the Cenarion Outpost. Only an organised and competent counter-attack would drive them back. If you fail, Silithus in its entirety is invaded, and some key npcs are killed. A different guy would have to give you quest X and quest Y would disappear altogether, etc. Consequences. But there would also be new NPCs in a new outpost closer to Un’goro, with new quests that the successful group at another server do not have access to (they still have the old quests, and perhaps some new ones from opening the gate). After pushing back the invasion players finally can enter AQ and start the raiding.

    I would not punish failure with the definitive closing of AQ and losing access to the main point of the patch. I would shape the world around it so that the experience would be different. If we did punish them, the entire server would be doomed because they lack progression, and people would flee from the failed server.

    TL;DR: What if failure brought new opportunities, equally desirable, instead of meaning plain failure?

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