[Wildstar] Game difficulty, player confidence.

“… each struggling MMO is struggling in its own way.”

– Tolstoy (sort of)

I have read a few blog posts this week about Wildstar, and the inevitable subscription drop-off and server merge. I’d be hard pressed at this point to name a recent subscription MMO that hadn’t experienced a drop-off after the first couple of months. Players have wondered whether the game’s difficulty compared with other similar MMOs may be part of the explanation for why the new MMO on the block has failed to break the 3-monther pattern.

I played the game in Beta and wasn’t hooked, but at the same time, when so many other MMOs have trodden the same path it’s hard to pick out anything exceptional about this one. Except that the magical lightning-in-a-bottle MMO factor that will get a game to go viral and grow the playerbase rather than shrinking doesn’t seem to be there. It isn’t doom for Wildstar though – other games such as SWTOR and Final Fantasy 14 have recovered from the slump and stabilised the playerbase at a lower level. At this point no MMO is going to go viral unless its new and different, or appeals to a wildly different audience from the usual crowd. WoW did it. Minecraft did it. Lots of other games were decently successful but without setting the world alight, and that’s fine.

At the same time, if their target core audience was hardcore raiders, that was only ever going to be a small proportion of the player base. And it was always likely that unless those people were very burned out with WoW, they’d be tempted back for the next expansion. It’s certainly possible to raid hardcore in two different games at the same time, but not when one of them has a new expansion out.

I did like Keen’s analysis of ‘the quit wall’ in games. “People reach the wall and they quit.”  It could be a frustrating grind, or a really hard solo quest, or dungeon that it is impossible to find a group for – whatever it is, it becomes so frustrating that players no longer enjoy the game because they cannot see a path to the next goal that looks achievable.

I think of difficulty as being in two types:

  1. Something you could do with time and effort and/or help from other players, but it might take more time and effort (and motivation) than you want to spend.
  2. Something you just can’t do, and you aren’t confident that time and effort would change that.

When you describe it in these terms, 1) sounds like a rational choice. If it takes me 2 hours to run a dungeon and I’d need to run it 20 times to get the tokens that I need, I could rationally step back and think “Whoa, 40 hours for one doodad that will probably be obsolete in the next patch. No thanks.” Sometimes the sheer sticker shock when you realise how much hassle will be involved is enough to put people off even trying.  2) is a judgement call – how long do you try an event/ grind/ etc. before you decide that it isn’t possible?

So our judging difficulty is all about confidence. How good am I at succeeding in difficult things? (Women, incidentally, tend to underestimate this, men are more likely to overestimate – they call this ‘the confidence gap’). If people are already stressed out by other aspects of the game (eg. being yelled at for being a newbie in instances) then they are already likely to be feeling less confident.

So if you put a difficulty wall in a game, the least confident people are most likely to leave first. If your game attracts a crowd who are bullying and elitist, more of the other players will lose confidence and leave. It may be because they are bad players who couldn’t keep up. Or it may be because they lost the will to try or felt they would not be able to learn quickly enough. In either case, the player base reduces.

But still, admitting to yourself that a game is too difficult feels like failure for a gamer. It’s hard to do and even harder to discuss – I think every time I have written a blog post about where I thought part of a game was overtuned, I’ve been challenged on that by people who felt quite strongly about wanting their games to stay difficult.

So this is a tough topic. But does anyone want to share a time when difficulty made them decide to drop a game and how that felt? I never did complete the solo part of the legendary WoW quest this expansion – it was too hard for me and my shadow priest, and I don’t play MMOs because I want to do hard solo content (I’d get Dark Souls if I wanted that). And though I will play the game again, I will always now feel that the designers are telling me it’s too hard for me, and I’m probably not going to raid other than very casually. Because I got the message.

The land of lost content: Lum on the lifecycle of the MMO player

*coff* Is anyone still here? (I love you all!)  I thought I’d catch the Blaugust train before it completely left the station.

This is Lum’s masterful summary of the lifecycle of an MMO player. He’s just looking at the cycle in one MMO, not the part where you try to repeat the experience fruitlessly a few times and then wander off to find some other hobby.

 

collared dove

XL. Into my heart on air that kills

INTO my heart on air that kills

  From yon far country blows:

What are those blue remembered hills,

  What spires, what farms are those?


That is the land of lost content,

  I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

  And cannot come again.

 

Listening to Welcome to Nightvale.

Thoughts on the Steam Sale, also Dust

It’s like Valve read my mind (or blog). I hadn’t really planned to buy much in the Steam Sale but they kept putting up games on my list so what’s a girl to do? Current haul this time around includes: XCom, FTL, Kerbal Space Program, SIns of a Solar Empire Rebellion and Dust: an Elysian Tale. I don’t feel manipulated and am a happy customer (at least now that I’ve figured out how to get XCom to save) but it’s true that I spent more than planned.

I am epically ambivalent about Steam’s strange trading cards thing – is it a game or just a bizarre hook to reel in collectors? Not sure, but it seems popular and I picked up some pocket change by selling my cards on the Steam marketplace to people who (for whatever reason) seemed to want them. It is worth noting that people will also pay pocket change for cards generated by playing the games so if you buy a game from Steam that has a lot of associated cards, you can recoup some of your outlay/put the profits towards your next purchase. This makes it one of the most excruciatingly clever promotions ever seen.

Also I kind of like the design that collectors get rewarded with being able to collect things, and I can still  get rewarded for NOT being a collector (ie. by being able to sell the unwanted collectables.)

Jamie Madigan has spent more time thinking about the psychology of steam summer sales.

So what’s the score with Dust?

I haven’t booted up Dust: an Elysian Tale yet, as am currently too occupied with XCom. But the name does remind me that I haven’t heard much recently about CCP’s Dust 514.

I assume from this that no news is bad news, given that gaming companies tend to hype every minor piece of positivity to the ends of the earth and beyond. So colour me unsurprised that Brendan Drain just slated the game on Massively after trying it last week:

Last week I finally sat down to play the game myself and was thoroughly disappointed with both its 2005-era graphics and fundamentally broken gameplay.

The review a couple of weeks back in Edge Online was also harsh.

Combat has about as much personality as the bleak, dust-blown worlds. There’s none of Halo’s gently exaggerated physics, Shootmania’s relentless velocity or Call Of Duty’s immediacy. There’s just shooting people with guns, albeit while battling against some suspect hit detection and sludgy controls.

It’s in stat-packed menu screens, not on the battlefield, that Dust feels most part of the universe in which it nominally takes place.

I don’t know of any official figures about Dust, but I remember wondering last year how much CCP had invested in developing Dust and what the knock-on effect might be on them if it wasn’t successful. I guess we’ll find out.

Brief catchups, Steam Sale, and a RPG kickstarter not to miss

There are two main reasons that I have been quiet on the blogging front lately. The first is that I’m feeling quite uninspired about MMOs at the moment – my main games are WoW (in which I’m still raiding with my awesome guildies) and LOTRO (which I’m playing about a session a week with Arb on my runekeeper). They are both oldish games. Maybe I’m just an oldish school MMO player.

The EVE experiment ran to the end of the first month, by which time I was really only logging on to tweak the skill queue. I have no doubt that the game is all about the corps and PvP, but I’ve played sandbox games enough to know that even with all these things in place, it’s still not going to be a game for me during the long slow summer gaming slump. It is in the nature of sandbox games to involve a lot of hanging around and being bored in between flashes of interest. It’s a pretty game though and I miss Elite.

Like many other players, I often fall into a summer gaming slump. This year feels different, because my enthusiasm about upcoming MMOs is so muted. I have played the FF14 beta and it was OK, but I felt bored. I saw nothing to make it stand out from the other themepark MMOs I am playing. I may have missed the aspects that make the game stand out, but I played until I got too bored to log in any more. TESO is likely the next new MMO I will play, and mostly because a friend of a friend told me that the writing was good. We’ll see.

The (not so recent now) news that Blizzard have ditched whatever their old plans were for Titan and are starting from square one didn’t surprise me, I’d already wondered whether they have dropped previous redesigns and had to redo due to changes in the market. But it does mean that WoW is going to be the Blizzard staple for a few more years yet. They’ve done a lot of things right with MoP but by this stage in the expansion, I am still feeling generally unenthused. It will be hard work for them to keep coming out with this level of content output and even if they do, they will be constantly losing players.

And as I have pretty much no interest in shooters, the upcoming shooter type MMOs are largely going to pass me by also.

The second reason for not blogging is that I’ve been busy with new job, which is all quite positive but takes a lot of energy.

I will however try to do more regular updates in future. Even if I am on a downswing in MMO playing (and the genre in general is also) it is still worth documenting. Along with some generic thoughts about MMO tropes that I will not miss. It is the vast virtual worlds to explore that I will however miss. I’m not sure how great a feature those will be for any new entries to the genre, such as it is.

Steam Sale

It’s that time of the year again. Anything big on anyone’s wishlist? I’m not sure I do, this time around. A lot of the games I wanted I have already been able to buy at good discounts. Kerbal Space Program sounds intriguing though, and I’d be up for Sword of the Stars or some kind of 4x strategy game. Any indie games anyone would recommend?

Clearly it is a bad idea to buy new games when there are older ones I have not started yet, but such is the world of extra disposable income.

Kick out for Chuubo

And lastly a shout out for a kickstarter that is ending soon, which is a (pen and paper) RPG by one of the most talented writers in the industry. Jenna (probably best known for Nobilis and some of the better received Exalted books)  is often hailed as either a genius or a quirky cultish author but aside from her evocative writing style, the real smarts are in the way she plays with rules and mechanics to build games that just work differently to the standard D&D wargaming based dungeon crawls.

In Chuubo the goal is to make it interesting and easy to run pastoral games, where character development and exploration is core to the game rather than just killing monsters and looting their corpses. If you want to know how she does this, plonk down $15 for the KS and you can have access to the entire first draft, as well as various other freebies, examples of play and short stories that she’s put up for the KS supporters. And as you might guess from the fact that the first draft is up, the game is already  completed and the KS is funded – further funds will go towards the stretch goals.

She describes the game as:

It’s an RPG that strives, as its first principle, to make it worthwhile to spend your time on both the little things and the big ones — a game that’s meaningful and fun whether your characters are drinking tea with their friends, exploring their new home, doing their daily round of chores, or hunting horrors in the dark. It’s a work that strives, as its second principle, to bend but not break when the same people who were sweeping or arguing over television shows a few minutes before start throwing around godly powers, breaking the world with their poorly-phrased wishes, and heading out into the dark to challenge Death.

I especially recommend this one to game designers. She is honestly a genius with mechanics. Enjoy!

[Misc] EVE advertising, Flexi raids in WoW, E3 and the rush of FPS MMOs

Apologies for this being a bit of a mashup. I should probably post more often rather than waiting till I have a few items together.

eve_ad

This banner was part of a banner ad for EVE Online on rpg.net. This is their advertising slogan. “Be the villain”. And they wonder why their community has a terrible reputation, and only 4% of the player base is female.

Just saying.

I’m still playing through my first month in EVE quietly, deliberately not getting involved in corps or PvP because I just wanted to get a feel for the flow of the game. By far the most compelling part so far is the Facebook-like skill training system. I don’t mean that as a knock to the awesome economic game, beautiful graphics or fairly dull PvE. But the skill training is surprisingly compelling (or perhaps not if you’re used to Farmville). So perhaps it is not surprising that the devs have introduced a new mini game in the recent update – I can’t personally comment on it since I haven’t really figured out probes in any case.

The immensely clever thing about this game is the gamification of boredom. PvE activities like mining are made deliberately dull to encourage player-ships to hang around while players are reading something in another window, making them easy prey for wannabee pirates. ie. the pirates are pretty much guaranteed easy player prey, whilst the miners/ distributers can still make enough credits to shrug off losing the odd ship every now and then.

And as long as everyone roughly gets what they want most of the time, no one will get pissed off enough to leave. It’s actually pretty clever, but still boring. Before anyone comments, I realise that the PvP game is where most of the fun is, just joining a corps is a massive hassle and my goal here was just to get a feel for the game.

One of the  main issues with EVE is always going to be how the devs can balance making the game accessible to newbies while allowing the longer term players to enjoy the advantages of lengthy playing time. For all I’m told that newbies can easily fly with PvP fleets (if in the right role), I still see a  lot of fleets in chat that have far more rigorous requirements.

Are you flexible?

One of the features coming to WoW in the next patch has been dubbed flexible raiding by the devs. In addition to LFR (25 man) and  normal mode (10 or 25 man) for raids, there is now going to be an inbetween version that lets you bring any number of players between 10 and 25 and scales based on how many you bring. The flexi raids also are on a separate lockout from either LFR or normal mode, and drop loot that is also between LFR and normal mode loot.

I’m cautiously hopeful about this new raid mechanic. At the beginning of Cataclysm, like many other people, I commented on how forcing 10 and 25 man raiding to the same lockout would impact on casual raid guilds. Back in the day, we used to run fairly chilled out 25 man raids and the more hardcore raiders could still go off and run their own 10 mans at weekends. After the lockout changed, we compacted into a casual 10 man guild where the more hardcore raiders could still raid with the main group and everyone else could come to alt runs or LFR.

The new flexi raids mean that if people want, we could return to the old Wrath raid pattern. I expect to see a lot more public flexi raids being run also, where raiders and their alts can chill with other raiders from their realm in a non guild exclusive environment. Given that more choice is good, I’m going to welcome the new raid type.

What it means to 10 man normal raid groups, I’m not sure. If like us they raid successfully but at a cost of rarely being able to include less hardcore raiders (I realise I am using hardcore in a different way to heroic groups Smile ) and often having a couple of people on the bench, it will be tempting to just shift to flexi raids and throw in the odd normal mode as an extra if players want.

Blizzard are also releasing more information about the next patch, which looks as though it will be rather more interesting than the current one. The Godmother has a quick summary of some of the new upcoming  features.  I actually applaud them for releasing the current quieter patch over the summer period, because players don’t really want to feel stressed to play MMOs when the weather is nice (I live in hope).

What E3 brought

I’m not really sold yet on either XBone or the PS4 as a next gen console, my PS3 is still looking pretty good and PC gaming has rarely been better*. However, I’m going to bow to Sony’s PR guys this week because their video on how the PS4 lets you share games is a winner; at least it makes them look as though they understand gamers rather better than Microsoft. I wouldn’t write the XBone off though, MSoft have a very clear vision of their customer – someone who loves watching sport, playing ‘core’ video games online with friends, and isn’t that price sensitive. We should just call the console the XBROne and have done with it. Imagine my surprise that the Microsoft E3 presentation a) showed no games with female protagonists and b) involved a scripted rapey joke at the expense of a female presenter. Like I say, they know exactly who their target audience are. And yes I do enjoy watching them get mocked for it in the national press.

* I will probably eventually pick up a PS4 to play whichever version of Final Fantasy we are up to now (15 I think) because old habits are hard to break.

I am also seeing (finally) a rush of FPS MMOs lined up for the next gen consoles. Between Destiny and The Division, along with Planetside 2 and whatever MMOlike features are planned for CoD et al, it will be interesting to see how both the monetisation strategies and gameplay catch on with console players.

And the game that most intrigued me was the Plants vs Zombies shooter. Like Liore, I think this is an interesting way of opening up the genre to a different audience. I kind of want to play a Sunflower that spits sunbeams, even though I’m not big on shooters.

In space no one knows you’re a girl

Last post (for the moment) on women in gaming. I was interested but not surprised that CCP recently informed Destructoid that 96% of EVE players were male.

I don’t think there is anything inherent in the game itself that edges women players out. It’s not a very exciting game on a minute to minute basis, but plenty of people would theoretically enjoy the crafting and economy game even if they didn’t want to get involved in fleet action. I also think that the gameplay is fairly hostile to the more casual gamer who may have hours at a time to devote but may also have to leave the computer at short notice to answer the door/ phone, or deal with some minor household emergency.

I also take huge issue with the argument that women traditionally don’t like scifi. Hello, thousands of Star Trek, Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica female fans would like to prove you wrong there.

The heavy competitive/ PvP focus traditionally is more appealing to male players. I imagine there are way more female players in games like Wurm Online (another sandbox with strong crafting emphasis) which doesn’t have the same push to PvP. The EVE community has also never been that friendly to women – what I mean by this is that if there was a kickass female-run corps, you’d see more interest from the type of women who might like the game anyway purely from the appeal of “get to play the type of game you like with people like you”. Which is more appealing than “get to play the type of game you like with the kind of people you try to avoid online where you can.”

There is also a certain type of complexity-for-its-own-sake that appeals to people who (in tabletop) love setting up spreadsheets for their Champions campaign, using the encumbrance mechanics in D&D and designing tanks using GURPS Vehicles. I’m talking about the trainspotter faction in gaming, predominantly male.

The other factor is because of the great advantages you get in  game by joining as part of a pre-existing group (most notoriously, Goons). That’s not a bad thing in itself, but when the majority of the groups are heavily male dominated anyway offline, any lone female joining the game is at a double disadvantage (because she would have to sign up with a group that are not particularly welcoming if she wanted that environment). Sure you could go sign up for SA but if you find that community toxic, why would you?

So basically I think the entire social structure of the game, albeit unintentionally, edges out the type of women who would otherwise enjoy it. And because so much of this is down to the metagame and out of game communities, there’s not really much CCP can do even if they wanted to. And they don’t really want to market to women because it might impact on their “harden the fuck up” narrative.

Plus of course it’s a hard sell pushing a subscription game to anyone in the current climate.

Addendum to Tropes vs Women: some games not mentioned

I note in passing that two series of games specifically were not mentioned in the Tropes vs Women video I discussed yesterday.

- Call of Duty

- FIFA (also Madden, et al)

While she wasn’t aiming for an exhaustive summary I think it’s worth noting that the two most popular, best selling franchises of recent times don’t actually ping the anti woman radar. I’m sure they are also aimed at the same audience and tend not to attract female players (although sports games might surprise us if we had the actual figures, I was always a sucker for Football Manager frex), but they’re not seen as problematic in the same way.

This isn’t to say that all is fine and well in the world of gaming, but it simply isn’t true that games need to include semi naked chicks or horrible things happening to female love interests to sell well.